Jimmy & Me: Song descriptions from a master

Album Credits

Produced and arranged by Doug Howell
For my wonderful, incomparable Davey. I love you, and that's all I know.
Words and music by Jimmy Webb, except "Love Hurts," by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant
Arrangements, keyboards, bass and lead vocals by Doug Howell
(Portions of some arrangements after Jimmy Webb. See notes for details.)

Supporting vocals by Ann Doyle and Doug, except "Simile," by Lonnie Hull Dupont
Drums by Danny Cox • Electric and acoustic guitars by Robert Tye
Soprano and tenor saxophones by Mark Kieme • Flute by Kathleen Janka McClatchey Whiteman
Violin by Davis Brooks (Concertmaster), Mary Kothman, Debbie Rodin, Lisa Brooks/Emily Glover, Pam Close, Kara Day-Spurlock, Linda Yu-Picard, Chin Mi Kim, Alfred Abel • Viola by Colette Abel, Susan Chan, Amy Brandfonbrener
Cello by Nancy Smith, Biljana Bozinovska-Bojovic • Double Bass by Joe Everett

Recorded by Doug at Hawksnest, Manchester MI; March 2009–February 2010
Drums recorded by Michael King at The Mission Studio, Birmingham MI, August 17, 2009
Strings recorded by Dave Price at Aire Born Studios, Zionsville IN, September 24, 2009 •
Contracted by Wood & Rodin, Inc.
Mixed by Doug using Digital Performer by Mark of the Unicorn
Mastered by J. Willard Spencer • CD design by Doug • Photography by David C. Glaser

With thanks to the Lord of all broken hearts; Davey, for understanding all the hours it took; my grandparents Regis (through Teddy and Mom), for making the string sessions possible—hope some of this music is heavenly enough to make its way to you, Grandma and Grandpa; Mom and Dad, for making music possible in the first place; Aunt Leota, for teaching me piano in the second place; Mike Kuzma, for "discovering" me in the third place; an unrivaled collection of family and friends both present and departed, for their love and support; Miss Ann, Lonnie, Danny, Bob, Mark, Kathleen, and all the marvelous string players, for singing and playing their hearts out; Michael and Dave for their invaluable technical input, Danny and Willard for their insightful mix notes; Nancy Feldkamp, for her wonderful painting of Hawkswood (center stage on the CD's front cover); Chris and Bill Barton, for putting me up and making me forget to get nervous for the string sessions; Rob Martens at Solid Sound, for giving me a break on mic rental; Sue Gillis at World Class, for the classy packaging; and all you friends, fans and supporters out there who still haven't forgotten me and find me at the rate of one or two a week and remind me that it's all worthwhile.

For more information and notes, see below
Recording, packaging and content ℗ © 2010 Creative Measures LLC
For Doug Howell music information, please contact:
Creative Measures LLC • 7565 Hashley Rd • Manchester MI 48158 • www.creativemeasures.com
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Album Notes

When I was growing up, music was my safe haven—among other things—but I took no shelter in the music most of my friends enjoyed. Then, as now, I was drawn to the songs that surprised me, that made me feel as if I was going on a journey. Come to think of it, maybe that's the flip side of the "safe haven" part. I like a song I can climb up into, nestle among its branches, daydream a little and experience something different every time.

There were three main pop musical influences in my early life: one was mainly a musical influence, one mainly lyrical, and one encompassed both—the whole song. The musical influence was Burt Bacharach, together with Dionne Warwick's flawless, soulful, melodic execution. There was nothing to take for granted there. Start listening to one of his melodies and you don't now where you might end up. Dionne escorted me on many a musical journey as I made my way down the tasklist of a kid doing chores on an apple orchard.

The main lyrical influence? I'd have to say it was Joni Mitchell. Her lyrics made me feel that I wasn't alone in the world. Listening to her tales of woe didn't deepen my despair, but reassured me that other human beings had been this way before. The music was wonderful, too, of course, but it seemed to me that the lyrics were steering the ship. The music was a perfect setting, but it was the bejeweled, poetic lines that drew my attention.

And now for the song—that mystical marriage of music and lyrics—for that it was Jimmy Webb. No question. His songs turned not just the head, but the heart. The lyrics took away the breath. And the music... I'm not sure I can even get close to describing what hearing his songs was like for me. I can still remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard some of Jimmy's songs for the first time. I was on the lawnmower when I first heard "Macarthur Park." What a revelation it was. I felt that a door was opening somewhere. I could feel it, and somehow I was no longer tied to the earth and the wheels and the whirring engine.

It may not come as too much of a surprise, then, that it's always been a dream of mine to record some of my favorite Webb originals. It's one of the projects on my "life list." And as it happens, I find myself at a time of life when it's not wise to put off doing the things on that list. What made me want to do this project in the first place? I guess for me it is a thank you to Jimmy; a return gift for the many gifts he gave to me and thousands like me; and an offering, in the hope that others may discover his wonderful music and be awakened—and changed—by it like I was. At the very least, there will be a few more low-voice versions available that people can sing along with!

How did I choose from among the many, many favorites? Now that wasn't easy. First I made a big list, then struck out all the titles I was either too afraid to tackle, or felt I couldn't do much justice to. (That's why you won't find "Macarthur Park" on this playlist. I just couldn't bring myself to tamper with it.) But after all that, I still ended up with a list long enough for two albums, and then some. So I asked myself: Which ones, if not chosen, would I be the sorriest about never getting the chance to record? Sitting with that question for awhile eventually led me to the current roster: 12 of what I hope listeners will agree are the most beautiful songs ever written. (Of course, one of them Jimmy didn't write, but more about that later.)

My previous solo albums contain original songs in the contemporary Christian music genre. The songs are songs of faith, but they are also songs of life—life that revolves around faith. These are songs of life, too. And for me, they also revolve around faith. I consider them sacred, not least because of how God has used them in my life.

The movie, Finding Forrester, stars Sean Connery as a Pulitzer prize-winning, recluse writer who by accident becomes friend and mentor to a brilliant, 16-year-old neighborhood boy from a poor family. In one scene, he plops a typewriter down in front of the boy and tells him to "write!" The boy is so intimidated that he's paralyzed and can only stare at the thing. You get the feeling that an hour (at least) goes by, and still the boy is sitting there, arms folded, staring ahead. Eventually the writer digs out an old manuscript of his own from the file cabinet and hands it to the boy. "Start typing that," he says. "Sometimes the simple rhythm of typing gets us from page one to page two. And when you begin to feel your own words, start typing them." In many ways, this project is like that for me. It's been so long since I've recorded an album, I was a little paralyzed by the thought of starting a new solo project. I guess I'm hoping that by starting with some of Jimmy's masterful words and music, I'll start feeling my own again.

One more word of explanation. For each song, I've written some "music and meaning" notes, and have also noted my favorite rendition. My own versions often borrow elements from my favorites and, in some cases, put together elements I like from several different versions. On some songs, I have quoted a piano or string part—elements I didn't dare "tamper with." I'll point out these passages as we go.

All I Know

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Art Garfunkel, Angel Clare, 1973

Notes:

This song is the most famous one of the entire collection. Though it's been recorded quite a few times, I think the original version is still my favorite. Some have called "Wichita Lineman," another of Jimmy's more famous works, the "perfect song." While I agree that one's hard to beat, for my money, it's this one. It would be hard to find a more sincere, beautiful, heartbreaking ode to loss. There've been so many times in my life when all the wrangling and ranting and raving has all just finally and desperately and drastically come down to this one, glaringly simple truth: I love you, and that's all I know. It's like North on the compass. There's just nothing you can do about it.

On Jimmy's recent live album, he tells the story about how the person who inspired this song told him she thought it was "silly." No, no. Not at all. Anything but. And if there are times when it all has to come down to just one thing, let's face it, there are lots of worse things. After all, love is "the far better way," remember. Maybe we should all make a point of coming down to this one thing more often.

Met Him on a Plane

(originally Met Her on a Plane) words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Jimmy Webb, And So: On, 1971

Notes:

This has always been one of my favorites. Probably because I had an experience very like this once myself. Or twice... This is a prime example of how Jimmy takes a supremely personal moment and turns it into an evocative song that anyone ever struck dumb by a pair of eyes can relate to. Of course, for me, the eyes weren't feminine. But feel free to use your imagination, the way I've always done since the first time I heard this song.

My arrangement preserves a few elements from the original, among them the piano intro and a couple of the string lines. One of those in particular I have loved ever since I first heard it: the ascending triplets in the middle of the second verse. (You'll hear the same kind of line in another song coming up, too, so stay alert.)

Simile

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Jimmy Webb, Letters, 1972

Notes:

This is the most beautiful song about writing a song I've ever heard, and I think it completely blurs the line between poetry and music. Songwriting has always been a mystical thing to me, and "Simile" lays bare that mystery like no other song I know. Lonnie (my poet friend who sang backup on this) absolutely fell in love with this song as she was learning it and included the lyrics in her journal. Check out page 4 of Tunesmith, Jimmy's book on songwriting, to read some of the story behind the song.

I have always found Jimmy's piano part on this one so mesmerizing in all its undulations, so wedded to the feeling and meaning of the song, that I've done my best to recreate it here. I just couldn't imagine substituting anything else.

Shattered

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Linda Ronstadt, Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, 1989

Notes:

Even though I love Ronstadt's version of this, I've always thought it was too short. I guess I just love the song so much I never want it to end. (Ever feel that way about a song?) Anyway, I added a repeat so it wouldn't end quite so soon.

What a simple, beautiful lyric. And the surprise chord that shatters the middle of each verse... Another perfect one. I think it follows "Simile" exceptionally well, not just because it starts in the same key, but because it's really just one extended, intense simile from beginning to end.

Skywriter

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Jimmy Webb, Twilight Of The Renegades, 2005

Notes:

A friend helped me discover this song, for I had somehow missed it when it was first released. I love how the rootless, restless lyrics float over the rootless, restless harmonies. Just how a song about skywriting should be. And as far as the flying genre goes, this song is right up there with Joni's "Amelia" (a judgment I don't pronounce lightly).

We did a promo poster about the time my Singer album came out that said, "People can't fly. But sometimes they do." Flying's always been a big concept for me, as it is for everyone who wants to run away. It figures prominently in my music and in my dreams—both night and day varieties. Like "Shattered," this song explores a single concept from start to finish, through and through, in all its glory and shame. Who among us hasn't dreamed of flying, and then thought he was flying, only to realize that there was never going to be a happy landing, just two heartbreaking choices: either stay up there forever, or crash. You can fly away from reality, but then you're doomed to spend your life writing your evaporating message across the sky: "I can't forget you yet, for whatever that is worth."

Wooden Planes

aka A Song for My Brother
words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: B. J. Thomas, Billy Joe Thomas, 1972

Notes:

Speaking of flyin' games, here's another. Again we're chasing after something unattainable. Again we think our flight will never end. It was the last track on B.J. Thomas's album, Billy Joe Thomas, and I played it until all that was left of the song was scratches, clicks and pops. Then I bought another copy and wore that one out, too. Definitely one of Jimmy's most exquisite creations, and about the most poignant song of innocence lost I've ever heard. I think it's one of his most bewitching piano arrangements, too. That's why I couldn't imagine trying to arrange a different one. I had to recreate the original as closely as I could (a couple steps down, of course). Maybe it will haunt your soul like it has mine. (Curt, this one's for you.)

When Can Brown Begin

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Jimmy Webb, Letters, 1972

Notes:

If after the first six songs you're still unsure whether Jimmy is a dreamer or not, this one should do the trick. This song is about so much more than racism—don't stop until you've plumbed its depths. It's about how we live such tiny little circumscribed lives, when we were really meant to live so expansively. It's a prayer to the Lord, and a prayer to the people, that we could somehow, finally, start seeing the beauty around us in all its multifaceted glory, without trying to cram it into some preconceived spectrum of acceptable colors.

Bill Bryson, in his book, A Short History of Nearly Everything*, points out how, even though we sometimes think we're stretching our minds to think about four dimensions, particle physicists have posited the existence of something like 26 (and counting). That knowledge can either scare the daylights out of you, or make you sit back in wonder. Although I'm familiar with the former, I much prefer the latter response. What a wondrous God we have! To think we could limit God's truth to two paltry dimensions on a page is ludicrous.

Ever since Hannah Hurnard opened my eyes to it, I like to think of truth as three dimensional, like a mountain range, with us as pilgrims on a journey. What looks like the truth to me today is partly due to where I am on my path. I tell you the truth looks like a snow-covered mountain peak, but you, ahead or behind by a day or more, may see something totally different. Only one truth, but a multidimensional truth, capable of being seen from more than one vantage point. Blows your mind, doesn't it? Think I'm stretching things too far? Let me ask you then: If God indeed created 26 (or more) dimensions, does God's truth only cover two of them—just black and white? Don't think so. If God's truth is living, it is at the very least multidimensional. And it is more than just living: it is Personal.

I think this line from the second verse is my all-time favorite lyric: "Fire and water won't be mixin', so they say, but I've seen the steam clouds..." There's a whole world full of meaning in that line. Jimmy's seeing like a rebel here again, but one that has a cause. This one wants to make us see beyond the box, beyond black and white, beyond proverbs and maxims and dictums and clichés. With a line like that, it's no wonder Jimmy's music speaks to me. For a kid who grew up climbing willow trees, dreaming and praying for a different sort of world, a world where there was room for all sorts of people and all sorts of love, this song was a solace—and a confirmation. My prayer for my version is that it will also be a challenge—for something the world still needs a lot more of.

Remember the triplets in the strings earlier? Here they come again, in another gorgeous string line quoted from the original arrangement. It's so haunting, I think, the way it just draws you further and further along the enchanting, meandering chord progression—my favorite of any pop song.

If Ships Were Made To Sail

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Jimmy Webb, And So: On, 1971

Notes:

Oh, the images in this song! This one is right up there with Joni's "River" in the "running away" genre. "If I could fall up the long night, reach to time gone..." These are not only wonderfully evocative lyrics, but true in an astronomical sense. When you lie flat on your back and look up, you're looking out, really. Out of the world, and back in time. And if you could turn off gravity, you could literally fall up the long night, and reach to time gone.

I used to perform this quite often in concerts, always continuing on to "Love Hurts." People asked me many, many times if I was planning to record it ("Love Hurts"), and I hope all those people are somehow able to find their way to this album. This song duo never failed to silence a crowd, no matter how rowdy they may have been moments before. The words cut so close to the heart that they remove the breath in the process. Just lie back against the scented earth, listen and dream.

I stick close to Jimmy's piano on this, especially in the beginning.

Love Hurts

words & music by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant

Favorite version: Jimmy Webb, Letters, 1972

Notes:

Jimmy didn't write this song, but I discovered it on his Letters album. And the way he sings it, he might as well have written it. As I said, I often performed it, and I think I rather shocked people with it. I was doing contemporary Christian music mostly, and when I unleashed this one... Well, jaws dropped. It's the flip side of the coin, you see. Love could not be quite so wonderful and heavenly if it could not also hurt like hell. In my experience, being honest about the down side always seems to open up the heights, too (eventually). Which is usually what happened in those concerts. The more honest we are about who we are, the more God can speak and love through us. We tear down the barriers and become the open channels we were meant to be. This song lays bare the soul and cleans out the spirit. It's part of that human truth we were talking about earlier. Not an easy part, mind you, but a part just the same. As C.S. Lewis says in Shadowlands, "the pain now is part of the joy then." Or was it, "the joy now is part of the pain then"? Either way, it's just one side of the coin, and you can't have one side without the possibility of the other.

But take heart, listener. You're not alone. And we're heading upward from here.

Shine It on Me

aka You Might As Well Smile
words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Art Garfunkel, Watermark, 1978

Notes:

These next three songs are so resolute and positive and indefatigable that I'm hoping they'll inspire you to forgive me for the previous two... This one's a lot like the Serenity Prayer, I think—only a lot more personal. The plea starts out so deadpan that it lulls you into a false sense of blitheness. "You might as well smile..." No high-sounding motivations or promises, just "no pain gonna change what still remains." In other words, you might as well, 'cause there's nothing you can do about it anyway. But then the way it turns so surprisingly positive and personal at the end: "You might as well regain your lost serenity, serenity, then shine it on me." I just love that. It just makes me glow all over—which, I guess, is the whole point of the song. (Nance, for some reason, I think of you a lot on this one.)

I love Glen Campbell's version of this song, but I connect with Art's version a little more. This arrangement is more like Art's because of that, except that I include all the lyrics, which he doesn't. (Just like the next song, I couldn't bear to cut anything out.)

Lightning in a Bottle

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Jennifer Warnes, soundtrack from Winter People, 1989

Notes:

Like the last song, it starts out rather ordinary—"all I have to do is"—and then zings you at the end—"catch some lightning in a bottle." Like it's the easiest thing in the world. I'll just take a walk out on the water. Yeah, right. "Just one little miracle has to succeed." Just a little miracle. Ever needed one of those?

I remember a beautiful afternoon about 25 years ago, sitting out in back of my Ann Arbor apartment in a lawn chair, praying. I was in a life-and-death struggle with my sexuality at the time, but on that particular afternoon, I was in a cloister of trees, sunshine and peace. It was one of those moments when I knew, no matter what turned out to be right or what wrong, what might happen or what might not, the Lord was in control of it all. He knew everything, and if He loved me—which has always, thankfully, been one of my life's bedrock beliefs—He would help me deal with whatever came to be.

So I remember praying a rather odd prayer, there in that pool of sunlight: "Lord, I know you know everything. You know the answers to all the questions swirling around in my mind. You have the calm to all my storms. You have the joy for all my pain. So I ask you, if it turns out that spending my life with another man is a real possibility, please bless him. Wherever he is, put your hand upon him and guide him, keep him safe and lead him to me whenever you think the time is right. And help me to be patient until then, Lord!" Well, that was in the mid 1980s. A few years later, after six years of pyschotherapy and two years of Homosexuals Anonymous meetings, I finally came to believe that it was the Lord who created my sexuality, and I was going to explore the possibility that I might live another way. (Especially because living the way I was living at the time didn't seem like a viable option anymore. To put it mildly.) Anyway, to make a story that could fill volumes fit into a paragraph, I met Davey in 1989. I met him on the very day I came out to my Mom, and I, like Gideon, asked God for a sign. Unlike Gideon, though, I received four signs! After the fourth, I asked Davey to spend his life with me. Thankfully, he said yes. That was over 21 years ago now. He was the one God had in mind for me, the one He laid His hand on and protected and led to me at just the right time. I have no doubts about that.

So I ask you, dear reader, how many chances do you think it took for me, a late-blooming, fundamentalist Baptist singer in the King's service to find the someone of my dreams? It actually only took one. Just one little miracle that succeeded.

Jennifer Warnes' version of this, performed over the credits at the end of Winter People is a real gem. Unfortunately, she leaves out some of the lyrics, too. But she does an extra chorus at the end, which is nice. Glen Campbell's version doesn't. So I decided to combine the best of both worlds and give you everything: all the lyrics, plus an extra chorus. This is another one of those songs that could go on just about forever, as far as I'm concerned.

Another Lullaby

words & music by Jimmy Webb

Favorite version: Art Garfunkel, Angel Clare, 1973

Notes:

Couldn't think of a better song to end this collection with than this gorgeous lullaby. It's for my newest grandniece, the "Big Mac," my future grandnieces and nephews, my nieces and my nephew; it's for my sister, my sister-in-law and my brother and brother-in-law (even though they're technically already covered in "Wooden Planes"); it's for my wonderful Mom, and for Dad, and for my grandparents and all the rest of my marvelous family; it's for you and yours, too. It's for anyone who needs to know there's someone right there beside them in the dark, in the cold and the snow, when the waves become angry. "You can sleep now. Go to sleep. Tomorrow comes, but it will keep. I'm standing by to sing a lullaby, another lullaby."