too much typing—since 2003


foaming like a wave (at the mouth)

This is a version of a piece I wrote a couple years back for an online zine, gone over lightly with the Healing Edit Tool (okay, only three people will get that joke - so sue me).

I have a long history with "MacArthur Park." I was fascinated by it as a kid, when it was initially popular. (I'm talking about the Richard Harris version: the Donna Summer version is a pointless abomination for many reasons, which I will make clear later.) Even then, there was something about the song for me that was both attractive and repellant: I liked (and still do) the harpsichord intro, the odd, hesitant rhythmic shifts, and the lurching, brass-accented modulations at the end of each verse - but what the hell was Harris singing about, and why did he deliver it like Charlton Heston's Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from the mountaintop?

I bought the 45 in the early seventies, but a few years later, finally leaving my prog-rock teens for a punk and new wave early twenties, it became a full-fledged guilty pleasure. Incidentally, I love how so many people in early punk bands claimed to have liked only the Velvet Underground, or Iggy, or the MC5: yeah right - you probably had singles of "In the Year 2525" just like every other music-loving kid of that age. And that was the most hip thing in your collection. At least the Sex Pistols were slightly honest in this regard, covering the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone."

In college, at Ann Arbor in the early eighties, I remember doing up a series of flashcards, one for each line of the lyric, the point of which was to show up the absurd incongruity of its piled metaphors. (Alas, my dorm cohorts and I missed the surrealist metaphoric eroticism whereby "love's hot fevered iron" meets "striped pants"...) And yet the song still fascinated me, probably because even though Harris's singing is pictured in the dictionary next to "over the top," at the same time its actorly conviction translated: he meant something, and it meant something to him. So, at some point, I found myself trying to figure out how this song worked, and why.

First, it helps to go back to an earlier Jimmy Webb-penned hit, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" (made famous by Glen Campbell). Probably most people, if asked what this song is about, would say something like: it's this guy who's left his girlfriend, and as he's driving along he's thinking of her and her reactions. No - it's way sicker than that. He hasn't left her; he's only thinking about doing so...and he's imagining, in near-pornographically precise detail, exactly how broken up she'll be as he drives his truck back to Phoenix. (No way this guy would drive anything but a pickup truck.) The more upset he imagines her as being, the more involved he gets in his own narrative. All of this, of course, serves to amp up the emotion of the song, and make this great doomed love affair all the grander for him. As the notes to a compilation of Jimmy Webb's hits point out, this is the kind of guy who'd fake his own funeral just to find out what everyone says about him.

And "MacArthur Park"? It's that song's sequel. The narrator never did actually leave her - but she wised up, and left him. But the self-aggrandizement of the narrator, his need to make himself a larger-than-life protagonist in (what he wishes were) a Shakespearean-level tragedy, remains. (And now the brilliance of finding Harris to sing this - a cured ham of the highest order, but also a genuine Shakespearean - begins to come clear.) Right from the start, the narrator's enormous, Sting-like ego bursts forth: it's not that he, or she, or anyone, was impatient about Spring - no, Spring Itself has been pressganged as an actor in their romance, refusing to wait for them. But the real key is in the bridge (not the instrumental, faux-hip, white go-go boots dance section, but the vocal bridge). Here the narrator whingingly claims that he'll go on, he'll love again...but never as richly, truly, or strongly as in his great lost love. Obligingly, he'll sacrifice when necessary, drinking piss-temperature wine and blinding himself without benefit of the proper solar viewing apparatus, but mostly in settling for second-best. (Wonder what those putative other lovers would think if they knew?) Here we have a sort of false humility, a purely gestural attempt at not being a martyr - which last is, of course, exactly what he imagines himself to be.

Okay, you're wondering: what about that damned cake? What the hell is it doing in the rain, and why can't he just make another one? And what kind of insane cake decorator uses green icing? If you insist, I could claim that, literally, the cake was in the rain because it was his wedding cake, she left him at the altar, and it rained, and everyone was too upset to do anything about the stupid cake. Or maybe same scenario, it didn't rain, but he's crying (for fans of Hallmark Cards -level bathos). Or more likely, the wedding cake, the rain, the park, and other things (speaking of another sonically overstuffed sixties hit) are all in his mind: he's dreaming of the wedding that's never to be, imagining the break-up as disappointing meteorological phenomena (and inadvertently providing Alanis Morissette with another opportunity to misunderstand the concept of irony). He'll "never have that recipe again" because, you see, Their Love was just so special that he's doomed to life of warm wine and self-administered blindness. But I'll bet he thinks being drunk and wandering around in Ray Charles' glasses will help him pick up chicks as he trolls the sad pick-up joints of his town's abandoned warehouse district.

Finally, though, the song becomes a triumph - because all of its excesses, therefore, are narrative: they're part of what the song's about, not incidental details of arrangement or poor choices in interpretation. Alright, I'll acknowledge they may be those, too - but as a record, as a sound object, the whole thing hangs together, regardless of what Webb, Harris, or anyone else wanted. (And Summer's version doesn't work because she doesn't understand that, because she sings the whole thing in a monotone - just like its arrangement - and she misunderstands the nature of Webb's weird metaphors and so pointlessly changes "checkers" to "Chinese checkers" in an apparent attempt at lily-gilding.) But even without this rather weighty interpretation (and yeah, I'm aware that it is itself nearly as overblown and pretentious as the narrator I describe - but really, I'm just trying to put words around an idea of how the song works for me), I still like the song's basics: its chord structure, melody, and some of its subtler instrumental ideas.

But I still don't know why anyone would ever use green cake icing.


Anonymous said...

So I assume you don't hold with theory that Webb was intentionally trying to write a bad song, or a parody of a pretentious song, or whatever?

I've always loved MA, even the go-go dance instrumental break. And yes, I did own the 45.


2fs said...

"MA"? I'm glad you love your mother, Rog... Anyway, yeah, me too - even the discotheque wigout. But no, I don't think it was intentionally bad. I do think Webb wasn't entirely sure what to do w/ What Sgt. Pepper Hath Wrought - he was writing in an older tradition, even though he'd incorporated a lot of pop things - but clearly he wanted to move forward. Also, I think it's hard, at 35 years and many multiples of that in cultural changes, to sit in judgment of a rather different aesthetic - one that clearly reveled in things a lot of now would think of as being pretentious or overwrought, overly earnest, or just self-indulgent.

Anonymous said...

I think the cake in the rain symbolizes loss.

Anonymous said...

Now, were we talking sweet BLUE icing, that'd'a been OK.

Anonymous said...

What, ya gotta frkn use HTML?, then.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jeff, when you gonna update this bloggy thing? I'm bored.


Anonymous said...

Or maybe your face looks like a cake left out in the rain, as Fred S sang.