Thursday August 23, 2007
Even by the standards of the late 60s, when goofy songs were a dime a dozen, MacArthur Park is one of the strangest Top 40 hits ever. More than seven minutes long, sung by a man who couldn't really sing, written by a prolific tunesmith famous for churning out harmless ditties like The Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, and Up, Up and Away, MacArthur Park is among the most baffling hits in the history of pop music. It has no antecedent, and it has no sequel.
To this day, no one can say for sure what the song is about; nor can anyone say for sure whether Webb was making a bid to be taken seriously - a difficult assignment after writing songs with names like Everyone Gets to Go to the Moon - or whether the song was always intended as a big joke. One thing's for sure: As soon as a 45 containing the lyrics,"Someone left the cake out in the rain, I don't think that I can make it, cause it took so long to bake it, and I'll never find that recipe again" made it all the way to No 2 on the charts, Richard Nixon's triumph in the 1968 presidential election was assured. In the eyes of Middle America, far too many drugs were being consumed out there; it was time to try another goddamn recipe.
When Richard Harris recorded MacArthur Park in 1968, he had already appeared in This Sporting Life, the greatest rugby film ever, and Sam Peckinpaugh's Major Dundee, during whose filming the normally mild-mannered Charlton Heston reputedly chased the director off the set with a saber. To the great unwashed, however, Harris was best known for his performance as the wistful, disappointed King Arthur in the dire 1967 film Camelot. A fixture of late-night talk shows, where guests had a habit of showing up soused, Harris, like Oliver Reed and Richard Burton, had a reputation as a carouser; unlike postmodern bad boys who get themselves banned from bars and restaurants, these roisterers got themselves banned from entire countries.
One of the very few mature actors who was not despised by young people, Harris played the role of the gin-soaked, ex-pat lout with a heart of gold to the hilt, and thereby possessed the chutzpah, impishness and panache needed to put over a goofball number like MacArthur Park. Unlike Star Trek's William Shatner, whose contemporaneous recording of Mr Tambourine Man was dismissed as arrant tomfoolery, Harris was not hooted offstage when the song was released; people actually sat around talking about what the song meant, in the same way they would ponder the hidden meaning of I Am the Walrus and A Whiter Shade of Pale. This was another reason Nixon got elected.
On a purely aesthetic level, MacArthur Park is one of the most complicated songs in the history of pop music. However, given the relative sophistication of the genre, being one of the most complicated songs in the history of pop music is like being the zaniest stand-up comic in Estonia. The song is broken up into four sections, but nobody cares, as the instrumental break is generic late-Sixties faux-classical bloviating, and only the lyrics matter. Ostensibly, the title refers to a Los Angeles park favored by middle-class picnickers, but realistically the song evokes a MacArthur Park of the mind. Because it was released the same year Bobby Kennedy died, because Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in LA, because Bobby Kennedy served in an administration referred to in the public imagination as Camelot - this because of the 1962 Broadway musical that the Kennedys adored - and because Harris starred in the film version of that musical, there was some speculation - at least in my neighborhood - that the song referred to Bobby's assassination, or JFK's assassination, or both their assassinations, though probably nor Archduke Ferdinand's. But the song was written before Bobby Kennedy died, so this cannot be true, unless Jimmy Webb was in league with Nostradamus, which was certainly possible. The sad truth is an awful lot of drugs were being consumed in that neighborhood that summer, which voted heavily for Nixon in November.
Webb, born on the same date the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into Paradise, initially offered the song to a preppy sextet called The Association. The Association, whose snappy hits included Windy, Cherish and Along Comes Mary, consisted of six nattily attired musicians who liked to preface their performances with a cute little routine in which they pretended to be the interlocking robotic units of a well-oiled machine that only functioned cohesively when everyone was doing his part. Now, that's entertainment! Given its arcane imagery, and bitter remorse over a long-lost recipe, and the fact that it was more than seven minutes and 20 seconds long and may have elliptically referred to both drugs and assassinations, MacArthur Park probably wasn't right for them.
The song has resurfaced in many entirely unnecessary recordings down through the years, including a husky, non-ironic effort by the Four Tops and a bouncy cover by disco diva Donna Summers. Most recently, the Wu-Tang Clan adapted Webb's verses for a song that would also not have been right for The Association or any other sextet of that era. In their version, the Clan omitted the stuff about vanished recipes. Tragically, AC/DC never recorded MacArthur Park, nor did the Pogues, Nana Maskouri or Yanni.
In a 1997 book, the beloved American humorist Dave Barry rated MacArthur Park the worst song ever written. This is an untenable assertion, not only because the song has a wonderful back story, and impressive key changes, and four separate sections, and horns, and enigmatic lyrics, but because Ebony and Ivory exists, as do You Don't Bring Me Flowers, Baby, I'm-a Want You, Feelings, Benny and the Jets, Witchy Woman and Sussudio. People simply have to stop saying that this is the worst song ever, or this is the worst band ever, or this is the worst album ever. MacArthur Park, which Harris insisted on pronouncing "MacArthur's Park" throughout the recording, may, by some people's standards, be the worst song ever written. But even if it is, it only narrowly edged out 25,000 others. On a planet where somebody thought it would be a good idea to write Scenes from an Italian Restaurant, the best MacArthur Park is ever going to earn in the sucky-song sweepstakes is a tie.