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Thursday
Nov012001

life is a cabaret…life in a moment, eternity in a song

When you put Paul Williams and Jimmy Webb in a room, you basically have the collective soundtrack of the late '60s and '70s in pop music. What they didn't write -- as writers creating for others, as opposed to the work of writer/artists -- isn't worth having. And generations of Americans, indeed citizens from farflung points of the world, have their lives and defining moments tied up in songs like "We've Only Just Begun" and "MacArthur Park" and "Evergreen" and "Wichita Lineman."

How does one argue with a line like, "I need you more than want you/ And I want you for all time"? And the two catalogues are filled with these sorts of revelatory moments, sparkling like diamonds piled on deep green velvet. So it is that Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams came together to trade songs and quips and repartee for New York's well-heeled café society. These are people who don't want to go to deep, but would like to remember and be entertained, jogged into moments and reminded of who they were when -- perhaps-- they were younger and freer and bolder.

It is an incredibly specific audience one plays for in a place like Feinsteins, with its dark wood paneling, fine table cloths and $10 orders of green beans. And they do insist on being entertained, a job the quite glib Paul Williams was custom molded for. Self-deprecating, insightful in way that has enough training wheels attached so everyone gets the inside jokes or dirt and ingratiating in that backstage pass for the sponsor, so they can tell their friends how hip they are -- friends who have no idea what hip is, so take it on faith that their rock and roll friends are about more than diamonds and Royces!

For a lover of songs as small pillows of life, though, it creates a certain frustration. The songs are there. They are played and they are sung. They are recognized and they are responded to. But rarely do they get excavated, examined for the depths of truth they reveal. And in a strange twist of fate, there's no blame to place.

These artists know their room -- and they deliver what is expected. Transcendence would be lost on this crowd in their furs and their jewels and their bespoke suits, so why venture the terrain and embarrass the paying customers with too much truth, rambunctious emotions, lost moments and memories that are fading or maybe far too vivid?

But that's not to say these two couldn't get there from here. For even in the jivest supperclub set, there's always room for that moment. Maybe it's for the artist, maybe the song demands it, perhaps it's an accident. But when the connection happens, it jolts through you like a bolt of electric current and heads straight to the floor.

After much jocularity, and Williams' gracious citing of the Grammy earned by said composition, Webb was left to his own devices to play -- in that gorgeous cascading way of his, both hands spiraling notes around the other, washing us out on waves of melody -- "The Highwayman." The song stood as the title track for country music's Mount Rushmore -- Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash --'s summit meeting on vinyl.

"The Highwayman" was a fitting elegy for each of their larger-than-life personas, a celebration of the legend living at its fullest potential -- with just enough swashbuckling to lend an aura of mystery and danger and musk and lace cuffs and a place beyond the rules. It was also a song of the spirit, a song that promised that the rake and rambler's essence never dies -- only the mortal coil is finite -- and it will be reborn into the heart of some other thrillseeker who will also know no sense of boundaries.

Johnny Cash as the voice of God. Kris Kristofferson as the William Blake Buddha. Willie Nelson as the mystic sage. Waylon Jennings as a pirate who would rape your daughter and steal your jewels and tattoo his name across her heart evermore. Each brought volumes to verses that were already beyond fraught with meaning.

In a few lines, Jimmy Webb painted pictures, delivered glorious novels, cast nets and brought home lives lived to capacity, moments savored, moments conquered, glories had and exploded. For what made "The Highwayman" more than just one more rah-rah outlaw anthem was the fact that it embraced the whole truth -- that there is a cost to these lives, a back end which eventually arrives.

And it is in the destruction of the gallant maverick that the soul moves to its next plateau, its next Himalayan plateau where the air is rare and the view is staggering and the wind whips through one's hair with a briskness that is stirring. For it's tremendous risk and full-blown adventure where dreams are created, realized, broken and remembered. It is the intersection of desire and delivery -- and it is the pasture where the highwayman, the space traveler, the pirate, the damn builder, the explorer and yes, perhaps even the rock songwriter can graze and frolic and race the wind to wherever. Death. Rebirth. Reincarnation. If the devil's hand is aces and eights, then the highwayman's numerology is eight on its side. Inifinity and infinte. It's all the promise the soul chasing the dawn needs. For when this ride is over, all that's required -- beyond memories that matter -- is a fresh horse that's high spirited and ready to run.

Like all of Webb's songs, the agility with which he captures whole lives is breathtaking. But "The Highwayman" celebrates a promise seldom articulated: if one's spirit isn't broken, it will come back with gusto and panache. In the four kings, it is a song delivered as a solid contract, a recognition of something intrinsic, taken on faith and recited for the lesser beings. It is compelling in that pater noster way.

In Webb's mouth and at his fingertips -- gentle, caressing, articulate digits that cloak the words with mood and magic -- "The Highwayman" is reincarnated yet again. It is not as an absolute irrevocable, but more the tender witness of someone who's done the miles and knows empirically, so there is no need to scowl or growl or even settle one's shadow across the moment.

From the moment he made his first declaration, this was an old soul, telling its story. Or rather stories. There was no braggadocio involved, no finger-waggling about the lives that've been led. It's more a dignified witness to adventures that've been had, dangers shrugged off and walked through a life of, well, broken lightbulbs and spires of fire. Jimmy Webb knows no fear, only faith there will be more. It is all glorious. It is all the same. It is all experience that elevates the adrenals, brings the drama and celebrates the mettle. For him, "The Highwayman" is almost a truth beyond conscious consideration -- and his exhaled delivery, attenuating a word here, quickening the pace there, is human and engaging.

Done deliberately? Hard to say. But in his humanity, he becomes a mirror. We could be these things, too. We could have adventures. Fly. Sail. Climb. Go fast. Leap into the brink. Dance over the abyss. We can do what we wish -- try to catch the wind in our outstretched hand.

When that is over, we can rest easy, softly, peacefully in the notion that there will be another ride. And another. And another. And… For inside even the meekest librarian, there is a marauder waiting to plunder the moors or a desperado under the eaves, waiting for the fingernail moon to rise and send a silver sliver of light to guide him on. We dream boldly -- we live cautiously.

When Jimmy Webb wraps "The Highwayman" in his flesh and blood and life and voice, he's giving us the promise it can be our's too. Somewhere between, there is a place we can let down our hair, toss back our heads, dig in our heels and know that no matter what happens, there will be another dance. All we have to do is believe and stay connected, not let go. For that's what a highwayman does: he hangs on to his soul, even as the gallows beckon. The adventurer is not afraid of the consequences, so much as he is of what he might miss. The average is a Hell here on earth -- and it's something to remember, something to guide us on when the safety of the known, the comfort of the obvious beckons. Ride. Squeal. Savor. Whether a drop of rain, a swashbuckler or a dam builder, there is continuity and connection. Life in a moment, eternity in a song, Jimmy Webb at the piano -- and then…

"The Highwayman" I am a highwayman Along the coach roads I did ride With a sword and pistol by my side Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade Many a solider left his life blood on my blade The bastards hung me in the spring of '25 But I am still alive

I was a sailor, I was born upon the tide And with the sea I did abide I sailed a schooner around the horn to Mexico I went aloft and unfurled the main sail in the blow And when the yards broke off, they say that I got killed But I am living still Perhaps I always will

I was a dam builder Across the river deep and wide Where steel and water did collide A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado I slipped and fell into wet concrete below They buried me in that gray tomb that knows no sound But I am still around Seems like it all goes round and round and round Around and around Knowing here we go…

I'll fly a starship Across the universe divide And when I reach the other side I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can Perhaps I may become a highwayman again Or 'll simply be a single drop of rain For some things will remain And I'll be back again, I'll be back again Yes, I will Though knowing here we go But we'll all be back again -- Jimmy Webb

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