Song of the Day 9/21: “MacArthur Park” live on Letterman

Filed in Arts and Entertainment by on September 21, 2018

This is my last day as your substitute DJ, so I wanted a big, boffo finish. And there’s no bigger, more boffo way to finish than with a live version of “MacArthur Park.” This one augments Paul Schaffer’s house band with a 23-piece orchestra plus songwriter Jimmy Webb on harpsichord. Will Lee, the bassist for Letterman’s band, handles the vocals. When this show aired on July 21, 2014, Letterman had already announced he was retiring the next year, which might be the only reason his bosses let him stage this extravaganza.

Yes, I know, Jimmy Webb’s masterpiece was voted (by Dave Barry’s readers) the Worst Song of All Time, as well as having the worst lyrics ever. The cake that’s melting in the rain and its sweet green icing have been the butt of thousands of jokes about hippies and drugs and ’60s excess. So let me just say up front that if you hate this song, you’re a philistine.

Webb wrote “MacArthur Park” in 1967 at the urging of Bones Howe, at the time producer for pop vocal group the Association. Howe wanted Webb to write a pop song structured like a classical cantata, with multiple movements and time changes. So he did, drawing on an unrequited love affair with a high school classmate. The Association, though, rejected the song, so Webb put it away until he met Richard Harris, who was fresh off starring in “Camelot” and wanted to record an album of popular songs. Webb played him dozens; Harris liked this one best. Harris was an actor, not a singer, but his dramatic if overwrought vocals outshine most cover versions.

After years of dodging the questions, Webb finally started telling the truth about his inspiration in the past decade. His lost love, Suzy Horton, inspired many of his best-known hits, from “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” to “The Worst That Could Happen.” In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Webb addressed the lyrics that rankle so many people:

There is a MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, near where my girlfriend worked selling life insurance. We’d meet there for lunch, and there would be old men playing checkers by the trees, like in the lyrics.

I’ve been asked a million times: “What is the cake left out in the rain?” It’s something I saw – we would eat cake and leave it in the rain. But as a metaphor for a losing a chapter of your life, it seemed too good to be true. When she broke up with me, I poured the hurt into the song.

Webb was all of 21 when he wrote the song. Despite all the criticism it’s received, “MacArthur Park” has been covered by everyone from Donna Summer, whose 1978 disco version gave Webb his only No. 1 hit (Harris’ version reached No. 2 in 1968) to Waylon Jennings, who recorded it four different times. Webb himself has recorded it several times, most recently with vocal backing from Brian Wilson.

Will Lee patterns his vocals on the Richard Harris version, right down to incorrectly saying “MacArthur’s” Park. He gets autotuning help on the high notes, but considering the ensemble’s lack of rehearsal time, this is an impressive performance, highlighted by guitarist Felicia Collins’ soloing in the rock section. If you look closely you’ll see some of the string players smiling at the audacity of it all, and when Lee finally comes down from the giant cake he climbs for the last verse, everyone on stage congratulates each other like the players on a team that just won the championship.

In a way, they had.

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  1. nathan arizona says:

    Jimmy Webb never wrote a bad song. Good to see the songwriter himself on both these great versions. And thanks for the backstory.

  2. RE Vanella says:

    This one is especially good. I’d be remiss not to mention.

  3. Yo, Alby. You’re on a roll. If you’d like to continue, just let me know.

    I agree that finding out, and sharing, stuff about the songs and the artists is great fun.

    • Alby says:

      I have a couple ready for the weekend if need be because I wasn’t sure of your travel schedule. It’s hard to follow “MacArthur Park,” though. It’s like Mick Jagger and the Stones trying to follow James Brown at the TAMI Show.

  4. puck says:

    I was reading a bit about early progressive rock, and it turns out Arthur Brown was a major influence.Anybody remember “The Crazy World of Arthur Brown?” Well, Arthur Brown is alive and… nuts:

    If you can’t watch the whole thing, make sure you watch the end when he is taking selfies in the audience and improvising lyrics.

    • Alby says:

      Fuckin’ great stuff. England’s crazy bastards are more entertaining than any other country’s crazy bastards.

      And this is why I love YouTube. It’s almost the only way I listen to music anymore, because you can find stuff like this.

  5. puck says:

    I’ve also been going on a bit of a Swingin’ Sixties jag:

  6. nathan arizona says:

    The Petula Clark of France. Because why the hell not.

  7. nathan arizona says:

    Never mind.

  8. puck says:

    Here’s some more of my Swinging Sixties detour:

    “Spooky” by Dusty Springfield

    “Girl for Ipanema” by Astrud Gilberto & Stan Getz

    “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin