Thursday, September 2, 2021

Quote of the Day (Jimmy Webb, on the Inspiration for ‘Up, Up and Away’)

“We jumped in the basket, they fired up the balloon and we slowly began to rise. The ascent was an epiphany. It was a beautiful day and the sun splashed across the balloon's surface. Looking up inside, the bright colors seemed like a cathedral's stained-glass window….Up there, Willie [deejay William F. Williams] and I joked with each other. He said, ‘We ought to make one of those teen beach movies, but in the desert about ballooning.’”—American singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb, on the genesis of “Up, Up and Away,” quoted in Marc Myers, “Anatomy of a Song: Why ‘Up, Up and Away’ Really Is About a Balloon Ride,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 2, 2021

Okay, gather ‘round, all you aging baby boomers—and especially those with a mind-altering substance at hand (or just thinking of consuming one):

Up, Up and Away,” one of the first hits by the precocious Jimmy Webb (all of 17 at the time!), is not—I repeat, not—a drug song. Got that?

That’s a tough pill to swallow for some Boomers, who in their heyday—their twenties and thirties—wanted to turn everything into a drug song, the better to transgress against the older generation.

They may have felt within their rights to think so, because so many of their musical heroes did use drugs and made no apologies for it. And if these counterculture icons were songwriters, that meant they were poetic and stuff, so the central ideas of their songs could very easily serve as metaphors for drugs, right?

Not quite. 

The list of songs reputed to be drug songs but disclaimed as such by their creators include “Puff the Magic Dragon,” “Eight Miles High,” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” You can almost see these songwriters close their eyes as they’re asked for the millionth time about a tune they may have dashed off in no time but after its release got unwanted (and unwarranted) notoriety from the FBI, fire-and-brimstone preachers, and hippies who couldn’t help thinking how cool they were to know the real story behind it!

You can put Webb among those creators who, just this once, want to be taken literally about a song that embodies for so many fans a carefree way of life. 

Is it really so hard to believe, he seems to be saying, that his Grammy-winning tune—one of the first I ever heard pour out of a transition radio, in the version made famous by The Fifth Dimension—might really have been the theme for a movie that never got made—one of those Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello-style teen romps, but instead of “Beach Blanket Bingo,” maybe better called “Balloon Magic Bingo”?

We live in a skeptical age, but I, for one, believe Mr. Webb. After all, in his memoir The Cake and the Rain, he ‘fessed up to all other kinds of misadventures with drugs up to his late 20s. As long as he was making a clean breast of things, why wouldn’t he own up to this, too?

There’s also the matter of the above quote. It’s so detailed, so impressionistic, that it can only convey the kind of day that imprints itself forever in the memory. It’s gotta be true.

If you don’t believe it, too, I guess I’d rather be “suspended under the twilight canopy.”

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