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MacArthur Park, reconsidered

By Mike Ruffin A few days ago, Debra and I had the privilege of joining our beloved friends, college roommates, and fellow travelers Randy and Jennie Berry at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur to hear Jimmy Webb talk about and play and sing some of the wonderful songs he’s written during the course of his career. And boy howdy, has Webb written some great songs. He wrote three of Glen Campbell’s biggest hits: ‘Wichita Lineman,’ ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’ and my favorite Campbell recording, ‘Galveston.’ He also wrote the Fifth Dimension’s hit ‘Up, Up, and Away,’ Brooklyn Bridge’s ‘The Worst that Could Happen,’ and Art Garfunkel’s ‘All I Know.’ That list barely scratches the surface of the pile of songs Webb has written. Another of Webb’s well-known songs is ‘MacArthur Park.’ The original recording by actor Richard Harris went to #2 in the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1968. Waylon Jennings’s version won a Grammy award in 1969. Donna Summers’s disco version was a hit in 1978. Who’d have ever thought you could dance to ‘MacArthur Park’? Well, I couldn’t, because I can’t dance’”but lots of people did. Webb has caught a lot of grief over the years for ‘MacArthur Park.’ Some people have said that the lyrics are over-the-top. Read the second verse and the refrain, and see what you think: I recall the yellow cotton dress Foaming like a wave On the ground around your knees The birds, like tender babies in your hands And the old men playing checkers by the trees MacArthur Park is melting in the dark All the sweet, green icing flowing down Someone left the cake out in the rain I don’t think that I can take it Cause it took so long to bake it And I’ll never have that recipe again Oh, no! As for me, I think the lyrics are beautifully written and their symbolism is majestic and fascinating. Still, I confess to having poked a little fun at the song myself, although to be fair, I mainly joked about Richard Harris’s overly dramatic (in my estimation) rendition. After seeing Webb perform, I found a 2014 Newsday article where he said that ‘MacArthur Park’ is just a song about a girlfriend of mine, Susie Horton, and this place on Wilshire Boulevard where we used to have lunch, which is called MacArthur Park. And the truth is that everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park. Webb also said that he wrote ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ at about the same time, as the love affair was coming to an end. But I didn’t know that background when I heard Webb sing ‘MacArthur Park,’ so that’s not what caused me to conclude that the song really belongs to him. It was the way he played and sang it. His rendition was every bit as dramatic as Richard Harris’s version, but it was more powerful, I think because it was so real. Maybe it’s because he sang it like he had lived it, which he in fact had. Webb’s presentation of ‘MacArthur Park’ was, in a word, authentic. There are at least three lessons in this for all of us. First, we should speak authentic words that come out of authentic lives. Second, we should listen to those who do. And third, we shouldn’t listen to those who don’t.

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