The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Today is the sixty-fourth birthday of 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 and improbable number 2 hit “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” (number 2, 1967) and “Wichita Lineman” (number 3, 1968) were of course the songs that launched Webb’s partnership with Campbell. The songs unmistakably announced the arrival of a new writer with a voice of his own.

Webb’s partnership with Campbell remained fruitful in the ’70s and ’80s as Webb and Campbell 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, in concert with the South Dakota Symphony in 2001). Although female performers have gravitated to it, the song is preeminently a man’s lament over a fickle lover. Webb’s old flame Susan Ronstadt inspired much of his most intriguing work — see, for example, this Los Angeles Times article on “MacArthur Park” — and my guess is that she was the inspiration for Webb’s lyrical exploration of the metaphor 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 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 in Joe Goldberg’s “Jimmy Webb: By the time he gets to Broadway.” 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 diligently in the course of a long career to preserve and protect these rights.

Last month Stephen Holden profiled Webb in the New York Times. The occasion of Holden’s profile was the release of Webb’s “Just Across the River,” a magnificent recording in which Webb revisits some of the highlights of his catalogue together with Vince Gill (“Oklahoma Nights”), Billy Joel (“Wichita Lineman”), Willie Nelson (“If You See Me Getting Smaller”), Lucinda Williams (“Galveston”), Jackson Browne (“P. F. Sloan”), Michael McDonald (“Where Words End”), Mark Knopfler {“Highwayman”) and Linda Ronstadt (“All I Know”).

Webb also teams up one more time with Campbell (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”). In the liner notes Webb writes that he has been a fan of Campbell since he first heard “Turn Around and Look At Me” when he was 14. He says that he considers Campbell “the greatest natural entertainer and performer that America has ever produced.”

“I used to literally pray that God would let me grow up and be a songwriter and be lucky enough to have Glen Campbell record one of my songs,” Webb writes. “I rest my case for the existence of God.” Will somebody say amen?

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