For some, the opening notes of ‘MacArthur Park’ provoke joy—for others panic, especially if it’s on a tinny car radio and there’s no escape for the next seven minutes. Songwriter Jimmy Webb has said many times that he’s given misleading answers to the perpetual question of just what the hell this mock epic pop song is all about.
One of the reasons for his coyness on the question might be the murderous history behind it. Inspired by reading too many Jim Thompson novels (always a bad idea) after a bad break up, Webb sought to put himself into the mind of a serial killer. He chose MacArthur for its association with gruesome murders, but the more direct inspiration came from the so-called ‘trash-bag murders’ (never mind that the victims were all young men and boys) making headlines in mid-60s Los Angeles.
Instead Webb imagined a killer desperate to control an elusive woman and unable to do so, killing her. In spring—a time of renewal—he was burning ‘in love’s hot fevered iron’ as she ‘ran one step ahead’ or if she was wise, many steps. But he catches her. He keeps her ‘yellow cotton dress’ as a memento, remembers the life he squeezes out of her like the chirps of birds, ‘tender babies in your hands’—transferring the act of murder to her hands instead of his own. The old men playing checkers offers a winking nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal (of course death and the crusader play chess but that doesn’t scan).
It’s his first murder and he is sentimentally attached to its memory: ‘there will be another song’ for him, another dream, another murder, but this one will remain important: ‘after all the loves of my life / You’ll still be the one.’ Cold comfort for her after he has drunk the wine while it was warm (a hint of cannibalism or at least haematophagy). For the narrator his power grows with each murderous thought: ‘I will take my life into my hands and I will use it’ seems to suggest that the lives he lusts for belong to him. By killing he ‘win[s] worship in their eyes’ and yet as he extinguishes the life his sorrow returns, for ‘I will lose it’. He has to repeat the act, vowing ‘I will have the things that I desire’ completing his rendering of the women into mere objects that he will claim.
The famous surreal chorus is the moment of his psychic break. All reality slips sideways. The grass melts. The cake (his sanity) dissolves in the rain, a repetition of the moment when he decided murder was the only way to keep her forever. The knowledge of his horrible act returns (‘I don’t think that I can take it’) and just as fiercely gets thrust away (‘Oh no!’) again and again.
The orchestration and Richard Harris’ impassioned delivery sell the morbid tale with all the trappings of romance and heartbreak (rather like the film version of Hughes’ In a Lonely Place), building sympathy for a cold-hearted killer. Or I just dreamed it.