‘And Wondering Why . . .’

Last evening, as I made dinner – a classic Midwestern meal of a sauce of cream soups, milk, canned chicken, onions and a few other things over elbow macaroni – the iPod chugged along atop the repurposed bookcase we call Pantry Boy. Among the twenty or so tracks the iPod offered as I chopped, mixed and stirred was Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” from 1968.

As has been my habit for some time now, I shared the lengthy list of tracks – divided this time into two portions – at Facebook last evening, highlighting first Joe Brown’s performance of “I’ll See You In My Dreams” from the 2002 Concert for George and later the Rascals’ 1969 hit, “People Got To Be Free.” The first post got little comment, but there was a lot of positive response to the second set. And then a friend of mine said she’d never gotten “MacArthur Park” and asked for insight.

I responded, perhaps a little pertly, “Surrealism, memory and regret.” She said she got those things from the tone of the music but she didn’t get the lyrics. I think the lyrics as well as the tone of the music carry all of that. So I wrote:

Well, unless I’m mistaken in what I remember this morning, the only part of the lyrics that needs any explication is the part about the cake, and my thought has always – well, since I became an adult – been that the cake represents the love of his life, now gone for reasons beyond their control, with the sweet things melting away in the rain of troubles. Otherwise, I don’t think the lyrics are all that obtuse; they tell a story of simple joys, loss, hope and grief: “After all the loves of my life, I’ll be thinking of you . . . and wondering why.”

And for good measure, I posted the comments I made more than five years ago when I included Harris’ version of the song in my Ultimate Jukebox:

I think “MacArthur Park” is one of those records that has no middle ground. Folks either love it or find it ridiculous. Obviously, I’m I the first group, and have been from the first time I heard it. (One day in the summer of 1968, my sister called me to the radio to hear “this stupid song that goes on forever about leaving the cake out in the rain.”) I recognize its flaws: Harris’ vocals are overblown. The lyrics – even without the cake in the rain – are overwritten. The backing, with its lengthy instrumental passages, is too big for the song. But you know what? From where I hear the record, every one of those things – the over-reaching vocal, the over-written lyrics, the overwhelming backing – is a virtue for a record that went to No. 2 during the summer of 1968. Baroque and excessive “MacArthur Park” may be, but it’s also brilliant.

My friend later thanked me for my comments, said she generally agreed with me about the tunes I list at Facebook, and added that this time, she agreed with my sister.

The exchange got me thinking about the song, of course, and went to the RealPlayer to see how times “MacArthur Park” showed up. Turns out it’s nineteen times. Three of those are from Harris: the original mono mix from the 45 and two copies of the album track, one from Harris’ 1968 release A Tramp Shining and the other from a box set of work by the famed session musicians called the Wrecking Crew.

The rest run the gamut from Ray Conniff & The Singers to Waylon Jennings with the Kimberlys; from Enoch Light to the Three Degrees; from Ferrante & Teicher and the 101 Strings to the Brazilian Tropical Orchestra and the Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain. One major version missing from the digital stacks is Donna Summer’s cover of the tune, which spent three weeks at No. 1 in Billboard in November 1978. That’s a gap I will remedy soon, even though I’ve never been fond of Summers’ version.

I think over the next week or so, I’ll do some digging and find out what the hell Jimmy Webb was thinking about when he wrote the song. (I noticed a listing for a piece online in which Webb discusses the lyrics, and I’ll have to check that out.) And we’ll dig into some of the covers I have on the shelves. We’ll start that process with the instrumental version offered as an album track in 1970 by the Assembled Multitude, the group of Philadelphia studio musicians whose version of “Overture From Tommy (A Rock Opera)” went to No. 16 in Billboard that summer.

Tags:

One Response to “‘And Wondering Why . . .’”

  1. David Lenander says:

    I loved the Assembled Multitude’s Tommy overture when it was a hit on the radio, in about 1970, before I’d really heard the Who’s original. But, later I couldn’t believe I’d really liked it, and much preferred the Who’s. As for “MacArthur Park,” you should read the Jimmy Webb autobiography/memoir if you haven’t, but I think your analysis is right on. It’s an overdone and ridiculous song in my opinion, but I’m actually more in the middle position that you don’t think exists, because when I hear Webb or Glen Campbell sing it, it doesn’t bother me so much, and even the big Harris version isn’t so bad when I’ve not heard it in a long time, if it’s playing in a store or on the radio. It was harder to take when it was on the radio a lot, maybe I’m thinking of the Summer cover, though I can’t even bring that to mind. ON the whole, I love a *lot* of Webb’s songs, but this isn’t one of them. And I think Campbell is generally one of his best interpreters, including on “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” but Webb has developed into a *much* finer singer in more recent records than he was for a long time.

Leave a Reply