Think back to the moment the songs on this CD came into your life…
Some, like “Wichita Lineman” and “All I Know,” have been around seemingly forever; so long they qualify as true standards. Others, like “Lightning In A Bottle,” are almost-forgotten gems. And a few, like this album’s opener “Paul Gauguin in the South Seas” (from 2005’s brilliant Twilight of the Renegades) are of a newer but still robust vintage and show that Webb’s songwriting vineyard is still producing quality “grapes.” OK, enough of that tortured analogy.
So again, think back, this time to the bold teenage “phenom” writing “Didn’t We,” a song about love lost, a song written with truth and conviction, almost impossible for one so young. Frank Sinatra was so moved by it that he gave the song a spotlight moment in his live appearances, standing center stage at Caesars Palace, singing “Didn’t We” between already timeless tunes from such standard bearers as Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart.
Now, think of the seasoned tunesmith in the 21st Century looking back on the regrets of love and life and loss in the devastating meditation on the quickly passing years, “Time Flies.” Think of what Mr. Sinatra could have done with that song. And realize that with the passage of the years, we now know that Jimmy Webb’s voice is the perfect instrument for expressing the true feelings that drip from every note of every one of his songs.
And so finally, don’t think at all. Just close your eyes and listen and imagine the songwriter, sitting alone in a room, searching for the most evocative chord, plucking out a melody, struggling to find a lyric that captures the monumental feelings welling up inside.
His melodies are impeccable, indestructible, his compositions classic in form and structure. But Webb, unlike many of the legends of the great American songbook, is a words and music guy. So as you get lost in his melodies and the powerful rhythms of the piano, don’t ignore the rhymes and the brilliant lines.
Notice his choice of words. Webb has never settled for anything but the right word. If it didn’t come to him, from a self-taught life of books and contemplation and conversation, he went to the rhyming dictionary. But that was just a tool, a gentle push towards “le mot juste.” Jimmy has always focused on perfect lyrical expression. Growing up, his father had never been at a loss for God's word. And he definitely is his father's son.
Now, consider the singer...make that the singers…of whom Jimmy speaks on this album with such fond memories. Like the late Richard Harris, that larger-than-life Irish actor, proving that he could take a love song with a meaning obscured and make it a landmark in pop music, make it live forever. Or like Glen Campbell, in the midst of his first fame, waiting for the new Webb song, waiting for the latest dispatch from that artistic Valhalla, waiting for the tune and the hooks and the lyric that would take him back up the charts into the top ten, towards number one.
Think again about the songs, the first time you heard them on the radio. Where were you? Who were you with? Were you in love? Had your heart just been broken? Did these songs provide salve for wounds you hoped would someday heal?
The writer doesn't stop to ponder. He's on fire. And he does it again and again. Out of instinct. Out of need. Out of, as he confesses, the desire to impress a girl. The songs are in the air, and with impunity (and immunity), he takes them and gives them to us through the various channels he chooses. Art Garfunkel, a singer from Queens, unmoored from his original partner, brings his priceless voice to the soaring melody, proving that he knows how to take a great song, regardless of the author, and make it a hit. And the remarkable quartet of legends who made a nearly decade-old song, “The Highwayman,” a Grammy winner and took the song title for the group’s name.
Songwriter and singer. And the two of them, regardless of age or gender, do this together. They sing his songs about real life. Some autobiographical, some just imagined. But all stories that could have happened. As if he were tuned to one of God's channels, the songs came. Continue to come. In a compulsive rush. In an occasional shower. Year after year, decade after decade. The tunesmith, like the highwayman, plies his trade.
And like that well-traveled plunderer, the songwriter, who began his work in an unfinished room not much bigger than a walk-in closet---a room that was as big as it needed to be because it held a piano---does what he's supposed to do. Create magic with music.
It's all conjured up. It seems there's a boundless font of fairytales with
not-so-happy endings. But what he might never have imagined was not only would those songs travel the world on the voices of angels but that they would one day take him around the world.
It is the journey of those songs, a journey that Jimmy Webb began some forty years ago, that is at the heart of this album. Whichever one of his 2005 concert dates these performances hail from, they all have one thing in common: these are not interpretations of great songs; these are the songs as the writer hears them, as he wants them sung. Webb's seasoned voice, his brilliant piano playing, is the way to delve into his work. No elaborate arrangements. No string sections. No voices purer than pure. Just a tunesmith, a Baldwin grand and a trunk full of many of the best songs you'll ever hear.
Now, add to that incredible litany of songs Webb's confessional style as a performer, as a storyteller without peer. As is evident on this album, spending an hour or so listening to him talk or sing or play is only to realize that it’s not long enough. Not even close.
The tales he tells of his famous (and infamous?) friends give us insight into what it means to be an artist. And that success isn't measured in hits or happiness, rather by the ability to explore one's gifts in a way that touches all who open their ears, open their hearts.
And perhaps what is most impressive about all of this isn't the number of hit songs or memorable ones nor even the sheer volume of classics he's responsible for (this album could easily have been twice as long with songs you already know and love) but the fact that more than forty years on, his songwriting "chops" are still intact.
His recent work is as powerful as his earliest, his lyrics even more poetic if that’s possible. Of the songwriters who first found fame in the '60s...to me, the absolute nexus of a songwriting renaissance unlike any before or since...Jimmy Webb stands out as one who is consistently writing at the top of his game. Listen to "Time Flies," written over thirty years after "Didn't We" emerged from his powerful, graceful hands, and hear an artist still willing to bare his soul. How many lifetimes of regret fill the bottom of the glass as "Time Flies"?
His songs remain the emotional catharsis of his roller coaster inner life. Heartbreak, despair, the pain of knowing...and the joy of loving in spite of it all...remain at the core.
If the simple, straightforward truth be told, when all is said and done, for Jimmy Webb it begins and ends in the same way, in the same place it always did---a man, a piano and divine inspiration. It doesn’t really matter where the eighty-eight keys are: a preacher’s home in rural Oklahoma, a small apartment in Hollywood, the legendary San Fernando Valley estate hideaway immortalized in “Campo de Encino” or a country house in upstate New York or on the north shore of Long Island. Rooms without windows…rooms with no view…rooms with breathtaking views---it makes no difference. Because these songs don’t come from outside; they are called up from a well deep within the artist.
I think that’s why seeing him play live can be overwhelming. Rarely are we exposed to such an open wound, like a downed power line with electricity surging through it. What is hard to explain is what drives him, compels him, moves him, what, as he says on this CD, inspires him to continue to “swim upstream,” to fight the tides of cultural change. Perhaps, it’s because when he sits at the piano, Jimmy Webb’s work shows, as in the lyric of another recent song included on this collection, “No Signs of Age.”
If Jimmy Webb ever comes to your town, be sure to be there. But until that day, this record will have to stand in for the legendary member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame…for the artist who after forty years toiling at his trade…finds the passion to not only create songs of true heart but the determination to take them out into the world so they can be heard as he wrote them.
Jimmy Webb left his Oklahoma home to find his way in the world. He had a pocketful of tunes when he came west to the land of dreams, determined that his songs would be heard. Of that, he can be certain.
(Award-winning writer David Leaf has directed or co-directed such acclaimed films as “Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson & The Story of SMiLE” and “The U.S. Vs. John Lennon.)
Liner notes copyright 2007 David Leaf