The 72-year-old Grammy-winning songwriter of “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away,” “All I Know,” “Worst That Could Happen” and the timeless “MacArthur Park” ignited the singing career of Glen Campbell, revived the solo career of Art Garfunkel, gave Donna Summer a number one hit and made Irish actor Richard Harris into a pop star.
But despite penning music that brought him wealth and honors, Webb admits to having spent much of his professional life struggling to move out of the shadow of his own songwriting success to be accepted as a serious rock star. His frustration eventually led to a past filled with substance abuse and a quest at a solo career he has long fought to achieve.
On Saturday night Webb will perform five decades of his classic songs and share insight into his career in a concert in the Events Gallery at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
Before arriving at the site of the Original Woodstock Festival he took time to open up about his life in and out of music.
You had a mixed identity in the early years of your career.
Yeah, I wanted to be more on the other side. I wanted to be more hip and sort of left of center and not so much kinda stuck in the middle of the road. But that’s because of the artists that were recording my songs. They were great artists, Glen Campbell, the Fifth Dimension, Barbra Streisand, Mr. Sinatra, but it was kind of establishment. I remember one of the first things David Geffen told me when he became my manager was, `You can’t play Vegas.′
Because you won’t be accepted as a rock-and-roller?
Exactly. He said, you’ll be exorcised, you won’t be a part of this exclusive clic, this community of left-leaning, politically identified people. Joni Mitchell doesn’t play Vegas. Crosby, Still and Nash don’t play Vegas. It’s hysterical now. Now everyone wants to play it.
Did those rock ‘n’ roll performers not want to play your songs?
I don’t think that my songs were really being taken very seriously by, I’ll just say that group of people, until Artie Garfunkel recorded “All I Know” and it went to number three nationally. We were kept out of number one by some Beatles song. From then on I started getting a little more respect.
You’ve said that when you finish a song you need to play it for friends to get their reaction.
I know very few songwriters who aren’t nervous about playing a song, particularly for the first time. It’s just a pragmatic thing, a way to judge what you have. I’m going to try this out on a friendly audience before I go into a recording studio with a major artist and play this thing cold. I like to get a reading. You get a great amount of information by just staring at the person who is listening, tiny little things like if they’re licking their lips or their eyes are dating from one side to the other. You know they might not be listening very well. If they have tears pouring out you know you probably have something.
The Association turned down “MacArthur Park” but why then Richard Harris?
I defend Richard as a vocalist. He sang the lead in Camelot which was a huge hit so he had a background as a singer. He and I were working on an anti-war play to raise money and we used to drink together. It was during one of these binges that I threw my arm around him and said, `Rick we got to make a record.” About two weeks later I got a telegram from London. It was Richard and he wanted us to make a record. I made the offer and he enthusiastically took me up on it. He did it and made it a hit.
The song is unique
A record that long had never been played on the radio before. It has endured as one of my sterling standards. I probably got, by major artists, 500 different recordings, including a lot of spoofy one like Weird Al Yankovic and Don Novello doing Father Guido Sarducci. I like to think I always had a sense of humor about it.
People seem confused with the lyrics.
Everything I wrote about in that song I saw with my own eyes. It’s not like it was some hallucinogenic dream. There was a park, there was place where old men played checkers, there was a rain storm, there was a cake that was left out in the rain…these were images that I was grabbing out of reality and putting them in this song to express a sense of loss over this woman who I loved. It was very real. It actually tore me to pieces when I lost her. In a word MacArthur Park is about loss.
Your image was squeaky clean but you had serious drug and alcohol problems.
I didn’t see it as problems at the time. I fell into a jet-setting London crowd, Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon, there was no way I could hope to keep up with them. But I thought that’s cool, I wanted to be king of the London underground. That’s how desperate I was to change my image and not be judged as a middle of the road guy. That was probably not the right way to change my image. It got to the point where Harry and I had a serious overdose. In my book “The Cake And the Rain” I talk about what it was like to wake up and look at the piano and not have any idea what the piano did. I know it was a machine of some kind but when I looked at the keyboard it was an absolute mystery.
How did you turn your life around?
I got married, I had children. I cut way, way back on using cocaine but I was drinking to compensate for not snorting coke anymore. I got completely sober about 20 years ago. They’ve been the best 20 years of my life. I’m married to the most wonderful woman and just grateful for every single day. And it’s the naked reality of whatever happens is so much more exciting than the fog of drugs and that false sense of confidence that I would have to have a Jack Daniels or two before I could get up in front of a crowd because I really do have pretty terrible stage fright.
Are people surprised you created their favorite songs?
Yea, they’ll say, `Oh, I didn’t know you wrote that.′ It’s kinda wonderful, they sorta fawn over me and want my autograph. All of a sudden I’m somebody because I wrote all these songs. It’s kind of a fun thing.
Do you wish you could have been that singer-songwriter everyone knows?
I absolutely pounded my head up against the brick wall…it was a futile struggle that I took on, like Don Quixote, to make myself into a James Taylor, or at least a second-rate James Taylor. It just didn’t work out for me. It was something I thought I could do – otherwise I wouldn’t have spent my whole life trying to do it.
On the flip side it’s hard not to hear a Jimmy Webb song on the radio.
That’s very kind of you. I’ve been lucky. My songs have had legs, they’ve lived long lives to my immense surprise. And I say that with all the humility in the world.