Tuesday 21 November 2017

When the Oklahoma Kid met a Limerick legend

Forget the overpriced restaurants and Jennifer Aniston rom-coms at the flicks -- the finest night out you could give your paramour this Valentine's Day is to take them to see Jimmy Webb in the intimate surrounds of Dublin's Sugar Club.

One of the greatest tunesmiths of all time, Webb's songs have been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Nick Cave, Sinatra to REM, The Four Tops to Guided By Voices -- and especially Glen Campbell, who sang the definitive versions of 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix', 'Galveston' and 'Wichita Lineman'.

But on February 14, Webb will perform his greatest hits solo at the piano.

Speaking from his home on the north shore of Long Island, New York, where he had been snowed in for days on account of the worst winter in the Big Apple's history ("Does anybody still believe that the climate's not changing?" he asks bemusedly), Webb is looking forward to reacquainting himself with a country that he has fond memories of exploring in the '60s in the company of the late, great Richard Harris.

The pair hit it off the instant they met in LA back in 1967. Limerick's most celebrated thespian recorded two whole albums of songs written especially for him by Webb, A Tramp Shining and The Yard Goes On Forever, both released in 1968. These sessions included Harris' extraordinary performance of 'MacArthur Park', a seven-minute, string-drenched melodrama likening a failing romantic relationship to a soggy cake turned to mush in a downpour.

Webb recalls their first meeting. "There's an old theatre in Los Angeles called The Coronet," he says, in a warm Midwest drawl.

"I was working for Johnny Rivers Music and he [Harris] contacted me and said would I go to this anti-war rally and sit in with the band and maybe play a couple of my songs -- I had some anti-war stuff I was doing at the time.

"I had no idea what I was getting into. I fell into the arms of this huge Irish man: extremely strong, virile, funny, talented guy. I was totally unprepared for this, like an innocent abroad -- because I'd spent my whole life on a farm.

"We spent a lot of time backstage at an upright piano, singing. He taught me a couple of old Irish songs. I said 'I'd like to learn some more of those': 'Carrickfergus', that's a good one. I couldn't get enough of that. Still can't. I could easily sit down and do a whole Irish programme because I know the repertoire.

"Richard said 'let's make a record'. About a month later, I got a telegram that said 'Dear Jimmy Webb ... ' -- he always called me 'Jimmy Webb'; he never called me 'Jimmy' and he never called me 'Webb'. He said come to London and record an album.

"So he took me to London and then he drove me all over Ireland: Belfast, across the North to the west coast, to Galway, to Kilkee, where his family lived, through the Shannon River Valley, stopped in Limerick, then up to Dublin.

"He said: 'Jimmy Webb, tonight we'll go to the house of my sister in Dublin and you'll sleep in the bed where I was conceived.' Which I did!

"We became so close. Unfortunately, later in life, we had little spats over royalties and whether the royalty statements were accurate and all this stuff. Unfortunately he was signed to my publishing company rather than my production company.

"It began to define our relationship -- even though you don't know why, you realise you're not as close to someone as you used to be. I really, really regret that. I would love to have been his best friend for his whole life. We were always on good terms -- we'd meet and have a drink, but it could have been closer."

Though he currently lives in a borough of New York, Webb is the poet of smalltown America; his songs are more likely to be set in distinctly unglamorous towns in New Mexico or Texas than they are in the country's shining metropolises.

"When I was growing up, all songs were about New York or Chicago ... I was just a kid from a humble background. What I wanted to do was call some attention to the ordinary Americans who lived in ordinary places like Galveston, Texas. It's not just in New York where people fall in love ... and feel like killing themselves," he deadpans with perfect comic timing, before letting out a roar of laughter.

"When I was being inducted into the Hall of Fame, Billy Joel said that 'Wichita Lineman' was about an ordinary man thinking extraordinary thoughts. He was almost too close to the bone.

"He put it so eloquently that I began to cry. I thought 'I can't break down on stage in front of everybody'. He delved deep into the real meaning of what the song was really about."

His fellow piano man, Billy Joel, is one of a dozen famous singers to duet with Webb on his latest album, 2010's Just Across The River, which features time-honoured Webb classics re-done in a country style with the cream of Nashville's backing musicians.

"Myself and Glen Campbell had never sung together on record before," he says.

"It was a way of including some very special moments for the fans out there who are discerning and know the library pretty well. It has these cameos with Vince Gill, Billy Joel, Lucinda Williams ...

"Linda Ronstadt came out of retirement to sing on this record. She has been having extremely vexing and potentially career-ending problems with her voice. So a lot of good things happened.

"Jackson Browne too: I've known him since he was a greenhorn in Hollywood. I met him his first day in town. He sat cross-legged on the floor and played a song called 'Opening Farewell'. I said, 'Kid, you're gonna go far'."

Lucinda Williams' take on 'Galveston' is one of the album's high points. It's a much slower, sadder version than Glen Campbell's sprightly 60s version.

"Lucinda Williams: her voice is evocative of thousands of miles of road, almost an endless tour. I say that in the most complimentary way," say Webb. "It's a real voice that reaches down inside you and grabs hold of something.

"We live in an era that's ridiculously cosmetic and polished and robotic, so there's no rough bits, no texture to grab on to the way we used to delight in someone like Joe Cocker and say 'Oh my God!' We just loved it 'cos it was rough.

"We really don't have anything like that any more. Now we have Simon Cowell on American Idol going 'No, no, no, that note was wrong ... ' It's silly, schoolmaster stuff."

Jimmy Webb plays The Sugar Club, Dublin, on February 14. Doors 7:30pm. Tickets €28. Support is from The Lost Brothers.


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