My Pop Life #216 : MacArthur Park – Richard Harris


LicheinsteinintheskywithDiamonds

MacArthur Park – Richard Harris

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again, oh no

*

We couldn’t believe those lyrics back in 1968 when this song was being played regularly on Radio One.  I was ten, almost eleven.  It was curious, hilarious, preposterous.  Utterly memorable.  The arrangement matched the baroque absurdity of the chorus : an ornamented rococo seven-minute Pearl & Dean phenomenon six long years before Bohemian Rhapsody was a twinkle in Freddie Mercury’s eye.   It caught the public ear and imagination and reached number 4 in the charts. It also drew a fair amount of ridicule I recall, even at the age of eleven I was aware of the pop culture poking fun at the cake image.  It stood big and tall, a large target for mirth.  It often makes Worst Song Ever lists.   I always found it haunting and strangely moving but rather silly and not one of my favourite songs at all.  That has happened in the intervening years.  It grows and grows, deepens and gets richer with time, age and experience.

What did I know of failed marriage in 1968?  Well I had witnessed my parent’s separation two years earlier, a depressing spectacle of fights and arguments, sulky silences and TV shows being switched off, being sent to bed, then a divorce and Dad was gone.  Gone to Eastbourne, 10 miles from Selmeston.   Selmeston O Selmeston.   Songwriter Jimmy Webb had already scored with some of the greatest tunes of the 1960s – Glen Campbell’s Galveston (O Galveston), Wichita Lineman and later By The Time I Get To Phoenix – they are all quite superb examples of complex emotional songwriting. But despite my mum confiding in the ten-year old me in faintly inappropriate conversations where I pretended to be old enough to understand, I still didn’t get MacArthur Park.  It wasn’t for me. Yet.

Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance

Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love’s hot, fevered iron
Like a stripéd pair of pants

Dad and I never had these emotional confidences.  He immediately became even more emotionally distant than he had been at home.  We’d see him, go for walks, listen to football results, eat crumpets and talk about  literature or politics or school, but nothing emotional.

How’s Heather?”  or “How’s your Mum?” never got asked, or answered.  Locked away inside were all those questions.  We each dealt with them privately, silently.  And Mum wasn’t so great to be fair.  I rewrote my family history so that the nervous breakdown and first visit to hospital (nine months : see My Pop Life #55 ‘Help!’) became the other way around.  The separation and divorce caused the breakdown.  I understood that story.  In fact the breakdown came first.  I didn’t understand that sequence so easily.

Anyway.

proxy.duckduckgo

MacArthur Park looking east towards downtown LA

In the 1990s my wife and I lived in Los Angeles –  in West Hollywood just off Beverley Drive near Jans where the cops ate, or the King’s Road Cafe where the hipsters ate.  We chose the former naturally.   If you drive east from there and drop down a few blocks down to Wilshire Boulevard, where my boutique agency lived (Susan Smith & Associates), past the La Brea Tar Pits through the Mid-Wilshire deco district and The Wiltern Theater on towards Downtown LA, through Koreatown, there just after Rampart Blvd you find MacArthur Park, either side of the road.  It has a lake, trees, grass.  It’s nice.  In the late 1960s Jimmy Webb lived near here and he and his girlfriend Susie Horton would meet there for lunch, and court, and spark.

proxy.duckduckgo-5

The early years of cake and rain

They’d been high school sweethearts in Colton, California and now Susie was working for Aetna Insurance nearby.  Jimmy had written some hits already – ‘Up, Up & Away‘ for The 5th Dimension for example – but he was still smitten with his Susie…

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

proxy.duckduckgo-1

Jimmy Webb

It seems that he was more smitten than her because the song MacArthur Park is a tragic break-up outpouring from the heart.  In later years Webb would admit that everything in the song is real, seen and true, yes even the cake.  It only takes a small leap of imagination to see it as a wedding cake melting in the rain.

My friend Paul Carafotes lived near there in early 2002 after his own marriage to Paula had crumpled.  We’d been to their wedding in New Orleans in 1997 along with his buddy James Gandolfini but that’s for another story.  In 2002 Paul was living alone and working out in the park at the playground where people could do pull ups and sit ups and so forth.  I have some old time photos of us in the park somewhere in a box… actual photos.

proxy.duckduckgo-4

And of course we would see actor Richard Harris (who sang MacArthur Park) down in Santa Monica for the football early on Saturday mornings -7am in the Cock & Bull on Lincoln Avenue, full of Arsenal, Liverpool or Man Utd fans.  During the World Cup in 1994 Harris had a permanent Irish shirt on and was always totally sozzled and in high spirits.  Happy.   He was 64.  I’d first seen him on our black and white TV set in Selmeston O Selmeston during the mid-1960s in This Sporting Life in which he played a rugby league player, married to the wonderful Rachel Roberts.  Sensational film.  Directed by Lindsay Anderson, another hero of mine (see My Pop Life #41 ‘Poor People’).

proxy.duckduckgo-3

Rachel Roberts & Richard Harris – This Sporting Life 

His final screen performance was in 2002 as Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, the 2nd in the series.  Back in 1968 when Harris recorded MacArthur Park he was at the height of his career having just been nominated for an Oscar for playing King Arthur in Camelot, a role he would play on Broadway for years.  Somehow he’d rubbed shoulders in Hollywood with Jimmy Webb (who’d just been rebuffed by The Association who didn’t like MacArthur Park) and Harris subsequently recorded the LP called A Tramp Shining : written, arranged and produced by Webb.

proxy.duckduckgo-6

proxy.duckduckgo-7

The seven-minute 20-second single reached number 2 on the Billboard charts in the USA and sold a million copies. Frank Sinatra (& also the Four Tops) famously recorded only the middle eight, or “the bridge” if you prefer, which is completely stupendous –

There will be another song for me
For I will sing it
There will 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

And after all the loves of my life
After all loves of my life
You’ll be the one

I will take my life into my hands
And I will use it
I will win the worship in their eyes
And I will lose it
I will have the things that I desire
And my passion flow like rivers through the sky
Oh and after all the loves of my life
After all the loves in my life
I’ll be thinking of you
And wondering why

Other versions abound, notably by Waylon Jennings, Donna Summer and The Three Degrees.  In the magnificent original, Harris mispronounces the name of the park in the song throughout, calling it “MacArthur’s Park“, even after it was pointed out to him.  That’s what Camelot does to you. Or drink.

proxy.duckduckgo-2

The song floated back into my consciousness when I was much older, in my 40s, the early 2000s.  God knows why.  I started to listen to it over and over and over, ten or fifteen times a day.  I think Stephen Wrigley and Glen Richardson (Brighton Beach Boys both) were obsessed with Jimmy Webb the songwriter and went to see him playing live in Brighton, shook his hand and glowed in the dark for a few weeks afterwards.  Then one night in 2016 they were doing their regular night at The Greys in Brighton, a wonderful pub venue, and had decided to do a Jimmy Webb night.  I was back from New York that week, living at Millie’s just up the hill there and turned up at the interval, wondering if they’d already sung MacArthur Park?  No said Steve, and you’re very welcome.  So to a small but enthusiastic crowd in the pub I sang all seven and a half minutes, after explaining the backstory of Jimmy & Susie to the audience.   By 2016 I was completely obsessed with the song and could recite it backwards.  The best version – far and away – is Richard Harris’.  Not a natural singer, but the performance is so emotional and direct.  He understands the song completely.  And that counts for a great deal.  It is simply a masterpiece.

proxy.duckduckgo

 

Oh and after all the loves in my life, after all the loves in my life – I’ll be thinking of you and wondering…

Why?

 

Richard Harris live :

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Shekhar Bhatia
    Mar 21, 2019 @ 07:16:59

    Cambridge. Thursday.

    I love this !!!

    Shekhar x

    s.bhatia@mailonline.com

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  2. Trackback: My Pop Life #80 : Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis Presley | Magicmenagerie's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: