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Review: Greg Phillips Photos: Jason Rosewarne

They don’t make ‘em like they used to is a term you’ll often hear from older folks, yearning for the days when a lot more time, effort and meticulous attention to detail went into making stuff. Certainly in regard to songwriting, there aren’t many today who craft and sculpt songs the way that legendary American songwriter Jimmy Webb does. For a lot of today’s artists, it’s about choosing a beat from a drop down menu on a laptop, selecting virtual keyboard or guitar sounds to place over it and adding often meaningless, repetitive lyrics. It’s more of a task than a heartfelt, creative endeavour. And don’t get me started on the lack of change in tempo, use of space and absence of the element of surprise in many of today’s hits. Sure, that’s a generalisation and ‘old man shouty talk’ but there’s a hell of a lot of pedestrian music out there to prove my point.

Any serious musician should read Jimmy Webb’s book Tunesmith, about the art of songwriting in the same way you should see iconic films and listen to classic albums. His literary memoir, The Cake And The Rain is a worthwhile read too. He’s written songs for Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, Richard Harris, and Art Garfunkel. Jimmy’s the guy behind standards such as By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Linesman, MacArthur Park, Up, Up and Away, and Galveston. He’s won Grammy Awards, been inducted into numerous songwriter Hall of Fames, and has won an Ivor Novello Award.

Last night, we were blessed with the great man’s presence on stage at the Melbourne Recital Centre in front of a packed house of music fans who appreciate Jimmy Webb’s massive contribution to music history. Titled An Evening with Jimmy Webb, the show was part music concert and part conversation, in which Webb held our attention with the fascinating stories behind his hit songs. Apart from a beautiful Steinway grand piano, with Jimmy on a stool surrounded by microphones, the stage was bare. As always, the Melbourne Recital Centre sound was immaculate and Jimmy complimented the venue early in the night, suggesting it’s similar or even better than the sound at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Opening with Highwayman, a hit song he originally wrote for Glen Campbell and then offered to The Highwaymen (a band which included Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson), Webb demonstrated how a different arrangement can shine a new light on a familiar tune.  Similarly, the next song Galveston was played in an emotional, slower fashion as opposed to Glen’s more vigorous rendition.

In another enthralling story, Jimmy recalled the origins of the song Do What You Gotta Do, which he penned at the age of 17 while working at Motown Records. The song was recorded by Roberta Flack, Nina Simone and Linda Ronstadt, among others. Decades later he received a call from his son Justin, saying that they’re playing your song on the radio. Webb replied by saying “Son, I don’t know what you’ve been smoking but they don’t play my music on the radio anymore!” Justin replied, “Well dad they’re playing Do What You Gotta Do, it’s Kanye West!” West had recorded a song called Famous, which ‘famously’ dissed Taylor Swift with lines such as “I made that bitch famous” and had brought in Rhianna to sing the Jimmy Webb song in the background. Jimmy tells us that he called his publisher to sort something out, as he was not only offended by West’s treatment of Swift but Kanye had also not sought permission to use his song in the recording. West’s response was that he thought he was ripping off Nina Simone not Webb! In the end the publishers came to arrangement whereby Webb would receive 45% of the income of West’s number one charting song. Jimmy was further incensed when Famous was nominated for a Grammy with credits to 13 songwriters but did not include Webb. “I’m not bitter,” he laughs. Of course Jimmy went on to perform his own version of Do What You Gotta Do for the Recital Centre audience.

The stories continued to flow all night. His tales of his friendship with Frank Sinatra were riveting.  Particularly amusing was the one about taking his father to meet Sinatra, leaving the two to chat while he attended to other business, only to find out later that Sinatra had taken his father to a casino resulting in his dad losing all his money and waking up on Webb’s couch with a hangover.

The story behind Wichita Linesman was that Webb was in a studio with Glen Campbell and Glen, who had been having no luck this day with his own song output, requested that Jimmy write a song about a town for him. Webb, who had already established a reputation writing songs featuring towns in the title said that he was done with that phase. “Well write me something geographical,” responded Glen and the rest is history.

Getting back to my original point about the quality of modern day songwriting, Jimmy discussed with the crowd the new phenomenon of artificial intelligence or robots as he described it, writing songs. “Nobody wants to be an old fogey or stuck in the mud or sound like a grumpy old man but there’s something really precious about this issue and I’m happy to say that ASCAP (of which he is a board member) has declined to pay royalties on songs written by machines,” a remark which was met with thunderous applause by the Melbourne crowd.

Jimmy went on to talk about lyrics in the late 60’s and early 70s and how incredibly esoteric they were, citing Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale … “But I wandered through my playing cards. Would not let her be. One of sixteen vestal virgins, who were leaving for the coast” and Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone … “You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat, who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat” or The Beatles’ Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, “Picture yourself on a train in a station with plasticine porters with looking glass ties.” And to make his point, he finally added “I put one little cake out in the rain …. and I get shit for the rest of my life!” A sweet intro to one of his biggest hits MacArthur Park.

Of course, there were many more songs played at the Recital Centre and always accompanied by a wonderful story. However after almost two hours of solid entertainment and an amazing music history lesson, it was time to wish Jimmy Webb farewell. On Sunday December 10, Sydney music fans have the opportunity to experience this terrific show too, in which every song is a gem, every story pure gold.

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