The celebrated songwriter Jimmy Webb played the second of two concerts at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley last night, and went over very well to a good size crowd. The setlist consisted almost entirely of massive hit songs that have been beloved for decades, played with virtuosic invention on a nine-foot Steinway grand piano and, well... sung, for the most part.
I've always been a strong partisan of the idea that technically/ traditionally weak singing voices are miles more interesting and pleasing than those we think of as great. (Cf. Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman, "All my favorite singers couldn't sing," etc.) But Webb's vocal struggles put that belief to the test last night. Luckily for all of us, he is a masterful pianist, and the numbers were so familiar you could hear the melodies in your mind, supporting his lead vocals. At his best moments—a subdued take on "Galveston," a gorgeous whisper of "All I Know"—he evoked Warren Zevon. In most instances, it was a case of the song, not the singer.
(Though I'm not sure I would necessarily run to hear him sing "Wichita Lineman" ever again.)
Webb is a fascinating figure, even apart from his catalogue of tunes. His 1998 book about songwriting, "Tunesmith," is an essential text for anyone seeking to understand the discipline. His career has spanned 50 years, during which time his musical aesthetic leaned against the cool grain of counterculture, despite the fact that he's clearly an iconoclast with a penchant for rock'n'roll wildness and a chip on his shoulder for being thought of as MOR just because he wrote "Didn't We?" and liked playing in Vegas.
See also: "MacArthur Park," a song that perfectly occupies the precise intersection of good and bad, high and low, art and schlock, genius and folly. And yet, see also "Wichita Lineman," one of the most majestic, melancholy, permanent songs ever written... in a matter of hours, while Glen Campbell and the Wrecking Crew waited in the studio, apparently.
“I don’t think I’ll revisit this catalogue again,” Webb told the Telegraph in 2013. “I’ve spent 15 years doing By The Time I Get to Phoenix and Wichita Lineman, and I just can’t do it any more.” But in his stage show and his recent memoir, The Cake and the Rain, he makes it clear that there is still a lot of life in these songs and the stories that surround them.
Like every music biz lifer, it appears that Webb has made his required peace with the knowledge that, in fact, he will never stop revisiting his catalogue, his audience wouldn't stand for it.
Speaking of stories, Webb's well-rehearsed, but still excellent between-song anecdotes about showbiz colleagues and heroes—Glen Campbell, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Rivers, Elvis Presley, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, the Fifth Dimension, et al.—took up approximately 50 percent of his stage time. Perhaps that choice was due to some discomfort with singing, or maybe simply because he's a brilliant performer who understands that the stories really do bolster the music with context, affection, and laughs.
In many ways the monologues were more "personal" than the numbers, at least in the strictest sense of autobiography—never more so than in his lengthy and vituperative diatribe against Kanye West.
According to Webb's version of events, West heard Nina Simone's 1968 recording of Webb's song "Do What You Gotta Do" and, assuming she was the author, recorded a cover of the song—"without permission!"—featuring Rihanna singing the chorus, then proceeded to "lay a rap track over my song!" After a lot of other work, the song that emerged was called "Famous." It appeared on West's 2016 album The Life of Pablo, and the single, with its video starring naked mannequin lookalikes of West, Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian, Bill Cosby, and others all in the same bed, was a pretty big hit, if songs and videos can still be hits.
Webb wasn't cool with it, partly because, he said, he doesn't consider what Kanye West does to be art. "He doesn't know shit about art," was the fine point he put on the matter. (I will return to this in a moment.)
The more concrete issue has to do with credits, money, and a Grammy nomination. "Do What You Gotta Do" has one author, Jimmy Webb, and has been covered many times, by a diverse array of artists. "Famous" is credited to 18 writers: Kanye West, Cydel Young, Kejuan Muchita, Noah Goldstein, Andrew Dawson, Mike Dean, Chancelor Bennett, Kasseem Dean, Ernest Brown, Ross Birchard, Pat Reynolds, Jimmy Webb, Winston Riley, Luis Enriquez Bacalov, Enzo Vita, Sergio Bardotti, Giampiero Scalamogna, Malik Yusef.
Webb explained that "two different musicologists" had determined that "Do What You Gotta Do" constituted 45 percent of "Famous" (though elsewhere he has said the figure is 35 percent, though that doesn't really matter for the purposes of this discussion), and thus, he was sure to be paid and credited.
But there's credit and there's recognition.
When the 2017 Grammy nominations were announced, "Famous" was up for Best Rap Song, an award which recognized the achievement of a songwriter (as opposed to a performer or producer. The list of nominated writers contained only 12 of the 18 relevant names, of which Jimmy Webb was conspicuously absent—most conspicuously of all to one Jimmy Webb.
That the Grammys are governed by Byzantine precepts is not news to anyone who follows them casually. But given the relatively new creative processes that obtain to the production and creation of hiphop in particular, the means by which the Grammys determine how one writer of a song gets the nod while the other is just window dressing is extra perplexing. And in a way, you can understand why Webb would still be pissed about what he clearly regards as a major slight.
You certainly couldn't have failed to understand that he was pissed if you were in the room at Jazz Alley last night (or apparently the night before, when he is reported to have said "I hope he chokes on his fucking Grammy," though Webb surely knows that "Famous" lost the award to Kendrick Lamar's "Humble." (Oh the irony of song titles.)
In an evening of stories about the time Glen Campbell called up to say "Jimmy! We need a song!" and two weeks later "Wichita Lineman" was on the radio, Webb's Kanye West antipathy struck a sour note. In the bright lexicon of arguing about music, there is no more embarrassing position to hear from someone you admire than the dusty old idea that hiphop somehow isn't really music, or indeed, isn't really art.
I once read the great phrase apparently used by scientists and academics to address certain specious hypotheses: "not even wrong." It's obviously applicable here.
But there's something more sinister about the whole tradition of dismissing rap as form, especially when coming from a great songwriter whose appreciation for the form extends to having written one of the most cogent and utilitarian books ever published on the subject. The racial and generational components of such a mindless view should go without saying (not that anything on the internet ever does). But I read a more essential, and possibly even equally primal element in Webb's grudge: Resentment over a lack of deference.
Reviewing The Life of Pablo for this publication (how I miss those days), Larry Mizell, Jr. wrote that West's "hubris is the last thing I'm worried about, but it concerns me that it's the main thing about him that upsets White America." And it's undeniable that when people object to Kanye's intermittent omnipresence in the media, the outrage tends to be about his temerity rather than his aesthetics.
It's not that Kanye West isn't as good as Kendrick Lamar or Gucci Mane or Future or whomever (sorry if these references make me sound like your great-grandfather); it's that how dare someone who does nothing but say rhyming words over rhythms constructed on a computer dare to think of himself in the company of Nina Simone? That was the name that Webb enlisted most frequently in his defense of "Do What You Gotta Do?" as a written song with integrity that extends from the author to the performer. And in that sense, he was entirely right. It's a good song, and any songwriter should have good reason to be honored by Simone deeming it worthy of recording.
But as great an artist as she was, her version of the song went on a record, which went into stores, and was promoted and sold, and now lives on via Spotify and YouTube. Same with Johnny Rivers's version, and Glen Campbell's, and Roberta Flack's, and Linda Ronstadt's. And Kanye West's, which took liberties with the song that he certainly didn't invent. If anything, "Famous" treats "Do What You Gotta Do" with a lot more integrity than, I don't know, "Ghetto Superstar," or "I'll Be Missing You," or "U Can't Touch This," or any of the hundreds of similarly crafted songs treated their source elements during the first few generations of hybrid chart hiphop.
I guess I'm stuck on this moment because I really, really admire Jimmy Webb as a songwriter, particularly for his ability to disappear in his compositions without letting them lose their essential humanity. He's a great formalist who somehow has that gift for crucial details—like the gun in "Galveston"—that centralize the narrative, and make the feeling in the melody all the more accessible. And so when a guy with three Grammys on the wall, 50 years of massive evergreen hits, and no shortage of people lining up to give him further accolades, takes umbrage at an unpalatably cocky but, let's be serious, undeniably talented record maker having the audacity to edit and rap over his song... well, it may not be the worst that could happen, but it's a drag, nonetheless.
Not to suggest that the tone of the whole evening was quite so bitter, but there was one other interesting moment. By way of explaining the crankiness of his long intro to "Do What You Gotta Do," Webb explained that every generation of songwriters tends to hate the one that follows. Joni Mitchell, he said, "hates Alanis Morrisette. She'd kill her if she could." Then, for his own part, he chose a name that seemed sort of arbitrary: "Dave Matthews doesn't know shit about songwriting! He couldn't write his way out of a paper bag!" Whatever your feelings about Mr. Matthews's music, he did seem an odd choice to illustrate the concept of an intergenerational feud between professional songwriters.
A few minutes later, a friend of mine was returning to his seat and leaned over to tell me he had just seen Matthews in Jazz Alley's bathroom. My first thought was, "Oh, SHIT! I wonder if he heard—" then the penny dropped and I realized we'd all just witnessed an excellent inside joke among, if not friends, then certainly among colleagues.
I don't imagine it occurred to anyone in the room to keep their eyes peeled for Kanye West, though.