The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress

Yesterday was the birthday of the songwriter Jimmy Webb. His birthday provides a good occasion to take an appreciative look at his career. Webb is a winner of numerous Grammy awards and a member of the National 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, Nanci Griffith and others.

No performance of this moving song surpasses Campbell’s emotional reading of it (video above). He wrings out of the song just about all the feeling to be found in it. Although female performers have gravitated to it, it’s a man’s lament over a changeable woman. Webb’s old flame “Susan” inspired much of his best work — see, for example, this Los Angeles Times article on “MacArthur Park” — and I would guess she is the inspiration for Webb’s lyrical exploration of the metahpor in the song’s title.

In February 2001 the Wall Street Journal published Webb’s review 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, admitting that the melodies come easier to him than the lyrics. Webb’s review ran in the Journal in February 2001 under the heading “Singing the praises of song.”

The Journal subsequently profiled Webb himself in Joe Goldberg’s “Jimmy Webb: By the time he gets to Broadway” (subscription required, I think). Goldberg reported on Webb’s then forthcoming “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. Goldberg quoted Webb’s declaration of rights:

“I’m stunned to read these glowing reviews of things that would not have been considered mountable 30 years ago. Again I find myself wearing the cloak of the curmudgeon. Is Stephen Sondheim the only American who can write a musical? The public has a right to chords, melodies, lyrics, rhythms, all that junk.”

Of all the nonexistent constitutional rights the Supreme Court has discovered, you’d think it might have found room for the right to chords, melodies, lyrics and rhythms, all working in unison. Webb has worked hard in the course of a long career to protect and promote those rights.

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