Jimmy Webb: 'I came pretty close to the edge of the abyss on a number of occasions'
The songwriting legend escaped the church, then found early success that led to a life of excess. His songs put him in the company of Sinatra and Streisand, but he really wanted to get stoned with Mick Jagger
Jimmy Webb was born in Oklahoma and grew up in a religious household. After moving to California, he signed with Jobete Music and his first commercial song was My Christmas Tree by the Supremes. After meeting producer Johnny Rivers, he went on to write some of the world’s best loved tunes: By The Time I Get to Phoenix, Macarthur Park and Wichita Lineman – the latter eventually being added to the US National Recording Registry. Over his career he’s won two Grammys, an Ivor Novello and been inducted to various Halls of Fame.
Ahead of his UK tour, in his Letter To My Younger Self, he talks divorce, near-death experiences, and how you should never miss the chance to tell someone you love them.
I grew up in Oklahoma City, almost dead centre in the United States. Politically, I was not quite on the vibe of that city. Even today, it looks like they’re going to vote to abolish abortion entirely. So I was happy when we moved to California and I got closer to the official business of record making. I was writing my first songs when I was 12 and I became more serious about it as I got older. And I began to like my chances.
I loved Little Anthony and the Imperials and Teddy Randazzo, all those wonderful arrangements, but I knew in my guts that my songs were a lot better than some of the stuff I was hearing on the radio. That put a fire in my belly. Then when I was 17 I landed a writing contract at Motown’s publishing arm Jobete. I got my first professional cut there on a Supremes album. So my late teens were an intense time for me.
My mother died suddenly when I was 18. That’s a major earthquake in your life. Several different cracks come after something like that. My father took the rest of the family back to Oklahoma, but I stayed in California. It became a sink-or-swim situation. I was entirely on my own, I had to find a way of staying afloat. If my mother had lived, and god knows I wish she had, she was quite strict about the religious aspect of things and rode me pretty hard about keeping my musical talent in the church.
In many ways, I think her death freed me. Since I was six I had been going to church Sunday mornings, Sunday nights, Wednesday nights, with two weeks of vacation bible school in the summer and then touring, playing the piano, with my father. It was a relief to be out of that sphere. I had an idea about my future as a songwriter, even though then it was just a dream. I was lucky enough that the dream came true.
My father was a minister, and I think my first musical influence must have come from the church. For many people religion is the first, most indelible emotional experience you come in contact with. Let’s face it, when you’re 10 years old, you’re not thinking about sex. You’re thinking about Jesus. Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so. That opened me to some very deep emotions. But I definitely knew I wanted to be in rock music.
More than anything in the world I wanted to be in a rock’n’roll band. But where I got the most approval was from my solo work as a songwriter. I found myself working for a very successful guy called Johnny Rivers. He was a famous singer but he also had a record company and he put me in charge of a group called The Fifth Dimension. He played my song By the Time I Get to Phoenix for Glen Campbell. Much of what success I’ve had has been because of people around me who loved me and were kind to me.
I didn’t just come off the rails in my twenties, I was completely off the reservation. I came pretty close to the edge of the abyss on a number of occasions. It was partly down to the crowd I was hanging out with, and certain drugs which were considered hip in Los Angeles. You couldn’t really stay with the social scene, which was moving very, very fast, and keep the hours we kept, without drugs. We stayed up all night in the studio and then got up the next afternoon, worked out with a trainer, then went to a rehearsal.
I tried to do everything. I tried to perform, I tried to produce and I would have been an actor if anybody would have given me a shot. On top of that, I was pretty young when suddenly I could do whatever I wanted. Every time I snapped my fingers, my dreams came true. I could go down the street with my accountant and say, wow, look at that new Mercedes 450 SEL, and the next morning there would be a Mercedes 450 SEL in the driveway.
In terms of drugs there was one time in particular… I’ll be very frank with you about what happened. I thought someone had offered me cocaine so I took a little bit. It turned out it was PCP, enough to put me in a coma for 24 hours. When I woke up I couldn’t remember how to play the piano. It took me a month to remember. I thought a lot about how my life might be if I didn’t recover this memory of how the piano worked. That was very frightening. I became a wiser man after that and I dialled the throttle back a little.
I’ve tried to make up for [my wild years]. I’ve been completely sober in every sense of the word for about 25 years. And before that I stopped smoking and I stopped doing cocaine in the early ’90s. Because we had children who were getting old enough to be curious about what was… on the nightstand. Suddenly I had the most horrible feeling about what the consequences might be for them. And eventually my behaviour led to a pretty vicious divorce. So I really tried to clean up my act.
I’d have liked to have more control over how people saw me. I had contacts with Mr Sinatra and Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett – I could go to them and they accepted me in their peer group as someone who could deliver material on that level, the Great American Songbook level. That was very flattering but I wanted to get stoned and meet Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and go to the Monterey Pop Festival. I didn’t want to make albums like Glen’s. I wanted to make rock albums and write about social unrest. We were involved in an awful, horrific, unjust war in Vietnam. I was of the same mind as The Beatles – that we could change the world by teaching the world to love itself.
I think the song of mine which has influenced more people than any other is Wichita Lineman. It sort of become a song for any genre. There are jazz versions, country versions, punk versions. They have this thing where they take what they call culturally significant recordings and they put them under a mountain in a nuclear-proof bomb shelter. And about two years ago they put Wichita Lineman in the vault underneath the mountain. I wish Glen could have been alive to see them do that [Campbell died in 2017].
Iused to fly sailplanes out into the desert from LA to what we call a high desert, out by Lancaster/Palmdale. I was pretty handy. If I could relive one moment of my life it would be one morning, when I was about 23, and I went out to make an International Aeronautics Federation attempt to set an altitude record in my glider. I went up to 22,000 feet. I sat up there, on my own, and looked out over the Mojave Desert. All the purples and the pinks and the reds. I could easily see 150 miles into the horizon. Then I landed in Las Vegas. It was the most fun I’ve ever had in one single day. After that you couldn’t keep me out of the sky.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my great friend Richard Harris [the actor died in 2002]. Just one more before they turn the lights out. I would want to say I’m sorry we fell out, over things that in retrospect were silly. I was wrong to some degree and he was being Richard, which was just to be expected. Somehow it turned into quite an awful mess. The trust was broken. And we never had a chance to re-establish that bond. That still hurts me. We were practically brothers. We loved each other, you can’t believe how fiercely we defended each other.
Sadly real life isn’t like the movies, where people get together at the end and make their apologies and solve all the mishegoss – a Jewish word – that’s gotten between them. In real life that doesn’t happen. You just realise one day that person’s gone, and you go, jeez. I’m still very close with Jared [Harris’s actor son] and the family. They know how I felt about their father, but I don’t think he did. I don’t think he did.