I Love—Jimmy Webb?

I knew time was softening my jaw line, expanding my belt size, and even shaving almost an inch off my height. What I wasn’t expecting was that simultaneously, it was surreptitiously fooling with my taste—my artistic taste. And yet there was the evidence, plain as day: all of a sudden, I liked Jimmy Webb.

When I was kid, it wasn’t cool to like Webb’s songs. It was even uncooler to like the people who sang them, notably Dionne Warwick and Glen Campbell. The music snobs I ran with wanted to dynamite top 40 off the face of the earth and play Jimi Hendrix 24 hours a day. Short of that, we limited our listening to the usual hip suspects: Beatles, Stones, some Motown, anything on Stax. The list went on, but maybe you’re getting the idea: we’d have sooner died than listen to Glen Campbell, never mind liking a song he sang. OK, he was a great guitar picker and he had some cool people on his TV show, but my revisionist take on Glen can wait.

Jimmy Webb wrote lyrical, sweepingly romantic songs that seemed to beg for string sections. At 16, I couldn’t imagine anything more dorky. So I tuned out his songs whenever I heard someone extolling the virtues of Galveston or saying what would be happening when they got to Phoenix. Some part of my brain was listening, though. It had to. That was the thing about top 40: in its heyday you heard everything—from Aretha to the Strawberry Alarm Clock to Stevie Wonder—whether you liked it or not, and sooner or later it all earwormed its way into your brain. So for years, now and then, the opening bars of “Wichita Lineman” would pop up, for no particular reason, on my interior jukebox. I’d hum a couple of lines until I ran out of lyrical recall, and then stand there wondering where the heck that had come from.

Three decades later—OK, maybe four—an advance copy of a new Jimmy Webb album arrived in the mail. It was one of those awful [Your Favorite Artist] Sings Duets With [Other Artists Who You Probably Don’t Like as Much]. Webb was paired with Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, Vince Gill, Lucinda Williams, and a few others. The guest list should have made me think, but I was oblivious, at first glance, to the obvious fact that most of these artists are themselves great songwriters.

But there was “Wichita Lineman,” so I thought, what the heck, let’s see what it sounds like after all this time. And wouldn’t you know, I loved it, even if the duet was with Billy Joel (tough love!). In all the years since I hadn’t been listening to Webb’s songs, I’d learned enough to recognize that here was a man who knew how to write great melodies and lyrics that even at 16 I should’ve recognized as wonderful, if only because he did what I’d then so desperately wanted songwriters to do: stop writing love songs all the time. Webb didn’t write love songs, or rather he did, but he made them sound, at first listen, like songs about something else.

“Wichita Lineman” is about a county-government guy who patrols the highway looking for downed lines—power lines? Fences? I don’t know. But he’s yearning for someone whose voice he hears singing in everything around him. It’s a simple, understated lyric, and because Webb wraps the emotion in the language of work and everyday things, it comes out all the more powerfully, especially when grafted to a melody that somehow manages to be subtle (all those minor sevenths) and bighearted all at once. This is a very cool song.

Maybe the simple fact was that I’d learned to listen better over the course of my life, but there was no getting around the fact that now I liked something I’d once disdained. These things happen—a few years after college, I woke up one day and realized I didn’t care if I ever read another Henry James novel as long as I lived, and I’d dearly loved Henry James there for a while. But when these little shifts occur, it’s disturbing, like an inner trembler presaging an earthquake that never comes. This is hard to accept, especially if you start out in life thinking it’s important to discriminate between good and bad, high and low—just good to be a hanging judge on artistic matters. Then, suddenly, something you loved doesn’t mean a thing anymore, or something you scorned now looks pretty hot. Is there not some unassailable core of you-ness in there that never changes? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, and like so much of what life throws at you, these little alterations in taste encourage humility and some healthy second-guessing. Personal taste is, like it or not, fungible stuff, even if it did take so long to bake it, even if I never have that recipe again.

Hey, I said fungible, not infinitely malleable. Nothing will ever make me like “MacArthur Park.” Sorry, Jimmy.

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