In 1965, songwriter Jimmy Webb was dating Susan Ronstadt, (cousin of 1970s country rock queen Linda Ronstadt), who happened to work for an insurance company whose offices were located directly across the street from MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. The lovebirds met there frequently, to have lunch, to walk in hand in hand, and to do all the other things lovers do when they're together in parks. Everything was just hunky dory until Ronstadt broke things off, leaving Webb heartbroken and overcome with the desire to write a song about the erstwhile love affair, the happiest times of which (he felt) took place in MacArthur Park. Intended as a lover's lament in four parts, the song was merely a prelude to several other songs Webb wrote around the same time, all centered around the pain he felt over the break-up with Ronstadt. The best known of these songs, By The Time I Get To Phoenix, was recorded by Johnny Rivers in 1965, and re-recorded by Glen Campbell in 1968, becoming one of Campbell's most recognizable hits and reaching #3 on the U.S. Pop charts.
Ronstadt eventually married another man, Webb continued to write songs, and a demo recording of MacArthur Park went nowhere. Shift forward to 1968, when Webb attended a fundraiser in East L.A. and ran into hard-drinking, womanizing English actor Richard Harris (A Man Called Horse, Camelot) who (according to Webb) announced, out of nowhere, that he wanted to record an album. Assuming that Harris was either drunk or just being silly, Webb blew him off. Until several months later, when the actor sent him a telegram from London asking him to fly over and assist him in the project. Webb agreed to do so, taking along a portfolio containing all of his compositions. After they met in London, Harris looked over all of Webb's songs and, much to Webb's surprise, chose MacArthur Park as the perfect song with which to make his pop music debut.
Harris' recording of the song was included on his 1968 debut album, A Tramp Shining, and was released as a single despite the fact that, at over seven minutes long, it was hardly radio friendly. But it was a hit for Harris nonetheless, topping the charts in Great Britain and Australia, and reaching #2 on the American pop charts. Its success came even though, throughout the song, Harris consistently and erroneously refers to its subject as "MacArthur's Park" instead of by its proper name, "MacArthur Park", as written by Webb. During the recording process, Webb said, he tried repeatedly to correct Harris's mistake, but the actor refused to comply, and eventually Webb just gave up and allowed the error to stand. The music industry didn't seem to care, either, and awarded MacArthur Park a Grammy for Best Arrangement With Accompanying Vocalist (s) the following year. No doubt Harris celebrated the accomplishment by downing several more hundred drinks than usual and falling flat on his face at the after party.
Since that initial burst of success, MacArthur Park has remained in the public consciousness, most frequently as the butt of jokes and an object of parody. Why? Well, the lyrics, of course. Take the first verse, for instance, which I've included for your perusal below.
Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance
Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love's hot, fevered iron
Like a striped pair of pants
"Like a striped pair of pants"? Never mind that Harris and all subsequent artists who have covered the song pronounce the word "striped" as "strip-ed", which, in itself, is enough to set listeners a-titterin'. The real question is, what the hell does a striped pair of pants have to do with love's hot, fevered iron? Is Jimmy Webb writing about love or laundry? It's an unusual analogy to say the least, and critics have had a field day with it. And then there's the following, famous lyrical minefield. "MacArthur Park is melting in the dark, all the sweet, green icing flowing down." Why is that? Because someone left a cake out in the rain. But who would do such a thing? And why did Webb choose to include the image in the chorus of the song? In a 2007 interview, trying to defend his work, Webb said, "Those lyrics were all very real to me; there was nothing psychedelic about it to me. The cake, it was an available object. It was what I saw in the park at the birthday parties. But people have very strong reactions to the song. There's been a lot of intellectual venom."
Well, okay, we can give him that, I guess. The man's an artist. He's allowed to make lyric choices based on his own perceptions about love and life and whatever. But it's not just the song's lyrics that beg to be parodied. Take a gander at the vocal bridge.
There will be another song for me
For I will sing it
There will be another dream for me
Someone will bring it
I will drink the wine while it is warm
And never let you catch me looking at the sun
And after all the loves of my life
After all the loves of my life
You'll still be the one
As sung by Richard Harris, the bridge comes off as a tender, tear-jerking personal affirmation that life does, indeed, go on after the end of a love affair. The problem is, it comes after we've already heard him sing about the melting cake and the striped pair of pants pressed by love's hot, fevered iron. So, how are we supposed to take it seriously? And even if we did, why doesn't he want his former lover to catch him looking at the sun? Because it's dangerous, or because he doesn't want her to know that he's moved on and won't be committing suicide any time soon? And as for drinking the wine while it is warm, well, that's an equally ambiguous statement. Some wines, good wines, are supposed to be imbibed at room temperature, but warm? I don't know about you, but the last time I drank a glass of warm wine, at a family reunion on a hot summer day in the late 1980s, I felt like I wanted to throw up. But of course, most likely, the reference to wine is simply another of the overblown analogies that characterize the song, in which case, Webb is really talking about love (yet again) or even sex, which would also make sense. But why be so cryptic, Jimmy? Love is fraught with too many complications as it is. Did the world really need a song like MacArthur Park to come along and make it worse?
Since Richard Harris's 1968 rendering of it, MacArthur Park has been covered by a slew of other artists, most successfully by Donna Summer, whose version of the song was released as a single in 1978, selling multi-millions of copies and hitting #1 on the American pop charts where it reigned for three weeks. Like Harris's version before her, Summer's rendition also includes the erroneous reference to the song's title, but because she sings it so well, and with so much passion, it's easy to forgive her. Besides, at this point, the song might as well be called MacArthur's Park since everyone thinks that's what it's called anyway.
Other, very diverse artists who have covered MacArthur Park include Waylon Jennings, Sammy Davis, Jr, The Four Tops (really?), Justin Hayward (of the Moody Blues), Percy Faith, Liza Minnelli, Long John Baldry, Jerry Vale, The 5th Dimension, The Three Degrees, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Queers, Psychotica, Aretha Franklin (again...really?), Ukuele Orchestra of Great Britain, Michael Feinstein, Andy Williams, Sally Yeh, Transistor, Transistor, and even Pink Lady. Never heard of Pink Lady? Go here. You'll never want to hear them again. Then again, maybe you will. Really, who are we to judge? But whatever you think of them, or the other artists who have chosen, for whatever reason, to cover MacArthur Park, one thing defies argument. The song has legs. Written in 1965 as salve for a broken heart, maligned for over thirty years as one of the worst songs ever written (by a man known for writing some very good songs), it refuses to lie down and die. And to be perfectly honest (as I always try my best to be), despite the fact that I know it's a horrible song and take great pleasure in making fun of it whenever the opportunity arises, I always enjoy hearing it. Sometimes I even sing it. I have no idea why. But therein lies the mystery and the power of the song. To paraphrase the final line of that overblown, hopelessly florid bridge, "And (I'll always be) wondering why."
If you're looking for a blog with meaningful content on the important issues of the day, you've come to the wrong place. This is the shallows, my friend. Nothing but shallowness as far as the eye can see. Let someone else make sense of things. I like it here.
- I love my grown children, miss all the dogs I ever had, and I cry at the drop of a hat, I believe in true love, destiny, fairness, and compassion. If I could be anywhere right now, it would be the ocean. My favorite city is New York, but I am always longing for London and craving more time in Copenhagen. I'm drawn to desolate places, deserted buildings, and unknown byways. I don't care how society perceives me as long as my gut tells me that what I'm doing is right. I am interested in paranormal things, spiritual things, historical things, and things that glow at night. I like to drink, I smoke when I write, I can't stand small talk, and despite my quick temper, I would rather kiss than fight. I'm selfish with my writing time, a spendthrift with my love. My heart has been broken so many times that it's held together with super glue and duct tape. The upside is that, next time, I won't be tempted to give away what I no longer have to give. But I will let you buy me a Pink Squirrel.
IN A WORLD FILLED WITH COMPLEX POLITICAL ISSUES, SOCIAL INEQUALITY, AND FINANCIAL UNCERTAINTY, I CONSIDER IT MY GIFT TO YOU, MY READER, TO OFFER THIS SHALLOW LITTLE HAVEN, WHERE NOTHING IS TOO SHALLOW, TOO INSIGNIFICANT, OR TOO RIDICULOUS TO JUSTIFY OUR ATTENTION. IN OTHER WORDS, IF IT'S NOT IMPORTANT....SO WHAT? NEITHER WAS MARILYN MONROE'S BRA SIZE. AND THAT STILL SELLS MAGAZINES, DOESN'T IT?