A couple of days ago I happened to listen to Jimmy Webb and Richard Harris‘s “MacArthur Park.” It was quite the innovative single in the spring of ’68, and I still like the complex orchestration (or at least portions of it). But it hasn’t aged well. It feels too precious and weepy and forlorn.
It’s based on a shattered affair Webb had when he was 19 or 20. The girl worked in an office building near MacArthur Park, and they used to meet there for lunches or something. Some of the things Webb noticed at the time (the melting green cake icing, old men playing checkers) went right into the song.
But it sounds a little stodgy now, and Harris’s singing is labored — he’s pushing too hard and a bit outside his range.
In 1992, Miami Herald humorist Dave Barry conducted a poll among his readers, and they selected Harris’s recording as the worst song of all time, both in terms of “Worst Lyrics” and “Worst Overall Song”.
Barry: “It’s hard to argue with this selection. My 12-year-old son, Rob, was going through a pile of ballots, and he asked me how ‘MacArthur Park’ goes, so I sang it, giving it my best shot, and Rob laughed so hard that when I got to the part about leaving the cake out in the rain, and it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again, Rob was on the floor. He didn’t BELIEVE those lyrics were real. He was SURE his wacky old humor-columnist dad was making them up.”
But “MacArthur Park” reminded me of one serious, real-deal thing, which is that young people (late teens, early 20s) don’t deal well with romantic break-ups, as a rule.
I certainly didn’t. Whenever it happened I would collapse into a puddle. And it was almost always me getting dumped and not the other way around. (The same seemed to happen with Jett at that age.) After an especially painful jilting I remember being in my ex-girlfriend’s kitchen late at night (she was attending Marlboro College in Vermont while I was staying in a converted chicken coop on her parent’s spread) and just weeping my ass off.
The first time I dropped someone was in ’79, and I recall feeling really, really badly about it. But I had to because I’d fallen in love with someone else, and it felt like the real deal. (Plus she was sexy and super-smart) That “someone else” dumped me four or five months later. Life is a comedy written by a sadist.