Friday, May 12, 2017

He'll never have that recipe again

Maybe I should just stop reading pop culture autobiographies. This memoir, The Cake and the Rain, by renowned songwriter Jimmy Webb, is another in a string of disappointments. Since the mid-60s, Webb has written hundreds of songs, though his lasting fame is largely a result of the work he did in a handful of years, from 1967 to the early 1970s. I'm a big fan of Webb's 60s music: "MacArthur Park," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Wichita Lineman," and his work on the first two 5th Dimension albums, which included "Up, Up and Away," "Carpet Man," "The Girls' Song," and "The Magic Garden." Based on the title of this memoir, two vivid images from "MacArthur Park," I assumed we'd get some good stories about his work--how he wrote his songs, what they meant to him, etc. No.

Instead, the book is almost entirely about his childhood (meh), his drug-fueled partying lifestyle (fun in a gossipy way, especially his story about Joni Mitchell getting naked at one of his parties), and lots and lots of name-dropping (Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Dylan, yadda yadda). He goes on at length about his ill-fated romances but never tells us what it was about these women that attracted him to them in the first place. I get the impression he thinks he's told us a lot about his life during his hit years (the book ends around 1973), but he hasn't--it's almost all superficial meandering (don't get me started on the tedious fracturing of chronology). To his credit, he does open up about his resentment over being very popular but finding himself ignored by the "hip" journalists. Though he was living a lifestyle as decadent as any rock star of the era, his music continued to be closer to the un-hip easy listening style than to rock & roll. Actually, he was ahead of his time; by the mid-70s, his style would have been seen as kin to the mellow California vibes of Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.

Unfortunately, for all his fame as a songwriter, he never made it big as a solo performer, though not for lack of trying, and the stories of his attempts at singer-songwriter stardom are the most interesting anecdotes in the book. This memoir ends in 1973 when he realized what drugs had done to him (and, I'm assuming, kicked them, though the last few pages of the book read more like an inducement to read his next book rather than a satisfying resolution to this book). To be fair, Webb wrote an earlier book called Tunesmith which is apparently more concerned with songcraft, and maybe he didn't want to risk repeating himself here, but the absolute lack of any insights into his art, in addition to the awkwardness of his narrative, make this book an unsatisfying read. I do think his 1967 album with the 5th Dimension, The Magic Garden, still holds up, and giving that another listen is a more worthy activity than plowing through this.