The back page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal has an article on songwriter Jimmy Webb. It's liberally excerpted on this Scott Johnson post at Power Line. That's inspired me to write this short tribute.
I've been a fan since he wrote songs for the great Johnny Rivers album Rewind in 1967. Almost immediately, I started noticing his music everywhere: hit songs for Glen Campbell, Richard Harris, and the Fifth Dimension. "Overnight success" is a cliché, and often a lie, but Jimmy Webb probably came as close to really being an overnight success than anyone.
I used to be kind of defensive about this. It's pretty easy for sophisticates to take cheap shots at Jimmy: he's commericial, he's bland, his music is too "pretty", etc. Memorably, a poll conducted by Dave Barry deemed "Macarthur Park" the "worst song ever recorded."
But I liked him anyway; I bought his albums. I bought albums simply because they had his songs on them. I bought albums where he just produced. And, for me anyway, they hold up fine. (In comparison, I almost can't listen to old albums by the Eagles, Jackson Brone, or Fleetwood Mac. I'm like: What was I thinking?)
I'm occasionally heartened by discovering fellow devotees, like the WSJ author and Johnson. Even the indisputably hip Tim Cavanaugh writing at Reason's Hit&Run blog a couple years back noted:
… the feeling I get whenever some wanker calls "MacArthur Park" the worst song of all time when they should be acknowledging Jimmy Webb as one of America's greatest living composers.
Yeah, baby! There's one for our side! I thought. So I'm no longer defensive about my fannishness at all.
Jimmy played a concert in a small but trendy hotel club down in Boston back in February of this year. Despite listening to his music for nearly 40 years, I'd never seen him in person; so Mrs. Salad and I went. It was just him and a piano, playing songs old and new. Truth be told, he's not a great singer, and his piano playing was a little rough in spots. But he understands the songs, and that understanding comes out in his performance; that more than makes up for any technical imperfections. The audience was on his side from the start. He acknowledged applause with soft and honest thanks in an Oklahoma accent he's never lost. In between songs, he told great stories about his past, present, future, and his famous friends, all with gentle self-deprecating humor.
Standing ovation at the end. He took his bows with a dazzling kid-like smile.
I'd brought a poster from the recently-released Rhino box set of Jimmy's older music. After the concert, he was standing outside the club, greeting his audience. We trotted up and got his signature on the poster. I babbled semi-coherently. (I think I managed to avoid saying "I'm your number one fan!" though.) He was, unsurprisingly, gracious, polite, and friendly; and shook my hand.
A great musician, and a nice guy. Thanks, Jimmy.