Sunday, February 8, 2009

Imperfect Songs: "MacArthur Park" (1968)

My "New Nixon" colleague Frank Gannon posts a wonderful feature each Sunday: A look back at the popular music of 1968, the year Richard Nixon was elected President. This week's installment is all about the heart-strung songwriting of Jimmy Webb ("By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman" for Glenn Campbell, "Up, Up And Away" for the Fifth Dimension, and so on). And then:

Frank's background on that immortal cut:
[Webb] wrote a song called “MacArthur Park” as a component of a three-part cantata for the popular softcore sunshine rock group The Association. They rejected it, but broody bad boy Irish actor Richard Harris —the Colin Farrell of back in the day— included it on his album "A Tramp Shining."

'MacArthur Park' broke all the rules — it was more than twice as long as the maximum allowed for radio play, its lyrics were nonsensical, and its singer, not to put too fine a point on it, had a limited range. Webb finally gave up after many futile attempts to correct Harris’ mistaken rendering of the song’s title as MacArthur’s Park.
Nonsensical or no -- well, okay, nonsensical -- that's how I rock and rolled in the late 1960s.

It hadn't always been that way. The music of the epoch won me forever when I heard "I Saw Her Standing There" (which Sir Paul is singing right now on the Grammys) in a Rexall drug store in Grosse Pointe in 1964. Born in Detroit, I had the Four Tops (also Grammy-featured) and Supremes in my blood.

In the summer of 1967, we headed for Phoenix, where my mother was starting a new job at the Arizona Republic. The aforementioned Association's "Windy" was in heavy AM rotation as we made our soggy way across the country in mom's white '67 Karmann Ghia and godfather Louis's grey '65 Mustang. By the time we got to Phoenix, the organ intro to the Doors' "Light My Fire" was snaking through the air. "The Beatles" (that's the white album to you and me, kids) was a Christmas gift in 1968. Back east at prep school in 1969-73, somebody introduced me to the blues and Led Zeppelin.

But in 1967, when I was 13, something was going on, and you know just what it was, Mr. Jones, that had turned my musical sensibilities to mush. The vaguely ironic sentimentality of songwriters such as Jimmy Webb and Neil Diamond (there he is at Staples, too) felt grown up, as did the mysterious insinuations in songs like "Lady Willpower" (Gary Puckett and the Union Gap) and "Angel of the Morning" (Marrilee Rush).

The Singer store at the mall on Central Ave. had a wall rack of .45s costing maybe 50 cents. I had about 30, which I labeled, alphabetized, and played on a record player my mother got me at Sear's. "MacArthur Park" was my favorite song for a while. When we returned to Detroit on vacation the following summer, I took my collection along. Our former upstairs neighbor, Peter Johnson, was a church organist who said pop music was an unqualified abomination. I thought I could win him over with "MacArthur Park," however, because it had strings, time signature changes, unfathomable literary pretensions, and some famous British (sic) guy. Peter sat on the floor and listened with me, roaring with with joyful derision when Harris sang:
After all the loves of my life
I'll be thinking of you
And wondering why
Peter, of course, is an Episcopalian (besides being a literary critic). The Nixon angle? A friend and biographer of the late President, Jonathan Aitken, is now married to the former Elizabeth Harris, ex-wife of old Dumbledore himself.

1 comment:

ann said...

I think I need to request this song to my favorite Philippine radio station because I love the song. Thanks for sharing!