A silly song for Dumbledore and Mr. Sinatra
September 17, 2012
A few times in life, if we are lucky enough, we brush up against something perfect.
I mentioned the other day that my wife and I attended a Jimmy Webb concert at Stephen F. Austin State University (SFA) in Nacogdoches, Texas, on September 14. Jimmy Webb is one of the greatest living songwriters (“The Highywayman,” “Didn’t We?”, ” By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Up, Up and Away,” “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman,” to name a few).
Yes, Nacogdoches, a town named after one of two twin Indian princes, the other being Natchitoches. But, that’s another story altogether.
For two hours Friday evening, Jimmy Webb sat on a piano stool and played and sang and told stories.
He talked about his running battle with alcoholism. He hasn’t had a drink in almost eleven years now (Thanksgiving Day is his dry anniversary).
He told of a time when Richard Harris (that’s Dumbledore to the Harry Potter crowd) invited him to London to write him a song. It was Jimmy’s first time across the pond. A kid in his twenties, he said he fell in love with the first three women he met before he realized all the girls talked like that over there. But one of the girls got under his skin. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get anywhere with her.
He employed his tried and true default strategy: Write her a song, a song of maudlin love, unrequited. And sing it for her.
So this beautiful English girl sat on the piano bench next to him in the recording studio as he sang her the new song he had written just for her. When he finished, he asked her what she thought of it.
“It’s rather silly,” she said in her deepest accent. She meant it.
So, he tucked that song away and headed back to the States with his tail between his legs.
The song languished in a stack of other songs.
Until he got a chance to pitch some songs to Art Garfunkel, who had just split the sheet with Paul Simon. Jimmy played every song he had in his repertoire for Art, and Art shook his head no. Finally, in desperation, he pulled out the “silly” song. “I bruise you, you bruise me…”
Jimmy played some more songs for us, and then launched into how he came to write for Frank Sinatra. He had been trying to get his foot in the door with him for a long time. Just like every other songwriter in LA. Sinatra’s gatekeeper kept calling him a punk and telling him to take a hike.
One day, Jimmy was at his flea bag apartment, sleeping under his piano, when the phone rang.
“He wants to hear some songs,” the guy on the other end said.
“He’s waiting for you now.” Click.
Jimmy gathered some sheet music and demo tapes, threw them in a grocery bag, jumped in his rusted out ’59 VW and raced to Sinatra’s house. In the driveway, he spilled the tapes out of the bag and had to chase after them. When he got to the door, he could see Sinatra looking through the glass at him.
He had seen Jimmy dancing after the fleeing tapes.
“What are you, some kind of weirdo? You’re not one of those Manson gang members are you?” Sinatra barked at him. Then he smiled at Jimmy. In the background, the gatekeeper was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.
“C’mon in, kid. I want to hear some good songs,” Sinatra said as he opened the door.
A week later, Jimmy Webb sat next to a Las Vegas stage, when Sinatra motioned to Bill Miller, his pianist, and he struck up the opening to the song. “This time, we almost made the pieces fit, didn’t we, girl?…”
Stories and songs from Jimmy Webb.
It doesn’t get any better than that.