Jimmy Webb has been famous for his words for more than 50 years as the Grammy-winning songwriter behind classics such as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “MacArthur Park.”
Carnegie Hall will host a tribute to Webb’s music on May 3, with an eclectic slate of artists, from Art Garfunkel to Toby Keith, performing his songs in a fundraiser for his friend Glen Campbell’s I’ll Be Me Alzheimer’s Fund.
But when it came time to begin writing his memoir, “The Cake and the Rain” (St. Martin’s Press, 341 pp., $26.99), out Tuesday, April 18, Webb says he discovered a freedom of expression that he hadn’t felt before — one that comes outside the constraints of a three-minute pop song. He’ll discuss the book and sign copies at Book Revue in Huntington on Wednesday, April 19.
From his home in Bayville, Webb told Newsday about the wild ride of his early career, some of the drug-fueled adventures of famous friends such as John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, and what he learned from chronicling them. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you like the writing process?
It’s been a very, very positive experience. I think there was one point when I almost broke because I overwrote the book by a couple of hundred thousand words. I did that deliberately because I had a lot of stuff to get out, but I knew there were some hard parameters that the publisher had for a book like this. I believe it was Socrates that said “The unexamined life is not worth living” and someone had coupled that with a corollary that “The unlived life is not worth examining.” I think I found out a lot about my own life. It’s an invigorating experience because you find out that you didn’t do as badly as you thought you did and at times you find that you came a little bit short of the mark. I was lucky to be given the opportunity, and I worked on it as hard as I have ever worked on anything.
That shows. But the most striking thing about the book is your honesty.
Early on, I confronted a couple of things where I asked myself, “Am I really going to tell the truth about things?” The answer was, “What is the point of going through all this just to tell yourself some frivolous lie about something that, in the long run, doesn’t really matter anyway.” One lie devalues the whole book. And, in a way, it devalues your life experience.
Your approach is unusual. Even though you look backward, you’re basically only writing about five years of your life.
I decided that I was going to spend a little more time on backstory than would be fashionable in the publishing world. These stories were about my two grandfathers — sort of statues of the Plains, these hard men, these real individualists. And my father was of the same cast. He lied to get into the Marine Corps so he could go and fight the Japanese and, truth be known, kill as many of them as possible, and then came home and became a Baptist minister. To me, their lives were a lot more interesting than mine. I sort of hit on this idea of constantly shifting the timeline between what I call the front story and the backstory. That worked for me.
Were there times when you wondered if some of these stories weren’t really yours to tell, especially when you write about friends?
Maybe. I didn’t tell any stories that I wasn’t personally involved in. There are times when I felt, “Should I really be talking about this?” especially in the case of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon. But they were part of the mosaic of this life experience, what I consider this unique perspective or I wouldn’t have written a book. I weighed things carefully before I included them. My personal ruler or scale was how important it was to what was happening to me.
Are you looking forward to your appearance in Huntington?
I think it will be an almost unfair, extremely biased audience in my favor. [Laughs.] It might go on a little bit longer than usual. Book Revue is one of the great venues still in existence. I feel very lucky to be there. It’s such a great store and I’ve driven by and seen that I’m in the window. That feels good.
WHO Jimmy Webb discusses his new memoir, “The Cake and the Rain”
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com