Jimmy Webb says Ray Bradbury and SF taught him how to write beautiful lyrics
How very unexpected, and how absolutely fascinating: songwriter Jimmy Webb, who’s responsible for a boatload of modern pop classics (and much more; he hates being branded as a “middle-of-the-road pop-music writer”), is a deep-thinking science fiction fan who says he learned a lot of his lyric-writing panache from Ray Bradbury.
I’ve long felt like I almost know Webb personally, since I worked for Glen Campbell in the 1990s, and of course Webb wrote several of Glen’s signature songs: “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Galveston,” and — one known more to fans of contemporary Christian music — “The Four Horsemen.” I spent three years of my life directing the video crew at Glen’s Branson theater for two daily performances, six days a week, during which all of those songs were sung. Glen also performed Webb’s “MacArthur Park” sometimes (a song I truly love, cynical critics be damned; see the interview’s intro for an account of how it harmed Webb’s career). So I had Jimmy Webb on the brain all the time, and it was most pleasant, because the music is simply brilliant.
And now in an interview for A.V. Club from 10 days ago, I see Webb explaining that our mutual sensibilities cross over in literary ways as well. And he also works in a critique of the modern American education system. Wonderful!
Check out the following excerpt, and then go and read the whole interview, since he’s a fascinating guy.
AVC: Speaking of unexpected influences, your song “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” takes its title from a novel by science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Was he a big influence on you?
JIMMY WEBB: All science-fiction writers were. They were kind of my substitute for a truly broad-based humanitarian curriculum, because, as you know or as you do not know, there is a textbook problem, a kind of deliberately slowed-down and de-sophisticated content issue with textbooks. All the textbooks are printed in Texas. Texas. Textbook. Is there anything to that? I don’t know. But a lot of people aren’t happy with these textbooks. The kind of textbooks I grew up with would, to put it mildly, shade the truth on some issues like why the Civil War was fought, and things like that.
AVC: You mean the War Of Northern Aggression, of course.
JW: Yeah, exactly. I was innately suspicious of the education I was receiving right up to my last year of school in Colton, California. I thought the whole thing was kind of a joke. I know why kids just go nuts and say “Screw this. I ain’t going to do this anymore. I can never use this information in my life. It’s just not telling me anything.” I think there are people who would be more entertained and interested in a more complex curriculum. They would be more comfortable on a college level, on a freshman college level, than where they are, particularly in the intellectual subjects—philosophy, religion, and those areas, where in textbooks today, you have a smudgy line between creationism and science. These are important issues, because this is the groundwork for your whole life. This is the way you’re going to look at your world and at the people who live in your world. This man that’s riding next to me on the train: Is he descended from chimpanzees or not? There’s a devaluation of our educational system, because we dodge some of the important issues instead of meeting them head-on. That will not make big fans for me out there, certainly. But again, that’s me. I don’t brand. I just call it like I see it.
AVC: So science fiction was a way of broadening your horizons?
JW: It was a way of really stepping into a new curriculum, and it was full of imagination and truth and science, and science as religion, and in the work of Heinlein, the truth about politics. Probably the prettiest writer of all those guys was Ray Bradbury, who I really learned a lot from about writing beautiful prose, choosing words. I would sometimes find words and go, “Oh, that’s a lovely word. I just don’t have a clue what it means,” and I’d get out my dictionary. So really, science fiction provided an impetus and an inspiration to get into the thesaurus and look at all these different meanings and similarities between words, and then to fall in love with the word game, as my friend Artie Garfunkel might put it, which is the greatest game of all. To me, that’s what school should be about. So science fiction was really my way of circumventing that.
— Interview: Jimmy Webb, A.V. Club, September 3, 2010