One of my favorite compact discs of the past ten years is Shawn Colvin’s “Cover Girl.” Colvin established herself commercially with “Steady On” and “Fat City,” discs full of beautiful, flawlessly performed material that she had mostly written herself or with John Leventhal. Then she released “Cover Girl,” a set of her covers of obscure pop material that displayed her brilliant interpretive skills.
The disc is imperfect. Some of the songs were recorded live in intimate settings, others were studio productions, and the disc accordingly lacks a unifying feel. One or two of the studio cuts are dead weight. It was as though she couldn’t quite find her groove, or as though her label lacked confidence in the commercial potential of the live cuts, which are breathtaking.
Among the songs that Colvin memorably brings to life on “Cover Girl” is Jimmy Webb’s “If These Walls Could Speak.” Webb is a winner of numerous Grammy awards, is a member of the National Songwriters Hall of Fame and a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He first achieved fame as an incredibly precocious songwriter in the ’60s — the composer of the shlock epic “MacArthur Park” as well as of several hits for the Fifth Dimension and, perhaps most notably, Glen Campbell.
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” were of course the songs that launched Webb’s partnership with Campbell. It was a partnership that remained productive in the ’70s and ’80s as Campbell and Webb continued to work together (work documented on the wonderful Raven compilation “Reunited with Jimmy Webb: 1974-1988”), although without the chart success of their earlier hits. Among the peaks of their later work is Webb’s haunting “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” also covered by Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt and Nanci Griffith.
In any event, one of the revelations of “Cover Girl” for those of us who had forgotten about Webb was “If These Walls Could Speak,” which Colvin picked up from Webb’s work with Campbell. The lyrics seem to flow directly from the incredibly poignant melody: “If these old walls, if these old walls could speak/What a tale they have to tell, hard headed people raisin’ hell/A couple in love livin’ week to week/Rooms full of laughter, if these old walls could speak.”
One of the best book reviews the Wall Street Journal has ever run is a review by Webb of Reading Lyrics, a compendium of song lyrics. In the review, Webb noted the difficulty of placing words to music. In a well-written song, the words seem magically to flow right out of the melody. Webb powerfully testified to the difficulty involved in creating this magic. Webb’s review ran in the Journal in February 2001 under the heading “Singing the praises of song.”
Today’s Wall Street Journal profiles Webb himself in a wonderful article by Joe Goldberg: “Jimmy Webb: By the time he gets to Broadway” (subscription required). Goldberg reports that Webb has a new CD made for the English label Sanctuary, “Twilight of the Renegades,” dedicated to three friends who have passed on — Richard Harris, Warren Zevon and Harry Nilsson — “rebels with a cause,” according to Webb. The CD is already out in England and Australia; it will be released here next month. Goldberg quotes Webb at length:
“There’s a strain of originality and warmth and elegance that seems to be disappearing from our scene. I’m talking about the passing of some great, unforgettable and irreplaceable characters in ‘Twilight of the Renegades,'” he says. “It seems we’ve decided that we’re going to become a mass of people that look alike and sound alike and talk alike and think alike and I find it horrifying. We used to be about the kind of rebellious spirit that brought people into the limelight like Elvis Presley. We don’t have a culture now. The corporate culture has ironed out the music business into a wafer-thin sheet of musical wallpaper.”
He adds: “The days are numbered for the Warren Zevons and the Randy Newmans. I think it would be rough going today for a young Bob Dylan. I think it would be rough going for a young Hank Williams. It wasn’t ‘American Idol.’ One’s struggle was private and authentic. Louis Armstrong — how he confronted his problems and overcame them and became Satch — that’s what legends are made of. I’m talking about people who turned society on its ear. People like [Jackson] Pollock, who said, I’m gonna paint like this!”
Goldberg winds up to a report on Webb’s somewhat surprising works-in-progres:
For the past several years, Mr. Webb’s main professional desire has been to get a show produced on Broadway. “You have to be an extraordinary human being to get a show on,” he says, “because it’s an obstacle course, and a minefield, and a Byzantine maze. Probably the most difficult trick in the Broadway repertoire is, ‘Let’s put on a show.'”
His first go-round with a Broadway show was with Michael Bennett, best known as the director and choreographer of “A Chorus Line” and “Dreamgirls.” “I spent three or four years as his prot