Top o’ the mornin’ to ya on this bright fine St Paddy’s Day. To be sure! Here in Los Angeles its only 10am but the horseshoe bar Tom Bergins on Fairfax has been crackling since six. This year St. Patrick’s carries a little extra weight, being a precursor to the annual American hysteria that March Madness unleashes. So we’re basically looking straight into the maw of a five day saga of beer, booze and basketball.
Before things get too crazy, we here at VINE-YL wish to add our little contribution to the festivities, with an eye towards those lonely wine-drinkers out there dressed in green. This is our second St. Paddy’s Day post, and last year we christened the occasion with an Irish rock classic, par excellence. This year, we wanted to go in a different direction, since you’ll get enough U2 and Cranberries on the local pub jukebox.
My good friend and occasional St. Paddy’s compatriot Chris Bean once summed up his innate fondness for the holiday thusly: “Ireland’s like the South. The old men in the Irish countryside are just like the old men sitting on porches in Tennessee. I love the South, so I love Ireland.” There is a lot of truth in that statement. A commonality of intensely green land, earth fertile and rocky, cheerful poverty, bitter hatred and wide rivers that unlock the heart’s passion and poetry, tears and songs with a fondness for whisk(e)y.
Maybe that’s just my excuse for why I’m going to sit at an outdoor bar all day in the unseasonable 85 degree heat broiling Los Angeles. But I tend to celebrate St. Patrick’s as the first opening of Spring. A time of dark brown mud and sucking rains and irrationally radiant swards of green grass. A promise hinged on a fulcrum between the blowing setbacks of winter and the holy affirmations of the budding sun. And the Tarheels in the… Oh, well. Another black and tan, monsignor!
Richard Harris was born in County Limerick but spent most of his life in England. Jimmy Webb was born in Oklahoma to a Southern Baptist minister father, but spent most of his life in Los Angeles. In 1968 the unlikely duo combined for one of the most unlikely and unreal monster hits of all time. A Tramp Shining spent one calendar year on the pop charts in the U.S. and Europe, and its infamous epic hit single, “MacArthur Park” debuted at #2 and had the whole world pondering the meaning of green cakes left out in the rain.
The story of the album’s genesis is notable. Harris, a notorious actor-drunkard and pal of Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton, had just completed his role as King Arthur in the film version of the Broadway hit Camelot, and the strong sales of its soundtrack convinced him he could be a recording star. According to legend, he called up Jimmy Webb in L.A. and said, “Let’s make a record.” Webb flew to London and sat down at a piano and proceeded to play every song he’d written that had slipped through the cracks or remained uncovered by others—forty-odd songs in total.
As soon as Harris heard “MacArthur Park,” he claimed he knew it was a hit. The song, with its seven and a half minute length and epic structure of bridges and changes augmented by staccato horns and swirling strings, was originally written for the West Coast sunshine pop band The Association, but they dismissed it. Harris turns the song into one man’s melancholy reflection on the “great romance” that stirred his soul and overshadowed all the other moments in his life. With his brooding, phantom-like open wound vocals—a falsetto clown whose voice chokes and breaks with welling tears—the song becomes a triumphant portrait of doomed love and a passionate affirmation of enduring affection.
The rest of the album is equally good. Classics include the opening romantic ballad, “Didn’t We,” the bouncy, upbeat “Paper Chase” keyed with harpsichord and Sixties-style string arrangements, and the deeply chilling “In the Final Hours,” a last regretful glimpse of life from a man on his deathbed which only an Irishman could turn romantic.
Webb recorded the musical elements in L.A. with an uncredited thirty-five piece orchestra of top-notch studio musicians, then recorded Harris’ vocals at a studio in Dublin. The album is lush and big, with backing choruses on a couple of tracks reminiscent of Webb’s work with the Fifth Dimension. Harris’ vocals come across more like performances than singing, but his emotional range and passionate delivery makes every cut mysterious, effective and compelling.
This is one of those albums I’d heard a lot about over the years and finally bought. The first time I listened I hated it. The second time I was intrigued. The third time I started it over at the end and listened all over again. An awesome, never to be recaptured slice of prime Sixties Grammy-nominated pop by one of the most successful crossover acts in music history. This record is perfect for those spending their St. Paddy’s in sunny L.A., or just those who want to add a touch of elegant cheese to their sloppy barroom antics. Richard Harris' romantic stylings are a sure cure for even the staunchest case of whisky-dick.
And one final thing—be sure to note the awesome “candid” shots of Harris in full creation mode that festoon the record’s inner sleeve. You can take the actor into the studio, but you can’t take the ham out of the man. Priceless.
Erin Go Bragh! Bra’.
RICHARD HARRIS A TRAMP SHINING, 1968, ABC-Dunhill