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Jimmy Webb interview: 'I don't regret lying for John Lennon'

Jimmy Webb

As he is in song, so he is in conversation: Jimmy Webb, legendary writer of By The Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Lineman and Galveston, is full of gems. Take, for instance, producer George Martin admitting to him that, having heard the American’s seven-minute, 21-second composition MacArthur Park, the Beatles purposefully lengthened Hey Jude.

“I think there was a little bit of penis envy going on,” a smiling Webb recalls of the circumstances surrounding a track that, in June 1968, was an unlikely US smash for hard-living Irish actor Richard Harris. “Every time MacArthur Park was played on the radio I got paid for three songs, because of the sheer length of it. And I think that the businessmen in Paul [McCartney] and John [Lennon] looked at that song and said: ‘Why don’t we have one of those?’ Let no one ever tell you that the music business is not competitive,” Webb chuckles in his easy-going drawl. “It’s a blood sport!”

It’s stories such as this – and his gift for telling them – that makes Webb’s new autobiography The Cake and the Rain such a page-turning triumph. We’re talking on the deck of a seafront restaurant in Bayville, Long Island. It’s a chichi part of New York State that counts Billy Joel, Rupert Murdoch, the late John Barry and Jay Gatsby among its other famous inhabitants.

In the history of 20th-century pop culture, the 71-year-old Oklahoman is equally iconic, genuine musical royalty. At the 1968 Grammys, when he was only 21, Webb’s compositions won eight awards. He wrote for Motown, helped make Glen Campbell a superstar, gave Harris an unexpected second career, and was covered by Frank Sinatra, Isaac Hayes, Barbra Streisand and hundreds more. A pianist and performer himself, Webb’s golden melodies and poetic, heartfelt lyrics were the populist sound of the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Equally, on the Los Angeles music scene of the era, Webb could raise hell with the best of them. His memoir abounds with anecdotes involving Herculean drug intake, eye-popping extravagance and ill-advised romances. One story from 1973 details his ringside seat during John Lennon’s fabled Lost Weekend. The former Beatle, his immigration status imperilled by FBI investigations into his political views and recreational habits, had split from Yoko Ono. Now he was holed up with new girlfriend May Pang and excess-all-areas musician Harry Nilsson.

Lennon (centre right) at the Troubadour club in West Hollywood, with girlfriend May Pang and singer Harry Nilsson (far right), March 12, 1974 Credit: Getty

“John and Harry were carving out new territory,” Webb offers, with mild understatement. One story – involving Lennon, rolled-up bank notes and an orifice other than the nasal passage – doesn’t bear further scrutiny here. Another is troubling in a different way: in an LA court, Webb vouchsafed Lennon’s innocence when the Englishman was alleged to have hit a woman outside the Troubadour club in 1974. Webb hadn’t been present.

Does he regret perjuring himself on behalf of the wayward ex-Beatle?

“To keep John in America? No. He wasn’t the most responsive, warm person in the world. But I don’t regret it, and I’d do it again.”

Webb is personable and discursive to a fault. Over our three-hour chat, this Anglophile history buff is happily sidetracked into discussions of the Reformation, Robert the Bruce and Exocet missiles in the Falklands War. A gentle bear of a man, Webb is also a low-key kind of legend, although he has driven here from the home he shares with his second wife in a fabulous soft-top yellow Thunderbird.

Jimmy Webb in the Seventies, with his Shelby Cobra 427 'Super Snake' Credit: Henry Diltz

Yet right now it’s the painful present that is preoccupying Webb. At the time of our interview it’s less than three weeks since the Nashville memorial concert in honour of Glen Campbell. His brother-in-song died in August after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Webb is clearly poleaxed by the loss. He’s an emotional man, as we might expect from a songsmith who wrote such deathless ballads as Didn’t We? (covered by Sinatra, who told Webb it reminded him of his stormy relationship with Ava Gardner). Performing a heartfelt rendition of the pair’s signature song Wichita Lineman at the private event at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Webb brought mourners to their feet. The loss of the country legend “hurts a lot”, he adds quietly, and he is talking about Campbell as a friend rather than as an intuitive outlet for his songs.

“Glen and I knew an awful lot about each other. We’d done many miles on the road together and had gone through all kinds of domestic crises – wives things – so obviously you’re gonna miss your mate. That’s something you’re never gonna really get over, no matter who you are or who you’ve lost.”

Jimmy Webb with singer Glen Campbell in the backyard of Webb's California home, 1974

Looking back in his book, Webb addresses head-on the love affairs that shaped him and his songwriting, but also bent him – among them, an ill-fated relationship with the wife of English composer Leslie Bricusse. He also confronts his raging enthusiasm, like that of his peers, for the newly “discovered” wonder-drug cocaine, which later morphed into a serious drinking habit. Webb has been teetotal for 18 years, after a spectacular solo bender on Thanksgiving shocked him into abstinence. But that story doesn’t appear in The Cake and the Rain.

“The book is confined by that Sixties thing, and just the beginning of the Seventies – I felt that that was necessary,” he explains. “The idealistic, ‘all you need is love’ thing that the Beatles told us was true: I swallowed that hook, line and sinker, and I was going to take as many people with me as I could. Money meant nothing to me, friendship was everything. And you have to ask yourself: how did this all end with Donald Trump?” he says, laughing.

The autobiography closes in 1973, just after Webb overdoses on PCP (“enough to kill an elephant,” he writes) and falls into a coma that almost robs him of his musical faculties. When I ask him, why stop there, he replies: “Well, to be candid, the very next thing that happened in my life was, I got married. And I wasn’t ready to open that subject.”

Jimmy Webb, playing with Ringo Starr

He had first encountered his future wife Patsy Sullivan – they were together for 22 years and had six children – on a magazine cover shoot. “Yeah, didn’t we all?” he cracks. “She was a very, very successful model, but very young,” he adds of Sullivan, who was reportedly 12 at the time of that meeting, but 19 when they wed.

All that, he insists, will be covered in volume two – but that will have to wait until he completes a new album, due next year. He doesn’t write “most days, but it’s always in my head. And I’m at the point now where I can write music without being at the piano. But,” he muses, “I really need to write a song tomorrow.”

Before he goes, there’s time for one last anecdote. Webb was at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, and was at the side of the stage when Jimi Hendrix set fire to his guitar. “I don’t think most of the audience could see this, but from the stage you could see him jumping through the fire – and he almost actually set himself on fire!” hoots Webb. “And the craziest thing was, the fire marshal was coming out there to try to drag Jimi’s ass off stage…”

That moment in counter-cultural history would have been something of a damp squib if health and safety had had their way. And the thought does provoke, finally, one regret from this glass-half-full nostalgist.

“I would have enjoyed setting fire to a piano,” Jimmy Webb laughs again, “absolutely.”

The Cake and the Rain (£20, Omnibus Press) is out now; order your copy online from the Telegraph Bookshop

 Jimmy Webb plays St James’s Church, London W1, on Sept 30; sjp.org.uk