Friday, August 3, 2018

Richard Harris – "MacArthur Park" (1968)

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

[NOTE: The 2 or 3 lines posts for July featured the first ten inductees into the brand-spanking-new 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME.   It's one hell of a group of great songs, if I do say so myself.  But after completing the last of those posts, something suddenly hit me: I had forgotten all about a song that absolutely, positively had to be included in the initial group of inductees.  So instead of our first 2 OR 3 LINES “GOLDEN DECADE” HIT SINGLES HALL OF FAME class containing ten songs, it's going to contain eleven.  Isn't that typical of the way 2 or 3 lines operates?  Underpromising and overdelivering – it's the 2 or 3 lines way!  Without further ado, here's an updated version of my original 2012 post about the hot mess that is the 1968 Richard Harris recording of "MacArthur Park."]

"MacArthur Park" (not "MacArthur's," as Richard Harris insisted on singing it) might not represent the greatest achievement of Western civilization since the Renaissance – but then again, it might.

You either love "MacArthur Park" or you hate it.  In the words of Paul Rees, the editor of Q magazine (which is the British equivalent of Rolling Stone):

["MacArthur Park"] polarizes opinion because it's mad.  It's as simple as that. 

Rees is correct: "MacArthur Park" is mad.  The music is mad, the lyrics are madder, and Richard Harris's performance is the maddest of all.  Put all that together and you have a song that is either seven minutes of incoherent insanity or a work of pop-culture genius that is the 1968 equivalent of the "Ode to Joy" movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Personally, I vote for "work of genius."  I love everything about this song.  It is so over the top, so off the wall – it's hard to believe that a record company actually had the nerve to release it.  And it's unfathomable that a seven-minute single ever got played on AM radio stations, much less made it to #2 on the Billboard "Hot 100" the week of my 16th birthday.

Richard Harris and Jimmy Webb
Nothing about this record makes any sense.  The man who wrote "MacArthur Park," Jimmy Webb, was a very gifted pop music songwriter who cranked out mainstream hit singles for Glen Campbell ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman"), the Fifth Dimension ("Up, Up and Away"), and many others.  By 1968, Webb was viewed as a bit old-fashioned and out of sync with the counterculture-influenced music that was  all the rage.

"MacArthur Park" is one of several Webb songs ("By the Time I Get to Phoenix" was another) that was inspired by his breakup with Linda Ronstadt's cousin, Susan Ronstadt.  Susan worked for an insurance company whose Los Angeles offices bordered the park.  She and Webb occasionally met in the park for lunch, and one of Webb's friends said later that Susan got married in the park after her relationship with Webb ended.

MacArthur Park, Los Angeles
According to that friend, the broken-hearted songwriter hid out in a gardener's shed and watched the ceremony.  When it started to rain, the water running down the shed's window made it look like the wedding cake was melting.       

That explains the song's chorus, but what about the song's opening verse?

Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead 
As we followed in the dance
Between the parted pages that were pressed
In love's hot, fevered iron
Like a striped pair of pants

Check out those last three lines – well, doggies!  (That's "stripe-ed," by the way – two syllables.)

The next verse is also pretty wack:
I recall the yellow cotton dress 
Foaming like a wave 
On the ground around your knees
The birds like tender babies in your hands
And the old men playing checkers 
By the trees
"MacArthur Park" is really two different songs that have been rather crudely stitched together.  It's like nonidentical Siamese twins (which is an impossibility, of course).

The second song begins about two and a half minutes in – its lyrics are a little out there, but nothing like those that came before:

There will 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
But after all the loves of my life 
After all the loves of my life
You'll still be the one

After song-within-a-song #2 ends, there's about a minute and a half of feverish instrumental music, which leads us into the final chorus.  MacArthur Park melts in the dark one final time.  The song ends on a high note that is far too high for Richard Harris to sing, so he simply steps aside and lets his female backup singers finish up.

"MacArthur Park" was originally one movement of a 22-minute pop cantata that Webb wrote for the Association.  But the group balked at devoting an entire side of their upcoming album to Webb's music.

So how did Richard Harris – an actor, not a recording artist – end up recording "MacArthur Park"?  Jimmy Webb told Songfacts the whole story in a 2011 interview:

I met Richard on stage at the Coronet Theatre in Los Angeles.  We were doing like an anti-war pageant with Walter Pidgeon, Edward G. Robinson, Mia Farrow and some other people, and I was doing music. In our off-time we used to like to play the piano backstage and sing and have a few beers, and Richard and I got to be really good friends.  And we were just kind of tossing around that thing about, "Wow, one of these days we ought to make a record."  And I used to say that to everybody . . . 
So one day I got a telegram . . . that said, "Dear Jimmy Webb, come London, make record. Love, Richard."  And it was the first time I was ever out of the country.  I got on a 707 and flew to London and started doing this record with Richard. "MacArthur Park" was kind of in the pile, but we had a lot of songs that we were interested in doing.  And we ended up doing two albums. . . .

The first one was called A Tramp Shining.  And that takes us to the sort of hidden question in your question, which is why would you get an actor instead of a singer?  Well, he was a singer.  He had just done a very successful top-grossing motion picture, which was a musical version of Camelot.  
[Note: My high school English class read The Once and Future King and other Arthurian literature in 1968, and we took a bus trip to Kansas City to see the movie version of Camelot, which starred not only Richard Harris, but also Vanessa Redgrave (hot!) and Franco Nero (even hotter!).] 
And [Harris] had sung all the [Camelot] stuff.  I mean, it wasn't perfect, but he had sung it.  He had gotten through the score and it was considered successful.  And I thought he had done a good enough job singing [Camelot] that I thought I could make a record with him.  I didn't think it was that weird – I still don't know why people are so taken aback by it.  It's not like some strange thing. He had just done a musical. You know what I'm saying?
[N]ow that Richard's gone [Note: Harris died in 2002, aged 72] he's a little easier to appreciate.  He brought a great kind of theatrical dignity to "MacArthur Park" . . . .  And if he missed a note or he didn't carry it off particularly well as a singer, he had the actor's ability to step his way through the lyric and to speak some of the lines and basically to carry it off. . . . [H]e eventually bought the rights to the [Camelot] score, so he owned the publishing. And he played Camelot on the road for eight years. He told me one day at a bar that he made $65 million playing Camelot on the road. . . . So it's a little insulting to say that he couldn't perform, or that he couldn't sing.
Click here to read the entire Songfacts interview.

"MacArthur Park" is one of the most-covered songs of all time.  Webb got his start working for Motown, and the Four Tops were one of the first groups to cover "MacArthur Park."  Click here to listen to their version of the song.

Waylon Jennings won a Grammy for his 1970 version of the song.  Click here to listen to it.

Click here to listen to Donna Summer's disco version, which was a #1 hit in 1978.

There are a lot of jazz covers of "MacArthur Park."  Click here for Stan Kenton's version.

Click here for Woody Herman's version.

Click here to watch a brilliant SCTV bit based on "MacArthur Park."

Last and almost certainly least, click here for Weird Al Yankovic's "Jurassic Park" parody.

*     *     *     *     *

And now . . . the moment you've all been waiting for.  Click here for Richard Harris's one-of-a-kind performance of Jimmy Webb's one-of-a-kind song, "MacArthur Park."

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

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