Rock and Roll Book Club: Jimmy Webb's 'The Cake and the Rain'

Jimmy Webb's 'The Cake and the Rain'
Jimmy Webb's 'The Cake and the Rain' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

The title of Jimmy Webb's new memoir might be a little confusing, unless you happen to be familiar with one of the most infamous surprise hits of the rock era — a 1968 song Webb wrote and produced for the debut album by the great actor Richard Harris. Against all odds, the 441-second song became a top-five hit in both the U.S. and U.K., and later became a chart-topping disco hit for Donna Summer.

As delivered by Harris (who, sloshed on Pimm's, couldn't manage to sing "MacArthur" without making it possessive), the last verse goes:

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 no!

It's an epic song about the demise of one of Webb's many relationships, which flow into and around one another in the hazy narrative of The Cake and the Rain. As music memoirs go, this one is on the experimental end — which doesn't mean it's bad, it just means that after you finish you may find yourself taking to Wikipedia to figure out what actually happened, in what order.

Webb tells his story on two alternating timelines. One begins with his birth, in rural Oklahoma in 1946, and moves forward as he discovers a passion for songwriting. The other timeline begins in 1969, which Webb sees as a pivotal year in his career. Having established himself as a songwriter, he was embarking on a solo career that would ultimately prove more of a critical than a popular success.

Okay, let's back up a minute. Even if you've read this far, you might not realize exactly who Jimmy Webb is, or why his memoir merits coverage on The Current. Well, let me just direct you to the appendices of The Cake and the Rain. The appendices include lists of chart hits (dozens, mostly performances by other artists of Webb songs like "Up, Up and Away"; "Wichita Lineman"; and "Galveston"), awards (loads, including a shelf full of Grammys, and Rolling Stone recognition as the 44th greatest songwriter of all time), and artists who have recorded Webb songs (hundreds, ranging from James Brown to Nick Cave to Sammy Davis Jr. to Aretha Franklin to Kool & the Gang to R.E.M. to Stone Temple Pilots).

From today's standpoint, one of the interesting things about Webb's career is that it peaked at a critical moment of transition for pop music. Even into the late '60s, there was still a respectable career to be had as a writer of songs for other artists: Webb had been closely associated with Johnny Rivers and Glen Campbell, as well as the 5th Dimension. In the early '70s, though, Webb swung into the orbit of David Geffen, with artists like Laura Nyro and Jackson Browne. Just being the guy who wrote the songs wasn't going to cut it any more: singer-songwriters were all the rage.

It was the Me Decade, and Webb's account will have you wondering how he — or anyone — managed to survive. Webb's book ends in 1973, when his life and career had the hardest of resets after Harry Nilsson handed him a supposed dose of cocaine that turned out to be street-level PCP that almost killed him. The run-up to that fateful moment included a John Lennon encounter you'll wish you'd never heard about, a near-crash in a sailplane (while shooting an album cover, natch), and a close encounter with a "mega-gaggle" of seagulls while speeding to an Art Garfunkel session that Webb forgot all about because he was having so much fun doing sports-car stunts with his girlfriend while blasting Son of Schmilsson.

Oh, did I mention the private orchestra concert where the rule was that everyone — even the visiting members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and even an unsuspecting Joni Mitchell — had to get naked?

Ultimately, The Cake and the Rain may be less illuminating as a record of Webb's art — he doesn't spend much time on the details of songwriting or recording — than as an impressionistic voyage through the music scene in the era when the '60s faded and died, giving way to a world where you'd go to a party and the most gorgeous woman there would be hanging on the arm of Dudley Moore.

Webb visits a Beatles recording session where both Paul and John have their partners (Linda and Yoko) essentially draped over their shoulders as they cut tracks for the White Album. He describes the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, where performances ranged from Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar (to the horror of the fire marshal) to Otis Redding delivering "probably the most nuclear-powered forty-five minutes in the history of rock 'n' roll." The Devil appears throughout the narrative as a supporting character, described as matter-of-factly as though he was there in the flesh.

And somehow, at the story's weird and quiet center, there's "MacArthur Park." Webb originally wrote the song for the Association (yes, the "Windy" group) — who listened politely and then took a hard pass. When Webb was later summoned to England to make what would turn out to be an entire album of Webb songs with Harris, the thespian immediately took to the number. "That's a song fit for a bloody king!" boomed the man who famously played King Arthur in Camelot.

Every once in a while, you can have your cake and eat it too.

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