Interview: Jimmy Webb
By Graham Reid

An edited version of this interview was published in the New Zealand Herald's canvas magazine today. This is the full version.

      Before he was 21 Jimmy Webb had already written some of pop's most 
      enduring songs, including By The Time I Get To Phoenix (which Frank 
      Sinatra pronounced "the greatest torch song ever written" and whichis the 
      third most performed song of the past half century), and Up, Up and Away 
      which was a hit for The Fifth Dimension. 

      Glenn Campbell became a star on the back of Webb's classic songs - 
      Witchita Lineman, Galveston, Where's The Playground Susie? and Phoenix 
      among them. 

      Webb's early songs had the musical sophistication of Burt Bacharach but 
      also a tinge of populist country. Then he began to extend himself. 

      His heart-aching and almost minimalist ballad The Moon's A Harsh Mistress 
      (made famous by Joe Cocker) was a personal account of his conflicted 
      emotions when in love with a married woman. At the other end of his 
      musical spectrum was the baroque psychedelic suite MacArthur Park which 
      was a huge hit for actor Richard Harris. 

      Webb's songs have been performed by Linda Ronstadt, Tony Bennet and 
      Rosemary Clooney, by folk singers Joan Baez and Judy Collins, by rock 
      bands such as Urge Overkill and REM, and country singers Reba McEntire and 
      The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and 
      Willie Nelson who had a number one hit with the titular The Highwayman). 
      Art Garfunkel's Watermark album contained 10 Webb songs, and the great 
      songwriter Sammy Cahn compared MacArthur Park to Gershwin's Rhapsody in 

      Webb's catalogue of genius has won him Grammys and membership to various 
      song writing halls of fame, Witchita Lineman is regularly voted into lists 
      of the greatest songs of all time ("the greatest ever" according to 
      Blender magazine four years ago), and his 98 book Tunesmith: Inside the 
      Art of Songwriting was a best seller. 

      This interview took place in July 2005 after the release of his album 
      Twilight of the Renegades and before a concert in New Zealand. 

      You've lived in and around New York for quite some while now. 

      I've been on the East Coast for about 25 years and on and off I lived in 
      the city, but now I am on Long Island in a kind of beach community I am 
      very happy with. 

      You are an Oklahoma boy but you gravitate towards oceans, you spent a lot 
      of time in California for example. 

      Yeah I do, I definitely have it in my blood somehow or another. In my song 
      Highwayman the second verse says "I was a sailor and born upon the tide". 
      But there are similarities, believe it or not, between the Midwest and the 
      ocean. It's a kind of an ocean, a large and relatively flat or gently 
      undulating area that carries the eye off to the horizon. I feel very 
      comfortable out there on the plains. But I loved sailing and tales of 
      maritime adventure. 

      I'm crazy too about Australia and New Zealand. I think this is my third or 
      fourth time to New Zealand, although only my second concert. I've been 
      around there. A friend of mine David Hemmings, who has now unfortunately 
      passed on, was making a movie in the South Island in Queenstown. Is that 
      down the bottom? 


      Right, so I hung out with him. I had a house down there for about a month, 
      it was a lovely place. 

      Obviously I want to talk to you about Twilight of the Renegades, but you 
      have brought up Oklahoma so let's talk about that first. I'm wondering how 
      much of your song writing lyrics -- which do have a sense of the specific 
      and well observed location -- how much of that do you attribute to your 
      upbringing in Oklahoma where a power pole would stand out in that waving 
      landscape? I guess that environment tends to focus the mind. 

      Yeah, there was a very real chance of dying of boredom where I was raised. 
      One was always looking around for something to be interested in. But that 
      is a very vivid image, the highline wires and power poles stretching off 
      into infinity. It is such an incredibly vivid description of the vastness 
      of that territory. 

      I always tended to think cinematically, it gave my songs a shape -- a 
      beginning, middle and end -- and I also have a novelistic technique in 
      that I put enough small detail in my stories to make them believable. But 
      it is not as cold and cut'n'dried as that, it is a lot more instinctive. 

      I was a great reader when I was in Oklahoma, I had a lot of time on my 
      hands and I loved to absorb books. Frankly we didn't have television and 
      there were fewer distraction than children have today. My father was a 
      Baptist minister so we would sing around the piano and amuse ourselves at 
      home singing three-part harmony. I learned to improvise three-part harmony 
      when I was very young, then you read and absorb. 

      There is something to be said for all that solitude and time on your 
      hands, it is a great greenhouse for artistic life to organise all those 
      materials under some sort of personal umbrella. That solitude was 
      important. Artists as a rule get along pretty well by themselves, they 
      don't really need company that much. 

      When you are writing now do you instinctively go to that solitary space to 
      find those images? 

      Yeah. I really have to. I'm married to an absolutely gorgeous young wife 
      and she is in television and is truly beautiful in the sense that a movie 
      star is beautiful. She is around and full of this irrepressible energy and 
      playfulness and it is difficult for me to work if she is right there in 
      the vicinity. I need to withdraw, as sad as it all sounds, it is the 
      plight of the artist, it is where we live. In many ways happiness is the 
      enemy, it is a great destroyer of ambition. 

      But I am happy at this time of my life and I have transferred some of my 
      angst and anxiety of these projects I am working on -- two Broadway shows, 
      one based on the movie Shane that classic western, and the other based on 
      A Bronx Tale which I am doing with my partner Chazz Palminteri who wrote 
      the original film. One can step outside of one's personal angst and work 
      on a character's problem rather than one's own problem -- which can be 
      very dangerous. It can be therapeutic but also very dangerous, you become 
      so narcissistic and self-pitying and cloying and awful. Not someone that 
      someone else wants to listen to. 

      You have written some intensely personal songs, I'm thinking of things 
      like The Moon's a Harsh Mistress for example, but what I hear on Twilight 
      of the Renegades are a couple of broad thematic things, one is of 
      reflection. On songs like Time Flies, How Long and Spanish Radio, is that 
      man you or is that a character speaking? 

      Ultimately it is always me I think, and sometimes me reaching out through 
      another character like a puppeteer. I couldn't mention that without 
      referencing Randy Newman and his famous "untrustworthy narrator" who can 
      be racist for example and obviously not Randy. But in some way they are 
      Randy, he exorcises his demons through these characters. 

      So on Twilight of the Renegades there are some characters, like the poor 
      sod who didn't quite get it when his Hispanic girlfriend told him to get 
      lost, so he's kind of a character but the story does have a grain of 

      But when I speak [on Class Clown] of "I met him without knowing him the 
      other day and offered him my sacrifice and sent him on his way" is where 
      the speaker has met an old classmate on the street and has discovered to 
      his shock that this guy is now a homeless person. That is true. That 
      actually happened to me, and he was the class clown, the funniest guy. The 
      song begins, "he was the funniest kid in the class". Now, that was true, 
      and we all know that kid, so I am reaching out saying, "You know who I 
      mean". But you get to the end and you find yourself face to face with the 
      funniest kid who is a homeless man. The shock of that is very real. 

      So without evading your question, a lot of times it is me talking. In Time 
      Flies . . . well, I'm 58 and am beginning to feel my mortality and all of 
      these fantastic renegades that I cut my teeth on as a young musician 
      listening to -- the likes of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and Hank 
      Williams and Woody Guthrie. And guys from my generation who were also 
      renegades: Harry Nilsson who was my best friend -- a wonderfully insane 
      human being -- and Richard Harris who recorded MacArthur Park -- was also 
      delightfully out of his mind. David Hemmings too, a whole list of actors 
      and musicians -- many musicians, George Harrison -- who are now passing 
      on. There is no delicate way to put it. 

      I'm glad you mentioned Harry Nilsson who was one of my favourites because 
      it pains me to think there are now generations of people who don't even 
      know about him. I don't hear him spoken about in popular culture anymore. 

      People are forgotten so blindingly fast and in a way Twilight of the 
      Renegades is about saying, "Slow down and don't be so fast to discard the 
      past". We are discarding the past at [such] a fantastic rate that we reach 
      the point we don't benefit from the lessons it has to offer. It's one 
      thing to not hold on to the past but it is another to discard it like 
      yesterday's papers as if it has nothing to offer whatsoever. I feel that 
      when people ask me what I hear out there as songwriters these days -- and 
      I do hear songs I like -- but I find the great majority of them are so 
      undisciplined and unlearned that they have obviously paid no attention to 
      the songs that are out there. Or maybe they've never heard any songs, I 
      don't know. There is that minimalist, "We don't know what we are doing and 
      we don't care" feeling to all this music. That works for a decade but 
      after that I wonder what happens. 

      If one looks at the development of the Beatles, they started out as a band 
      that didn't care very much about how they sounded or what they did and 
      some of their early records are pretty awful. The idea of the Beatles 
      doing Sweet Georgia Brown indicates to me they must have been pretty 
      desperate for a song. Their producer George Martin -- whom I worked with 
      and adore and revere -- used to tell me that the Beatles would come into 
      the studio with only one verse of a song written and he'd say, "Hey lads, 
      you need three verses, go back and write more" and they were like, "Do we 
      have to?" 

      So for them to start out as a little unruly in terms of their musicianship 
      and watch their progress to create things like Abbey Road which is my 
      favourite Beatle record, an absolute masterpiece. It is as good as [the 
      Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds although it doesn't sound the same. At that level 
      it transcends pop music, and rock music. It just becomes great music. 

      Let's talk about why that is for a minute. You are 58 and I am 54. We grew 
      up at a time, musically, when it seems to me the stakes were being raised 
      constantly from Burt Bacharach to Revolver to Pet Sounds to Sgt Peppers. 
      Songwriters were not competing with each other to get on radio, but to 
      create better music, to make a statement. I wonder if the current climate 
      has been fashioned by radio and the need for songwriters to tailor for it. 
      You'd never get a MacArthur Park on radio today. 

      I honestly don't know what has happened but there doesn't seem to be the 
      same fire down below. George Martin said to me one time, "Sgt Pepper was 
      an attempt to equal Pet Sounds" and I remember after I put MacArthur Park 
      out and it was 7 minutes 20 seconds long the Beatles put out Hey Jude and 
      it was 7.21, one second longer. 

      I don't feel that there is that much fire in these young writers today, I 
      hate to be the grumpy old guy, but I am the grumpy old guy. 

      I wish it was better, a more schooled sound to it. I wish it wasn't so 
      imitative. It sounds to me that all these young bands do is listen to each 
      other, they don't listen to the Kinks, the Zombies or really listen to the 
      Rolling Stones. They haven't paid much attention to the Beatles, they 
      don't even listen to Radiohead. They are just lost in this idea of only 
      knowing four chords and the same notes. 

      When you grew up got a dose of Burt Bacharach and you thought, "Holy shit, 
      what is he doing?" Like Anyone Who Had A Heart for instance. All you have 
      to do is listen to that song, it's all there, that's all you need to know 
      about writing music. That's what I miss. 

      I would like to hear the 2005 version of a brilliant band like The 
      Beatles, and I'd love for them for to be really really successful. There's 
      no sour grapes involved, I don't mind because I'm not competing with these 
      teenage boys. So it doesn't come from sour grapes, honestly. 

      What shaped your style perhaps is that you compose exclusively on piano. 

      I wrote one song on the guitar many years ago called Ocean In His Eyes. I 
      wrote it on a tuning which was taught to me by Freddy Tackett who was my 
      guitarist and now plays in the Little Feat band. All one summer I slaved 
      on the guitar on one song and at the end I thought, "Okay, that's it. I've 
      done it." 

      It hurts so much less to play the piano. You have to be a little bit 
      masochistic to be a guitarist. 

      The piano offers so much more complexity in terms of chords and structure 
      which is at the most basic level going to determine the way you craft a 

      I put this idea forward in my book Tunesmith, which is many years old but 
      continues to sell and go through edition after edition, so much so that it 
      is almost time for me to go back and update it, that the piano is the most 
      -- and I'm leaning in the doorway here -- looking at my piano, looking at 
      the keyboard and thinking that it is the most graphic representation of 
      what music is. It is an actual picture of all the notes, there are all the 
      notes. Right there. All 88 of them and you can see were they are and how 
      they relate to one another. And the keyboard tells you very clearly how 
      they relate, where the octaves are. It is all just so well organised and 
      graphically displayed that I believe piano players have a leg up when it 
      comes to just imagining mathematically what the music looks like in their 

      The fact that a pianist can use both hands -- guitar players use one hand 
      to formulate what is being played by the other, one hand is a processor -- 
      so guitarists have a lot of trouble when they start getting major chords 
      and alternate basses like this (plays). 

      Not all of them, jazz players will be used to that kind of thing. If you 
      are just sitting there with your Fender Stratocaster you are not going to 
      imagine a chord that is two or three octaves wide and has all these 
      clusters organised here and there, little baubles of dissonance hung on 
      like ornaments on a Christmas tree. It is what Leonard Bernstein used to 
      call a super chord. It's very hard to imagine a super chord when you are 
      sitting with your five or six strings, and that is said with all due 
      respect because I always wanted to be a guitar player. 

      I would have killed to have been a guitar player because my Dad wanted me 
      to do it, but I wore my little fingers out trying to do it, but I was 
      never very good at it. 

      Back to what you were talking about, the current album. It is another 
      collection of songs which lend themselves to other people to sing and 
      interpret. Is there is any sense at all that Renegades is a calling card 
      to some people? 

      You're very incisive! I've always been willing to admit that my albums 
      were, as much as anything else, very expensive demos. Almost every time I 
      cut an album I will get one or more significant recordings by someone I 
      respect and admire. 

      David Geffen wouldn't appreciate that after spending almost $1 million on 
      Lands End which sold about 20 copies, but I got a couple of songs recorded 
      by other people so I don't care! 

      It's definitely, 'Here are some new songs' and my albums, with all due 
      modesty, are going to be heard by just about everyone: Bruce Springsteen 
      and Billy Joel are going to listen to it, people like that. Paul McCartney 
      might even hear it. 

      That's a nice compliment, but they are not going to record your songs. 

      No, but they can say 'Hey, you should hear this great new thing by Jimmy 
      Webb, it's called How Quickly, you should hear that.' So somehow word gets 
      around and it almost always results in an intensifying of the interest in 
      my catalogue, it is definitely promotional. 

      So has the phone started to ring yet? 

      This album has really been well received, it got a lot of play on BBC2. It 
      hasn't been released here in the United States, it comes out August 16, so 
      it's a bit early to tell. There is one song Time Flies which has already 
      been recorded by Rosemary Clooney before her death, unfortunately another 
      renegade is gone -- and she was one of the greatest by the way, she did 
      not suffer fools gladly. She would tell Jack Warner where to get off. 

      It has also been recorded by Michael Feinstein on an album of all Jimmy 
      Webb songs. So that one already as a start and could become something like 
      Moon's a Harsh Mistress. I have the feeling it could find its way into a 
      film, the closing titles or something of that nature. There are 
      preliminary expressions of interest. 

      And I would think How Quickly will be recorded by a country artist sooner 
      or later. Other songs you do have to wonder how they could ever be 
      covered, something like Paul Gauguin in the South Seas for example. It is 
      possible, someone like Loudon Wainwright. 

      I don't put a lot of work into that, I am really a cottage industry, there 
      isn't a whole crew of hundreds who go out and start to promote these 
      things. Often good things happen, thank God. 

      I'd love to hear a classic soul singer take on Why Do I Have To. 

      Thank you, thank you a lot. I really enjoyed doing that with Beth Nielsen 
      Chapman, I love the harmony parts myself. It's a cross between a Joni 
      Mitchell song and a Smokey Robinson song, if that's possible. 

      Can I ask you about Broadway. You are doing Shane which I guess means 
      someone has to do the great Jack Palance line, "Pick up the gun", one of 
      the most menacing lines ever in a film I think. So what is the attraction 
      with Broadway, is it that it offers you more characters and therefore more 
      musical possibilities? 

      Yes, it gives me a break from myself. It is the ultimate challenge, the 
      most difficult thing for a writer to do, and oftentimes the most 
      discouraging as well. But in the case of Bronx Tale and Shane I feel I am 
      on to two very strong stories, and story is everything. And if my songs 
      are about anything they are about stories, so I can identify with, 'Oh 
      this happens and then this happens and holy cow! Look what happens at the 
      end because of all that!' So you build towards that moment, and investing 
      a score with character of the different personae is the trick of it all, 
      and to move the story along. Broadway is also a place, and this is the 
      funny part, where no one can intervene with your income stream. You have 
      to buy a ticket and go see it. Nowadays songwriters have to think about 
      those things because we know we will be stolen blind no matter what we do. 

      So the context in which you write now is very different from the 60s and 
      70s - your work can be downloaded - but also a different cultural context. 

      Yes, but I'm still here and trying to survive as a songwriter and I'd be 
      crazy if I didn't try to adapt to the environment which is increasingly 
      hostile, to be frank, in terms of the numbers of artists available to 
      record songs which are purely written for other artists to perform. You 
      are talking about maybe four of five people. Most of them are women, 
      Celine Dion is slightly notorious for demanding half of the publishing 
      before she records a song. 

      That's a hostile environment for people who just make a living writing 
      songs, and everybody knows how valuable publishing is so no one is naive 
      enough to not want to write all the songs on their own album. The 
      unfortunate by-product of that is you end up with a lot of albums that 
      don't have very good songs on them. 

      Joni Mitchell said it best: in the old days there was a lyric writer and a 
      music writer and they did a terrific job. People like Lerner and Lowe and 
      the Gershwins. She said now you have one person doing the singing, writing 
      the lyrics and the music and doing a half-assed job of them all. There was 
      something to be said for having the specialisation of one person doing the 
      music and one doing the lyrics. Irving Berlins and Cole Porters -- and 
      Joni Mitchells -- don't come along that often. 

      Joni is a brilliant talent who completely changed the way we look at 
      songwriting. She certainly changed the way I looked at songwriting just 
      because of the contact I had with her on a personal basis and I thought, 
      'My God, I am doing this all wrong'. 

      And Randy Newman who has his little Toulouse-Lautrec sketches that he 
      does. And his albums aren't selling millions of copies, and nor are hers. 
      Things have changed for the greatest talents of our generation. 

      You said you'd applaud another Beatles coming along. From what you say we 
      almost need another Elvis, someone who didn't write but would just pick 
      songs from all over. 

      I'd love another person like that. Or another Springsteen, someone who can 
      shake things up in a grown-up, mature, sexy way. I hate to see it all 
      given to the 12 and 13-year-olds -- and even younger now. But maybe there 
      will be a music for adults and music for kids. 

      I think increasingly that is the case. All my sons are musicians. 

      God bless them, all my boys are musicians too. 

      I tell them they are doing God's work in this world. 

      Yeah, but they can barely get arrested. 

      But when I listen to what they listen to now that they are in late 20s and 
      early 30s they listen to an enormous diversity of music. Yet when they 
      were growing up they were into Poison and the metal bands popular at the 
      time. So kids do grow up and expand their parameters. About your boys, has 
      being Jimmy Webb's son helped or hindered them? 

      Hmmm, a bit of both I think. They worked primarily in London and applied 
      their craft in Britain and their fan-base is pretty much British and they 
      were signed to Warners UK and had a couple of albums which were enormously 
      well received on a critical level. I'd say candidly they've had great 
      reviews and a rough time selling albums. But they've had a shot at it. I 
      don't think they were hurt by the fact I am their father. Were they 
      helped? Negligibly so, they've had to really work hard. 

      It makes them stronger in the long run. 

      Yeah, and God bless you for also having sons in the music business. It 
      makes you a saintly figure in my eyes. 

      One last thing, you've mentioned your wife. Would you care to give me her 

      Oh yeah, her name is Laura Savini and she works for PBS [Public 
      Broadcasting Service] here and she's quite the local celebrity. 

      Thank you, and thanks for your time. I enjoyed it. 

      I enjoyed it -- immensely (laughs).