Richard Harris, long-dead and almost-forgotten, sang this song by Jimmy Webb in the late sixties. Well, almost sang it, as the high notes at the end were sung by one Tony Burrowes, later of Edison Lighthouse fame. (Remember Love Grows where my Rosemary Goes?) MacArthur Park was voted at various times as the best – and the worst –song ever written.
MacArthur Park is park in downtown Los Angeles, formerly known a West Lake Park, before they decided to honour the general with his name on a patch of land that used to be lovely. Like the cake in the song, the park melted away to become something less attractive, but that only happened long after the song became a hit.
And that is the point:
MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark
all the sweet, green icing flowing down
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, “oh no” (“again”, 3rd chorus)
And 40-odd years later, people still argue about these lines. Did Webb really hide in a shed as the love of his life got married in the park and the rain streamed down on the wedding cake? Or was it a winter’s day and the rain melted the snow on the green trees? Or was his innocence melting away during that first, unforgettable, exploration of love?
We’ll never know for sure. Maybe the third verse says something, after all:
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
and after all the love’s of my life,
oh after all the love’s of my life,
I’ll be thinking of you and wondering why.
In those words, we all discover the true meaning of the MacArthur Park hidden in everybody. It’s all about decisions and loss. It’s about taking charge of your life and realising that the picture on the packet bears little resemblance to the product you have purchased. It tells the story of emptiness and how intentions and passion do not always provide sufficient sustenance for the journey to happiness.
Then the chorus of again, again, again, the words that rose to the pitch Harris never mastered. Some say it makes the song fake – but maybe it reflects something else: that life is a composite of many parts and many voices. To be complete, you have to realise the notes you’ll never sing.
So, while the cake stands melting in the winter rain, life goes on. And if that beautiful park has in the meantime become a dirty and dangerous place: it is the memory of the melody that endures. Nothing we live through, is permanent, after all. Parks, melodies, recipes – they all melt away in time.
But the memory of beauty, those last lingering notes completing the song, will forever be part of the music of you life.
This is MacArthur Park. It is in you mind, in your soul – and it will hum a haunting tune that you’ll never fully understand, no matter how hard you try to explain your walk through the once-lush surroundings of your past.
The trick is to enjoy the shade and the sun and the beauty while it lasts – not regret its absence after the rain (as it must) melts away the joy and hope of anticipation. MacArthur’s Park will, in the end, remain only as pretty as we remember it to be.