Like a Striped Pair of Pants

MacArthur Park is a real place, located in downtown Los Angeles, the former Westlake Park, which was renamed for General Douglas MacArthur in 1942. It provides the setting for the most famous image in the song named for it: “Mac Arthur’s Park is melting in the dark/All the sweet green icing flowing down/Someone left the cake out in the rain.” That image and others in the song notwithstanding, Jimmy Webb intended “Mac Arthur Park” to be about a love affair gone wrong, and not a cryptic commentary on existence or something. (According to the entry at Songfacts—a site that is frequently more full of shit than Wikipedia at its worst, so caveat emptor—the cake that got left out in the rain was hashish, although that’s nonsense based on a plain reading of the lyric. The same source suggests that Richard Harris believed it was about “the death of hippie,” which is a far more interesting interpretation.)

But even if “Mac Arthur Park” was just an ornate love song, Webb probably had its epic nature in mind from the start. His original pitch of the song to the Association made it the finale of what would be a 22-minute suite. Their producer didn’t feel strongly enough about the suite to invest a whole album side in it, however. So it ended up with Harris, but he wouldn’t be only performer to hit the pop charts with it.

—Waylon Jennings recorded a version with the Kimberlys that spent a couple of weeks in the lower reaches of the Hot 100 in September 1969 and hit Number 23 on the country chart the next month. I was just about to call it “an understated version,” but nearly every version this side of the original would probably be understated by definition. Jennings turns it into a reflective ballad—an approach that improves on the original.

—In October 1971, the Four Tops took the song to Number 38. In its full-length version, it’s a very un-Tops-like performance, in which Levi Stubbs restrains his innate need to testify until well past the four-minute mark. The charted version was titled “Mac Arthur Park (Part II)”; I can’t recall hearing it before this week, but I suspect that part II begins at about the three-minute mark of the video linked above. Stubbs also sings “Mac Arthur Park is melting in the dark,” and not “Mac Arthur’s Park,” which is how Harris sings it. Webb tried to get Harris to dump the possessive but failed, and it seems to me that the way Harris did it is better.

—In November 1978, Donna Summer did what Richard Harris could not, capturing the Number-One spot on the Hot 100. Oddly enough, her recording was part of a suite, although not the one Webb pitched to the Association. She stretched the song to eight minutes plus, although it was cut down to 3:59 for the single. (I played it during the first radio show I ever did.)

A few years back, columnist Dave Barry polled his readers, and they crowned “Mac Arthur Park” the worst song of all time. It isn’t, but that’s a topic for a separate post. In fact, it’s powerfully evocative of 1968. What gets lost amongst all the idolatry of 1960s rock and 60s rockers is the undeniable evidence of the singles charts as a barometer of mass taste. In that year, the Beatles, Doors, and Stones were staggeringly popular, yes—but the song that kept “Mac Arthur Park” out of the national Number-One slot that June was by none of them. It was “This Guy’s in Love With You” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, which did a month at the top. “The Look of Love” by Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 was also in the top five that week; further down on the 40 were records by Engelbert Humperdinck, Tiny Tim, and Bobby Goldsboro. All of them were on the radio alongside “Mony Mony,” “Tighten Up,” “Mrs. Robinson,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as the major hits of  the time. In short, it wouldn’t have taken a listener too long that summer to hear the radio reflect how the whole world was turning upside down. And 42 years later, “Mac Arthur Park” and the unlikely pop stardom of Richard Harris are among the most significant, and yet largely forgotten, artifacts of that otherwise-memorable year.

Thanks to Yah Shure, Man of Encyclopedic Musical Knowledge, for providing me some perspective on the song and its times. He says, “The sheer out-ot-left-fieldness of ‘Mac Arthur Park’ played a role in its success, too. It WAS the late ’60s, when anything and everything still seemed possible. Why NOT a 7-minute mini-opus about parks, rain, cakes, icing and lost recipes, with an absolute grabber of a bridge? It was *the* perfect fit for 1968’s schizophrenic charts, culture and headlines. The pixie dust that made it work in ’68 was gone by ’69.”

He was also kind enough to provide the version below.

“Mac Arthur Park” (mono single version)/Richard Harris (buy A Tramp Shining here)

2 thoughts on “Like a Striped Pair of Pants

  1. Thanks indeed to Yah Shure for the file, and you, too, jb. “MP” is very high on my list, and it’s fun to get your take – and Yah Shure’s – on it.

  2. Yah Shure

    I still haven’t heard Father Guido Sarducci’s “Parco MacArthur,” but few have. It was the B-side of 1980’s “I Won’t Be Twisting This Christmas.” The picture sleeve mentioned both titles, but the accompanying promo 45s only included the top side.

    U100 was a high-energy top-40/album rock hybrid station here in the Twin Cities in the mid-’70s. One of the oddest records to make their playlist was Richard Harris’ “Theme From ‘The Prophet’ (Pleasure Is A Freedom Song & On Love)” single on Atlantic. And yet it, too, didn’t sound out of place.

    Thanks for stirring the MP memories, jb. Let’s go find Mr. Loaf.

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