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.

"I love what he writes about, because that's where my soul is as far as music goes," says Campbell, whose versions of "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" remain the best and best-known takes. "It's in the real beautiful chord progressions with a great melody--that satisfies the musician part of me. And then the lyrics he writes are just sheer, sheer poetry, and it expresses everything so incredibly."

Or, as Yoakam puts it, gushing with a fan's admiration, "If there is a category for pop songwriting genius, Jimmy Webb belongs there. Genius can ebb and flow and come and go, but boy! This is a guy who was obviously a genius!"

Jimmy Webb says that his music was born in his father's church, where young Jimmy Layne Webb played piano and organ and heard his mother squeezing her accordion for God. He insists that at the heart of his songs lies that "inner child"--"as corny as it may sound," he half apologizes--who was raised in the sanctuary and who began writing songs barely into his teens.

"It's God," he says. "I started to say it's my G-spot. It's my God spot, the place where things get to me. That's all I can say, and I think we've all got one, and I pity the man who's never been drivin' down the road and heard a record and had it hit so hard that he had to pull his car over and stop. If that's never happened to you, I feel sorry for you, because that just means you've missed one of life's deepest, most emotional and moving experiences."

In 1965 Webb moved from his native Oklahoma to L.A. to live Brian Wilson and Phil Spector's dreams--surfing that Wall of Sound into a beach filled with golden sand and golden blondes. He had grown up in Oklahoma, spent some time in Texas (his father attended seminary in Fort Worth), and lived briefly in Phoenix, but he knew his destiny lay in California, where teen dreams took root in the desert. He wound up going to work for Jobete, Motown's publishing arm, and found the Supremes recording his "My Christmas Tree." But it was Johnny Rivers--the man whose name became synonymous with the Whisky A Go Go during its go-go discotheque days in the early '60s--who gave Webb his first break, recording "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" in 1966.

Rivers brought Webb to work at his Soul City record label, where he paired the quiet Okie with the Fifth Dimension, giving them their first big hit with "Up, Up and Away." The song shot to the No. 7 slot on the Billboard charts 30 years ago, became the TWA jingle, and went into outer space with the astronauts. A few months later, Campbell heard Rivers' "Phoenix" and turned it into his own hit single. Webb was all of 20.

All too quickly, this young man became attached to such names as Rivers, the Fifth Dimension, Campbell, Barbra Streisand, Sammy Davis Jr., the Four Tops, Andy Williams, Lena Horne, Waylon Jennings, and, of all people, Richard Harris, who croaked the magnificently overwrought "MacArthur Park" all the way into infamy. (Columnist Dave Barry recently dubbed it the worst song of all time, as though he could tell.) Even the Boston Pops recorded his songs. If Bacharach and Hal David, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller--his inspirations, his idols, all of whom he interviewed for his book--put words and melodies into the hearts and minds of the youths who brought on the rock and roll revolution, then this kid was writing songs for the parents who told them to turn it down.

He had become a man out of time, and Jimmy Webb, a millionaire before the age of 21, couldn't buy his way into the "in" crowd. By the early 1970s, in fact, he felt as though he had already become a relic, an old man pushed aside by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne and the rest of the L.A. singer-songwriters who were becoming popular--and so very rich--by singing intimate, poetic songs about themselves. He was at once jealous of their ability to write so personally and angry that a man in his late 20s could be so easily dismissed as just another pro hanging around the scene. He wanted to be us, only to find he was them. And so he turned down Vegas, finally, and sought redemption and relief by writing grandly small records such as Words and Music (released in 1970), And So: On ('71), Land's End ('74), and El Mirage ('77).

In 1982 he released Angel Heart, a record so drenched in studio sugar it was almost sticky; featuring the likes of Daryl Hall and Stephen Bishop and Michael McDonald and Lee Sklar, it sounded like so many records that came out of L.A.--in 1976. But contained within its odes to lost childhood ("In Cars") and lost lovers was one song that laid bare his internal conflict. Titled "Work for a Dollar," it offered a vague apology and a clear explanation for all those hit songs written more than a decade earlier.

Webb sang of growing up as a child of the bomb, of a cotton-farmer father and a religious mother who preached the gospel of the coin: "I can still hear mama say/You gotta work for a dollar/To earn a dime, Jimmy/They'll take it from you every time." He sang of sleeping in a cheap California motel room in 1965 "trying to stay alive," and of the ensuing glory days, when "the money rolled in/And it came so easily." But, finally, he sought penance: "I almost forgot the original thought," he offers...until he finally realizes it's time to get back to work, time to feed his own kids.

Webb would not release another album of his own work for another decade, instead penning scores for films (Hanoi Hilton) and television shows (including Tales from the Crypt and ER). Not that he stayed away from songwriting--he wrote almost an entire album for Art Garfunkel (1978's Watermark), contributed four songs to Linda Ronstadt's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, and made his own Suspending Disbelief in 1993. But solo records filled with confessionals do not pay the bills.

"When I pick up an article in a magazine and see Joni Mitchell talking about her absolute honesty, it makes me feel...a little weird, because I'm not absolutely honest," Webb says of his old and dear friend. "If she is, more power to her, and God bless her, and I'm happy for her. But I'm not. I don't mean I go around lying my ass off to people all the time. I just mean from the standpoint of art, if you're going to really subject yourself to that kind of introspection on every note and every word you put down, I think the first thing you have to realize is it's going to take a lot longer to write a song than it used to.

"So do I aspire to that? I don't know. I kind of admire that. I see where she's coming from. But in a way, it's already too late for me. The body of my work doesn't stand up to that kind of microscopic examination. I've gone out there, and I've written the blatantly self-serving commercial song. I've done it, and I've became famous for it. So do I deserve a place in the same artistic world where Joni Mitchell lives if the things she says about herself are true? Probably not."

As a young man growing up in Kentucky and Ohio, Dwight Yoakam had no idea Glen Campbell sang "Wichita Lineman" or that someone named Jimmy Webb wrote it. To him, the man singing the song on the radio was that lineman for the county, repairing phone lines as he worked his way across the flat and lonely land. Bubba Kadane of the band Bedhead--whose beautiful, droning music one wouldn't immediately associate with Webb's heavily orchestrated output--grew up in Wichita County, Texas, playing Campbell's "Wichita Lineman" 45 so often there are pictures of him listening to the single. And as a child, it never occurred to Kadane either that the song was a songwriter's fiction. That's how perfect a song it was...and remains.

"I thought the song was specifically about my family's little world," Kadane says. "When I hear the song now, though, it's not with an overwhelming or blinding sense of nostalgia that one has for certain songs from youth. It's a song that moved me as a child and does now even more genuinely as an adult. It has a cyclical feel to it, and like the woman that the narrator wants 'for all time,' I want the song to loop forever when I hear it."

In the end, "Wichita Lineman," written in 1968, was just another nugget fallen from Webb's assembly line. He knew it would be a hit before he had even written it, so sure was he not only of his own talents but of the star-making machinery at work down below him. Even now, he recalls the story of the song's genesis like the best professional, recounting every detail with a journalist's clarity and a poet's extravagance.

He tells of living in a place that once housed the Filipino embassy, a structure located just above Hollywood and La Brea on Camino Palmero. There, he lived with about 30 people--"It was chaos," he recalls, "God knows how I ever wrote anything"--and whiled away the hours when he wasn't writing by partying with friends and drop-in strangers. He recalls receiving a phone call from Campbell and other Capitol Records executives; they were in the studio recording Glen's next record, they told him, and desperately needed another hit to follow "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

"They needed it right away--they always do, by the way," Webb remembers, laughing. "So I said, 'Well, let me see what I can do,' and my thoughts couldn't have been any farther away from writing a song at that particular moment. So I cleared some of the people out of the room, put out some of the joints, and shut some doors. There were 30 people livin' with me, and I quieted the scene down somewhat and sat down at this green piano and started doodling this melody. You have to understand, by the age of 19 or 20, I was a hardened professional. I knew what follow-ups were, ya know? So I said to myself, 'I know that they're gonna want something that has a little geography in it, because that's gonna tie right into "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and that's gonna make airplay come easier for them.' So I really sat down to write something that would please them mostly.

"And as I sat down to write, this poignant image came through my mind. I had just been back to visit my family, and I had been up in the flat country along the panhandle in Oklahoma, drivin' along, and I had seen these telephone poles along the road. It was kind of a surreal vista and hypnotic, and if you're not careful, you can, like my dad says, go to sleep and run off in the bar ditch. I was drivin' along there, just blinkin' and tryin' to stay awake, and all of a sudden there was somebody on top of one of those telephone poles--out of thousands of telephone poles, there's one that has a guy on it, and he had one of those little telephones hooked into the wires. I could see him on top of this pole talkin' or listenin' or doin' somethin' with this telephone. For some reason, the starkness of the image stayed with me like photography. I had never forgotten it."

Webb began to write:
I am a lineman for the county
And I drive the main road
Searching in the sun
For another overload

And he tried to imagine what the lineman might have been thinking. He put himself atop that pole and put that phone in his hand, and he imagined what the lineman might have been saying into the receiver. Webb had often written of his first great love--"Up, Up and Away" was about meeting her, "MacArthur Park" was about spending a lovely and perfect afternoon together, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" was about leaving her, and "The Worst That Could Happen," a No. 3 hit for the Brooklyn Bridge in 1969, was about her marrying another man. And so "Wichita Lineman" became another in a series of love songs aimed at the woman who would eventually marry Linda Ronstadt's cousin and remain Webb's close friend.

I hear you singing in the wires
I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita lineman is still on the line

But the line that perhaps stands out, the one that makes "Wichita Lineman" something more than just a great song, is the simple couplet: "And I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time." It's this sentiment that performers and writers have been trying to understand for decades. Quite simply, this sort of love is too enormous to bear, its ramifications too huge.

"That verse kicks me in the gut," says Yoakam, who recorded the song for his just-released Under the Covers. "That's a pretty profound statement. That's nuclear need! That's got a half-life of--what?--a billion years, that need! Hi-ya!"

"It's about that first love affair he was in," Campbell offers. "She just tore him a new rump, boy."

"Sometimes I wonder how I lived through it," Webb offers, "because I really took it so, so very seriously...Sometimes I feel like apologizing to her, because it must have been such an onslaught for her to have me at her throat and for me to have the whole record business at my disposal to bombard her with personal messages over the radio," he laughs. "If you see what I mean. Sometimes I feel like apologizing. But when you're in that state, there are no sins. You can't see that you're doing anything wrong. I see very easily how stalkers evolve. It's only just a width of a matchbook cover, really, between being hopelessly in love with somebody and being a stalker."

When Webb turned in the song, Campbell recalls that "every hair follicle stood up on my body...It's just a masterfully written song."

Yet "Wichita Lineman" is certainly not the most-performed Webb song: According to BMI, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is the third most-performed song of the last five decades, and "Up, Up and Away" is, oddly, not far behind. Webb doesn't even want to hear about how wonderful the song is. He wants to get back to writing something for tomorrow, not a thousand yesterdays ago. He has another solo album inside him, one he's desperate to make. "Wichita Lineman"? Leave it at the door.

"I'm just tellin' you from a songwriter's point of view that sometimes I am absolutely amazed at the take someone will have for one song and how oblivious they are to another one that I've labored over and burnt the midnight oil over and suffered over, and it goes by with no notice whatsoever," he says, not with any anger but with something approaching incredulity. "I'm somewhat bewildered by it. I would like to be as grateful as I could possibly be. It's just another song to me. I've written a thousand of them, and it's really just another one.

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