Highway's Song

Jimmy Webb: A Major Player in the Summer of the Great American Songwriter

Jimmy Webb

Jimmy Webb


P.F. Sloan

P.F. Sloan

San Diego has rolled out an exclusive bucket list of Great American songwriters for the summer. Unlike the upcoming autumn version of Coachella, starring Bob Dylan, the Stones, Paul McCartney, and others, three local shows featuring songwriters from the same hearty ’60s vintage were offered at ticket prices that didn’t force parents into depleting future college savings for their kids.

Last month, Brian Wilson performed as one of the key acts at the San Diego County Fair. Burt Bacharach, no stranger to the race track where “the turf meets the surf,” will be performing at the nearby Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on August 22. Sandwiched between the Wilson and Bacharach concerts is a rare San Diego appearance by the prolific Jimmy Webb, creator of iconic compositions “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” “The Highwayman,” “The Moon Is a Mistress,” and “MacArthur Park.” Webb will be performing in the intimate confines of the Laura R. Charles Performing Arts Center at Sweetwater High, home of the AMSD Concerts series, on Friday, July 8.

From New York, Webb talked to the Troubadour about the passing of P.F. Sloan, a Los Angeles songwriter whose impact on Jimmy was so great that he ended up writing a song (1970s “P.F. Sloan”) about him; sage advice from Glen Campbell; and his outline for his new book, the
second one by Webb to be published.

San Diego Troubadour: Jimmy, one of your fellow musical soldiers in the trenches during the heady time period of the ’60s, passed away recently: P.F. Sloan. You immortalized him in one of your more famous songs. What do think was Phil’s legacy?

Jimmy Webb: Well, he was a wonderful guy. The first thing that leaps into my mind is his face and smile. In the latter years of his life, he was a guy who was really at peace and really had no axes to grind. He wasn’t bitter about what his level of accomplishment [was]… he was just at peace, which in our business is a very rare thing. His writing, particularly at the time of “Eve of Destruction,” was definitive. It’s hard to imagine the ’60s without “Eve of Destruction.” That level of writing was incredibly inspirational, and he launched a lot of guys [by himself and with his songwriting partner, Steve Barri]. He was the first songwriter I ever knew who wanted to make a record. When he went to Jay Lasker at Dunhill Records, Jay said, “No. You songwriters need to stay in the backroom and write songs.” That’s when I first started obsessing about Phil, because I thought, “Well, I want to make a record, too. Who gets to say who can make a record and who can’t?” But one has to remember that the songwriting community was a specific entity, the singers were an entity, the sidemen were an entity, the bands were an entity—everything was “enclave-ish.” To some people, it seemed odd that songwriters would want to make records. Now, we take that in stride; in fact, the ’70s would see the advent of the singer-songwriter and its immense power. It became a financially lucrative business. A songwriter could strap his guitar on his back and take off on a tour. It wasn’t a big budget thing that only the Who or a Motown act could do. A kid could just drive a car and go on tour. It loosened things up a lot, it became a lot more democratic in the early ’70s. More people came in. Now, there are millions—literally millions—of people who want to be in the music business today. And the infrastructure is unmanageable. It’s not paying enough money to support a tenth of the people who want to be involved. This has been a direct repercussion of the digital revolution. It has had a very dark side in terms of its impact on creators of all kinds: songwriters, authors, magazines, newspapers. Places where a lot of creativity was taken for granted have just disappeared off the map.

SDT: As we all continue to keep Glen Campbell in our thoughts, I am sure you’ll bring up some Campbell memories when you play San Diego. In one of your earliest meetings with Glen, he said, “Success is when preparation meets opportunity.”

JW: Yeah, he said that. I’m not sure he was the first [person] to ever say that. But that was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say it, and he knew what he was talking about. I was saying to him that I had been really lucky. And he said, “No, you haven’t been lucky.” But I had been writing songs since I was age 13. I had a portfolio of 40-50 songs when I went up to Hollywood and started to literally walk the streets with my songs, at first [all] tucked into a paper bag. There has been a tradition of craftsmanship in the songwriting world and a lot of respect for the people who did it well and lot of passing on of that kind of knowledge and zeitgeist from generation to generation. I worshiped Hal David and Burt Bacharach, Lennon and McCartney, Harold Arlen, and Johnny Mercer. Songwriters were like demigods to me. To even have the opportunity to walk on the same side of the street as them, to be in the same town with them… to be in the recording studio where Bob Dylan had worked. These were big moments in my life! Meeting Glen Campbell was huge, even though the first thing he said to me was, “When are you going to get a haircut [laughs]?” Another thing Glen used to say that I thought was great: “Don’t ever play it perfect—they’ll want it that way every time!”

SDT: What projects are going on for you these days?

JW: I’m touring intensively; I’ve been doing about 50 dates a year and they’ve been going really well. I’m kind of working social media. It’s something I’ve never really been into, but the fan base out there likes to communicate with me and I like to communicate with them about the songs and what have you. I just wrote a memoir for St. Martin’s Press. It will be out in 2017 and it’s called The Cake in the Rain. I overwrote it, I probably wrote 300,000 words, and I’m in the editing process. It’s been really interesting, I think everyone should do it. I think it’s great therapy! I’m doing a classical piece, I’m writing some nocturnes for the pianist, Jeffrey Biegel. It’s commission work, and it’s something I always wanted to indulge myself in and to award more time to. Biegel is a tremendous pianist and I’m enclosed in that right now, I’m probably about half finished. As far as my solo albums go, I really have to get back into the studio. I have been working on songs—I have a couple of new ones, and I have a lot of half-finished ones and things that are in progress. Some are just outlines of ideas I’ve wanted to do for a long time. But the concept of another album is coming together. I’ve tried to figure out when to get in and if they’ll be a [record] label change or if I’ll stay where I am. It’s in that kind of acquiescence where nothing is really solid right now. I realize that that my next front burner project will be a new record. I’m looking forward to it, my voice is stronger than ever. I’m digging it, I love performing, I love being on the road. Sometimes, it’s not so romantic and glamorous, but there’s something about it that becomes habit-forming and addictive at a certain point. One feels that if one isn’t on the road performing, then one is missing something. In a nutshell, that’s sort of what my life is about right now.

SDT: If we could return to the topic of your new book for a minute. How will it differentiate from your first book, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting, which was about the craft of songwriting?

JW: It will have nothing to do with the songwriting craft. I touch on my childhood and this incredible trip that I went on—a farm kid from Oklahoma who dreamed of being a songwriter… with astronomical odds against any of the above. But somehow or another, it came out the way I always dreamed it would. Being a young man, graduating from high school in California and going right into the record business at one of the most intense periods in American music when there was really a lot of opportunity. There were a lot of records being cut and the record business was healthy, really healthy—even exuberant! Not only were there
the majors, but there were many, many independent labels that were exploding—Casablanca, White Whale, that sort of ilk… Buddha—those labels. It’s hard to imagine a more healthy marketplace than ’65 onward, you know? I mean, it was great, it was “high cotton” as my daddy used to say. I experienced the endless summer, the California dream. I did that, I really got to do that! The memoir primarily deals with the coming of age in California, during this really evocative period in American music when it seemed the music hit some kind of of a peak. There was just extraordinary stuff from every [genre]. Every band, every direction—Haight-Ashbury, England, LA, Nashville, New York, Chicago. It was just an incredible epic period in American music.

AMSD Concerts presents Jimmy Webb in concert on Friday, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. Visit www.amsdconcerts com for details.

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