It’s hard to pinpoint when I first heard MacArthur Park. I associate Donna Summer’s rendition somehow with being in the car in Dunoon, which means my parents must have taped it off a proper vinyl record onto a cassette as we did back then.
After that initial spark, I lost the song, but deep inside the synth solo that Giorgio Moroder slammed into it stayed with me. Eventually those same parents bought a Donna Summer compilation CD and the connection was re-established: I fell in love with that three-minute slice of pop perfection. Yes, even the line about leaving the cake out in the rain.
Then I heard the original version.
It seems strange that I can remember some events with such clarity when most of my life has so far slipped by in a fugue, but I can remember very distinctly that first moment when I realised that Donna Summer’s version was just that — a cover version.
It was way back at my first brush with gainful employment, when I was commuting to Inchinnan from Jordanhill; I had to get up super-early to get a train to get the company bus to work. But as the responsible adult that I am, I always set my radio to come on a good bit before I actually need to get up – a gentle awakening is better than a rude one, I say, even if I the sound and the wakefulness do not bring me any closer to actually getting out of my pit (you’ve got to want to get out of bed, which is the element that continues to elude me).
Picture the scene: you’re wrapped up in your quilt, and the darkness is almost – almost – absolute. Some part of you is awake already, anticipating the activation of the radio. The speakers clunk, the blink of LEDs lifts a little of the gloom, and the song begins…
It’s the strangest feeling, when you’re sleep-hazed and something tickles at your mind. The lyrics and the melody turned my gears until I stumbled out of my daydreams and placed it: I was listening to MacArthur Park, but in no form that I’d ever imagined possible.
Someone left the cake out in the rain,
I don’t think that I can take it,
’cause it took so long to bake it,
And I’ll never have that recipe again,
Maybe “epiphany” is a strong word, because to be honest, I’ve had several musical epiphanies over the years and that probably dilutes their impact. The first was surely The Final Countdown in my parents’ lounge with their 80s hits compilation record, if not Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds, and the breaking point was definitely Erasure’s cover of Solsbury Hill, but that first discovery of Richard Harris’ seminal rendition of MacArthur Park belongs in the heights too.
Maybe it was a quirk of fate. When it’s so totally dark, and your mind is so clearly fuddled; when the only light is a watery glow from a hi-fi’s display and there is no other focus but the sound. Maybe any song would have punched me in the gut at that moment – but it didn’t. MacArthur Park is the song that they chose to play at that moment. MacArthur Park is the song that I woke up to. Not the hair-raising dance-floor-filler of Summer and Moroder, but the bizarre, the peculiar, the strange and delightful and endless orchestral opus of Jimmy Webb as sung by Richard Harris.
There will be another song for me, and I will sing it,
There will be another dream for me, someone will bring it,
I will drink the wine while it is warm,
And never let them catch me looking at the sun…
Maybe it was just the juxtaposition of the familiar with the alien. I knew the song, I knew the words to some degree, but I did not know the instrumentation or the voice – I knew this song pulsing synths and soulful female vocals, not know the plaintive harpsichord or the soaring violins or the roaring orchestral finale nor the words crooned by a man. Nor did I know that the full song as the author intended it stretches to seven and a half minutes, with a whole other lyrical movement that was brand new to me.
I will take my life into my hands, and I will use it,
I will win the worship in their eyes, and I will lose it
I will have the things that I desire,
And my passion flow like rivers through the sky…
It took me a while to track it down because DJs are fast and loose with radio introductions at the best of times, but I managed it in the end… Plus something else, something much, much bigger.
For all my life up to that point, I knew Donna Summer’s single edit, the cut-down version that drops the After the Loves of My Life segment in favour of radio-friendly pop arrangement.
I did not realise that Donna Summer did indeed record the full version, and that it was in turn spun into the MacArthur Park Suite. Comprised of MacArthur Park itself, with two other songs One of a Kind and Heaven Knows fully integrated before a final reprise of the MacArthur Park chorus, the seventeen minute Suite is the true form of MacArthur Park to me.
This is no cut-price megamix where you only hear thirty or forty seconds of one thing before going on to the next, this is a full-on pre-assembled non-stop party with bonus features to the max. This is a long song.
You know what the funny thing is? My brother recently got a record player, and for new year we took a selection of my parents’ original vinyls to play on it during the party. I was charged with eliminating the embarrassing stuff (Status Quo) and extracting the good stuff (Spandau Ballet)
It turns out that my dad did indeed have several Donna Summer records, but one stood out in particular — Live and More. You know what’s on the second side of the second record of that concert album? The MacArthur Park Suite.
Yes, that cassette-recording-from-a-vinyl that I remember hearing on a family road trip to Dunoon, which makes up my earliest memory of MacArthur Park — that is quite likely a memory of the full MacArthur Park Suite.
Life is funny, innit?