Jimmy Webb: Time Flies
‘As you are dreaming time flies’. One moment you are a kid watching Rosemary Clooney on a black and white TV singing ‘God help the mister who comes between me and my sister/and God help the sister who comes between me and my man’ (Irving Berlin from White Christmas). Years later you are lucky enough to be able to sit at the top of Rockefeller Center with the snow falling over New York skyscrapers. Rosie is ten feet away from you achingly singing a heart-wrenching Jimmy Webb ballad (he had come a long way from ‘Up Up and Away’). And then you find this video clip of the California babe who had pounded out ‘You’re no good, you’re no good’. She too has mellowed and deepened, two goddesses in duet. It was in fact Linda Ronstadt who first brought the song forward, and brought Clooney aboard.
In choosing this song, I wanted to pay homage to all of the classic folk/rock and pop I grew up with. So many of the songs of the sixties and seventies have become part of the ‘American Songbook’. But it turns out that this is in fact a theatre song that Jimmy Webb wrote for a telling of Ray Bradbury’s story Dandelion Wine; so as it happens all my selections this week have a theatrical provenance.
If you want to be awed, go to wikipedia and read (and read and read) about these two artists (really artists, not just in the jargony sense of today); women who started from a height of very young success, then took rocky roads to explore, grow and arrive somewhere else, which is partly what this song is about. From a lyric point of view there are so many surprises and quirks (do you know another song with the word ‘vaporize’ in it?). If you read the lyrics separately, almost every image/concept in the song is repeated twice, laddering against the melody. (“Night turns to dawn and dreams to sighs, And sighs change to sweet love that never dies/and love becomes laughter and lullabies’).
The bridge is a prosy exegesis that leads to the ‘deep umber’ poetry of the last verse…the gift of the AABA song is that it is circular (creating a structure of safety and familiarity), but it also takes us on a journey forward. We cross the ‘bridge’ but on the other side is the home we left from, even as we have changed.
Clooney’s gravelly tones and phrasing further deepen this journey…like Barbara Cook, she had young conventional success, then suffered, grew and really ‘found her voice’ in a more expressive way. Ronstadt has always, to my ear, had too consistently clear a voice (shown off best in her mid-career power ballads), but her musicality and sheer beauty work well in duet with Rosie. She is also at her best with a Jimmy Webb song. Hope that this will remind you of the way that ‘life begins and spirits rise’.