Jimmy Webb untangled

He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, but the man who penned ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ and ‘Up, Up and Away’ is not as cryptic as his lyrics suggest.

Although he's not extremely famous, songwriter Jimmy Webb is widely considered to be one of the greatest songwriters of the rock-era. That's because unlike Lennon/McCartney, Smokey Robinson or even Carole King, Webb was a pure songwriter whose greatest moments came at the hands of others.

But whether it was Sinatra performing "Didn't We," the 5th Dimension doing the delectably light "Up, Up and Away" or Glen Campbell's own poignant readings of "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get To Phoenix," Jimmy Webb's uncanny knack for marrying lyric to melody always shines through. This week, the MFA features two performances from Webb in their Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Celebrity Lecture series, featuring not only the singer and his piano, but also anecdotes and a Q&A session.

 

He's now in his mid-60s and still active on the recording scene: 2010's "Just Across the River" features career-spanning remakes with vocalists from Lucinda Williams to Jackson Browne and Volume 2 is on its way. Webb now finds himself in the unique position of being a professor emeritus on the art of songwriting. He is the Chairman of the National Songwriter's Hall of Fame, sits on the ASCAP Board of Directors and his 1999 book "Tunesmith" is still critically regarded as the best book on songwriting.

 

"I don't do stand-up, but I do sit-down, because I am at the piano," says Webb on his own performance style, which he has worked hard to continually improve over the years. "I try to make people laugh and let them see that, as horrible as the prospect is of exposing one's self as completely as songwriters do, that there is a funny side to it as well!"

 

Listen to the teacher

 

When asked out the state of contemporary music, Webb is still alert. How about the resurgence of beard-folk and the rise of Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes?

“It’s cyclic,” he says of our return to roots. “The technological pendulum has swung wildly in one direction for such a long time.”

How about Taylor Swift going pop with the DJ-ready low-pass filter on “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”?

“She’s making the move from something of a goodie-two-shoes to something a little more provocative. She’s wise to do that.”

The lighter side of Webb

Webb has a grand Southern wit, but fans know him best for his often-mysterious lyrics.

“I’ve certainly left the door wide open for all kinds of crazy interpretations,” says Webb, recalling letters from admirers whose interpretations exceeded his fantasies. One wrote that her husband played “Wichita Lineman” every day, but never understood why the protagonist got electrocuted in the end. But that’s not what happens in the song at all.

Another praised “MacAr-thur Park” (widely-lampooned for its infamous ‘cake in the rain’ metaphor) as an ode to General MacArthur.

Did Webb write the most misunderstood song of all time?

“Anyone who might wonder if I’ve been punished enough for writing ‘McArthur Park,’ rest at ease!”

The professor has spoken.



If you go




Jimmy Webb

Wednesday and Thursday,

6:30 p.m.

MFA, Remis Auditorium

425 Huntington Ave, Boston, $40-$47, 617-267-9300

www.mfa.org

 
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