Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Spinning A Remarkable Web of Memorable Music

(This article was first published in November, 1996)
He is one the most Innovative and musically proficient songwriters of our generation,” declared singer/songwriter Billy Joel
“The greatest torch song ever written,” Frank Sinatra said of the classic, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
The late songwriter Sammy Cahn observed, “His ‘MacArthur Park’ is a major piece of work major! I’d almost compare it to Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’”
High praise, indeed, from a widely-respected music industry trio, referring to a single composer Jimmy Webb.
The following is a short list of some of the performers who have covered his music, which indicates his broad appeal: The Brooklyn Bridge Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Judy Collins, David Crosby, The Fifth Dimension, Art Garfunkel, Isaac Hayes, Richard Harris, REM, Johnny Rivers, Linda Ronstadt and Barbra Streisand.
Just as screenwriters rarely receive the same credit for a film as the actors who transform their words, songwriters, too, are typically overshadowed by the entertainers who sing their material. The name Jimmy Webb name may not strike a chord with music fans, but his songs certainly do.
He has written classics such as “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “MacArthur Park,” among many others. Incidentally, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” written in 1965, has been performed over five million times, according to the music licensor, BMI. Furthermore, five of his compositions were top ten hits in less than two years in the 60s.
For almost twenty years Webb’s fans found it difficult to obtain recordings of his own material. After performing songs — made famous by Campbell, Ronstadt and Garfunkel — for years in concert, Webb steadfastly refused to record his well-known or new tunes.
Fortunately, for his loyal fans and the music-listening public, Jimmy Webb recently changed, so to speak, his tune. Some of his most popular songs are featured on the recent Guardian Records release, Ten Easy Pieces. Billboard, the music industry bible, hailed it as “one of the year’s must-hear albums of the year.”
With a straightforward, exquisite production by Fred Mollen, Webb performs the songs in a relatively austere atmosphere — mainly his voice and a grand piano — with sporadic guitar passages or other instruments effectively utilized, in addition to opportune vocal accompaniment that capitalizes on the talents of Shawn Colvin, Michael McDonald, Marc Cohen and Susan Webb, his sister.
The captivating, often haunting, performances reflect the affection and admiration Webb has for these songs — somewhat comparable to the inherent respect and love parents develop for their children.
Last week, despite a cold and persistent cough, the 50-year-old Oklahoma-born son of a preacher gave me an exclusive interview, in which he spoke about his latest recording and a career that has spanned four decades.
Webb said he had avoided doing a project like Ten Easy Pieces because “I’d become so familiar with these songs that I didn’t know what I could do with them…You’re heart’s not there and you start feeling weird about the material after having performed it a thousand times.”
Besides, he added, “I didn’t want to be obvious” since he viewed “a greatest hits project as a commercial enterprise.” He modestly continued, “I never made a record just to sell.”
Webb noted that the “ten easy pieces” were a compromise among his producer, management, record company and himself. “Most of them were hits,” he acknowledged, but some were selected for other reasons.
Webb cited “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” which had been recorded by many artists, but never charted, and “If These Walls Could Speak,” because he considered it one of his best.
The new album, Webb noted, has been warmly received across the board since its release and he really “likes it, despite some initial trepidation.”
While he is aware of the difficulty of getting the record played on radio, due to the medium’s increasingly narrow format restrictions, and distributed, Webb facetiously said he would “sell it door to door,” if necessary. He mentioned that, in addition to traditional retail outlets, the CD would also be available on a cable shopping channel.
Webb’s career began when he was a young songwriter tied to singer Johnny Rivers’ music company. Rivers recorded several Webb tunes for his 1967 album, Rewind.
Glen Campbell subsequently heard and recorded “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” the first of five Webb originals that steadily made the music charts.
The Fifth Dimension, a mixed gender, Los Angeles-based quartet, recording for Rivers’ label in 1967, recorded Webb’s vibrant “Up, Up and Away,” which became an instant hit and launched the group’s successful career.
The impact of these rapid successes transformed Webb into a songwriting sensation while still in his early 20s. He skyrocketed to worldwide acclaim, in 1968, when he produced and orchestrated “MacArthur Park for actor Richard Harris. Webb said that project was an especially memorable experience because he got the chance to travel to Europe and “work with this crazy Irish actor.”
Clocking in at seven-and-a-half minutes, “MacArthur Park was played in its entirety on Top 40 stations that previously only programmed pop songs that tracked under three minutes and rarely over four.
Between 1970 and 1982, Webb commenced his own singing career and released six albums, which virtually came and went unnoticed. Nonetheless, he continued to compose songs for other singers.
In 1993, Webb went back into the studio to record the Linda Ronstadt/George Massenberg produced Suspending Disbelief. The album contains some of his finest songs, including “Postcards from Paris,” “Too Young to Die,” “Friends of Elvis” and “Adios,” which was a top-ten hit for Ronstadt in three years earlier. While the release garnered some distinguished critical praise, including Time magazine calling Webb “our best raveler of the blind spots of the heart” and The New York Times citing it as “an album that may very well be the songwriter’s perfect moment,” it did not sell well.
Many of Webb’s songs concern love remembered, love lost and regret in the wake of broken relationships. Despite the melancholy of those universal themes, Jimmy Webb’s songs eclipse the art of heartbreak and its consequential suffering, so the listener appreciates the sensitive passions and emotions intricately woven into the music and lyrics.
Throughout his career, Webb has garnered numerous accolades, including the distinction of being the only artist ever to win Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. In 1993, he was recognized by his peers when he became the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Songwriters.
Jimmy Webb is unquestionably one of the most important songwriters of the last thirty years and his songs have left a conspicuous mark on our culture.
Though his singing career failed to gain broad recognition, his immense songwriting accomplishments have earned him an exalted position as one of the indispensable talents of our time.
In his forthcoming book about songwriting, Webb states, “The paramount joy of the craft is that, however simply it begun, it can take the songwriter a lifelong voyage across many distant and wondrous musical seas.
Jimmy Webb’s admirers and fans enthusiastically agree they’re glad he embarked on his musical journey.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Medical Marijuana Relief Is Not Reefer Madness

First published May 11, 2006
A leading argument against legalizing medical marijuana is that it could lead to misuse. But, it is not uncommon for prescribed drugs to be misused or lead to dependency. Despite years of urging from medical professionals and convincing scientific evidence, the federal government continually refuses to authorize the use of medical marijuana. Several years ago, the Food and Drug Administration most likely with prodding from the Bush administration issued a report challenging the medicinal value of marijuana.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states could not legalize marijuana for medical purposes, though Justice Stephen Breyer, who voted with the majority, suggested the FDA might consider making it available with a prescription. Before the Court's decision, medical marijuana use under a doctor's care was legal for patients in only ten states, but New York was not among them.
According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies Web site: Symptoms, if not diseases, can be relieved by marijuana but, for most patients, there are more effective approved medicines. On the other hand, basic science suggests the potential benefit from marijuana in combination with other drugs as a compassionate alternative. However, the Institute also recommends additional research to determine any potential lung cancer or other health risks and keeping a tight rein on its use for the terminally ill and patients who don't respond to other treatments.
Nevertheless, patients suffering from debilitating illnesses, including AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis, might reject those risks knowing a prescribed dose of marijuana will offer some relief from nausea and chronic pain. For years glaucoma victims maintained the drug was effective in alleviating the painful pressure caused by the illness.
Actually, the government is preventing further assessment of medical marijuana because it prohibits scientists from acquiring or growing it for testing purposes.
Marijuana's use for medicinal purposes is an age-old remedy. Like the ancient art of acupuncture, which has been known to bring relief to some modern sufferers of a variety of ailments, the Chinese used marijuana as far back as 2700 B.C. for gout, rheumatism and malaria.
Medical marijuana advocates contend there's overwhelming evidence it can relieve certain types of symptoms caused by a few illnesses or by the side effects of harsh drugs used to treat them. And, they say, it does so with remarkable safety and is less toxic than some drugs that physicians regularly prescribe to patients.
Before he was the Majority Leader, Tennessee Senator Bill Frist argued, "I believe that marijuana is a dangerous drug and that there are less dangerous medicines offering the same relief from pain and other medical symptoms."
Perhaps the conservative Republican, who I presume is a recipient of pharmaceutical company donations, might take the time to discuss the issue with patients seeking relief before totally dismissing it.
Marijuana treatment for people afflicted with multiple sclerosis gained widespread interest two years ago when television talk show host Montel Williams publicly acknowledged he had been using the drug under his doctor's authorization. The Emmy Award-winning host, who contracted MS in 1999, said his physician recommended marijuana when prescription painkillers, which caused irritating side effects, failed to relieve his pain or control spasms triggered by the crippling neurological disease. In testimony before the New York State legislature two years ago, Williams said, "I'll continue to break the law every day...it's the only way I can stand here now."
In the wake of Williams' revelation, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau advocated legalization of medicinal marijuana and said he believed those suffering from a variety of ailments would use it "responsibly."
The New York State legislature considered a bill legalizing medical marijuana two years ago, but it lacked adequate support to be offered for a vote in either chamber. Since the 2005 Supreme Court decision, the assembly's health committee is preparing revamped legislation in support for medicinal marijuana, but, for the time being, it remains in typical Albany limbo.
A leading argument from those opposed to legalizing medical marijuana is that it could lead to misuse. But maybe they should be reminded that it is not uncommon for prescribed drugs to be misused or lead to dependency.
It should be noted that several controlled substances i.e. morphine, Valium, some steroids are otherwise illegal, but can be prescribed by physicians in extreme cases.
Conservative radio talk show Rush Limbaugh told listeners several years ago he had become dependent on the highly-addictive pain killer Oxycontin and subsequently admitted he fraudulently obtained over 2,000 pills in a six-month period. And, just last week, Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy, son of Kennedy clan patriarch Senator Ted Kennedy, admitted being addicted to painkillers after he was involved in a traffic mishap.
Medical marijuana exploitation drew interest last spring when federal authorities cracked an international drug trafficking ring that used lawful dispensaries in San Francisco as fronts for distributing illegal drugs and laundering money. That incident clearly demonstrated that should medical marijuana ever be legalized, it must be safeguarded, administered and dispensed with the same painstaking limitations as other prescription drugs.
Narrow-minded opponents of legalizing medical marijuana may be blind to the crux of the issue as they conjure up images of pot-smokers making illicit deals with patients and doctors just to undergo the euphoria that accompanies the marijuana experience. They should, instead, relax, have a cocktail and have a little compassion for those suffering from diseases that make everyday a living hell.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Legalization Won’t Result In Nation of Pot Heads

First published April 18, 2002

In the same week that Mayor Bloomberg reached his 100-days-in-office milestone, his face was plastered in print advertisements helping to promote something with which he’d certainly not choose be associated — the legalization of marijuana.
Last week, NORML (National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws) kicked off a $500,000 campaign with a full-page ad in The New York Times, using Bloomberg’s image and his resounding 2001 admission about his experience with cannabis, the technical term for the illegal substance: "Yes, I used it. You bet I did. And I enjoyed it."
While the mayor did not appreciate the group using his image and words, uttered last year before he was mayor, to promote their agenda and regrettably becoming their new poster boy, he nevertheless handled the minor incident with aplomb.
"I am not thrilled," he told reporters, but added that he was not going to try to suppress them because "there’s that First Amendment that gets in the way of stopping me."
The group also placed ads in subway stations, on buses and public telephone booths and in other newspapers, with the tag line, "It’s NORML to Smoke Pot."
NORML has been around for over 30 years with one essential issue on its agenda — to get marijuana legalized, which would greatly reduce arrests for merely smoking pot in public. NORML’s radio spot claims there are 50,000 arrests annually for pot smoking in New York City alone!
I support their strategy. However, I don’t advocate anyone, especially those under 18 and those who’ve never tried it, rushing out and sampling marijuana while it remains an illegal substance that may have criminal consequences.
When I smoked marijuana, like the mayor, I enjoyed it, too. In fact, it’s safe to presume that a substantial majority of anyone from 40 to 55 years of age has tried it. I daresay that presumption includes many politicians — except, of course, the most famous repudiator, former President Bill Clinton, who said he smoked but did not inhale. As a matter of fact, such noted politicians as New York State Governor George Pataki, former New Jersey Senator and presidential candidate Bill Bradley and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have admitted smoking pot in their youth.
Essentially the only reason the drug hasn’t been legalized is because there’s an unsubstantiated assumption that smoking marijuana leads to harder drugs. That’s like proclaiming consuming beer will lead to drinking 80 proof whiskey!
Neither is addictive nor harmful in moderate use, but those who are long-term users or seek a higher high will likely succumb to more harmful drugs and potent potables.
There was a buzz (pun intended) in the freewheeling ‘60’s that a major American university conducted a study whereby researchers fed lab rats their body weight in marijuana over a period of 30 days. As a result, the pot-saturated rodents showed a multitude of problems, leading to the conclusion that cannabis could result in similar effects to humans.
That study was scientifically questionable and patently unrealistic. Of course anyone capable of smoking their body weight in pot in a month will be harmed — and probably experience a severe case of the munchies!
Anyone who consumes their body weight of anything, whether it’s water, broccoli, tofu, potato chips or Twinkies, in a month, may risk adverse side effects.
The key, as in anything else, is MODERATION.
I don’t know of any conclusive study purporting that smoking an occasional joint does more harm to the human body than a daily shot of liquor. But marijuana is an illegal substance, while alcohol supports a multi-billion dollar business, including retail sales and advertising.
Marijuana legalization was a long shot at best in the early 1970s — and just as unlikely today. Nevertheless, 30 years ago, seizing an opportunity that was too good to miss, there were unconfirmed rumors that several American tobacco companies had copyrighted a bunch of brand names, such as "Acapulco Gold" and other pot-related sobriquets, in case the substance became legitimate. I don’t doubt those copyrights still exist, and will be used if and when marijuana is legalized.
It was recently reported by a national substance abuse group that underage drinking accounts for one-fourth of all alcohol consumed in this country. It’s no surprise that the alcohol industry rejected that estimate as "absolutely wrong."
While continuing to preach "No" to addictive drugs, we should send a similarly stringent message repudiating alcohol, especially to the nation’s youth.
However, despite pervasive use, we’ve not become a country of alcoholics. And legalizing marijuana won’t result in the nation going to pot.
So if you got it, roll another one, just don't Bogart that joint.