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Iconic songwriter Jimmy Webb talks Maine, music and more

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Iconic songwriter Jimmy Webb talks Maine, music and more (photo courtesy Jimmy Webb/Sasa Tkalcan, Helsinki Festival)

BREWER - “For that dream to come true for me – something so unlikely and so wonderful – like winning the lottery or being the first man on the moon – it truly was a magical thing to hear these household names singing my music on the radio.” – Jimmy Webb

You know the songs: “MacArthur Park,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Up, Up And Away,” “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Worst That Could Happen,” “Didn’t We,” “All I Know” and dozens more by some of the biggest names in music. The man who wrote them – Jimmy Webb – has scheduled two evenings of songs and stories in Maine, and he says he is looking forward to meeting the fans who made it all possible.

“Maine is my go-to place,” Webb told me during an interview from his home in Long Island, New York. He says he has had a love affair with the state for more than 20 years and spends several weeks here each year.

Jimmy Webb’s first-ever concert in the Bangor area is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, November 14, at 7:30 pm, at Brewer Performing Arts Center, located at 92 Pendleton St. Proceeds from the concert will benefit Brewer High School’s music and theatre programs. Two days later, Webb will perform at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit.

Here’s the thing: interviewing Jimmy Webb is very similar to what it might be like to sit with him by the water near his summer home in Lovell. At least, that’s what it feels like.

When we began what was originally scheduled to be a 20-minute interview, he told me how he came to fall in love with Maine. More than 40 minutes later, we had covered nearly an entire Jeopardy-board of subjects, ranging from model planes and ships to books, New England’s opiate problem, sobriety, bullying and a topic near to Webb’s heart – the art of storytelling.

According to Webb, it was more than 20 years ago, when he was going through what he described as a very difficult divorce, that he set out with his four youngest children (three boys and a girl) and drove to Heald Pond in Center Lovell, where his friend Danny Ferguson has a home.

“It was a refuge for me and the children to sort of get away from the bad vibes,” Webb remembered. “That’s how it started. I wrote a good piece of my book ‘Tunesmith’ there (Webb’s 1998 book ‘Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting’ is considered one of the ultimate guides for aspiring songwriters). It seems like I’ve always been working on a project in the summer in Maine, including producing Carly Simon.”

Simon’s 1997 album “Film Noir” was co-produced by Webb, who also provided vocals, piano and orchestration. The collaboration was filmed for an AMC special coinciding with the record’s release.

Last year, Webb published what he hopes was just the first installment of his memoirs, titled “The Cake and the Rain,” an absorbing chronicle of his life in and out of the music industry up to 1973. The unflinchingly honest book is a must-read for music fans.

“Most of that memoir was written in Maine too,” he said. “I enjoyed writing it even though I did have a couple of mini-nervous breakdowns when I contemplated my life. When you really go back and challenge yourself with the truth – and what’s the point of writing a memoir if you’re not going to tell the truth as you remember it?”

A significant and recurring figure in Webb’s life story is the man who sang the first record the teenage Webb ever bought with his own money – Glen Campbell.

In “The Cake and the Rain,” Webb explains how his father, a Baptist minister, hoped to instill a strong work ethic in the youngster by securing him a job plowing wheat fields for a farmer near their home in Elk City, Oklahoma.

While plowing away in the summer heat, Webb was also listening to the hits of the day on a little transistor radio when he heard what he describes as “the most beautiful record I ever heard in my young life.” It was Glen Campbell singing “Turn Around, Look at Me.”

Gobsmacked by the sublime sound of Campbell’s voice, the song and its arrangement, Webb somehow lost control of the tractor, summarily destroying both it and a garden of flower beds that had been lovingly tended to by the farmer’s wife.

“I did a lot of praying at that time,” Webb said. “I said this little prayer when I was 14 years old. I prayed ‘Dear Lord, let me meet Glen Campbell some day and make it possible for Glen Campbell to record one of my songs.’ It just unrolled like a movie.”

That prayer came true six short years later when Campbell recorded “By The Time I Get to Phoenix,” later referred to by Frank Sinatra as “the greatest torch song ever written.”

Campbell would go on to score huge hits with a number of Jimmy Webb compositions, including ‘Wichita Lineman,’ a 1968 hit written specifically for him, in addition to 1969’s “Galveston.”

“I found myself working with Glen pretty regularly,” Webb said. “We didn’t start out being close friends. I was a hippie with long hair and he was very much an Orange County conservative-type. He dressed a certain way and was always coiffed and everything was perfect. I was kind of slovenly and he just didn’t like my whole vibe. I started to wonder ‘Who does this guy think he is?’ Then I remembered ‘Well he is on TV every week with a huge show’ (‘The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour’).”

Webb says that he and Campbell eventually became close but couches that with that the caveat that their friendship coalesced around bouts of heavy drinking. They both eventually embraced sobriety with Webb crediting Maine as his catalyst.

“I’ve been sober for 20 years and I give Maine a lot of credit for that because it gave me the peace, quiet and tranquility to get my life in order,” Webb said.

Glen Campbell passed away in August 2017 after a lengthy public battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Webb’s song “Adiós” was the last song and the title track on the final Glen Campbell album released during his lifetime.

“Let the world note that a great American influence on pop music, the American Beatle, the secret link between so many artists and records that we can only marvel, has passed and cannot be replaced,” Webb wrote on his Facebook page the day Campbell died.

One of Webb’s most-covered compositions is 1967’s “Up, Up and Away,” a massive hit for The 5th Dimension. The song has been recorded by a host of stylistically disparate artists, including Bing Crosby, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Nancy Sinatra, The Impressions, Andy Williams and Sesame Street’s Bob McGrath.

A song originally intended for the mega-popular vocal group The Association was instead recorded by an Irish actor and vocalist that made the song his own in 1968 - Richard Harris. Webb’s intricately-crafted “MacArthur Park” has become a pop-culture touchstone and is unquestionably the tune that has inspired more questions for the songwriter than any other.

During an October 2014 interview with Newsday, Webb explained that everything mentioned in the song’s lyric is as he saw it.

“There’s nothing in it that was fabricated,” Webb said. “The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw.”

A decade after Harris took Webb’s “MacArthur Park” to number two on the Billboard Hot 100, Donna Summer’s disco version went to the top and stayed there for three weeks.

When the charts were dominated by singer-songwriters in the early 1970s, Jimmy Webb began recording a series of well-received solo albums for Reprise, Asylum and Atlantic Records while further collaborating with Glen Campbell, The Supremes, The 5th Dimension, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt and America.

Broadening his scope in the 1980s, Webb scored films, Broadway musicals and even ventured into classical music while continuing to write songs for Ronstadt, The Highwaymen, Toto, Kenny Rogers, John Denver, Amy Grant and others.

Webb says he is currently working on an album of piano music – his first record in five years.

“One of the reasons why I admire Randy Newman so much is because he still writes, and cyclically, that album comes out. I’m playing instrumentals on my next album but then I really want to do another pop album.”

At age 72, Webb says he enjoys performing live today more than he ever did.

“I always struggled with stage-fright and a kind of insecurity about my singing, which wasn’t great,” he said. “I’ve studied all of my life vocally so I’m much more comfortable as a singer. I love the pop of adrenalin that I get even now at my age and I particularly enjoy meeting the fans at the end of the show and interacting with them.”

Webb laughs as he tells me of the number of fans who bring old snapshots to his concerts, each with a personal story attached.

“They’ll bring photographs of me when I was 35 years old taken at some concert I did with Glen Campbell and they’ll tell me how they took the photo. They’ll say ‘And you signed it for me’ and I’ll barely be able to see the signature because it’s so old (laughs). That’s how long I’ve been doing this.”

When he affords himself a rare day off, Webb says he loves to walk along Crescent Beach near his Long Island home with his wife, Laura, whom he describes as “a goddess and an angel.”

“It’s like a storybook beach,” said Webb. “There are houses on it but people are rarely out on the beach. We sort of think of it as our beach.”

When he builds his model planes, Webb says he feels a strong connection to his father, who passed away two years ago at age 91.

“He was a U.S. Marine in the Pacific and a Baptist preacher,” Webb says of his dad. “He was a righteous guy, but he also had another side. He was a very complicated man. We used to build model airplanes together and I find that doing it the old-fashioned way with glue and the knife and putting the thing together and sussing it out is extremely relaxing. I feel like I’m communing with my father a little bit.”

A notorious speed demon in his youth, Webb says he still gets a thrill of taking his Thunderbird convertible out for “a very fast ride on some of the back roads here where I know I can get away with it. I still have that speed bone in my body from my early years when I absolutely endangered my life at every opportunity.”

Beyond his upcoming concerts in Maine next week, Webb says he can’t wait for the next time he rolls up to his home in Lovell for another three or four weeks of Maine beauty and tranquility.

“On certain nights in Maine the universe just unfolds,” Webb said with a sense of awe in his voice. “You can go out in the middle of a pond and lie down in the bottom of a boat and just kind of stare into the universe. It’s amazing.”

Webb’s children – all grown now – will arrive during his stay to join their father.

“My youngest graduated from Berkeley College in Oakland about six years ago,” he says. “That’s it. There’s no more little kid stuff for me. When I think about Maine, I think about my children being so small, paddling canoes and catching frogs. It’s become the place that I go to now.”

Webb has a cluster of close friends near his Maine home. With them, he’ll fly model airplanes, go fishing and throw a good old-fashioned Maine clambake.

“We dig a hole and do it the way it should be done,” he said with a chuckle. “We’ll get the lobsters and fresh corn and maybe throw some kielbasa in there. We’ll have baked beans and clam chowder. We’ll have 20 or 30 people there so it’s kind of like a community affair.”

Webb has occasionally played benefit concerts for the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library in Lovell. One of those shows stands out in his memory not for his performance, but for the fact that he nearly missed it.

“I can’t remember the name of the venue that was way out in the woods somewhere,” Webb laughed. “Danny (Ferguson) and I got lost in the woods. I made it with five minutes to show-time but there were some nervous people there when I came dragging in.”

Jimmy Webb fans in the Bangor area have broadcaster, actor and teacher Rich Kimball to thank for bringing Webb to the area for his concert at Brewer Performing Arts Center on November 14.

Webb has appeared several times on Kimball’s daily radio show “Downtown With Rich Kimball” (weekdays from 4-6 p.m. on AM 620 WZON) and Kimball says he is looking forward to presenting Webb in concert to benefit Brewer High School’s music and theatre programs.

“Since he has ties to Maine and has long had a summer home here, added to the fact that he has never performed a concert in the Bangor area, I thought it would be fun for us and a wonderful opportunity for fans to see a real music legend and one of three or four best American songwriters of the pop music era,” Kimball said.

Webb laughs when he says that his concerts have kind of evolved into “An Evening at Jimmy’s House.”

“I try to tell lots of great stories and put some music in as well,” Webb said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “The anecdotes – which are all true – are woven into the performance and there’s lots of red meat for those people who want to hear – I don’t know what to call them now – the chestnuts, I guess. I’m still writing, I’m still living, and it’s all because of those fans.”

(Tickets for Jimmy Webb’s November 14 performance at Brewer Performing Arts Center are $25 and available at www.BrewerPerformingArts.com. Tickets for Webb’s November 16 performance at Jonathan’s in Ogunquit are available at www.JonathansOgunquit.com.)

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