Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Getting Webb Savvy: A Multi-Generational Master Class

I recently received the following press release, which, upon reading, I promptly followed up on. The opportunity to interview legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb could not be passed by.

Jimmy Webb
photo by Jessica Daschell Walker


To set the stage for what follows, I present you with the press release in its entirety; partly for informational purposes, partly so you can share in the excitement I felt upon reading it:


“Legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb brings his “Songs and Stories” tour back to the NY metro area with two shows - March 13 at the YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts in Bay Shore, and March 24 at City Winery in Manhattan. 

Webb has topped the country, disco and pop music charts with a list of artists astounding in its diversity (“MacArthur Park,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Up, Up, and Away” among his many iconic songs) and remains a trailblazer among songwriters 50 years after his first hit. To say that Webb is one of the last of a breed would imply that there is or ever was anyone quite like him. He is the only artist ever to have received Grammy Awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration. His book, Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting, in addition to being a good read, is considered a “bible” among musicians.


Now in his sixties, Webb looks back on his days as a Midwestern teen navigating fame and fortune in Los Angeles with vignettes of a music industry coming of age, enhancing his virtuoso performance of iconic tunes with riveting tales of the inspiration behind some of pop music’s biggest songs and singers, and a humorous tour into the days and nights of a songwriting prodigy. Getting to know the man behind such generational touchstones as “Worst That Could Happen” or “The Highwayman” in concert is also a lesson in pop culture, an insider perspective on the Nixon Sixties, the Rat Pack heyday, the London Mods, Laurel Canyon and more, told by a charming yarn spinner who hasn’t lost sight of his roots despite decades of international fame. More than a concert, an evening with Jimmy Webb in performance is a master class you can sing along with.”


Author’s Note: Thanks to publicist Susan Hellman for such a well-written piece!

A master class you can sing along with ...
photo by Bob Barry


The more research I did into the man and his career, the number of questions increased exponentially to the point of near-absurdity: Jimmy Webb’s songs are woven into the fabric of our collective unconscious 50 years deep, so to speak, and with his lifetime of singular experiences to share, the concert’s description as a master class is spot-on to me! Furthermore, how does one begin a conversation with such an individual—especially given a pre-set limit of 15 minutes? As it turned out, we spoke for closer to a half hour, and without further ado, I present you with our full conversation. Read and enjoy!


Roy Abrams: In November 2013, you gave an interview during which you said, “I’ve spent 15 years doing “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman,” and I just can’t do it anymore.” You’re still performing them live, so in what sense did you mean?


Jimmy Webb: What I specifically had referenced to was recording them. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to not perform those songs at one time or another. I was specifically talking about my next record and my recording career that I intend to pursue after this book I’m working on. I have all new songs. I repeat the remark in the spirit in which it was made. I certainly don’t want to record “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” again. I did it with Glen (Campbell) on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, which was a historical piece.


RA: Understood!


RA: You just mentioned that you’re working on a book?


JW: Yes, I am working on a book. It’s a memoir; it’s for St. Martin’s (Press). I haven’t really done a lot of publicity about it so far, but the word is out about it so there’s really no reason not to talk about it. It’s something that they really like, to be honest with you. They really like it a lot. I very much enjoyed working on it. Once I got into it, I sort of got used to the stresses and strains of writing. I’ve devoted a lot of time to it. And it’s supposed to be done September 1 of this year, so it looks like I’m going to be devoting even more time to it. It is essentially, in scope, is my youth as the son of a Baptist minister and how that kind of morphed into a career in the recording industry in my teens. My intention is to end this chapter at this book, with my transposition from the West Coast to New York City, which happened around 1981. But I lived the whole California thing to the hilt. You know, the “California Dream” was no dream! I was so lucky to be there at the right time, and just enjoy some of the relationships I had with the Fifth Dimension, Glen Campbell, David Geffen (who was my manager) … just loads of other people … Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell of America, and Brian Wilson … I really lived it; it was almost like a storybook. “OK, California Dream coming up!” you know?


RA: Speaking of California and another David … David Crosby—the song that you contributed to A Thousand Roads, “Too Young to Die” … that was, for me, a very profound one. That album came out the same year that my Mom passed away. I used to go out to the cemetery every Sunday, I’d have that album, and that song would invariably be playing as I was pulling up. How did you first cross paths with Mr. Crosby?


JW: Well, David, Graham Nash, and sometimes Neil would be hanging around, out, or however you want to put it, at David Geffen’s house. Stephen Stills was a good friend of mine. He was the last person to leave my 30th birthday party. The sun was coming up and he was still sitting in my living room, playing the piano. So, it was a very, very small community. Joni Mitchell was very definitely a part of that circle. And then, later on, (so were) James Taylor, Peter Asher. Linda Ronstadt … all were friends. In fact, on Christmas Eve, there was always a caroling party that came to my front door where I lived. The carolers were James, Linda, Peter Asher, Joni Mitchell, I think sometimes Jackson Browne; it would be a slightly different group every year, but there they would be at the front door, singing, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” … it was bizarre! [laughs] We would serve some hot chocolate to them, and it was like … it was just so many big stars in one place. Off we would go in their car to someone else’s house! David and I have known each other for a long time. I used to take him for a couple of flights in my glider when I was flying sailplanes, which I did kind of manically for about ten years. I was inseparable from my sailplane and the high desert; living out on the desert, sometimes to the chagrin of my wife and sometimes to the detriment of my career. I love the high desert and I love to fly.


RA: How did you end up at the Beatles’ recording session for “Honey Pie”? What was that experience like?


JW: Well, it’s a long story. I don’t really know the exact details. My manager at the time had contacts that went back to the hipster days of Lenny Bruce … I’m not really exactly sure how he worked that out. I got permission to go over there, which was kind of unusual because The Beatles didn’t really like people hanging around their sessions that much. [laughs] I don’t have a lot to report on that score because not a lot was said. I did sit in the control room and see them working on “Honey Pie” for a while.


RA: When you record these days, are you an analog guy, an analog/digital hybrid; what do you prefer?


JW: What the British call valves we used to call tubes. I love the sound of tubes and people who say that tubes don’t sound differently; they just don’t know what they’re talking about. They have a rounder, smoother … when you hear Wes Montgomery’s recordings, you hear tube amplifiers. The whole analog scene of “let’s go back to analog and start using acrylic records” – I’m not too sure about that, because I think that CDs have been very serviceable except for the jewel  boxes, which should have never made it. But they actually deliver a complete sonic portrait, from all the high frequencies to all the low frequencies. I don’t like the dead, quiet segments when I realize that there’s absolutely nothing there. That makes me feel a little creepy. Now, you always had a kind of a hiss or groove or pop or something that carried you through … something that you attached to as a listener, even though there might be “silence” … when digital recordings are silent, they’re really silent. They’re creepy silent. And that to me doesn’t sound natural, because the world is full of all kinds of noises, even in concerts. There’s a rustle, there’s a sound of humans moving their feet, crossing their legs, turning the pages of (the concert program) … there’s always some sound. So the idea of there being no sound, packets of absolute silence, is odd, alien. I think, in an ideal world, we would use valve desks, we would have control desks that are tube-powered amplifiers, all of our instruments would synthetically have some analog characteristics built-in to the sound because it’s warmer and more reassuring to the listener. I think that was your second choice, I’m a sort of analog/digital slash guy because I like the clarity of digital recording but I don’t want to give up the “holding hands in the dark” magical quality that just sounds like the ‘50s; it sounds like another generation.


RA: I understand that you like working with young people. Who are some of the young artists with whom you’ve recently worked?


JW: Well, I just worked with Rumor, Sarah Joyce, on my album Still Within the Sound of My Voice, she came in with me on a duet on the title, so she’s definitely a “young person” … she was under thirty then. There are countless, nameless individuals who I’ve worked with in seminars and on-site for the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. I give master classes to a lot of the universities where I play concerts; I go in. You know, if kids ask for them, I do critiques. I’m not terribly comfortable criticizing them but if they really want me to do it, I’ll do it. I’ve hardly ever met anyone who was satisfied with the critique, by the way! They’re like [adopts surfer-dude accent] “You don’t understand what I meant!” All right, let’s not do the critique! [laughs]


RA: As the Vice Chairman of ASCAP, can you talk about your dedication to preserving the rights and the craft of the songwriter?


JW: First of all, as you noted, I have been working in this capacity as a Board member for about 15 years, which kind of corresponds neatly with the amount of time that I’ve been sober. Beginning with Napster, I feel that (they) were the canary in the coal mine that caused people to start believing that, possibly, something really disastrous could happen to the industry. With Napster came the face of devaluation of copyright, and each twist and turn in the road, it seems that we faced an even more tearing monster; monsters out of Greek mythology. The last one that we encountered and are continuing to cope with is streaming, and the rates that Pandora and Spotify had sort of discussed among themselves … it’s really difficult for me to go into technicalities, but ASCAP serves under a consent decree. We can’t do anything that falls outside the purview of our consent decree, which is a kind of Code of Conduct that is issued by the Justice Department. We have probably one of the longest-standing consent decrees in the world. We’ve been under a consent decree for 71 years. A bunch of songwriters, we live under the same consent decree … because we’re dangerous people! [chuckles] My point being that under this new regimen of streaming, the most draconian financial measures that we could have ever possibly imagined have been inflicted on us. And we’re down to .078% of the total purchase price for a performance. We’ve had things happen like, you had an artist come along like Katy Perry or someone of that ilk, and they would have a couple of hundred million performances, and Pandora would eventually (God knows how long this would take)… but eventually they would get a check for six or seven thousand dollars. This was patently unfair. In fact, that’s when the tide of public opinion in America started turning in favor of songwriters, was when they realized that this disparity was so outrageous that not even a 4-year old child would say, “Oh, well, you get 50 cookies and I get one cookie.” Is that fair? The chutzpah involved …. One young girl, I remember, she got 6,000 performances from a completely homemade production and she was so excited and she waited for a check and waited for a check and finally Pandora sent her a check for $1.78. It was very common for artists to receive checks for 25 cents or 50 cents or $1.20, very common. These sounded like shocking stories, but then it got to be that this was happening to everybody.


RA: Is it reasonable to say that this current environment is almost a throwback to the way songwriters were treated back in the early days of rock and roll?


JW: Yeah, except that we were better off then! We still made more money then than we do now. So, with the exception of a very few artists who are sitting right on top of the pinnacle, the Beyonces of this world really have a big shovel and take such a bite out of the market that there’s very little left over to be divided between the remaining songwriters, but you had some stirring examples of protest against this, when you had Taylor Swift pull all of her masters that she owned, and her publishing which she owned, off Spotify. You can’t be ordered to put your music on there, it’s just that it’s one of the only ways to monetize your music; it’s where, seemingly, that that’s where the big money is, yet it’s only there for a few people. And Taylor Swift sort of struck a blow for all songwriters and pulled all her assets off Spotify. It was like, “Hey! I didn’t know you could do that—“


RA: I have a newfound respect for Taylor Swift—


JW: —Well, of course you can! She’ll make more money; she’ll make one hundred times more money selling her own merchandise than she will selling downloads on Spotify.

photo by Bob Barry

RA: For this current tour, I can fully understand the enjoyment the audience gets from your shows. What does Jimmy Webb get from them?


JW: Well, it’s not a complete mystery. First of all, I enjoy doing it. I really enjoy performing and I’m getting better at it. My voice is holding up very well and I might go so far as to say has improved as I’ve gotten older, and it’s really quite strong and capable of delivering some “money’ notes, like the high note at the end of “McArthur Park”, I can hit that note, and hit it every night. I’ll be hitting it tonight; I won’t be worried about it, I’ll just hit it! So, over a period of time, it’s a combination of the fact that I’m more comfortable with it, I enjoy it. I make some money at it. I don’t make a fortune with it, but I certainly cover my costs. I get an opportunity to tie it in with my social media and increase my fan base. It doesn’t necessarily exactly have the same function as it did back in the day, when one when out to make their living playing concerts, but it is tied in with social media, which is a place where you do, in a sense, make your living. Social media has become the femoral artery, if you will, of the music business, and I guess the third reason that I would tell you, and probably the most important, is that I really enjoy the contact with the audience. I always go out and see them after, and they always have stories they want to tell. It’s very important for them to tell their stories, and I love to hear them speak on how their lives were changed or how they interacted with certain songs, how much their father loved the song, and how they played it at his funeral, God bless him. All this stuff, which sustains me and makes me feel like it’s worthwhile creating another solo album, which is what eventually I’m going to do after I finish this book, I’m going to create another solo album of all original material called Nostalgia. And I’m writing from the point of view of a man in his sixties, not “Gee, wouldn’t it be great to go back and do all that again?” That’s not the line I’m pursuing artistically, I’m looking at relevance with people who are no longer young. And I have a huge audience out there with people who are no longer young. And so I want to write music for them and for the way things have turned out for them. I don’t think that the muse stops speaking to you when you reach a certain age. I think you’re always obligated to be pertinent to your times, and reflective of the age that you live in and the age that you are. I can’t go out and write 16-year old love songs anymore. I think I do have something to offer and as long as my health allows me to create, then I’ll continue creating for my contemporaries, and I’ll try to be relevant in my own world. I can’t be relevant to some 18-year old in San Bernadino, California; I don’t see how that’s possible. I can be relevant to my peers. That’s what I want to do!


—Roy Abrams

Long Island, NY





Friday March 13, 2015 at 8 pm

YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts

37 West Main Street, Bay Shore NY

Tickets: $45 reserved seating; (631) 969 1101 or http://boultoncenter.org/


Tuesday March 24, 2015 at 8 pm

City Winery (with Karla Bonoff)

155 Varick St., New York, NY

Tickets: $35-45; (212) 608-0555 or http://citywinery.com/




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