Someone left the cake out in the rain

 

I don’t know if this was prompted by seeing the sequel of the movie that inspired this …

… or finding this while looking for something two years newer …

… or even eating a cake with sweet green icing last weekend. For whatever reason, today’s subject is the strange, yet frequently recorded, “MacArthur Park,” written by prolific songwriter Jimmy Webb in the 1960s.

The 1960s was a uniquely experimental time in pop music, and this song is evidence. The original version is, like nearly all pop songs, written in 4/4 time, but includes 2/4 and 3/4 measures thrown in.

And then there’s the lyrics, about which Newsday wrote:

Many tales have evolved, in the media and online to explain the genesis of the song. Here are but a few:

* They’re a metaphor for the end of his relationship with a relative of Linda Ronstadt’s who later got married in that Los Angeles park on a rainy day.

* Webb was annoyed by British record executives, so he extended the song past seven minutes, something unheard of on AM radio.

* He bet Richard Harris a Rolls-Royce that he could write a No. 1 song for him.

* And not long ago, Simon Cowell supposedly said Webb had told a friend of his the song is about sex and drugs.

So which ideas are apocryphal, and are any true? We asked not only Webb but also his wife of a decade, Laura Savini.

“Well, it’s all true,” Webb says, laughing. “There are little bits and pieces of the true story there, but what I’ve resorted to, because it’s really turned into a kind of lifetime of talking about ‘MacArthur Park,’ whether I want to or not. My fallback position after all these years is I will tell you that I’ve told deliberately false stories to people.

“I’ve also tried to tell the truth, which is that it’s just a song about a girlfriend of mine, Susie Horton, and this place on Wilshire Boulevard where we used to have lunch, which is called MacArthur Park. And the truth is that everything in the song was visible. There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw. And so it’s a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park.

“And I remember that that was also when I wrote ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ because this affair was winding down to a kind of dreary close, and I was thinking, ‘Well, I’ll just go back to Oklahoma,’ and so I wrote ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ Of course, I never even got in the car and turned on the engine to go back to Oklahoma. But it’s related to ‘MacArthur Park’ in that sense. It comes from the same period when I was experiencing things and pretty much transferring them immediately into music.

“My writing technique, my style, is a lot different now, so in a way, it’s a lot more accessible and easier to understand. Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.

“It was issued as rather a challenge to me from Bones Howe, who was the producer of The Association, that could I do an extended, classically oriented piece that could be played on the radio, and if I could, then ‘something that has different movements.’ So it was more his urging me than it was some spontaneous ‘Oh, gee, I think I’ll write a rock classical masterpiece.'”

Savini, a Public Television host-producer, is almost as good a storyteller as her renowned songwriting husband. Nearly five decades after the song’s release, she says she’s constantly getting queries about it.

“When people see he’s my husband,” she says, “that’s always the first question I get: ‘What’s “MacArthur Park” mean?’ And I always say it’s an abstract painting, an impressionist painting. It’s art, but in a musical form. You make it what you want it to be. Jimmy plays it down, but it’s a heartbreaking song when you listen to just him sing it and you hear all the words without all the orchestrations. It blows your mind — oh, my God, all the pain in that song.”

To underscore the song’s place in history — it finished No. 8 on WABC radio’s chart of 1968 hits — Savini notes that last year Webb’s picture appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times when he performed the song in the actual MacArthur Park.

Savini also proudly points out that an entire “Late Show With David Letterman” in July was devoted to the song. Paul Shaffer’s bassist, Will Lee, sang along with the show’s band and Webb at the harpsichord-piano keyboards — plus a 23-piece orchestra:

“This whole thing came about because David Letterman is a fan of Jimmy’s and loves the song. Instead of doing a Top 10 list, he did a whole segment of the show talking about ‘MacArthur Park’ and how he heard three versions on Sirius radio when he was with his son: the Richard Harris one, the Donna Summer version — which he said he had never heard before — and the Jimmy/Brian Wilson one, and he just went bonkers for the song.

“They rehearsed and planned this segment for months, and the producer said it’s maybe only the second time in history that David brought in a whole symphony orchestra. He made a huge deal of it. They called the whole night ‘MacArthur Park Night.’ They even had a big cake — with sweet, green icing — that Will Lee climbed at the end, playing the guitar and singing.

“The whole thing was a tiny bit tongue-in-cheek, but it was a huge tribute to the song and how much David liked it, and he wanted his son to understand the song. It was an unbelievable thing — everyone was so excited about it. We got a handwritten note from David a couple of days later thanking us and saying what an incredible experience it was for him.” …

“It’s very funny,” Savini recalls. “The song is gorgeous — it’ll give you the chills. And when I heard the track, I just looked at him and said, ‘Did you have an affair with her?’ Because you just hear this emotion of this heartbreak in the song — it’s really fantastic.” So how did Webb respond? “He said, ‘Noooo.’ But they’ve been good friends a long time.”

Letterman?

The first version that got to the radio was sung by actor Richard Harris, known for the musical “Camelot” popular during the John F. Kennedy administration.

Webb apparently wrote what Wikipedia describes as …

… four sections or movements:

  1. A mid-tempo introduction and opening section, called “In the Park” in the original session notes, is built around piano and harpsichord, with horns and orchestra added. This arrangement accompanies the song’s main verses and choruses.
  2. A slow tempo and quiet section follows, called “After the Loves of My Life.”
  3. An up-tempo instrumental section, called “Allegro,” is led by drums and percussion, punctuated by horn riffs, and builds to an orchestral climax.
  4. A mid-tempo reprise of the first section, concludes with the final choruses and climax.

… intending it for The Association, which decided that the song sounded nothing like “Cherish” or “Along Comes Mary.” But, as the Los Angeles Times reports, along came Harris instead:

He was invited to lend a musical hand at a fundraiser in East L.A., and there he met Richard Harris, the incorrigible Irish actor, who prowled the room like a lion with twinkling eyes. Harris wanted to sing old pub songs, and Webb played the piano, so soon they were unlikely drinking mates. “He liked vodka,” Webb recalled. “And I was out of my league. Way out of my league. He said to me, ‘Let’s make a record, Jimmy Webb.’ He only called me ‘Jimmy Webb,’ never just ‘Jimmy.’ ”

Webb, an Oklahoma native, enjoyed the escapade but expected nothing to come of it. Then he got a telegram: “Jimmy Webb, come to London and make a record. Love, Richard.”

Webb brought a satchel of sheet music with him and, over pitchers of Pimm’s Cup, the man who played King Arthur listened to each song, looking for just the right material for his pop music debut. Nothing clicked. Then Webb reached the bottom of the bag. “I looked down with some dread because there was only one thing left. I was down to ‘MacArthur Park.’ ” …

Webb played the song and his host’s eyes grew wide and dewy. “I’ll have that, Jimmy Webb!” Webb agreed, but with mixed feelings. He had written the song with aspirations of a pop symphony. But the young songwriter had grown skeptical of its merits. …

Webb had many more hits, but “MacArthur Park” remains his most polarizing song, and some days, he concedes, it feels “like a hump on my back.” Other moments he admires its youthful ambition. “I wish I had spent a little more time on the song. But who knew it was going to be this crazy thing? I can say I’m very glad that it wasn’t my last song.” Webb sighed. “I think this will be the last interview on that song. I’m going to move on.”

Even though the multiple-movement song was used by a lot of acts, including the Beatles …

… Queen …

… and Chicago:

… it was unusual for a song of this length to get on AM Top 40 radio, and it wasn’t likely to get played on FM radio because it’s not really a rock song. (At least not without accompanying controlled substances.) But “MacArthur Park” got to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award in 1969. On the other hand, the number one song in Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs is this one.

One year after Harris’ version hit number two came Waylon Jennings’ version …

… which got to number 23 on the Hot Country charts. I didn’t know about this version before I started writing this. I am surprised it got as far up as 23rd given its length — it’s about twice the length of a radio country song then or now. And if you think country songs of that era are gloomy, well, don’t listen to Jennings’ version with booze and a gun nearby.

Glen Campbell, who recorded several of Webb’s songs, had a version …

… as did the Four Tops:

Jennings’ version took out “Allegro.” What if you took only “Allegro” and made that a song?

Since I prefer the music part of songs to the words, I think “Allegro” is what got it on to top 40 radio in the first place. Take that out, and you have someone not exactly blessed with a singing voice warbling about, well, this:

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

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can fake it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh noooooo

I recall the yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave
On the ground around your knees
Birds like tender babies in your hands
And the old men playing checkers, by the trees

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh noooooo

(Short instrumental interlude)

There would be another song for me
For I will sing it
There would 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

I will take my life into my hands and I will use it
I will win the worship in their eyes and I will lose it
I will have the things that I desire
And my passion flow like rivers through the sky

And after all the loves of my life
Oh, after all the loves of my life
I’ll be thinking of you – and wondering why

(Longer instrumental interlude)

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet, green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
Oh noooooo, o-oh no-ooooo

Without “Allegro,” I can hear top 40 radio station music directors saying “Oh noooooo” to playing “MacArthur Park” in 1968.

Harris’ version was parodied by SCTV (which apparently preferred “Allegro” to the rest of the song, or was trying to induce a heart attack) years later:

Before the movie “Rocky” and its theme “Gonna Fly Now,” trumpet player Maynard Ferguson did a version:

Ten years after Harris hit the charts, Casablanca Records producer Giorgio Moroder started working with singer Donna Summer on a new album, “Live and More.”

“More” turned out to be the “MacArthur Park Suite” …

… which dispensed with Webb’s non-4/4 measures, but added two other songs, “One of a Kind” and “Heaven Knows,” to take Webb’s original seven-minute song to 18 minutes.

Summer’s single version, half the length of the original, got one position higher than Harris’ on the Billboard Hot 100, number one.

Some radio stations (including KFI in Los Angeles, where I heard it) played a longer version:

Everyone who has listened to contemporary hits radio for more than four hours knows that familiarity breeds contempt, particularly when something is a little strange. “MacArthur Park” may have been the song equivalent of a brilliant student who wears unfashionable (yet not hipster) clothing, or a beige Corvette, or something. (Obviously I lack the metaphorical writing ability of Webb.)

The song’s nearly three-octave range must make it a challenge for singers. (I have never heard it performed in karaoke, for, I’m sure, at least three reasons.) Maybe that’s why Sinatra and the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs went for it.

It would be interesting to hear an act like Guns N Roses try a version closer to Harris’ iteration. Power ballads were all over the radio in the ’80s, and that would describe three-fourths of “MacArthur Park.” And as for the fourth, well, if rock guitarists can’t figure out how to handle the “Allegro,” there is no hope for them.

 

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