Power lines

Jimmy Webb wrote one of the greatest songs ever, but don't tell him that

Jimmy Webb, the man who wrote one of the greatest songs of all time, does not know when he will be able to write again. He wants to--"with a vengeance," he insists--but he's afraid he might not have it in him right now. Webb has spent so long writing a book about the songwriter's craft--an art form that made him a legend while still in his teens--that he's afraid maybe he has used up all the "jizz" he'd normally expend on songwriting. He has worked on the book, titled Inside Songwriting and due from Hyperion in 1998, for four years--interviewing songwriting legends, researching the history of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building, discovering his own place within that history, and revealing every secret he has left to tell. The writing has sucked the energy from him, and a recent divorce has left him all but spent.

These have been "harrowing" times, Webb says, and so perhaps it's best he wait it out a little while longer in his Nyack, New York, home, just 25 miles north of New York City's spotlight. The songwriting will come--it always does. There are, after all, three children to put through college, all at once.

"Writer's block is a self-curing disease," he explains. "When you're hungry enough, it goes away."

Like his hero Burt Bacharach, Webb's best-known output exists in history books; he has not written a hit in decades, instead content to release his own albums under his own name--the man has long grown weary of hiding his words behind other people's voices--or pursue other projects. For years, Webb was almost ashamed of the songs he wrote as a young man--such immortals as "Galveston," "MacArthur Park," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress," "Up, Up and Away," "Where's the Playground, Susie," and his simplest, finest contribution to the pantheon, "Wichita Lineman."

Though his songs remain some of the most complex, precise, and profoundly moving in all of pop history--the man even wrote chord changes as though they were lines of poetry--he nonetheless regarded them as commercial garbage. He shrugged them off as piffles tossed off on a whim to fill out someone's record or to follow up another hit he had written. He speaks of being cynical and hardened at a mere 20 years old: Webb had become an old pro while still a very young man, a Hollywood veteran who handed down tablets from the Hills and watched the machine cover them in gold. Just out of his teens, he was offered thousands to play Vegas; the mighty Frank Sinatra was covering his songs and was said to be begging for more all the time.

Webb, 51, so much wanted to distance himself from his '60s standards that he resisted recording them himself. Sure, he would play them live, but he would merely recite them; if he felt anything toward "Galveston" and "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park," it was enmity. He had heard the kind words of fans and felt the harsh sting of critics who labeled him too melodramatic, too dandy, too square; and the chatter drowned out the songs to the man who wrote them.

Webb was so thoroughly disgusted at the idea of resurrecting those old songs that when Guardian Records president Jay Landers approached him a year ago about recording his standards for one of the label's Songwriters Series releases, Webb scoffed at the notion.

"For songwriters, there are these little put-downs that accumulate over a couple of decades until finally there's a little backlog of dissatisfaction with every little piece in our repertoire," Webb explains of his initial disdain for the idea. "We sorta think, 'Aw, it's not that good,' and that's no way to treat your songs, is it? So you gotta clean all that stuff out first and say, 'I'm gonna give these songs a break. I'm at least gonna give 'em a standin' start here, and let's take them one at a time and see how they really need and want and cry out to be done. What are they trying to say?'"

Webb eventually pared the songs down to the essentials, recording them mainly with the accompaniment of a lone piano and some sparse arrangements. The result, a record titled Ten Easy Pieces, is breathtaking, the dust blown off old favorites until they're revealed as brand-new diamonds. "I really did, without meaning to sound corny and evoke the cliche, begin to rediscover the music," Webb says now.

It's perhaps ironic, then, that three decades later, Webb has become something of a standard-bearer for songwriting greatness. In just the past few years, R.E.M., Maria McKee, Freedy Johnston, Scud Mountain Boys, and Dwight Yoakam have recorded "Wichita Lineman," rescuing the song from the trash heap of nostalgia; even Glen Campbell, who cut the original in 1968, has rerecorded it with the Texas Tornados and Michelle Shocked for the Lounge-A-Palooza compilation, due out in October. They have all imbued Webb's precise poetry not with the twang of kitsch, but with the weight of affection and admiration. As he was rediscovering the heart of his songs, performers much younger than he were giving them back their soul--and their proper respect.

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