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Songwriter Jimmy Webb: Up and Away Again

October 02, 1993|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

\o7 The late 1960s were a heady time for Jimmy Webb. The Oklahoma-born songwriter was the toast of the pop world, writing such defining hits of the era as the 5th Dimension's "Up-Up and Away," Glen Campbell's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and "Wichita Lineman," and Richard Harris' "MacArthur Park." At 21, Webb had a Grammy and a million dollars.

But while Webb's musical style was associated with a conservative pop tradition, his instincts--and his friends--were part of the cutting-edge '60s generation. The hit streak stopped when Webb tried to reconcile that conflict by turning to a more personal, less mainstream style of writing.

In 1968, he released the first of his eight solo albums, but plagued by stage fright and uneven recordings, he never caught on as a singer-songwriter. His songs continued to be recorded by a wide range of singers, most notably his longtime ally Linda Ronstadt.

In 1983, Webb moved from California to New York and turned his attention to writing musicals. But the 1987 death of his collaborator, choreographer - director Michael Bennett, derailed much of that work, and Webb again found himself writing songs that seemed right for him to sing. The result is his first album in a decade, the recently released "Suspending Disbelief," which was co-produced by Ronstadt.

In an interview from his office in Manhattan, Webb spoke about his musical evolution and his return to the spotlight.

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Question: Looking back on "Up-Up and Away" and those other early hits now, how do you feel about them? Proud?

Answer: I'm proud that a 17-year-old kid who was one year off the farm could write a song like that in one afternoon. I was only 19 years old when I wrote "MacArthur Park." Am I proud of that? Yeah. Am I proud of winning a Grammy for orchestration when I was 21 years old? Yeah, I'm proud of that.

I think they were good songs. I don't think they were indicative of any of the currents of change or problems that were sweeping our society. I don't think that "Up-Up and Away" was a significant song in a social sense, but it didn't hurt anybody.

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Q: Did you stop writing the kind of song you could give to Glen Campbell to be a hit?

A: Yeah. All of a sudden I was writing about the environment. . . . I think when that vast, sort of middle-class constituency out there who loved Glen Campbell, loved the 5th Dimension, loved "MacArthur Park" and all this stuff, when they got wind of the fact that this guy uses dirty words on his records--sure, how could there not be a shift in perception? I looked like Leon Russell. I had hair down to my butt and I had a beard down to my navel. I didn't look like that cute little kid in the Edwardian suit who picked up the Grammy for "Up-Up and Away" anymore.

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Q: How did you feel about being associated with a conservative, middle-of-the-road tradition?

A: It was a very polemic society musically in those days. If you used strings on a record your politics were suspect. Strings equals right wing, electric guitars equals left wing. . . . If the 5th Dimension recorded your songs and you used strings, and if Glen Campbell recorded your songs, it was political guilt by association. But I was very sensitive to it and I backed off. If that was gonna be the perception of me, that because I was using violins I was in favor of the war in Vietnam, that's not a statement that I cared to make.

I got a bus, I got three guys to go out with me, and I was on the coffeehouse circuit. I played a very modest tour, and I could have easily been cashing in. I wanted to be a part of my generation. And it seemed to me there were a lot of obstacles there: "You've already made your decision. You've used violins on your records, now you can't come to Woodstock."

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Q: Was it difficult at such a young age to handle all that success?

A: Yes, it was. I didn't think so at the time. I thought that I had everything lined up, but when I look back on it now, I think it would be difficult for anybody to handle it. What I wanted was a successful career as a songwriter, and I was well on my way to that when a kind of wave of unexpected publicity washed over me. It's like when someone puts a light on you, your body language changes. . . . Now I can see myself posturing, in my memory, I can see myself changing, I can remember doing some things that I'm not very proud. . . . But with all of my mistakes and all, it was great. I was doing whatever I wanted to do. I wish I could wave a magic wand over every single human being who lives on this planet and say, "For five years you get to do anything you want."

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Q: Do you think there's a theme to the album?

A: What I have decided is that I'm a historian and that the album is basically a backward look. I think it's taken me a decade to really focus on some of the events that occurred in my life in the 17 years that I lived in California. As far as a theme goes, it's looking back at a period in my life and trying to make sense of it. There's some ambivalence there as well. In "Sandy Cove" I say, "If I could do it over, there would be some changes made." But as the first line of the album says, "I recall my so-called wasted youth, it seems more worthwhile every day." I think it's both things at the same time.

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