Book Review: Songwriter Jimmy Webb recalls the good, the bad and the hilarious years in “The Cake and the Rain”

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I’ve read enough performing arts memoirs to build a two story house, with a wall of books to fence in the dogs in the back yard.

But I can’t recall one that was as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Jimmy Webb’s. Then again, the dude wrote “MacArthur Park,” and stood in a studio control room while famed drunk and non-singer Richard Harris did take after take, unable to NOT sing “MacArthur’s Park.” So I should have expected it.

Webb had a great burst of a run in pop music (adult contemporary/country) songwriting, from about 1965-71. His “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Didn’t We,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Up Up and Away” were fixtures in the ’60s.

And ask any DJ (me included, college jobs) who worked in country, pop, disco, oldies or “lite rock” radio which tune to slap on when one is having a digestive tract emergency, and “MacArthur Park” will come up. Right up there with “American Pie” among radio-friendly epics whose running time (over seven minutes for “Park”) can cover bathroom breaks of any length.

Webb doesn’t over-explain the song, with its obscure lyrical bombast, but it’s in here — the high school crush who worked, as an adult, in an office building across from LA’s MacArthur Park, the sheet cake they bought that got rained on, literary antecedents and poetic image-memories rolled into one ambitious overkill of a pop single.

Harris made it a hit. Then Waylon Jennings. Then Donna Summer did a fierce disco version. Waylon again.

Webb weaves this tale of his salad (and drugs, sex and rock’n roll) days with short chapters recounting his preacher-daddy childhood, abortive college career, first attempts at arrangements and songwriting. And there are all these anecdotes — with the odd zinger slipped in.

The guy who camme up with the original Monterrey Pop Festival, the precursor to Woodstock, Glastonbury, Altamonte, Live Aid, was brutally screwed out of his planned event by John Philips of The Mamas and Papas, and Papa John’s record label owner/promoter Lou Adler. Poor Benny Shapiro’s house burned down when he refused to turn the show over to those two. And history records a little karmic payback — the Mamas and Papas closed the concert, after Otis, after Jimi — and bombed. Webb was there, playing piano and a single “chime” (tubular bell) with Johnny Rivers.

A member of the Mammas, a close friend of Webb’s, claimed to him and a couple of other intimates that she was the first person to come upon the Manson Family’s massacre at Sharon Tate’s house.

John Lennon, during his “lost weekend” debauch with Harry Nilsson, was a drug-addled, entitled jerk who needed Webb’s help out of assorted jams, and couldn’t be bothered to thank him. And he was merely the SECOND biggest jerk among the Fabs.

All along the way, through the high-end cars, the married women as lovers, the drugs and the humiliations, Webb confides in and takes advice from The Devil, his running partner in those years, an actual character in the book.

Webb owns up to the crummy stuff he did, and the impact drugs had on his life and his work. And then he makes his exit just as the days of songwriters who weren’t great singer songwriters (James Taylor & Co.) took over the business.

“The Cake and the Rain” is a “naming names” stitch, and Webb imitates the voices of his famous pal-turned-resentful “I want more of the money” collaborator Richard Harris, all Irish bluster and “Come, we’ll make a great record, Jimmywebb!” to Elvis, Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Webb argues for a re-evaluation of Webb’s fellow “square” (not a word he uses, but the way he and other young artists who bought into the ancient hierarchy of show business pre-“Summer of Love”), Johnny Rivers, the guy who gave Webb his big break. Maybe someday Rivers, and Webb himself, will be “cool” again.

A terrific short remembrance of The Good Life/The High Life as one lived it in the ’60s. Why review the book on MovieNation? This would make a helluva-fun bio-pic, sillier and bubblier than the Brian Wilson one, “Love and Mercy.”

 

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