A Tramp Shining

Band: Richard Harris
Album: A Tramp Shining
Best song: “MacArthur Park” is both the greatest and worst song.
Worst song: See above.

As evidenced by the beautiful Scarlett Johansson, actors-turned-singers need to have some grounding in musical theater to successfully make the transition to just singer. Richard Harris’s background in musicals make him someone who could phrase songs properly. The Irish actor’s turn in Camelot a year before made him perfect to intone songwriter Jimmy Webb’s songs.

I should probably say something here about Webb. Like a Burt Bachrach for the middle of the country, Webb’s compositions have a stateliness about them without delving into the crooning audacity of Bachrach’s stuff. Harris’ voice is not Glenn Campbell’s; he can’t handle the Webb arrangements as well as Campbell did.

Still, Webb’s outstandingly talented as a songwriter. Like much of the late 60s AM-radio composers, he dots nearly everyting with swirling strings and flowery, romantic lyrics. “Name of My Sorrow” tells the tale of, well, a breakup. Well, a bunch of breakups. It’s really over-the-top, but so is all of Webb’s work.

Which brings me to the single most ridiculous song ever written. “MacArthur Park” is wondrous in its grandiosity, a full seven and a half minutes of strangeness. The song is ostensibly about love, but you’d be hard-pressed to figure that out, considering the chorus:

MacArthur 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!

A cake. In the rain. Named after a public park in Los Angeles. It’s raining. He’s crying. He can’t bake it again.

There are some fantastic songs about dessert. “Lollipop”. “Sugar Sugar”. “Savoy Truffle” is fucking brilliant.

But, man, “MacArthur Park” takes the proverbial cake as the best song about a pastry. For one, the unabashed sincerity with which Harris intones the record. It would be easy to camp up the “cake out in the rain” portion, but Harris’ general lack of irony makes it such that the line seems anything but joking.

Similarly, the song’s arrangement is patently insane. It starts with a harpischord and ends with what appears to sound like a full orchestra crescendoing around Harris’ full-throated, sustained “Oh no!!!!”

Again, he’s talking about a green-iced cake. In the rain.

Being that the Simpsons is the cultural touchtone of my generation (Insect overlords and such), one of the great references to the song is the name of Troy McClure’s agent in the sublime “A Fish Called Selma.” Jeff Goldblum’s character, of course, is named MacArthur Parker.

In so many ways, that episode is so perfect because of the combination of reverence and mocking it has with regards to the classic film Planet of the Apes. The musical within the episode is amazing — some have called it the highlight of the series — and it highlights some of the insane aspects of the film. POTA is one of my favorite movies of all time partially because of this split; it’s patently ridiculous to use apes as an allegory to human race. Moreover, it’s wildly dated, with crazy jungle drums as the soundtrack and a young — and decidedly hirsute — Charlton Heston as the human. It’s so very different than what we are used to now.

Now we use vampires.

Not surprisingly, “MacArthur Park” has been called one of the worst songs of all time. I do not agree.

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  • By Pain is Beauty | Albums That I Own on November 13, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    […] a Simpsons DVD commentary track — I know, I know, I reference that show a lot — wherein Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley mention that a line written for Homer was beloved by […]

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    I'm Ross Jordan Gianfortune. I am not a writer, but I sometimes write here about music and my life. I live in Washington, DC.

    I used to review each of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 albums of all time. Now I'm writing about albums I own.

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