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Book review: The Cake and the Rain by Jimmy Webb

For those who may not be familiar with the name, Jimmy Webb (not James or Jim, but Jimmy — it’s on his birth certificate) is one of the great songwriters – primarily of the late 1960s/’70s. He wrote such classics as MacArthur Park, Wichita Lineman, By the Time I get to Phoenix and Galveston, oh … and Up, Up and Away too.

By now many of these songs have gone down in musical history as cheesy MOR fluff, but they are among the great songs of the era. He just happened to have songs that were tailor-made for smooth, beautifully voiced singers — and let’s face it, rock bands tended to write their own material in any case (unless you were The Monkees).

This is one of the main currents underlying The Cake and the Rain (St Martin’s Press): the almost palapable dissonance between how Webb saw himself and the very real success of his songs performed by acts at the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum to him. Glen Campbell – his most important interpreter – thought of him as a hippie who needed a haircut. This distance is all the more surprising because they came from not dissimilar backgrounds – Campbell was an Arkansas sharecropper’s son, Webb was from rural Oklahoma.

They did not even meet until the Grammy Awards in 1968, despite Jimmy Webb destroying a tractor he was using when he first heard Glen’s voice on the radio. That’s the irony of this discord – Webb consciously sought out the voice that was so opposed to much of what he wanted, because he instinctively knew that it would serve his songs best.

The pushback he got from the sector of the music industry which appealed to him most was one of the drivers behind him performing for himself. This book details much of that struggle, but suffice to say that much like Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Webb’s solo career never eclipsed his writing for others, even with major believers such as David Geffen behind him. It’s hard to know if this was because there was no escaping the box he was pushed into, or that he just wasn’t good enough. This book has prompted me to look up some of Webb’s solo catalogue and listen.

The Cake and the Rain is a memoir not an autobiography. It’s impressionistic and focuses on loosely linked stories covering his early life into the late ’60s and the period from then to 1973 when Webb had accidentally overdosed (on what was meant to be high quality cocaine, but was in fact street level PCP) which deprived him of the ability to play, sing and write for a time.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the presence of the Devil as a character. I spent a large chunk of time in trying to decide whether it was meant as an alter ego for Webb , or because one of his friends in LA took that role in his life. The answer becomes clear eventually, but the journey there gives his story some extra sizzle.

If you are into tell-all books, then The Cake and the Rain delivers. There are some quite explicit scenes and it’s fair to say that Webb had a difficult relationship with most of The Beatles, caused sometimes by them, and sometimes by him, but plainly mostly founded around professional competitiveness. There is a lot of name dropping but the circle he found himself in LA included Joni Mitchell, Harry Nilsson, Geffen and many more.

Drugs and their influence on his behaviour is a chunk of the story too, not like a Keith Richards’ plot where the action is all about where the drugs are and the next fix – but more like Fleetwood Mac where nose candy was at the centre of their partying and ultimate dissolution.

Webb is also very honest about his relationships and his womanising. So much material was generated by these dalliances and romances. He’s direct enough to realise that his behaviour wasn’t good – cheating on his long lusted after first love, (the inspiration for By the Time I Get to Phoenix and MacArthur Park amongst others) almost as soon as he’d finally convinced her to get together with him – and to write about it without justification. There are times he paints himself as a spoiled playboy – gliding, fast cars, partying, self-abusing, skirt-chasing but never quite happy.

He doesn’t afford himself a lot of sympathy either – the memoir is written from the perspective of a survivor who has dealt with his baggage and no longer feels the need to justify nor reproach – but to know that the stories themselves are of interest enough in themselves. There is not a large amount of reflection within these pages.

As a music fan, I’d have liked a little more detail around how various songs came about – there is some of this – especially with regard to Macarthur Park. Maybe that is a for his next book — he is already preparing his next set of memoirs which will presumably cover the rest of the ’70s and beyond.

As an insight into the elite world of the music industry in LA and London from the late 1960s to the ’80s this book is right up there with the best rock bios in detailing indulgence and excess. But it’s also a deeply personal set of memories committed to extending Webb’s legacy and designed to defend himself against the perceived dismissal of his work as “music for housewives”.

Listen to his songs as performed at their best and read this book to make your own judgement. For me he is part of the canon – with Lennon/McCartney, Goffin/King, Bacharach/David and Holland/Dozier/Holland, plus a few others – defining the sounds of the era we think of as the swinging ’60s.

The Cake and the Rain is available here.

6 responses to “Book review: The Cake and the Rain by Jimmy Webb

  1. Yes, Tunesmith is his earlier work about songwriting. Fortunate to have a copy he signed for me and my wife after his Five Easy Pieces show at The Basement in Sydney. One of the best shows and his own rendition of MacArthur Park is the definitive one. Makes sense when he sings it. Looking forward to reading this book.

  2. You promised some meaning to MacArthur Park and we didn’t get it!

    You might also include Neil Diamond among the canon of writers/singers. We might not think of him as more than superficial now, but his stuff was very important in the 670s and 70s and his concerts werre huge.

    1. The MacArthur park story is in the book! You’ll need to read it as i’ve tried not to spoil it too much.

      Sure Neil Diamond and a pile of others – Dylan for example – i left out, but I wanted to touch on those most similar to Webb. You may also ask are ND songs still getting airplay today or have they faded from view? Webb’s songs are among the most played in US radio history.

      Shane

      1. Yes, at one point, By The Time I Get to Pheonix was, if I recall correctly, the second most played song on US radio, ever. Think of the royalties!

  3. For more information about the mechanics of Webb’s song writing, his 1999 volume “Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting” is compulsory reading.

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