It’s just over 2000km from LA to Oklahoma. Let me take you on a journey of just over 2000 words, as we explore the curves and crests of Jimmy Webb’s timeless By the Time I Get to Phoenix.
“New York, Sept 14, 1990 – BMI, the world’s largest performing rights organization, today announced the titles, writers and publishers of the 50 most performed songs in the company’s 50 year history.
There is something insidious about the geography of love and lust. And leaving.
In “Phoenix”, that geography insinuates itself. Until you become part of the journey.
I can’t really say when Phoenix became my favourite in the Webb/Campbell pantheon.
I was always a Galveston man, something about the chorus and the stories of the flood from the great hurricane of 1900. And Wichita Lineman, that great fragmented masterpiece, arguably the greatest vocal of all time. Ditto Susie, I now see it’s clunkiness, but the simplicity of the metaphor appealed, and the loss in the “if I don’t stay around” talked of passions and obsessions I had never really felt.
Apparently Sinatra agreed, Phoenix is the greatest torch song ever, apparently.
I’ve flown over Phoenix. From the air, its strategic rationale as a defence town in the SW makes sense. It’s a million miles from nowhere. But in Webb’s masterwork, Phoenix the place, Phoenix the song, becomes the centre of everything, the leitmotif of that dreaded moment in every relationship.
But more, it becomes not just the symbol of Webb’s subject’s journey. It’s America on the rebound.
Three verses… three cities… lines… lifelines… birth, work, death…. meet, mate, leave….Phoenix, Albuquerque, the high school production of Oklahoma!
When it’s not about beautiful balloons that go Up Up and Away, or 99 of them flapping across the East German sky, great pop is about love or death, or love and death, or in the context of Love Will Tear Us Apart, about love in the context of subsequent death.
Phoenix is about the death of love. Clearly, of undying love – I’ve left that girl so many times before.
Relationships as dissected plateaux, flat, but riven with crevices. Will they dig themself out of this one?
I’ve left that girl so many times before… yet you feel he has never made it to Oklahoma before. Maybe he never will, never make it to that unwinding 3rd base.
After all, this is a song of movement, but inferred movement only. He could be sitting in a café in downtown LA or San Diego the whole time, just mapping out how it will unfold. He talks a good leaving, but every time I play the song, I get a different feel. He will go, he will stay. He will go, and come back. Graeme Wood, if you know what I mean.
So Webb’s artifice is to create a magnificent canvas of journey, in a world of paralysis. It’s us that move him across the desert, not really willing him on, but certainly dragging the google map, to see where he goes after Oklahoma. And all the two-bit towns he would pass through.
Journey Without Maps.
This… map without journey…
We use “roadmap” all the time now as a catch-all in our lives.
According to Wikipedia, Webb and Campbell had first met during the production of a General Motors commercial. Webb arrived at the recording session with his Beatle-length hair and approached the conservative singer, who looked up from his guitar and said, “Get a haircut”.
One of my unfulfilled dreams is an art installation thing. I hire out a cinema. There’s a split screen movie playing – he is on the left, probably played by Ryan Gosling, but more likely Aden Young or similar local. She is on the right, played by, I don’t know, someone watchable. Got to look good rising, working, sleeping, reading post-it notes. Maybe Sarah Snook. Good sleeper.
Anyway, it’s a realtime thing. The song starts when he leaves – let’s presume it’s from LA. It could be anywhere – San Diego, perhaps. Maybe San Fran. Webb doesn’t ever say. But let’s presume LA. It’s about 600km and about 5 and a bit hours. So we’ll have him leave around 2, and arrive at 7:30.
And she will rise. And read. And laugh.
By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising
She’ll find the note I left hangin’ on her door
She’ll laugh when she reads the part that says I’m leavin’
‘Cause I’ve left that girl so many times before.
In another 8 hours, it’s Albuquerque. We’ll have him go by Route 60, and then I-25. Towns like Show-Low. Eagar. Pie Town.
And she’ll work and eat and ring.
By the time I make Albuquerque she’ll be working
She’ll probably stop at lunch and give me a call
But she’ll just hear that phone keep on ringin’
Off the wall, that’s all.
Another 8 hours – and an unknown number of Bennies – gets us to Oklahoma.
By the time I make Oklahoma she’ll be sleepin’
She’ll turn softly and call my name out low
And she’ll cry just to think I’d really leave her
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go.
Crying, disbelieving. Moaning.
(Thanks to google for the maps.)
As you watch it unfold, you can play every single version of Phoenix ever recorded. You can fast forward to any bit. Or go the whole hog, Renaldo and Clara style, badge of honour as you leave.
An App will help you track progress on google maps and google street view. You will be able to virtually drive the route. Frank Black knew d=r x t.
You will be able to squeeze every last bit of mystery and romance from the song.
I mean, skeletons need flesh; don’t they?
(Thanks to Jimmy Webb for the lyrics.)
Juxtaposition makes this song. It’s just him and his position. And the rest is all about her. Just doing the routine. She is Oblivious. As they head to Oblivion. We get a look into the everyday, to see what happens when someone leaves.
What happened the night before? Who did what to whom? Do we really care? It doesn’t really matter – just be thankful that they did it. (There is an Isaac Hayes prequel version, but this time I’m saying “No, Chef!)
Webb mines the universal vein in Phoenix. It’s a song about she and me.
But the geography, while purely metaphoric, is the pivot. We know those towns, we know the journey, it’s the only road he could have travelled.
You try it – try singing “By the time I get to Ballina”; “By the time I get to Watford”. You will be begging on the street before you know it.
We’ll come back to this theme.
Roads are long and life is lonely, and relationships are like truckstops.
The first time your hear the song, it’s actually only in verse 2 that we realise he is on the move, not just going to Phoenix. And then verse 3 confirms it. In subsequent listens, it’s us doing the projecting, not Webb.
This great icon of a break-up song is a slow cooker. No boilover, not even a simmer.
It’s the first ever boiled frog song about relationships
Haven’t you ever wondered, just what does that part of the note that isn’t about leaving say? Can you buy some milk and bread, please? I fed the dog?
Forget Leo Sayer, Webb is the genius un-sayer.
It’s not even “show, don’t tell”. It’s just “don’t tell”. Don’t explain, because we all get it, we have all left that guy/girl so many times before.
Wikipedia tells us Webb wrote Phoenix in ‘65, Johnny Rivers kicking off the appearances in the charts. Campbell’s signature version went to Number 2 in the country charts in 1967.
He’s a strange cat, that Jimmy Webb. Music’s Shakespeare, I reckon. Up, Up and Away was one of my favourite songs as a kid, courtesy of the Trans Australian Airlines ad. Up Up and Phoenix won 8 Grammys. Webb wrote half the first 5th Dimension album and pretty much all of the second. Macarthur Park – the genius is that it could be dribble, or genius
He moved to LA in the early 60s with 40 bucks from his dad. I read somewhere the studio chiefs saw his talent straight away and effectively begged him to stay in a caravan and write write write, they would bring him food and the other nutrition a great writer needs.
Webb had a string of hits with Campbell and others like the Supremes.
There was to be no haircut.
(thanks to Wikipedia for the facts.)
Just when did the American Dream sour? I couldn’t find that on Wikipedia. Was it already dead when Pet Sounds came out? Was Vietnam just the symptom, not the disease?
From the early 1800s, west they went, for land, water, gold, for rock and roll. For a share of the dream. Chuck’s Route 66 screams out the roll-call of staging posts as we all hurtle Westward, Ho.
But it’s Chuck’s “The Promised Land” that is the clarion, a bus-bound escape to sun and surf and fun and… anyway, allegedly he wrote it in prison in ‘65. Using an atlas as prompt. I was born the same year. And love atlases. The facts are not connected. They are just coincidences. Like points on a line.
Webb wrote Phoenix the same year, from a different kind of prison. By the time Webb had Campbell getting to Phoenix, it was becoming clear, despite Monterey et al, there was no paradise out there. Or anywhere. ’68 was just the exclamation mark.
So we head back east.
To Watergate. To E Street.
Welcome Back, Kotter.
The road as metaphor is the great exemplar of the cliché that is truth nonetheless. Easy Rider. Kerouac. McCarthy’s dystopian scrounging travelogue. Smokey and the Bandit. Duel. Convoy. TransAmerica. Broken Flowers. Kiss or Kill.
Kowalski cremated the dream when he vanished the Dodge into the concrete.
The Band and CSNY and others tried to channel the essential California Dreamin’, to keep it alive. But it was gone, they could only capture a caricature. The music was to become sclerotic, with the Eagles et al the Walking Musical Dead.
The sense of loss is profound. The Americana movement has been searching for it ever since.
What happens after Oklahoma? Why don’t we care?
See, this is not Tangled Up In A Blue Webb. Dylan would have filled the canvas with so much colour and character and history and incident that we would have lost all interest in “she” and “I”… I married Isis on the 5th day of May, early one morning the sun was shining she was laying in bed, someone’s got it in for me they’re printing stories in the press.
30 verses and 200 encounters with svengalii and shaman later we don’t really care, we’re just thankful we survived the ride.
(Actually, there’s a fair bit of Webb in As I Went Out One Morning and even Watchtower, just fragments of stories, circularities. Might explain the revisiting that goes on.)
In the great works, there is no end. Songs, books, movies. Lines go on to infinity.
It’s only 6 Feet Under that dared to show how the next 80 years of the characters’ lives would pan out. It was fun, sad, shocking, corny but worth a crack. It hasn’t been done since.
A journey without beginning or ending. All about ending. Love’s Never-Ending Story.
Jimmy Webb’s musical was called His Own Dark City. Jimmy Webb was born in Oklahoma. The two facts are not necessarily connected.
Is he going to Nashville? Where do the roads take you?
Is it the Country Boy from that song going home to Tennessee? Is the song about Campbell or Webb? Facts don’t help.
You make your own mindmaps out here.
He leaves her a note on the fridge. He breaks up by post-it-note!
I guess you can’t really blame Webb’s villain…
Tho’ time and time I try to tell her so
She just didn’t know I would really go.
I never can say “goodbye”, said Gloria Gaynor, who clearly wasn’t trying very hard.
By the time I get to Phoenix she’ll be rising.
What a line. Stripped of context, it could be about the mythological Phoenix rising. It could be a simple descriptor – the town of Phoenix will be rising when I get there. We even know a woman called Phoenix, it could be about a person.
But we should have known better with a girl like her. This is Lamentations 101. The sun may never rise on this relationship again. The sun was going down on America. No world peace was going to rise from the fiery ruins.
All that remains is the metronome, time passing as wheels go round and round.
Onward, ever onward, on the road to nowhere.