Tales from the bargain bin: “MacArthur Park” edition

A Tramp Shining (1968), Richard Harris (CD, $4.99, Barnes and Noble cut-price bin)

In which the hard-drinking, lady-loving, pub-brawling Irish actor of much renown records an experimental pop album and some people still can’t deal with it …

Harris (later in life, he would be the original, and better, Dumbledore) met the masterful songwriter Jimmy Webb of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Wichita Lineman” fame at a Hollywood party in 1967 and told him he was thinking of recording an album. While best known at the time for brawny roles in movies like This Sporting Life and Major Dundee, Harris had just sung the part of King Arthur in the movie version of Camelot. Did I say “sung”?  Oh, I’m sorry. I meant “yelled a lot with occasional breaks for some surprisingly pleasant tenor crooning.” Long story short: Harris went into a recording studio with Webb plus the cream of the crop of L.A. session musicians and a symphony orchestra and the result was A Tramp Shining, a Webb-penned, heavily-arranged concept album about a world-weary ladies’ man reflecting on the women he has loved and lost. The album’s set piece, the seven-minute-plus opus “MacArthur Park,” was whimsically released as a single (four months before the Beatles unleashed “Hey Jude”) and, even more whimsically, reached number two on the pop charts. 

“MacArthur Park” (not “MacArthur’s”, as Harris insisted on singing) is a dreamy, musically complex, highly impressionistic song about Webb’s break-up with his girlfriend. The lyrics contain some unforgettable metaphors for loneliness and shattered dreams, including a cake left out in the rain — an image that a lot of people seem to find either hilarious or bewildering. In 1992, columnist Dave Barry asked his readers to vote on the worst song of all time and “MacArthur Park” won. I beg to differ, but, whatever.

I love “MacArthur Park” as much as I did when I was a kid listening to it on the radio. I used to lie in bed, trance out to the shifting orchestral movements — now stately, now swirly, now everybody go-go dance — and mentally choreograph an Olympic figure skating routine to the shifts in tempo. I remain enchanted by the overstuffed romanticism of it all, especially the image of MacArthur Park melting in the dark, all the sweet green icing flowing down.

And what of that cake left out in the rain? “I don’t think that I can take it/ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again”:  Is that not one of the most naked cries from the heart in pop music?  Yeah, it sounds like awkward break-up poetry, but screw it! It’s emotionally true, and Richard Harris gives himself over to that truth with every fiber of his actorly being. The tenderness in his voice on the passages of memory (“I recall the yellow cotton dress/foaming like a wave/on the ground around your knees”), the quiver of sadness on the line, “After all the loves of my life/ I’ll be thinking of you and wondering why,” the choirboy high he hits at the song’s climax — Harris singing “MacArthur Park” is the equivalent of a man ripping open his own chest and handing you his broken, dripping heart.

“MacArthur Park” has been dismissed as schlock and parodied ad nauseam (although I do admire Dave Thomas’s brilliantly random and hilarious Harris impersonation from SCTV).  Do I care that I’m in the minority in my fondness for this eccentric masterpiece and its equally eccentric singer?  Not a whit. And now, thanks to a serendipitous browse through the bargain bin, I finally own A Tramp Shining, with its lovely version of the wistful Webb ballad “Didn’t We,” its shimmery title track and more harpsichord madness and emotive talk-singing than you can shake a stick at. Not to forget, the priceless inside photo of Harris, in which he’s seated on what looks like the coronation throne from Westminster Abbey in the middle of a wintry forest, dressed in a caftan with a red bandanna around his forehead. A Tramp Shining is utterly an artifact of its baroque, trippy times. We’ll never have that recipe again.

I can’t find a decent video of Richard Harris singing “MacArthur Park,” which is a pity, because he really put his whole (probably sloshed) being into a song;  the SCTV parody pretty well nails it. But here’s a video of “MacArthur Park” that’s just an old mono 45 of the song spinning around on a turntable. Come to think of it, Harris’s imperfect voice, worn and warm, sounds even better coming through the hiss and crackle of vinyl. Far out, man.

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013

4 thoughts on “Tales from the bargain bin: “MacArthur Park” edition

  1. ileneonwords November 18, 2013 / 10:32 am

    Thanks for this posting. I mentioned Jimmy Webb in my posting today, please stop by and visit some time. thanks!

  2. drkrick November 21, 2013 / 7:07 am

    Back in the ’70’s, our HS basketball pep band played a marching band version of MacArthur Park before games or during halftime. It lost a little in the translation, but it was the cheerleader’s absolute favorite of anything in our book so there are a few more in the small band of fans. The players, of course, preferred our rendition of the then current NBC Sports theme as they ran on the court, but they were usually still in the locker room when we played MP so that doesn’t count.

    • Joyce Millman November 21, 2013 / 11:07 am

      I love this story! I’m trying to imagine a marching band version of MacArthur Park …

      • drkrick November 26, 2013 / 7:09 am

        Clarinets for strings and trumpets for vocals. It wasn’t much of a replica of the original, but as a stand-alone thing it worked. And at that age, if the cheerleaders liked it, it was all good.

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