The first song I distinctly remember loving as a kid was the Fifth Dimension's "Up, Up, and Away." I didn't know or care at the time, but I've since learned that the tune was written by Jimmy Webb, an Okie by way of San Bernardino who scored a series of massive hits in the late '60s and early '70s (including "MacArthur Park," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Galveston," and "Wichita Lineman"). That Webb achieved such success while still in his teens and early twenties is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that such a young man was able to write so many inventive and catchy tunes that have endured as standards of our era. According
by Jimmy Webb (Hyperion, $24.95)
to BMI, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" is the third-most-performed song of the last 50 years. And I'll bet you know most of the words.
In his first book, Tunesmith, Webb shares the tales and techniques behind his famous and not-so-famous creations. It's a big volume: 400-plus pages, with Webb covering everything from the perils of the music business to the finest details of harmonic theory to amusing anecdotes about celebrity pals like Carly Simon and Paul McCartney. Musicians and music aficionados will enjoy this book; Webb drew me in with his honesty about the business and his willingness to share tricks of the trade. (If you're not into music, though, you may find it tough to wade through Webb's poorly organized prose.)
The most entertaining parts of Tunesmith are Webb's stories of his early days in LA. His initiation into the business begins when, as a scraggly teenager with a paper bag full of tapes, he somehow gets in the door at Motown's LA offices. Not only does he get in (accomplishment enough—try it today), he convinces someone to listen to the tapes, which results in his first real songwriting gig. It's hard to imagine being in Webb's shoes on his first record date for Motown. There he is, working for the hippest record label in the world, cutting tracks with the hottest session players in LA, writing, arranging, and orchestrating a tune for his own pet project, the Contessas: all this before he can even order a drink. "I knew as much about orchestrating as I did about fornicating," Webb confesses, "which is to say, I had never actually put my baton to any practical use."
After a brief stint at Motown, Webb is taken in by a small studio and publishing company, which quickly deals him to Johnny Rivers Music. For $15,000, Rivers gets the rights to "Up, Up, and Away," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and more—tunes that would ultimately generate untold millions in royalties. Webb makes nothing on the deal and finds himself locked into a seven-year contract in which he will never control his own songs or make much money. Shortly after the Fifth Dimension releases "Up, Up, and Away" in 1967, Webb slips out of his contract with some underhanded assistance from Rivers' right-hand man, Harvey (a name changed by Webb to protect the innocent). Harvey, seeing how Webb is getting screwed, lets the songwriter know that he'll be a free man if Rivers neglects to re-up the yearly option on his contract. "God only knows how," Webb writes, "Johnny Rivers had failed to re-option the contract on his thoroughbred songwriting star." Webb doesn't realize the full impact of the deceit until a chance encounter with Rivers on Doheny Drive. Rivers, in his Ferrari, pulls up alongside Harvey's Maserati, where he sees Webb in the passenger's seat. Glances are exchanged, millions gained or lost implied. Rivers and Webb don't speak to each other for years.
Webb counts this episode of moral failure as his introduction to adult life, when he first learns ". . . what it means to be banished forever to a world of real actions and painful repercussions." His candor is refreshing. Webb offers more than just the tawdry tales we expect from Hollywood tell-alls. He offers up the full truth of the glamorous life, that it has moments of terrible self-doubt resulting from playing fast and loose with one's art and soul. The first time I saw myself in a Presidents video on MTV, I was ecstatic, buzzed by the sheer improbability of it all, high on the ego stroke of national media exposure. At the same time, I knew that this signaled the end—all that was homespun and inspired about what the band did could never fit into a youth culture supported by soda pop and acne cream. I am now more careful about what I wish for. As Webb says of Hollywood excess: "It's easy to make mistakes when you're young and cocky and look around and say to yourself, 'Well, if they're doing it why can't I do it?' The answer is they aren't doing it, they're only pretending to do it and if you try to do it you'll get caught and you'll be sorry."
Webb devotes more than half of Tunesmith to the minutiae of writing lyrics, melody, and harmony, with hundreds of examples provided in musical notation. If you're a songwriter, you'll find these chapters useful and inspiring; I'm already using Tunesmith for guidance on new material. While Webb caters to the professional in this section, he takes enough care with his explanations that the musically unschooled reader will be able to follow.
While chock-full of good advice and amusing stories, Tunesmith sometimes suffers from Webb's inattention to detail and his lack of technique as a prose writer; in other words, he uses a lot of big words and long sentences without quite pulling it off. And he makes some embarrassing gaffes, including misspelling the names of three of the most influential songwriters of the postwar era, referring to country legend Ernest Tubb as "Tubbs," Keith Richards as "Richard," and Steely Dan's Donald Fagen as "Fagan." Nitpicky errors, sure—but this lack of respect for his peers rubbed me the wrong way, particularly from an author who intends to write authoritatively on his profession.
Tunesmith is definitely worth reading if you're a songwriter, musician, or avid music fan. Webb reaches high, aiming to capture the broad scope of his professional life in this single volume, and the enthusiasm and intensity he brings to the task more than over come any niggling problems. I'm particularly moved by his willingness to share so much of his songwriting process in hopes of inspiring others. And even the book's stylistic foibles are forgiven by the occasional brilliant turn of phrase. Toward the end of Tunesmith, Webb laments the incredible speed with which this era's musical trends come and go, concluding that "today's howl of rage is tomorrow's creamed-corn fart." Now that's catchy.
Dave Dederer was the guitarist for the Presidents of the United States of America.