Wednesday, July 15, 2015

MacArthur Park

MacArthur Park by Richard Harris came on the radio recently. It’s a song I’ve heard a thousand times. It would have been more but I clicked to other stations half the time.  I don't particularly love it, but I don't dislike it either. It really just depends on my mood. And I am a Jimmy Webb fan. He wrote and produced it.

But as I listened this one time, driving around late one night (it must’ve been after midnight because the traffic was light enough that I wasn’t cursing idiot drivers), the song suddenly took on new meaning.

We all associate songs with things that occurred in our lives. Sometimes there’s a direct correlation. A love song that takes you back to a specific romance. A dance record that symbolizes an epic party and you want to vomit each time you hear it because that’s what you did six times that night.

Other songs evoke an emotion, and sometimes only your subconscious knows what’s it’s connected to. You just feel warm or sad or homicidal when you hear it.

But rarely does a song suddenly take on new meaning after almost fifty years. MacArthur Park however, has never been an ordinary song on any level.

Here’s what I realized for the first time. MacArthur Park represented my college experience.

It came out in the spring of 1968 just as I was entering UCLA. (UCLA is on the quarter system and I graduated high school in January.) In an era when songs had to be short to get coveted radio airplay (4 minutes max), MacArthur Park was a whopping 7:24. And yet there was such demand for it that stations were forced to play it.

High school was small. I had outgrown it. UCLA was big. High school was 3 minutes; UCLA was 7:24.

The setting is an iconic park in Los Angeles.  I was born and raised in LA.  My mother was born and raised in LA.  My family has been here since Zorro.  

MacArthur Park was overly dramatic. That was me, full of myself because I was going to college and mired in puberty. The song is filled with turgid imagery. I was now a “man of learning,” finding meaning and poetry in everything.

Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love’s hot, fevered iron
Like a striped pair of pants.

Deep, man!

But then there were lyrics that were so idiotic that even I recognized it.

Someone left the cake 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
Oh, no

What the fuck nonsense is that?

So I always had the perspective of not taking anything too seriously. Being able to spot and laugh at absurdity is I believe the key element to writing comedy. Thank you, Jimmy Webb. And seriously, what the fuck DOES that mean?

And yet, later there is a lyric that just kills me. Like most adolescents, I was rather obsessed with finding romance. Sex certainly but I longed for a girlfriend. And then the lyric came along…

After all the loves of my life, you’ll still be the one

That seemed so romantic – finding that one special girl who would always be “the one.” Sigh.  At the time however, every girl I went out with I thought was “the one.” Today I can’t even remember the names of half the girls who were “the one.”

But I still find that lyric touching.

Now the song changes direction and goes from a lush power ballad to a driving rock song. Hey, that’s me – I got my youth, I got my music. It’s party time! I would dance if I wasn’t such a shitty dancer. At first the rock section is fun and a welcome relief from the drama. But then it keeps going… and going. And after awhile I say “enough already.” I got classes in the morning.

There’s a whole stanza where Harris sings about the future course of his life. He’ll win and lose “the worship in their eyes.” He’ll have dreams, he’ll drink wine (Richard Harris drank a LOT of wine), he’ll be up, he’ll be down, he’ll have stuff, he’ll put all his stuff into perspective, etc. It’s essentially a graduation speech.

And finally the song swells to a thunderous crescendo. It sweeps me along. My emotions are raging, I’m about to be launched into the future that will chart the very course of my life. An angelic chorus is joining in.

Oh no. I’ll never have that recipe again. What’ll I do? What’ll I do?

And then the song ends with a flourish. And I say…


Yep, that was my college experience.


Mike Barer said...

Now I really have that song in my head!

Bob Zirunkel said...


Michael Hill said...

What does it mean? I mean, it's like this cake was, like, in the rain and it was, like, melting and, like, he can't have another one ever because, like, he doesn't know the recipe. I mean, isn't that like life sometimes? It's heavy, man.

AlaskaRay said...

I once left a cake out in the rain. The cleanup was the worst part.

Carol said...

I remember that song from the 70's, when it was sung by *looks it up* Donna Summer in 1978.

My mother's sister and her family were coming over to our house one rainy night for dinner, and bringing dessert. My cousin recounted this story to me:

She and her sister were talking, and my cousin was talking about how annoying that song was, and how stupid the lyric 'someone left the cake out in the rain.' My uncle heard that part of the conversation and came dashing into the room exclaiming 'someone left the cake in the rain? Oh no!'

true story.

charlottesometimesnot said...

Never heard or even heard OF the original until Weird Al made this in the 90s:

Oat Willie said...

Webb wasn't fucking around with those cake lyrics. He was expressing a broken up relationship, like you can also hear in "The Worst That Could Happen". Webb, like Bacharach, has been removed from history because The Corporation is focusing resources on promoting Pink. Now we don't have the luxury of discussing soggy cakes, we're worried about our Spotify account.

VP81955 said...

When Frank Sinatra did his version (for the "Trilogy" album, I believe), he ignored the silly "cake out in the rain" section -- which for him would've been musical overacting -- and simply sang the bridge beginning with "There will be another song for me." (This was nothing new for Sinatra, who cut a version of "Stardust" nearly two decades earlier that consisted solely of Mitchell Parish's less-remembered opening verse and ignored the more familiar "Sometimes I wonder..." chorus done on countless recordings, including one Frank cut with Tommy Dorsey in the early '40s).

Sinatra also recorded another Jimmy Webb composition associated with Richard Harris, the far less pretentious (and arguably more effective) "Didn't We."

I was 12 and living on the other coast when "MacArthur Park" hit the charts in early 1968, little knowing that some 46 years later, I'd live a few blocks north of said park -- part of a neighborhood significantly changed from what it was in '68 -- seeking a second act to my life as a screenwriter.

Mike Schryver said...

Then there's the SCTV version where Harris performs the song on "Mel's Rock Pile". A woman sits behind Harris the whole time reading a book and walks to the mike at the end to hit the final note.

Mike Schryver said...

Okay, I didn't notice that's what the link was to.

AstroBoy said...

Oh man, something about those classic Jimmy Webb songs. MacArthur Park always gets me and I haven't a clue why. And like you that one line "And after all the loves of my life, you'll still be the one" just sticks in the middle of my chest. But it's "Wichita Lineman" that just destroys me every time, especially the line "And I need you more then want you." I would have killed to be the one who wrote that lyric!

Jason said...

The "cake" thing just makes me hate that song so so much.

SharoneRosen said...

I was around 15 years old when that song came out. I was just as moody and angst ridden as any hormonal kid that age. Even I thought those song lyrics were ridiculous and overwrought. Cake out in the rain?? What the hell???

And yet, when I hear it, the song strikes a chord of nostalgia, makes me a little misty and boomerangs me back to my little hippie self.

Pat Reeder said...

I can't say that song has any particular meaning for me (other than as another "singing actor" record to chronicle for "Hollywood Hi-Fi," and a good record to put on when I was a radio DJ and needed a long bathroom break); but I will give it credit that ever since I first heard it, I have never once left a cake out in the rain.

I did once leave a Twinkie out in a hailstorm, but it emerged miraculously unscathed.

I am a little younger than you, so I was lucky enough that my entire youthful experience could be summed up by Elvis Costello in "Mystery Dance" in a minute and 28 seconds.

Paul B said...

I remember Richard Harris on the Tonight Show, when Johnny Carson said he heard that Richard stopped drinking. Harris replied "I didn't drink, I assaulted the bottle"

Wayne said...

You hark back to a begone era when LA had rain.

Wayne said...

I meant bygone era.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Richard Harris - the Bob Dylan of Britain.

Loved him as English Bob in my favorite western, "Unforgiven."

Anonymous said...

Allegedly, the song was about a first-time oral sex encounter the writer had initiated with his girlfriend in MacArthur Park. The cake business is when the writer shifts the first person narrative from himself to the girlfriend, proceeding into the cake in the rain descriptive. Then it shifts back to the writer, who carries on about her dress down around her knees. It is rumored that LSD gave a helping hand to the metaphors.
Hope this helps.

Spring was never waiting for us, girl
It ran one step ahead
As we followed in the dance
Between the parted pages and were pressed
In love's hot, fevered iron
Like a striped pair of pants

MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake 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
Oh, no

I recall the yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave
On the ground around your knees
The birds, like tender babies in your hands
And the old men playing checkers
By the trees

Jake Mabe said...

The cake in the rain is just that. Jimmy Webb got dumped by a girl in MacArthur Park. Nearby, a little girl was having a birthday party -- with cake. It started to rain. This from Jimmy Webb himself.

My favorite song of his varies between "Highwayman" (the 1978 original by Glen Campbell) and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress." Cause she sure as hell IS hard to call your own...

But I am an unabashed fan of "MacArthur Park."

Jake Mabe said...

The cake in the rain is just that. Jimmy Webb got dumped by a girl in MacArthur Park. Nearby, a little girl was having a birthday party -- with cake. It started to rain. This from Jimmy Webb himself.

My favorite song of his varies between "Highwayman" (the 1978 original by Glen Campbell) and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress." Cause she sure as hell IS hard to call your own...

But I am an unabashed fan of "MacArthur Park."

Jake Mabe said...

The cake in the rain is just that. Jimmy Webb got dumped by a girl in MacArthur Park. Nearby, a little girl was having a birthday party -- with cake. It started to rain. This from Jimmy Webb himself.

My favorite song of his varies between "Highwayman" (the 1978 original by Glen Campbell) and "The Moon's A Harsh Mistress." Cause she sure as hell IS hard to call your own...

But I am an unabashed fan of "MacArthur Park."

norm said...

I had graduated HS in May of 1968. For the summer I worked at night as a janitor at the University I would attend in the fall. It was FANTASTIC to meet the coeds on the campus ..... but like Ken only to admire them from afar!
So, with a lot of extra time I had a transistor radio that would pick up the Tonight Show on the FM dial. I heard the Carson interviews that summer and it was also there I remember Harrison singing that song ---- going on, and on. Good times.

DwWashburn said...

Jimmy Webb wrote some great songs. This isn't one of them. Add that to the fact that Richard Harris by his own admission was not a singer and this is a song that immediately sends my finger to the station changing button anytime it comes on broadcast radio. And don't get me started on the Donna Summer version. Yuk!

I'll take Jimmy's "The Name of my Sorrow" (not the Harris version) any day.

benson said...

If MacArthur Park is about his first oral sex encounter, then we certainly know where the playground was, Suzie.

Thank you folks. Tip your wait staff.

Gerry said...

I just listened to the whole song to see what I remembered of it. Just for context, I graduated high school in '69, and I was (and still am) a compulsive singer-along with the radio. I used to clip all the lyrics of every top 40 song out of Hit Parade magazine and I'm pretty sure I still have them all clipped together, buried in some box somewhere. ( I thought "Who Will Answer" by Ed Ames was one of the most PROFOUND THINGS I HAD EVER HEARD!)
But listening to Macarthur Park, I don't recall ever having any desire whatsoever to sing this song or even learn the lyrics. Eve back then it was a real oddball among pop tunes. So there's that.

Unknown said...

Bah, you can find the recipe now if you google it

Norm! said...

Back in the day, MacArthur Park inspired no less than three jokes in The Simpsons. One was Marge putting on her resume that she wrote it, another was an Indian kid, a relative of Apu's, singing it in the school talent contest, and the third was Troy McClure's agent, voiced by Jeff Goldblum, actually being called MacArthur Park.

Cap'n Bob said...

I like it and I always thought the imagery had to do with an LSD trip.

Anonymous said...

Richard Harris' version was part of the soundtrack of my youth. Donna Summer's my early adulthood. Such a timely post as I am currently reading a bio of Harris/Burton/O'Toole and Oliver Reed. From what I can gather Harris was not such a great person who was totally out of control. I used to love him with Carson though. Janice B.

Anonymous said...

Holy cow, you people are so lame. I tried to be delicate about it, but you're too dense. Here's what ALLEGEDLY happened, specifically:

The writer was in love with this girl. The girl "loved" him as a friend, but didn't want to consummate the relationship with intercourse, as she felt it would ruin the relationship. Many of you men here have had that happen to you MANY times, I'm sure.

So, perhaps thanks to certain drugs available back in the day, he managed to talk her into allowing him to perform oral sex on her, for the first time. That would be HER first time, not his.

So, "Between the parted pages" would be referring to her legs, and "were pressed In love's hot, fevered iron," would be referring to his FACE!

Damn, you people make me mad.

So then, the narrative switches from the man in the first person, to first person female in this escapade, in which she says:

"MacArthur's Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain"

The cake is referring to her vagina. Got it?

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
Oh, no"

She's saying, the act of sex, even though it's just oral, in her mind, ruined her "friend" relationship with the guy, as it usually does. The carefully crafted relationship she had is now in the crapper, in her mind. Most of you would have experienced this, since you lack the skill to talk a beautiful girl into having oral sex in MacArthur Park on your best day. Which is why you nerds can't even comprehend that someone actually did it, much less be boasting about it in a seven minute song.

I know that's harsh, but you guys make me so mad. I shouldn't have to explain this!

MacArthur Park is a great song, about a guy who scored the best he could with some petal-pushing hippy girl who wasn't giving anything up easily. He did what any capable clear-headed man would do, when told that sex would ruin a wonderful loving friendship with a hot girl: talk her into doing it anyway.

MacArthur Park is a victory song for all men. It tells the tale of a man circumventing all obstacles, and winning the day with cleverness, and wit.

Hope this helps.

Norm! said...


Do you need a hug?

Anonymous said...

MacArthur Park was part of a longer piece called Cantata that Jim Webb wrote about his breakup with Linda Ronstadt's sister.
Bones Howe offered the song to The Association, sure that they would take it. They listened and said any two of them could write a better song than that. That was a fateful decision by The Association, and marked the beginning of the end of the group. Should have listened to Bones on that one.
Webb shelved the song for a while - he was the hottest songwriter in LA at the time, He sang it at a West LA fundraiser where Richard Harris happened to attend. They got along well, probably knocked back a couple and sang some Irish songs. Harris said we have to work together sometime.
A couple of months later out of nowhere Harris flew Webb to England. Webb brought Cantata and some other stuff, none of which Harris liked until he heard MAcArthur Park. He loved it when he heard it again. He wasn't a singer but he felt he had to do it. They flew back to LA got Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew to play on it. Supposedly Harris had a bottle by his side the whole time they recorded it.
The knew they had a masterpiece but at 7+ minutesAM radio wouldn't touch it. They got it on FM radio and it was so popular, that AM radio reversed their decision. As much as any song, MAcArthur Park changed the general rule that AM radio would not play songs longer than four minutes.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, not Linda's sister- her cousin

MikeK.Pa. said...

Webb was on LSD when he wrote this? And all these years I thought he was spooning Betty Crocker icing for comfort and inspiration.

Anonymous said...

God, men are so pathetic, but if you can just accept that the first thing they can ever think about in any situation morning, noon, and night, is sex; and not be offended about it, you can have a lot of fun with them. And if they're getting plenty, they can do great things---create great art, lead nations, add to the immortal canon of civilization.

I cannot possibly put my name on this.

Nic said...

I guess I have a 21st century attention span. This song is just too damn long to hold my interest.

Igor said...

Ken, FYI re Tom Gage -
"One of the best baseball reporters reflects on how coverage has changed"

Loops said...

Mel's Rockpile. Totally.

D. McEwan said...

Since we're the same age, this song is also one I associate with my freshman year of college. My new college friends and I ate lunch together every day at a small diner near the campus that had better food than the college's lunch room. They had a juke box, and every day, as we had lunch (Usually about six or seven of us), I'd play MacArthur Park and Those Were The Days My Friends on that juke box. I was always pretty clear on what MacArthur Park meant, but these days, I know that Those Were The Days My Friends are VERY MUCH how I feel about those long ago days, particularly given that most of my fellow lunchers from back then are all dead now.

Those were the days, my friends,
We thought they'd never end,
We'd sing and dance, forever and a day.
We'd live the life we'd choose.
We'd fight and never lose,
For we were young, and sure to have our way.

Oh yes, those words certainly have meaning for me now.

Barbara said...

Well, D. McEwen, I would have guessed that you went to the same college I did, except that the jukebox was in the dorm dining room and it seemed like every time I was in there for lunch, somebody would play that song. I had to listen to some guy wailing about that cake recipe so often I loathed it. I would have been much happier listening to "Those Were the Days My Friends."

I associate MacArthur Park with a half-empty dining room, the smell of grease from the short-order grill, and neighboring table conversations dominated by nasal Long Island accents that were foreign to my upstate ears.

Ted said...

You forgot to mention that MacArthur Park is across from Langer's Deli, home of the nation's best pastrami sandwich (so says everyone who counts, sorry New York, you lose at your own game).

tavm said...

I was just a kid when I first heard this song on the Ray Coniff and his singers album-Turn Around Look at Me-which had a stunning blond haired woman on the cover. "Someone left the cake out in the rain" really caught my ear as it also did when I heard Richard Harris' version during an hour of '80s songs on AM radio as well as Donna Summer's disco version. I also remember Dave Thomas' hilarious hands going up and down constantly during that instrumental bridge which was played forever on the "Mel's Rock Pile" sketch on "SCTV"! And now I saw Will Lee with The CBS Orchestra on "Late Show with David Letterman" perform it with Jimmy Webb and I'm just stunned at how awesome he was at that! Okay, I think I'm exhausted now...

tavm said...

Correction: It should say "an hour of '60s songs"...

tavm said...

Another correction: I meant to put " on YouTube" between "saw" and "Will".

VP81955 said...

Jimmy Webb should thank the Hearst newspaper chain for the success of that song. Until 1942, the park was known as Westlake Park (for the neighborhood it was in). But that year, the Hearst papers in Los Angeles (the morning Examiner and the evening Herald-Express) waged a successful campaign to rename the park for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, leader of U.S. forces in the Pacific. (Hearst eyed MacArthur as a potential postwar presidential candidate.) "Westlake Park is melting in the dark" frankly just doesn't cut it as a lyric.

Anonymous said...

Norm! said...


Do you need a hug?"

Oh, Norm!
If I knew you were coming, I'd have baked a cake!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"God, men are so pathetic, but if you can just accept that the first thing they can ever think about in any situation morning, noon, and night, is sex; and not be offended about it, you can have a lot of fun with them. And if they're getting plenty, they can do great things---create great art, lead nations, add to the immortal canon of civilization.

I cannot possibly put my name on this."

Speaking on behalf of all straight men: I love you.

Brent Alles said...

In that SCTV "Mel's Rockpile" sketch, Dave Thomas as Richard Harris randomly getting hit with a brick never fails to make me laugh.

Pete Grossman said...

I dig the instrumental rock part of the song. That's about it. These guys had to be on drugs to approve Richard Harris to belt this out (a few of which he needed, I'm sure, to get through this octave hopping ballad).

Here's a version of the song on Letterman. Will Lee nails it - especially at the end, cake and all!

McAlvie said...

I always thought this song was an inside joke. Like they wanted to see if anyone really paid attention to the words. Years later I tried to tell someone what the lyrics were and they didn't believe me, in spite of being familiar with the song. That reinforced my suspicion.

Barry in Portland said...

The one line that still (age 63) gets me is NOT the one quoted above - it's the topper, from the next verse:

"After all the loves of my life, I'll be thinking of you.....and wondering 'why'?".

Anonymous said...

Always thought Jim Webb and Van Dyke Parks were the same person. Bothering lyrics that were occasionally nonsense, except Parks' was often about wordplay and Webb was just odd. "I need you more than want you" is not normal.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous at 1:02AM

So glad you understood what I said!

Jake Mabe said...

Anyonymous 10:53 a.m.

"And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time..." Finish the goddamn line, and it makes perfect sense.

Anonymous said...

I have no problem with the "cake left in the rain". Remember how a piece of wedding cakes were kept frozen for a year, to be defrosted and eaten on the celebration of your first wedding anniversary? Not all marriages last that long. Then, there's the memory of the trees and the grass of the park, slowly fading as the years go by. Makes perfect sense to me. You can read all the sex into the song that you want- or which Jimmy Webb may have intended- but for me, it's a small park in upstate New York back in the nineteen sixties. It will always be that park, that day, no matter how time fades it away. I loved the pretentious song; I loved my first girlfriend.
As a coda: we met in 1965; the park was in 1970. We're still in touch, though we're hundreds of miles apart, and today is her birthday. After all the loves of my life, she'll still be the one."

dede blunt said...

Astroboy, same here for both comments.