“That precious wine you're tasting will be bitter when you're done
It's your life you're wasting
Don't you think it's sad you had to start so young?” —“This Is Your Life,” music and lyrics by Jimmy Webb (1969)
Shortly after seeing the excellent concert at the Bergen Performing Arts Center by Jimmy Webb (with headiner Judy Collins) (see my review from a few weeks ago), I glanced over the bio on his Web site. Though many of the songs listed there were ones I was familiar with (“MacArthur Park,” “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston”), one in particular caught my eye: “This Is Your Life.” I wondered why I had never heard of it, particularly since it wasn’t performed by some obscure group but by the Fifth Dimension, at their hit-making height in the late Sixties. What it was like?
Through Spotify and YouTube, I was able to find out. In the four-decade discography of Webb, this tune ranks among the most unusual, with no striking image either to grab listeners by the lapels or leave them bewildered (“someone left the cake out in the rain,” from “MacArthur Park”). “This Is Your Life,” ostensibly about someone else—the person the narrator loves—feels like one of the most introspective of Webb’s great pop songs. It’s a no-looking-away summing-up, an urgent appeal to start a new life now. It’s not a bad way to end a year—tallying the costs, and rededicating one’s self to a better life.
As far as I can tell, the first artist to cover Webb’s song was Thelma Houston (“the most prodigious talent I have ever encountered,” according to the songwriter), on her debut LP, Sunshower. It didn’t provide her with the massive hit she would have several years later in the disco era, “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Nor did it become one for the other artists, in addition to the Fifth Dimension, who recorded it: The Revells, Norman Connors (featuring Eleanor Mills), and Billy Paul.
Webb has spoken of the importance of a good title to a song, and he’s sometimes borrowed one out in the popular culture if it fits the mood of his tune, such as sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. (Titles cannot be copyrighted, which is why you have Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jackson Browne.) Growing up in the Fifties, Webb would have been extremely familiar with a TV documentary series called This Is Your Life, in which host Ralph Edwards surprised a guest, taking him or her through memorable moments of their lives in front of a live audience.
The title may have lingered in the songwriter’s mind, but this song is an ironic inversion of the frequently sentimental TV show. It speaks of a character who’s a “runaround,/ The worst one in our end of town.” He is throwing his life away, “the only one you’ve got.”
In lush, orchestral pop music, one song comes the closest to the spirit of “This Is Your Life”: Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Alfie.” The same theme underlies each song: the meaning of a life, i.e., “What’s it all about?”
“This Is Your Life” offers no reason why the narrator loves the one being addressed. In fact, it springs to life the most when it is angriest. I’ve come to think that it’s not simply written in the second person, but in a form that might be called “the accusatory you”—i.e., to one’s self. If you want a sense of what it sounds like, turn to a novel written, remarkably, entirely in this form: Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.
The line about “that precious wine you're tasting will be bitter when you're done” hit me with special force because, in his BergenPAC concert, Webb mentioned that he had been 11 years sober since the last Thanksgiving. Webb was young when he wrote this song, only 23, but he was already running with a fast crowd in the entertainment community at the time. (Who on earth could keep up with his “MacArthur Park” interpreter, Richard Harris, in those years?) The title of a semi-autobiographical Broadway musical he was unsuccessfully attempting to launch speaks volumes about his state of mind around this time: His Own Dark City.
Long before the carousel stops, many addicts sense that the riotous living has to stop—and wonder about the emptiness that their craving can’t assuage—but they are powerless to make a change then. “This Is Your Life” strikes me as one of these moments of quick but blinding self-realization—a thought reinforced by seeing how the song worked in its original context on the Thelma Houston album (which Webb produced for Dunhill Records, and for which he wrote all but one song). According to a perceptive piece by Matthew Weiner for Stylus Magazine, it formed part of a mini-suite on her LP along with the similarly introspective songs “Pocketful of Keys” and “This Is Where I Came In.”
After listening to four versions of the song, I agree with a blog post by music and entertainment writer Rashod Ollison of the Virginian-Pilot that “no one has pierced the lyric” the way that the version by Billy Paul (most famous, of course, for “Me and Mrs. Jones”) does. It’s a passionate outcry, in the same searing sense that anger directed against one’s self, in the deepest recesses of the heart, can be. It contains all the pained knowledge packed into the final line of McInerney's novel about a young, substance-abusing "runaround": "You will have to learn everything all over again."
(Photo shows Jimmy Webb performing live at The Bottom Line in New York City, August 24, 2003.)