I have never understood the hate against Jimmy Webb’s song “MacArthur Park”.
Oh, the hate against Richard Harris’ version I understand, even if I don’t agree with it (but more on that below).
The song itself, however, is marvelous.
Webb wrote it in the aftermath of his break up with his then long time girlfriend, Susie Horton. It’s a very impressionistic song, many of the early verses referring to things he and Horton saw and experienced at a restraunt they frequented named MacArthur Park.
(For those of you not familiar with Los Angeles, there is indeed an actual city park called MacArthur Park, and many people thought the song referred to that, but no, it refers to the restaurant that took is name from the park.)
The lyrics go on to look back with nostalgia and regret at the relationship, recognizing its impermanence and yet at the same time wondering why it couldn’t have lasted.
The full story is doubtlessly complex; Webb also wrote “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” in the aftermath of the break up, and in that song clearly shoulders much if not all of the blame.
It is a haunting song, and Webb approached it with a clearly operatic intent, pitching it as part of a cantata for the group, The Association. The Association passed on that project, and in one of those random one-thing-leads-to-another chain of events, Webb found himself at a party with Richard Harris and Harris was looking for material for his first album and the next thing you know, that version reached #2 on the American charts.
I’m skipping over a ton of stuff here that happened in the interim, including the legendary contentious recording session in which Harris, backed by the even more legendary L.A. based Wrecking Crew studio musicians, could not get the title of the song right for love or money, finally provoking Webb to throw up his hands and let him sing it as “MacArthur’s Park”.
It is bombastic, no doubt about that, and Harris’ style and personal notoriety did much to taint the recording in the minds of many listeners, leading up to SCTV’s equally epic parody of Harris and the song.
“MacArthur Park” is a musically unforgiving song. You gotta hit it right on the sweet spot, and that sweet spot ain’t in the same place for every performer. Harris does a credible version, but an astonishingly wide range of singers and bands -- including Webb himself! -- find themselves thwarted by the song’s musical and lyrical complexity.
Arguably Donna Summer’s near-operatic disco version (!) is the best cover, but when a singer finds the right approach for their personal style the results can be glorious, as you can hear here (they can also be grotesque; you’re gonna hafta root around to find the truffles).
© Buzz Dixon
thanx to Mr. Weird And Wacky
for supplying the compilation