Thursday, January 22, 2015

47 years later, the cake is still out in the rain. (And still in our heads.)

                                                                                                                    Cartoon courtesy Rick Kollinger

My freshman year at the University of Florida, my English professor gave the class an intriguing and unexpected essay assignment.

Having heard the song “Chewy, Chewy” by the Ohio Express on the radio one morning, he wondered if there were any thoughtful tunes on the pop charts. He challenged us to pick a contemporary song and write about the meaning of the lyrics.

I chose “MacArthur Park.”

I opened the essay with this snippet of one of Millay’s sonnets. To my 18-year-old brain, it seemed to capture the meaning of the song in a nutshell.

That April should be shattered by a gust,
That August should be leveled by a rain,
I can endure, and that the lifted dust
Of man should settle to the earth again;
But that a dream can die, will be a thrust
Between my ribs forever of hot pain.
                                    - Edna St. Vincent Millay

I went on to write “ dreams and aspirations are an inseparable part of the human spirit. The death of a dream destroys part of that spirit and leaves in its void only the hope that life will go on, that another dream will come another day.”

Old postcard painting of MacArthur Park
“In the song MacArthur Park, a dream has died. Located on the somewhat-seedy fringe of downtown Los Angeles, the real MacArthur Park is a 32-acre refuge for the elderly and wanderers. Here, perhaps near the duck pond, the ingredients were added to someone’s dream – a yellow cotton dress, men playing checkers by the trees.”

I won’t bore you with the entire essay, but I speculated that a once “fevered” love had gone cold, and although the narrator believes he can go on, he knows the ingredients that created his dream can never be duplicated.

MacArthur Park in more recent times
I finished by writing “MacArthur Park is the story of the ingredients that nurtured a dream. The death of that dream blurs the memories, perhaps through tears of sorrow.”

All these years later, people are still guessing what MacArthur Park is about and what possessed Jimmy Webb to write it. Did he have a bet with Richard Harris he could pen a #1 song for the Irish singer and actor? Was it about drugs? Did he purposely compose a 7-minute song to annoy British record producers? Or was it indeed about a love affair gone wrong?

Last October, writer Jimmy Webb provided some answers during an interview with Newsweek.

“…it's just a song about a girlfriend of mine, Susie Horton, and this place on Wilshire Boulevard where we used to have lunch and feed the ducks which is called MacArthur Park. And the truth is that everything in the song was visible. There's nothing in it that's fabricated. 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. And so it's a kind of musical collage of this whole love affair that kind of went down in MacArthur Park.”

Jimmy Webb

As it turns out the girl who broke Webb’s heart eventually got married in MacArthur Park. Unable to stay away, he went to the park and hid in a gardener’s shed during the ceremony. Apparently the heavens opened up and the rain running down the shed window made the wedding cake look like it was melting.
Webb also said, " I remember that that was also when I wrote 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' because this affair was winding down to a kind of dreary close, and I was thinking, 'Well, I'll just go back to Oklahoma,' and so I wrote 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix.' Of course, I never even got in the car and turned on the engine to go back to Oklahoma. But it's related to 'MacArthur Park' in that sense. It comes from the same period when I was experiencing things and pretty much transferring them immediately into music."

"My writing technique, my style, is a lot different now, so in a way, it's a lot more accessible and easier to understand. Back then, I was kind of like an emotional machine, like whatever was going on inside me would bubble out of the piano and onto paper.”

So it sounds like the take on ‘MacArthur Park’ I thought up way back in 1969 wasn’t far from the truth. 

Happily I got an “A” for my efforts, but my professor wrote, “why did it happen here?” in the margin by the section where I talked about the actual park.

Now we know, Dr. Childers. Now we know.