"Novelistic, perfectly plotted and quite possibly the best pop-star autobiography yet written." - The Wall Street Journal
Jimmy Webb’s words have been sung to his music by a rich and deep roster of pop artists, including Glen Campbell, Art Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, Donna Summer and Linda Ronstadt. He’s the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration, and his chart-topping career has, so far, lasted fifty years, most recently with a Kanye West rap hit and a new classical nocturne.
Now, in his first memoir, Webb delivers a snapshot of his life from 1955 to 1970, from simple and sere Oklahoma to fast and fantastical Los Angeles, from the crucible of his family to the top of his longed-for profession.
Webb was a preacher’s son whose father climbed off a tractor to receive his epiphany, and Jimmy, barely out of his teen age years, sank down into the driver’s seat of a Cobra to speed to Las Vegas to meet with Elvis. Classics such as “Up, Up and Away”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Galveston”, “The Worst that Could Happen”, “All I Know”, and “MacArthur Park” were all recorded by some of the most important voices in pop before Webb’s twenty-fifth birthday: he thought it was easy.
The sixties were a supernova, and Webb was at their center, whipsawed from the proverbial humble beginnings into a moneyed and manic international world of beautiful women, drugs, cars and planes. That stew almost took him down—but Webb survived, his passion for music and work among his lifelines.
The Cake and The Rain is a surprising and unusual book: Webb’s talent as a writer and storyteller is here on every page. His book is rich with a sense of time and place, and with the voices of characters, vanished and living, famous and not, but all intimately involved with him in his youth, when life seemed nothing more than a party and Webb the eternal guest of honor.
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The Cake and the Rain
By Jimmy Webb
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Jimmy Webb
All rights reserved.
They say a man can't love a material thing
With aluminum skin and a cast iron soul
But they never heard your engine sing
Ah, there's peace in losing control ...
— JLW, "Too Young to Die," 1993
"So let me get this straight," I said into the telephone. "You have a new Corvette for me?"
"That's right, Mr. Webb. We owe you three brand-new Corvettes for the work you did with Mr. Campbell."
"So this would be my second Corvette and ..."
"And, we would owe you one more. You could get the four-hundred-fifty cubic-inch option next year. That's a lot of car."
"Wow, that's far out!"
I had done some work with Glen Campbell on a commercial earlier in the year. We had already collaborated on a top-twenty record, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," but had met only once, when we shook hands at the Grammys. When I had walked into Armin Steiner's Sound Recorders in Hollywood, Glen looked up from tuning his guitar and I extended my hand.
"Hi, Glen! I'm Jimmy!" I blurted as I approached television's familiar coiffed and blue-jeaned figure. He scanned my skin-and-bones frame, my leather jacket, and my hair hanging down to my shoulders.
"When ya gonna get a haircut?" he asked.
Writing hit songs was so damn easy I fantasized I could write one whenever I wanted or needed to. My songs dominated easy-listening pop radio. My manager was Sandy Gallin, who also handled Cher and the Osmond Brothers. I was one of the first guys since Burt Bacharach and Hal David to be famous for writing songs. I wasn't a Beatle. I wasn't a bandleader or an arranger. And I was definitely not a performer. I used to joke around with other songwriters that they had to be very careful and not sing a demo too well. Great singers loved to have a terrible demo that needed their particular brand of refinement.
I lived in a vintage "Valleywood" mansion that movie star Phil Harris had built for his screen darling, Alice Faye, in the 1930s. It housed two grand pianos and a handmade billiard table with my name inscribed on it. On my front porch, I stood at the top of a hill that crowned six acres of pools, gardens, and waterfalls rambling down to the bottom of a wooded hill to a quaintly wrought stable and corral. Huge, century-old white oak trees intertwined their canopies on the hillside, inspiring a pet name for the estate: Campo de Encino (Fort of the White Oaks).
In my living room I erected a temple to the idols of my profession. Artist Jeffrey Speeth, who was known to ride with the Hells Angels, had delicately torched two stained glass panels, each twenty feet wide by eight and a half feet high. On the right panel were Joni Mitchell, Art Garfunkel, Paul Simon, and Bob Dylan. To the left was George Harrison, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley, each traced with thousands of intricately shaped stained glass ellipses. Elvis stood tall — a colossus in antique purple and red glass. Joni, a golden angel, rendered in sunny yellow and clear. In the same room was a pipe organ that stretched floor to ceiling, much bigger than the one Captain Nemo played in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Much bigger. In addition to my two grand pianos, there was a two-manual German harpsichord. My whole house was wired as a recording studio.
The glowing room was a glimpse of rock 'n' roll heaven ... would I ever get there? Perhaps not. And perhaps that's the reason I went for the fast cars instead of fast money. I was twenty-three years old. Life beyond the age of thirty was unimaginable.
By writing songs for Glen Campbell, Mr. Sinatra, Liza Minnelli, and others, I had opened myself up to a left cross from snobby journalists and other elitists. Some said I was "middle of the road," "represented the establishment," and all that left-wing folkie exclusivity that doesn't buy a stick of gum in the world of music today.
The truth is I was a heavy pot smoker, a sexual adventurer, and a hopelessly liberal Democrat who hated the war in Vietnam. I had some redeeming qualities: Aside from the occasional beer, I didn't drink or smoke tobacco. I was lauded as "The Cole Porter of the Sixties" or — even worse — as "Pop Music's Mozart!" in a critical press more than slightly intimidated by the proliferation of loud rock bands. Journalists and mature people all over the country were encouraged by the fact that I was a young man who saw things their way. I wrote 'em the way they used to write 'em. Meanwhile, just like every other kid, my favorite bands were The Beatles and the Stones.
That summer, I threw my suitcase into the trunk of my brand-new, sleek, sharklike silver Corvette 427 and drove out through San Bernardino and the Inland Empire to Route 390 going north. I opened her up at close to one hundred miles an hour, heading for Las Vegas, where I was appearing with "the hardest-working little girl in show business," Connie Stevens. After a sudden divorce from crooner Eddie Fisher, she was remounting her career with a show at Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, which had just recently been purchased by Howard Hughes. He bought the hotel and casino after arguing with a manager over extending his reservation. He now occupied the blacked-out top two of the tower's nine floors.
On the drive, I was steaming over an item I had read in the New Musical Express on my last trip to London: "Jim Webb is back in town, with his orchestra or whatever," the paper sneered. Who was I? Percy Faith? And who was "Jim Webb" anyway? The same London publication groused that whoever had "changed" my name to "Jimmy" was an asshole. My name is Jimmy Webb on my birth certificate. Upon moving to Hollywood and being informed that "Jimmy" was not an especially cool name and would have to be changed, I had fired that particular manager.
Perhaps someone who was more concerned about dropping their left for a bunch of Donny Osmond and John Denver haters might have thought twice about baiting the bear with an appearance at a casino, but I met Connie and she charmed me without any particular effort. I knew her mostly from 1963's Palm Springs Weekend, in which she played the good girl. It was no act. With my guitarist Fred Tackett — a true hippie — I worked up a few songs for Connie and me to perform.
I idled through the gate of the Desert Inn, one of Vegas's original five casinos. In five-foot-tall letters, the marquee said CONNIE STEVENS. Underneath, it said JIMMY WEBB. Connie had insisted on me having equal billing.
There was a message from Connie at the front desk to meet her in the Crystal Room to rehearse our duet of a song called "Didn't We?"
The Crystal Room was a modest venue; our capacity was 450 for dinner and the stage itself. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Noël Coward, Bobby Darin, and thousands of others had performed on that stage. I was one large nerve as I hesitantly touched the keys on the grand piano with Connie sitting beside me on the bench, relaxed and graceful, the pretty girl known in the business as "Dollface." We parted with a pact to meet again later at the pool so I could meet her and Eddie Fisher's two little girls: Joely, two years, and Tricia, one.
The next day Freddy and his very pregnant lady Patricia checked in after their drive from L.A., and the three of us went out to the hotel's trademark figure-eight-shaped pool. Freddy and I detuned a couple of gut-string acoustic guitars to an open D, or what we called a "Joni Mitchell tuning." The hardened gambler crowd sat under umbrellas, drinking and smoking their cigars, waiting for it to get dark, as the two long-haired kids beat the crap out of guitars and harmonized to the heavens, "And he cries and he cries, there's an ocean in his eyes ..." All the while, Patricia, pretty and burstingly pregnant in a flowing white dress, danced improvisational free-form on the grass.
When Connie came down with her girls, she took us in stride. We pitched camp beside the large pool: water bottles, beers, babies, guitars, long hair, cassette players, and all. Connie took both of her children into the water to teach them to swim. Every eye at the pool was on Connie. Folks asked for her autograph or a photo; there were no private pools at the Desert Inn. The stars were expected to entertain.
That night I took Connie out for a ride in my Corvette. We went out to the highway, Nevada's autobahn, and I let it fly. We laughed like hell as the warm summer wind caught in our hair and the mile markers rushed past. I got to know her a little at the hotel bar after; I had a beer and she had a glass of water. It had been quite a rough time for her during the divorce and she paled a little talking about it. She said she was doing a very physical show with a lot of dancing so she had to get to bed early. We said our good-nights. A hallmark of a lady, she had two little girls and a broken marriage and she was hitting the boards and hoofing to get her life on track. "The hardest-working little girl in show business" wasn't just a release from some press agent.
On opening night, Freddy and I went out and joined Ray Noble and His Orchestra. We performed for twenty minutes with Connie, then she invited me back on stage as part of her finale. We sang "Didn't We?" to exceptional howls of approval from the packed audience. After our third curtain call, I said to Connie in amazement, "What are these people making such a fuss about?"
"People love a fresh face!" She laughed.
We were poolside virtually every day after that and performing at night, though I still got around some. I met Paul Anka at his condo one afternoon and we talked about songwriting and Vegas. He looked at me with the knowing smirk of a seasoned pro surveying a helpless greenhorn.
"Hey, listen," he said. "After your second show tonight come over and meet me and some of the guys at the Sands Health Club."
I raised an eyebrow. A health club that stayed open until one in the morning?
After my show, I went over to the venerable Sands in my silver shark and parked in the back as I had been instructed. Nothing. Pitch black. Suddenly a crack of light as a door opened directly on the parking lot.
"Pssst. Hey Jim!" It was Anka, silhouetted in the doorway.
I locked up my ride and went into the light. I was inside the Men's Health Club at the Sands. All the heavies were in there — the Righteous Brothers, Vic Damone, Redd Foxx. Some were leaving, some arriving, some were in towels, some even had ladies. This was the ex-officio men's club for entertainers in Vegas, and it really didn't get rolling until two or three in the morning.
After a steam and some time in a Jacuzzi, I found out that the ladies too were an optional accessory. You could have it any way you wanted it in Vegas. I might even have gotten around to a lady or two except for the fact that I started to smoke a joint in the hot tub. There was a full-blown panic when the first cloud of smoke went up. The Everly Brothers almost trampled the Righteous Brothers getting out of the place. The hookers were close behind.
There was drug use in Vegas in those days, but nobody flashed it around, and nobody talked about it for one simple reason: It could cost you your job.
Our booking finished after a few weeks with the usual mixture of sadness, premature nostalgia, and relief. When it was over I took my whole crew, including Connie, on a private jet to Oklahoma City for the Stars and Stripes Show, a local extravaganza. I met Tom Stafford, who had played "Up, Up and Away" on his way around the moon in Apollo 10. I played "MacArthur Park" with the Oklahoma City Symphony and twenty thousand people cheered their approval. By the time we got back to Los Angeles, Caesars Palace had offered me an eight-week engagement — forty thousand dollars, three times a year. Management wanted me to play an instrumental version of "MacArthur Park" on a white piano once a night "like Liberace." They didn't want any singing; singing would pay less.
I turned the deal down. I wanted to be part of the world that my peers inhabited. The world I'd experienced at the Monterey Pop Festival, playing with Johnny Rivers and the Wrecking Crew. Real rock 'n' roll and higher-consciousness types did not play Vegas in 1969. I faced a significant divergence in life's river.
In Oklahoma before the Second World War, my two sets of grandparents lived on opposite sides of the North Fork of the Cimarron River, a tributary of the sprawling Red River that crosses a third of the United States. In plain language, our part of it was a creek; in the rainy season you could squint your eyes up close and it looked a little bit like a river, even if one of somewhat questionable character. Most months of the year it was merely a musical trickle as it looped in gentle arcs through groves of silver-leafed cottonwoods, its bed paved with a mosaic of round river rocks.
On one side of the river stood the relatively prosperous farm of Joe Killingsworth, who had his own gravity gas pump out by the garage to fill the tank of his Pontiac. On the other side was the Sunshine Ranch where Charlie Webb sharecropped, and where his God-fearing wife, Myrtle, saved copies of the Sayre Headlight-Journal and used them to line the unfinished walls of their rough shack, to hold at bay the keening wind of deep winter.
Robert Webb, my dad, was a tall, strapping teen and had a younger sister, Barbara, who was pretty enough to be a marquee idol. The Webb family contrasted in an austere way to the great clan of the Killingsworths, with their two handsome sons, Joe Verne and Don, and two comely daughters, Ann and Joy, who were long of legs, white of teeth, and rosy of lips and cheeks. Ann, a vivacious brunette; Joy, the younger, an athletic blonde and varsity basketball player.
My grandpa Charlie Webb was an odd duck on any pond. He was a rather short man with red hair and a stout build. His pink face was of the round and cheerful variety that belied a hard-as-nails undercoat. His secret armor seemed to insulate him in a satisfactory way from the inevitable, outrageous slings and arrows of fortune. Behind his back, folks called him "The Dutchman," though privately he claimed — with some pride — an Irish heritage. Down in Southwest Oklahoma "Dutchman" was an acceptable sobriquet for any oddball. For one thing, Grandpa Charlie didn't go to church like the rest. He would calmly sit on his porch at the Sunshine Ranch on a Sunday morning smoking snuff out of a briar pipe — a uniquely vile habit — and waving to each family as they passed, seemingly to bless them in their ignorance. The smoked snuff hung around him like a steel blue curtain, impenetrable and noxious as mustard gas.
Myrtle Webb was of the Nazarene sect, who went in for the occasional ecstatic roll on the floor as part of worship, speaking in tongues. Charlie regarded this practice with some unease. However, on one occasion "The Woman," as he called her, was able to persuade him to leave his pipe on the porch and go down to the First Nazarene. He discovered to his great mortification that the proceedings that day had been laid on specifically for his benefit. Dozens were praying out loud for "poor old Charlie" to come back into the fold. Folks rolled on the floor and recited incantations in indecipherable tongues. Charlie got as red as a Texas tomato and walked out of the Church of the Nazarene vowing never, ever to return.
Joe Killingsworth, who we called Granddaddy to differentiate him from Grandpa Charlie, was another sort of iconoclast. He seemed to embrace the theory that words were a precious and irreplaceable resource that were best conserved, like money or gasoline or cottonseed. He said little to nothing as he worked his six hundred acres and raised his ample family. In summer he would wear a short-sleeved shirt with a clean blue tie and a dress straw hat, which was removed from his head at the doorway of the Sweetwater First Baptist Church every Sunday.
He is still, obscured by all these years, somewhat of a cipher, this tireless farming machine with his code of unremitting dawn-to-dusk labor. His reticence went beyond that of the usual quiet sort of country fellow and crossed over into a philosophy of life, with his conviction, never articulated, that life was filled with way too much talk, and talk was a frivolous and wasteful thing. A Marcus Aurelius of the plains, he was rear guard to his wife, Maggie, or "Grandmother." She was a neurotic and nervous soul who fretted her way through the hardships of life on the prairie, worrying at every turn of fortune, good or bad. Joe followed silent and watchful.
Excerpted from The Cake and the Rain by Jimmy Webb. Copyright © 2017 Jimmy Webb. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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