By Richie Unterberger
While many of the songs that Jimmy Webb wrote in his early twenties proved to be commercial goldmines for the artists who covered them in the late 1960s, he proved unable to translate that magic touch to his own career as a singer-songwriter in the 1970s. Three albums he recorded for Reprise in the early 1970s, Words and Music (1970), And So: On (1971), and Letters (1972), had failed to sell. A switch to Asylum for 1974's Land's End had fared no better, though like the others, it received its share of critical accolades. (All four of the albums have been reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music.)
To observers, it
seemed that Webb was retreating to a behind-the-scenes role as a
songwriter and producer in the mid-1970s. He worked with an artist
who'd been one of the performers most responsible for exposing Webb's
songs to a wide audience in the late 1960s, Glen Campbell, when he
arranged and wrote for Campbell's 1974 LP Reunion: The Songs of Jimmy Webb.
He produced albums for the Fifth Dimension, who'd scored the first big
Webb hit with "Up, Up and Away," and Cher. He also produced a record
for his sister Susan, who had sung backup on Jimmy's albums. Other
artists were still covering Webb's compositions, including Art
Garfunkel, who had a Top Ten hit with Jimmy's "All I Know" in 1973, and
Joe Cocker, who put a couple Webb tunes on his 1974 hit album I Can Stand a Little Rain.
Webb returned to the studio to cut another LP on his own after meeting famed producer George Martin via his clients America, then still near the peak of their soft-rock stardom. Martin was, of course, most known for having produced most of the Beatles' work, as well as overseeing some other British Invasion hitmakers. He'd adapted to the climate of the mid-'70s, however, producing hit albums by America and Jeff Beck, as well as getting into other laidback sounds with the lesser-known American Flyer. He was familiar with, and an admirer of, Webb's work. The pair, with a new contract from Atlantic, would construct Jimmy's most mainstream, commerically-oriented album of the decade. "Jimmy Webb is, of course, a major talent," wrote Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun in "What'd I Say": The Atlantic Story: 50 Years of Music. "We were very fortunate to make the El Mirage album with him, which George Martin produced. I think it will always stand as a great record."
Such was Webb's respect for the producer that he let Martin handle the arrangements and conducting, duties he normally shouldered himself. "When I was working with George," Webb told Peter Doggett in a 1994 feature in Record Collector, "we came down to the point where we felt we were going to do some string overdubs. Well, I wanted him to do the arrangements. I'm no fool -- I'm sitting there with George Martin! I wanted to hear what George was going to do more than what I was going to do."
What Martin did was help concoct a slicker sound than Webb had employed on his previous LPs. Some of the players who helped him out in the past were also on board for this go-round, including guitarist Fred Tackett (who also wrote one of the tracks, "Dance to the Radio"); bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson (who played in Elton John's band); and Susan Webb, who did some of the backing vocals. Also on hand were country-rock vet Herb Pedersen (who contributed banjo and 12-string guitar, and had been in the Dillards, as well as playing on sessions by Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris); top L.A. session men Jim Gordon (drums) and Larry Knechtel (keyboards); and Lowell George, who added some electric slide guitar. Martin himself played some keyboards, and Webb's sailplane was tapped for some sound effects on "If You See Me Getting Smaller."
Webb's solo albums had not been populated by many songs that were heavily covered by other artists, but El Mirage did include two of his most famous compositions of the 1970s. "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" had already been recorded by Joe Cocker, Glen Campbell, and Judy Collins, and would also be done by Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, and even jazz great Charlie Haden. "The title is from a short story written by Robert A. Heinlein from an anthology called A Man Who Sold the Moon," commented Webb to Paul Zollo in SongTalk. "And I liked the title and it stayed with me for years and years and years and years. It haunted me. And I finally wrote the song. I've hardly ever done that. That's a special case. Taking a title from someone else's work. But I'm very straightforward about it; that's what I did. But it was because it was so hauntingly beautiful."
Judy Collins responded strongly to the song's downbeat qualities, telling Corby Kummer in an interview included in the booklet to her 1981 Book-of-the-Month Club box set, "In 'The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress' I want you to feel devastated, totally wiped out by the end of a love affair. It's a song to jump out the window by." When asked by SongTalk which version the composer preferred, Webb demurred, remarking, "They're all so good. I know that sounds like a cop-out. Judy's has one of the most beautiful little string arrangements, it's just gorgeous. Linda probably sings it the best. You know, her pipes are just so beautiful. Each version has its own attributes. Not the least of which is Joe Cocker's. It's a totally different message from him; it's more of an angry cry."
"The Highwayman," meanwhile, found a warm reception among country superstars. Glen Campbell made it the title track of a 1979 LP, and it was a big hit in 1985, logically enough, for the Highwaymen, the country supergroup with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson. "I play an acoustic picking style on the piano which I sort of learned to do years ago," observed Webb in SongTalk. "Which is why 'Highwayman' sounds like a guitar song, I think. What really sugggested the song is a very vivid dream I had in London. And it was the only one I ever had like that. And in essnece, it's the first verse of the song. It was a wild pursuit of me by guys with...It was just terrying and I woke up and I had sweat pouring off of me. I had a piano in my suite and I went right to the piano."
Continued Jimmy, "The last three verses are kind of suggested by the first. I just put another layer on and then another layer on and worked on the original idea. It is not meant to be a personal account of channeling or anything like that. It has, for me, a lot of symbolism. It's about the kind of people who built this country up. The first verse is the rogue, the outlaw nation, the highwayman nation. The second verse is the seafaring nation; the trading and the growth of a nation, and its subsequent generations adding to that. And then the dam builder is a generation of construction and science and technology. And then the last verse is a spacefarer; he's gonna fly a starship. And so, it's an American allegory. It's Everyman, in a way...You know, I like that song so much that on the inner sleeve of my album, El Mirage, is a photo of Hoover Dam. That picture just terrifies me for some reason. It's so solemn, it's so...magnificent. It has such power, that image. The mass of that dam. And the truth is that guys were trapped in it."
Another cut on El Mirage, oddly, was not nearly as freshly minted. "P.F. Sloan," a tribute to the pop-rock songwriter of the mid-'60s who'd disappeared from the music business after penning or co-penning a flurry of hits for Barry McGuire, the Turtles, Johnny Rivers, the Grass Roots, Herman's Hermits, and others, had first appeared on Webb's 1970 album Words and Music. The remake here was Martin's idea, though it should be noted it wasn't the first time Webb had re-recorded one of his compositions, putting "Songseller" (aka "Song Seller") on both Words and Music and his third album, 1972's Letters. As a lesser-known homage, Webb has said that "Where the Universes Are" was written for friend Ringo Starr, who had played on Jimmy's 1974 album Land's End.
El Mirage, incidentally, was dedicated to folk musician Ramblin' Jack Elliott, author Kurt Vonnegut, and mystic-of-sorts Timothy Leary. "I did a late night TV show in Toronto with the three of them," disclosed Webb in Record Collector, "and it was the group discussion that inspired the dedication. Leary was very inspiring that night. He was talking about something I believe in passionately -- Eugene O'Neill's idea that the future of mankind lies in colonizing space, that we must get over the idea we're trapped on this planet, because there is life out there. Man is stalled, waiting for the next thing -- and that is the next thing! Then Kurt Vonnegut said to Leary, 'If you want to colonize something, colonize the South Bronx!'"
El Mirage, however, was not the next big thing, missing the charts as his previous LPs had, despite a Rolling Stone review which judged the record his "finest album" and called Webb "truly the knight-errant of singer/songwriters." While promoting the record in Britain, Webb told New Music Express that "if El Mirage doesn't make it, there may never be another one." It was his last album of the 1970s, but fortunately for his fans, not his final one. He's continued to record and tour intermittently ever since, as well as write for film, television and the theater. And should you want more information about how he writes his music, consult his 1998 book Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting. -- Richie Unterberger
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