Updated: Mar 12, 2019
Written By: Jon Butcher
In reflection, I've never thought it was normal for a 14 year-old boy to become so
heavily immersed in the melancholy songs of Jimmy Webb, yet that was my
experience. Growing up in the deep woods of Hillsborough, NJ, it was difficult to
interact with my peers, and by default my little grey Admiral AM radio, which I had
received when I was five, became my best friend and remained so for too many
In mid-April of 1968, my friend had a surprise for me, courtesy of 77 WABC AM
radio, the "hot prospect" of the week being the unlikely add of the single
"MacArthur Park," incredibly ambitious in its composition, performance and length.
Its singer, actor Richard Harris, was melodramatic and theatrical (and perhaps a
bit off-key), nothing like the usual crooners that still managed occasional hits on
rock 'n' roll radio. In every way, "MacArthur Park" defied the conventions of radio,
but in the end would change Top 40 radio forever. It's composer, Jim Webb (as he
was known at the time), by disallowing an edit of the recording for radio airplay,
ushered in an era of unprecedented artistic freedom, largely reflected in the length
of the single releases.
Now often hailed as an early example of prog rock, the success of the lengthy
"MacArthur Park," over 7 minutes, brought a quick successioin of chart hits that
challenged our patience, ranging from over 5 minutes to nearly nine. The
perpatrators included the Beatles, Cashman & West, Elton John, the Eagles and
Don McLean. Roy Orbison in 1969 had a b-side, "Southbound Jericho Parkway,"
that ran 7 minutes, but perhaps the greatest impact the modern music listener
might understand is to say that without the success of "MacArthur Park," there
would be no "Bohemian Rhapsody," the latter hit, like the former, being essentially
a suite of songs.
All this talk of ambition and length aside, the real charm of "MacArthur Park"
comes in its expression of profound regret, culminating in the line "After all the
loves of my life, you'll still be the one." It was not an unrealistic statement of
endless love, but enduring sentiment. As a lonely boy in the deep woods of
Hillsborough, soon to be parted from the local farm girl he had his first serious
crush on, the message was hugely influential. The girl and I, rarely physically
together after that, remained friends for decades.