“MacArthur Park”: The Greatest or The Worst Song Ever?

macarthur park

Editor’s Note: It seems appropriately mystifying that this post, from 2022, is one of our “greatest hits.” It seems a good time to revisit it, lest we leave the metaphorical cake out in the rain…

If Susan Horton is driving around and hears a DJ announce: “Now, we’re gonna play a block of songs written by Jimmy Webb,” she might shed a tear because the songs are literally the soundtrack of her life.  Webb noted that he wrote “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” about his break-up with Susan, his high school sweetheart.  “The Worst that Could Happen” was about her getting married to a fella not named Webb, and a tune that some think is the worst thing that could happen to music: “MacArthur Park.”

It has its share of detractors including humorist Dave Barry who called it the “worst song in modern history.”  But it has admirers including David Letterman who devoted an entire Late Show to this cinematic song, complete with a 23-piece orchestra and Webb playing the harpsichord.

There are something like 187 artists who have covered it, including MC5’s guitarist Wayne Kramer, Frank Sinatra, the Four Tops, four versions by Waylon Jennings, Weird Al’s parody “Jurassic Park” and Donna Summer’s disco-ized take which took the song to #1 in 1978.

But long before a cake with green icing was baked, the song’s initial ingredients were suggested to Jimmy by producer Bones Howe, who prodded Webb to write a hit that had a smorgasbord of styles: classical, shifting tempos, and an orchestra meshing with the usual four-piece rock ensemble of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards.

Jimmy was up to the task and even considered making the song play for 22 minutes.  Bones presented the tune to The Association only for them to turn it down.  At an anti-war fundraiser in LA, Webb met a future drinking buddy in the actor Richard Harris.  Webb recalled Harris slurring:

“‘Let’s make a record, Jimmy Webb.’ He only called me ‘Jimmy Webb,’ never just Jimmy.  A few weeks later, I received a telegram: ‘Dear Jimmy Webb.  Come to London.  Make this record.  Love, Richard.’  I got a flight and stayed with Richard in Belgravia, London. Over the course of two days, we tore through 30 or 40 of my songs.  I was playing the piano and singing as we drank pitchers of Pimm’s Cup.  He was standing there in his kaftan, waving his arms and expressing excitement at some songs, not so crazy about others.  The best went into his debut album, A Tramp Shining.  ‘MacArthur Park’ was at the bottom of my pile.  By the time I played it, we had moved on to straight brandy, but Richard slapped the piano and said, ‘Oh Jimmy Webb. I love that!  I’ll make a hit out of that, I will.’”

And a hit it was, soaring to #2 in America in 1968 despite clocking in at 7:21; a gift for DJs who needed a bathroom and/or smoke break and an aural gift to the Beatles.  Their producer, George Martin, told Webb that the song’s length caught the group’s attention and was the reason behind “Hey Jude” hitting the seven-minute mark at 7:11.

But it’s the package of melody and words that causes fingers to snap and thoughts of “What a song!!”  In “MacArthur Park’s” case, its words have caused thoughts of “What is this song??”  This could be due to Harris’ over-the-top singing and some lyrics that induce eyerolls.

Somehow, it all successfully blends as well as one of Harris’ favorite drinks: black velvets (champagne and Guinness).  Webb has cited that the pieces of the song are drawn from his time with Horton in LA’s MacArthur Park.

“There’s nothing in it that’s fabricated. The old men playing checkers by the trees, the cake that was left out in the rain, all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw.”

But Webb has also acknowledged that he recalled reading the poet W.H. Auden’s comment on his well-lined face as his friends celebrated his 60th birthday: “My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.”

Auden most likely laughed it off but Susan Horton wasn’t chuckling in 2013, when during an interview with the LA Times, her eyes filled with tears upon hearing Harris warble, “After all the loves of my life, you’ll still be the one” and remembering that she and Jimmy slowly came to the realization that neither was “the one.”

As Jimmy recalls: “When I came into some significant money, I hired a Lear jet, flew up there [to her home in Lake Tahoe], and said: ‘I’m not going back without you.’ We lived together for three years. Then it turned into a soap opera.”

But Susan, who went on to marry Linda Ronstadt’s cousin, Bobby, will always have this pop-operatic song to remind her of her relatively short time with Jimmy.  She admitted during the interview while sitting next to her husband: “I mean no disrespect to anyone but I have to say, I have loved Jimmy for 50 years and I always will.”

After her husband heard her say this, one wonders if he told her that their wedding day was the very worst that could happen…to him.

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Fair Use photo of the single

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14 comments on ““MacArthur Park”: The Greatest or The Worst Song Ever?

  1. Mark Welsh

    Sometimes the higher one achieves, an easier or more frequent a target they become. Jimmy is one of the greatest songwriters of my lifetime and MacArthur Park was his masterpiece. I heard A Tramp Shining more than most American 12-yr-olds because my 16-yr-old sister was an Anglophile and loved Richard Harris. She played that album a lot at loud volumes down in our wood-paneled den. Nearly all the songs are beautiful. Jimmy was a romantic, but I never felt he wandered too far into the maudlin. I give A Tramp Shining 4 our of 5 stars.

  2. I laughed at this song along with everybody else when it was on the radio in the 60’s and 70’s, but listening to it again now, I realize there’s an amazing amount of songwriting crammed into that 7+ minutes. Jimmy Webb should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for all the hits he’s written: “Up, Up and Away”, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Worst That Could Happen”, “Galveston”, “All I Know”…

    And I’d never seen that performance on Letterman. WOW. Will Lee knocked it out of the “Park” with that vocal, and then that killer guitar solo too. Fantastic.

  3. Eric C. Gray

    I know it is a polarizing song, but I personally think it is magnificent. Look, I’m a rock guy, and this doesn’t fit that bill for most people. But it is just amazing in so many ways. Webb is a brilliant songwriter, with tons more songs to his credit than I probably realize. I have all his solo albums, and his biography, Cake in the Rain, is a good read.

  4. The story is better than the song. Over time I’ve come to appreciate Jimmy Webb’s songs more, and “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” particularly as sung by Sheila Jordan, is one of my all-time favorites. But not “MacArthur Park.” But thanks for the insights on what happens between singer and songwriter.

  5. Donna Summer was the bet thing to ever happen to this song!

    • Heard the DS version for the first time at Studio 54in the wee hours just after it was released. The place was electric. I don’t remember much about that night except that the song went on forever and how happy it made everyone.

  6. Ron Gardner

    What a fabulous story. Providing a backstory and context for some of my favorite songs makes it that much better, and the songs that much sweeter. Thanks for this!

  7. Absolutely the WORST song ever. And Richard Harris singing it just compounds the mistake.

  8. Mark Hudson

    Epically cheesy and quite wonderful. Great piece. Would have loved to have had a couple (or maybe more!) pints with Harris, he was a real character.

  9. As a frustrated classical pianist and a fan of great genre-blending music like Rhapsody In Blue, I have never been able to sit through this song. Increasingly I suspect that may be a reflection on me, but I just find it too campy and overwrought for too long. Some of my problem with it is the result of having Richard Harris’s version driven into my brain repeatedly before I ever heard the other versions. Donna Summer’s rendition lessened, but did not erase, my dislike like for the song.

  10. John Ingram

    Genius songwriter who in this instance took himself too seriously.

  11. Anybody who doesn’t like “MacArthur Park”- especially the Donna Summer version- is a brain-dead nerd!! Is that ‘kind’ enough-??

  12. I was probably ten years old the first time I heard Richard Harris sing MacArthur Park on the radio and I immediately loved it. The music, his voice, the lyrics-everything. It’s haunting and emotional. Even as a young girl I understood the metaphors were about the loss, longing, sadness, pain, and memories of a lost love experienced by the writer. I have friends who, oddly to me, can only take lyrics literally, so perhaps it’s this type who don’t get this song? In the 60s/70s I was a typical LA girl who was into rock but there were always a few songs like this from outside the realm that captured me.

  13. Charles Izzo

    Look we are still talking about it and its heading for 60 years. I like the Glen Campbell live in concert
    version and Paul Shafer of the Letterman show absolutely killing it.

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