There are very few songwriters who have enjoyed careers as storied as Jimmy Webb. For more than 40 years he’s been sending songs up the pop charts, creating stars along the way. My own appreciation of Webb began with the Richard Harris recording of Webb’s epic “MacArthur Park” in 1968. It’s a song that has inspired strong, and not necessarily positive, reactions. There has always been that silly criticism about “someone left the cake out in the rain,” and “all the sweet green icing flowing down,” when even a cursory listen reveals the true meaning of the metaphors. And yes, I even enjoyed Harris’ highly emotive vocal style. So much so that I bought his Webb-produced and written first album A Tramp Shining, as well as their second collaboration, which I regard as a true pop masterpiece, The Yard Went On Forever.
The 5th (not Fifth) Dimension scored their first big hit in 1967 with their version of Webb’s “Up, Up, and Away.” The single reached #7 on the pop chart, and the album of the same name, which included several other Webb songs, made it all the way to #8. It seemed only natural that when it came time for their second album, the L.A. vocal group would turn to Webb again. What wasn’t natural was that instead of building on their success, they took a big chance. It was a gamble that succeeded brilliantly on an artistic level, but it did not come close to the commercial success of Up, Up, and Away.
Instead of following up their success with another group of disparate songs, the 5th Dimension chose to record a lyrical, bittersweet song cycle, written, with one exception, by Webb. It was called The Magic Garden. Word had it that the Association turned down the opportunity to record the album (as they had apparently turned down “MacArthur Park”). On such decisions the history of popular music turns. Bones Howe was brought in to produce, and Webb himself was on board as arranger and conductor. The session musicians included Wrecking Crew stalwarts Larry Knechtel, Tony Tedesco, Hal Blaine, and Joe Osborne. If The Magic Garden was a gamble, bets were hedged by surrounding the 5th Dimension with an all-star cast. The resulting album was well-named because it was, indeed, magic.
The Magic Garden tells the story of a love affair from its rapturous beginning, through trials and tribulations to its end, and beyond. Mistakes are made on both sides. The memories are real, as is the regret. Webb tells the story through some of his most best writing (and masterful arranging). The 5th Dimension turned out to be the perfect vehicle to express the writer’s joy and despair through wonderful performances by vocal leads Billy Davis, Jr. and Marilyn McCoo, and perfectly complimentary harmonies from Florence Larue, Ron Townson, and Lamont McLemore.
“Have you tried love?” … so begins the album’s “Prologue.” The title track and “Summer’s Daughter” find our the protagonist falling in love. It’s been rumored for many years that Webb’s work in those days was composed in tribute to his muse, Susan. The ethereal “Dreams/Pax/Nepenthe” would seem to confirm this, as Susan is mentioned several times. It’s too good to last, though, and before you know it, our hero is being walked all over in “Carpet Man,” which was released as a single and hit the top 40. Side One ends with the album’s only cover, a terrific version of Lennon and McCartney’s “Ticket to Ride.” Webb has always had a rather curious practice of including one cover song on albums on which he wrote all of the other songs, and Magic Garden is no exception. In this instance, a great performance by the 5th Dimension, cohesive production by Howe, and the nature of the song’s subject matter insure that it fits right in among Webb’s songs.
Side Two opens with my favorite Jimmy Webb song, “Requiem: 820 Latham.” It’s a song that was covered by Richard Harris, and the Brooklyn Bridge, but the 5th Dimension own it. It is a bitterly sad tale told by way of some of the most evocative lyrics that Webb has ever written:
When I came to you there on that cold,
telephone pole horror of a night
And you came out to meet me in that filmy thing
And sat down on the porch swing
And I knew the moon would melt
Before I held you to my breast again
Why could I not die then
Warm, behind the curtains of your hair
When we stopped the clock on that cold rock
And mixed our hot young blood with granite dust
And I raised my head to kiss the sweat
That hung like honey from your goddess brow
And I knew the mountainside would be
10 million years of dust and rust before I took you up there again
Why could I not die then
Warm, behind the curtain of your hair
Webb sets the lyrics to one of his most beautiful melodies and framed the song in an orchestration that is somewhat similar in spirit to “MacArthur Park.” Billy Davis, Jr. sells the song as if it his life depended on it.
The regret of “Requiem: 820 Latham” is followed by regret from the other side of the relationship. “The Girl’s Song” has the feel of a Bacharach-David classic, and a lovely vocal from Marilyn McCoo. Things quickly go from bad to worse for our couple in “The Worst That Could Happen,” as the man learns that his true love is about to be married to another. The 5th Dimension version of this song is the first, and best. Of course Johnny Maestro’s Brooklyn Bridge had the big hit, taking the song to #3 in 1969. On the cover of the vinyl album that I have the album’s title is The Worst That Could Happen. Though this album was originally called The Magic Garden, when the Brooklyn Bridge had their hit, some genius at the 5th Dimension’s Soul City label thought it would be a good idea to rename the album. Needless confusion was no doubt the result. Some things are better left alone.
There are more wistful memories in “Orange Air,” and “Paper Cup” finds our hero looking up from inside the aforementioned drinking vessel. “Paper Cup” was another top 40 single for the 5th Dimension, despite the fact that the lyrics belie the song’s upbeat rhythm and jaunty melody. “Epilogue” ends The Magic Garden as it began: “have you tried love?”
The Magic Garden would rise no higher than #105 on the pop chart, though it did produce those two hit singles. The 1967 release is an album very much of its time, but it is also completely timeless. It addresses serious issues in an accessible and adult manner, and is the essence of pop music, a classic of the genre. The 5th Dimension would go on to have more hits … a lot more hits, but for me, The Magic Garden was their peak.