By the Time Jimmy Webb Got to Nashville

by Christian John Wikane

8 July 2010


"They're the record company, we're the guys that go into the studio. They think differently from us."

That’s the thing. The high-profile ones have this link.

I just went back to MacArthur Park for Levitt Pavilion. They’ve rejuvenated and reinvented MacArthur Park and really made it quite a lovely place to go to and the whole neighborhood around there has blossomed as a result of the Levitt Pavilion and the 50 free concerts a year that they do there. I walked through the park for the first time in 40 years. I saw the place on the grass where I used to go and have lunch with Susan and I looked up at the building where she used to work. It was very strange.

There are hit songs that have these place names and I suppose it was a vehicle for me. The tendency in the record business is once you had a hit with something, they’d put out the same record if they could! They want something that’s as similar as it can be because they want to touch that nerve again with something that made them money. I don’t mean to talk about “them” even though we’ve always talked about “them”. Ever since I was a kid and first came into the business, it’s always been “them” and “us”. They’re the record company, we’re the guys that go into the studio. They think differently from us. Sometimes record men have been absolutely some of the best guys in the world. I’m not antagonistic towards them but we had different agendas and sometimes, happily, those agendas coincided and resulted in successful records that make a record company happy and make us happy as well. Just Across the River is going to be one of those happy coincidences.

I’m going to turn to another place for a moment, Big Sur, in the song “Where Words End”. There’s a line that goes, “I gave some thanks to silence and all the good it’s done”. That line struck me because the way I interpreted it was that sometimes words can’t express the enormity of love.

Exactly. In a larger sense, I just think that we over-talk. What’s the Billy Joel song that I love so much? “Leave a Tender Moment Alone”—I just think that we talk too much. We talk ourselves into wars, we talk ourselves into divorces, we talk ourselves into so much trouble.

One of the things that I think about a lot is a book I read probably five or six years ago that I’ll never forget. It’s called A Thousand Years Ago. It starts out with the author saying that the first thing that one would notice a thousand years ago would be the silence. There was no farm machinery. There were no airplanes, television sets or radios, sirens. I don’t know how we would react to that as modern animals, if we were suddenly plunked down in the middle of medieval England ... I think we might go stark-raving mad within two or three days because we are just so indoctrinated with this constant barrage of noise of all kinds. If, God forbid, things get quiet, we put earphones on. We don’t ever think about it much but without being particularly conscious of it I think we’re all addicted in a way to some form of aural input. Our ears have to be tracking something, if it’s not a conversation or a cell phone, it’s a record. God forbid you should ride along in a car where no one is saying anything. People have difficulty with this. If you’ve ever seen people standing on an elevator, the silence is palpable. You could cut it with a knife. The silence is louder than a conversation would be. I say this in my book, it’s juxtaposition and opposites that create so much of art, as in the line, “The silence was deafening”. In an elevator, the silence is deafening! I think we really have a psychological barrier against silence and silence is our friend. It’s a good thing to take a solo walk on the beach or sit on top of a rock and sit in relative silence for a period of time and let one’s mind and one’s alter ego speak and let our subconscious breathe a little bit and not constantly be stimulated by some horrific story about some disaster that’s going on somewhere.

There’s an interesting book from not long ago by Michael Crichton called The State of Fear (2004) about that exact thing, about the thing that, seemingly, the media thrives on: the crises of the moment. It’s almost a palpable disappointment in the media when they do not have a crisis because they know their numbers are down and they feel threatened by that. In a way, the media is crisis-friendly. You can almost hear the joy in their voices when they say, “An airplane has crashed in Stockholm!” It’s bizarre.

All of that is sort of contained in a sense in the line, “I gave some thanks to silence and all the good it’s done”. We would all be much better off if we indulged ourselves in periodic doses of silence, particularly on a diplomatic level and political level in this country. The incessant wining on both sides, the left and the right, leaves the poor, confused voter in the middle, trying to come up with some semblance of a life and trying to make the right decision about government and never has a moment’s peace to even think about what the issues are. In a way, the line was a bit of a quip. If you look through my lyrics, I think I’m guilty of that occasionally. I’m capable of making a little sidestep into a political matter or political context without really spelling it out. It’s just something that I do because I think that’s a political statement but it’s encapsulated in a song that’s really about the fact that true love actually transcends death. Love is more powerful than death. Love only really gets into high gear when someone dies. That’s when you, in many ways, have your most intimate contact with a person who’s passed over because you think about every tiny detail about that individual, everything they ever said, everything they ever wore. There was love there. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Richard Harris. Some people would say, “Well you’re out of your mind. Normal people don’t think about Richard Harris everyday.” Well, but I loved Richard Harris. It’s very hard for me to go through a day without thinking about Richard Harris or without thinking about Harry Nilsson, who was another one of my close, close friends. I think about them more in their absence, I love them more in their absence than I did when they were here. When Harry lived on the East coast, we hardly ever saw each other and he lived here for about five or six years. We were close friends. Sometimes there’s something about proximity that breeds a kind of nonchalance; Oh well that person will be there if I need to talk to them.

“Where Words End” was written for Johnny Rivers specifically because he asked for the song. His mother, who was 93 years old, had just died. She had just gone back to Italy and visited the village where she was born and all the villagers came out and hugged her. She had come back home and I guess she had made her peace with the world and gently moved on to the next level. He went up to Big Sur and sat down on a rock and had this kind of epiphany about her and, in a way, said goodbye to her but felt closer to her than he had ever felt in his whole life. He’s describing this to me on the phone and I’m soaking it up because it’s so powerful. He actually gave me the song title, “Where Words End”, and said, “Could you write a song for me?” It’s on his album Shadows on the Moon, which is a new release from him. I actually went in and played the piano. That’s as close as I’ve gotten to a new song.

What keeps you writing still? What’s the motivation to write?

I think I can still do it better. I never take it for granted that I’ve mastered songwriting. I don’t think one ever does. Usually what I do is end up hearing a song that I’ve written before on the radio and thinking I wish I could write that line again. Unfortunately, you can’t do that. Once you’ve recorded a song, it has a tendency to stay that way! I can almost always think of ways to improve songs, even songs that were big hits. I’m always working on them. I never stop working on them, which sometimes people find out when they come to my live shows. Sometimes people are very irritated by that. They come to the dressing room and say, “Why did you change ...?” People like to hear things the way they heard them the first time. You learn that you can’t really do that. You just sort of have to leave them alone, leave the mistakes in place.

What keeps me writing is the notion that I can still do a better one, that I could do a Broadway show, that I got the chops for that, that I would like to, for my own satisfaction, demonstrate that I can do that, that life goes on after 30 and 40 and 50 and that it’s okay. You can keep working and continue to contribute to the community and be creative. You can still exercise those talents that God gave you in your golden youth and maybe you can even do it a little bit better than you did then. It seems harder to get people’s attention as you get older but I think that most people do continue to mature and improve in their craft, even airplane pilots. There are guys in their 60s and 70s flying better than they’ve ever flown in their lives. I do it because I can and because I’m still pretty good at it and even now I think I can be better at it.

I have to say that one of the absolute treats of this album was to hear you and Billy Joel sing together on “Wichita Lineman”, because you both have such an individual history. To forge those histories together on this one song is such a rare treat to behold.

It was a weepy moment for me. Billy’s a good friend. “Wichita Lineman” was a song that he personally admires and he will tell you so. His back story is that, before the magic happened for him, he was following my career from a distance in California and thinking I’ve got to get out to California and be like that guy Jimmy Webb. Therefore you have Billy Joel’s trip to California to be a songwriter. It did not work out very well and developed in the song “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”. He came back here and of course, because basically he’s made out of talent, he’s one of the guys that I place most highly on the list of people I’d like to be when I grow up. I just admire him so much. I love to listen to all of his records, the obscure cuts that other people don’t seem to take much notice of are treasures to me. For me, when he came into the studio, and I happened to be there that night after I’d finished the first verse, I completely lost it. To hear him sing this song was an ending to a story, in a way, a powerful story and a huge story about a guy who dreamed of being a songwriter and in many ways completely eclipsed my modest success and made time in a very busy life to come into the studio. He sang “Wichita Lineman” with such love and affection. He just worked so hard for us: “Do you need this? Should I do it again?” He was just one of the guys.

It’s definitely communicated in the final result.

It was a special moment. You know these moments when they’re happening because they seem to be happening in 3-D. It’s almost like you’re outside your body watching yourself listening to Billy Joel singing “Wichita Lineman”. It’s out-of-body and you know that this isn’t going to happen again. This is the only time that this is going to happen. It’s just extraordinary and I was so happy that I could be there.

Another special moment is to hear you and Linda Ronstadt sing “All I Know”. The way that you described her performance as “translucent” and “papery” is so on the mark. That’s exactly what it is.

Linda had officially retired. When Freddy first brought up the notion that I would approach her about singing on the album I said, “You know that’s a no-starter. That’s just not going to happen. I can’t ask her to do it because I know what she’s going through emotionally. She’ll say ‘No’ and I’ll be embarrassed that I asked.” It’s always very touchy, the asking bit. It’s nice when someone volunteers or someone hears about the album and you get some indication from management or from the go-between who says, “So-and-so would be interested.”

In the case of Mark Knopfler, we’d been talking about doing something together for well over ten years so it was an old subject. It was not excruciatingly embarrassing or painful to contact Mark because I knew that he was always at least willing and possibly even [less] enthusiastic about doing a track on previous albums and it just hadn’t worked out from a timing point of view. Let’s face it, these people are busy. Every person on that record has a full-time job. I didn’t want to do it so we kicked it around for awhile. We got the track back. It was beautifully done by Bryan Sutton. He put the whole arrangement together. He overdubbed the various guitars. It was so freaking beautiful!

We’re sitting around talking and I finally said to Freddy, “I think I could send this track out to Linda without comment just to see what happens. I’d be more comfortable, frankly, if you did it because that means that she’s not under any pressure at all to say yes to me because we’re close. She’s like my sister.” He said, “Okay.” With a minimum of commentary, she received this track of “All I Know” in the mail. Within a couple of hours, she contacted Freddy and said, “I don’t know whether you can help me do this but if you think I can do this, I’d love to.” This was after she had held a press conference and said that she was retiring. He flew out to San Francisco and worked with her for a couple of days. When I heard it, I started crying. I wrote her an e-mail. I said, “Dear Linda, I’m listening to your duet with me and crying like a baby,” and she wrote me back and she said, “I too am crying for different reasons.” What came out of it was such a vulnerable performance from her that I think it’s unique. Of all the recording that she’s done that I’ve ever heard, it’s the most vulnerable Linda Ronstadt. It’s unmistakable who it is. It’s perfect and it’s beautiful but there’s a delicacy to it and a vulnerability to it that I don’t think I’ve ever heard from her.

Shifting towards the visual side of the album, where was the cover photographed?

It’s the bridge that goes from Arkansas into Tennessee. It was done by a wonderful lady named Jessie Dascher and she’s this brilliant young photographer. The whole package is one of the nicest jobs that’s ever been done on any of my records. There was something contagious about the whole manufacture of this record as it left our hands and it passed over into the record company’s hands. The record company put together one of the most beautiful looking CDs and it’s hard to make a beautiful looking CD because they’re small. The limitations are obvious but I can’t wait until you see the actual product. It’s really stunning!

Yes! It’s the perfect gateway to the music.

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