Updated: Apr 27, 2020
The song by Jimmy Webb was envisioned as the climax of a cantata to be performed by The Association but was nixed by them, then recorded and performed by Richard Harris, covered by Donna Summer, and reviled by many. But not me. I always liked it, despite the ponderous lyrics about someone leaving a cake out in the rain. I’m not quite sure what Jimmy meant when he wrote the words, besides a quasi-psychedelic description of the park along Mid-Wilshire.
The song, as covered by Donna Summer, came out in the fall of 1978, perhaps as early as late September. It was after my bar mitzvah, which had been the last gasp of summer, of that near-carefree summer before the seriousness of eighth grade began. Then came the holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos, Simchas Torah — and then the school year began in earnest. I was not doing that well, particularly in math, because my mind was simply elsewhere. Mostly in my beach-town, science-fiction universe. But also because I had some crappy teachers. Plus, my social life, as I knew it at HALB, was stale. I had a crush on M., a girl in the class a year behind me, but it was going nowhere because she hid behind her self-imposed wall of hard-to-get (which she later told me she put up because she was timid and actually a bit scared of me, or scared of how she felt for me). Later, in October, my school mailed out deficiency notices — official letters informing parents of their offspring’s lagging efforts in class — and they reached my parents before I had the chance to intercept them. My parents, of course, were not happy, and they demanded that I spend all my free time studying (yeah, like  I really could have done that and  it would have helped anyway). And through it all, the temperature dropped slowly, gradually, but steadily from the warmth and mildness of the late summer/early fall down to autumn/near-winter levels. The slow part of “MacArthur Park” — the intro, the first verse, and the first chorus — is the sound of the year turning colder, staler, more stagnant.
Then something happened. Thanksgiving weekend came. Two months earlier, at my bar mitzvah, my parents made up with their old friends from Asbury Park, that we would visit them for Thanksgiving — or, perhaps, they invited us and we accepted. But knowing my parents and these friends, the former was probably how it was done. At any rate — I had some lost time and effort to make up. My childhood crush, C., who was a member of this family, had been bamboozled by the class lothario, JD, at my bar mitzvah, much to my chagrin … naah, screw chagrin! I was pissed off, and it showed. I intended to make the situation right come Thanksgiving — and let C. know that it was I that really had the feelings for her, and JD was nothing more than a player. Well, as it happened, C. was not present at the Thanksgiving dinner itself, and instead, I met her cousin G. We hit it off, quite literally, with a pillowfight that lasted all through the weekend. (And that was the beginning of a long relationship that led to us living together, getting married, having a beautiful daughter, and then getting divorced.) C. showed up the Friday after Thanksgiving, but only after I had first felt my real self emerge as I rode that bike by myself through Asbury Park. The real me that I had known was in me all this time but never had the chance to emerge. It was the ugly duckling turning into the swan.
That swan first spread his wings on the Friday after Thanksgiving, as I imprinted my new nickname — THE HESH — on a lucky charm at Lee’s Arcade in Convention Hall on Asbury Park’s boardwalk. Many songs got played on my internal radio channel that weekend: “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos, “Dance With Me” by Orleans, “Greased Lightning” from the Grease soundtrack, and maybe even “Prove It All Night,” which I had heard for the first time in the latter half of the summer. But it’s the fast part of “MacArthur Park” — from that “AHahaha!” into the second verse and chorus, and then into the solo — that captured the feeling of flying down the boardwalk south to the Casino and up Ocean Avenue north to Deal Lake, alone, on my own, no longer hounded by what everyone in my family and peer group back at HALB expected of me. The old “Hershel/Mershel” was no longer. Now it was The Hesh, and he was flying through the streets of Asbury Park, capital of cool, where nobody could touch him.
I came back to my family's friends' house (mansion? palace? ranch? estate? homestead?) on Friday afternoon a changed man. I left the nebbishy kid behind in Long Beach … the ugly duckling. I returned from the Asbury Park boardwalk a swan. And there to meet me was C. Friday night, at Shabbos dinner, we sat together. G. was there too; after dinner, she needed to walk back home, some two blocks away, and C. volunteered to go with her. But C. needed someone to walk her back home, and I was volunteered for the job … not that I needed much convincing. The walk back, while short, was nice and sweet. But I couldn’t really say or do anything, so I remarked on the constellations above us. Soon we were back in the house, where we all watched Fun With Dick and Jane on TV — itself a radical departure from anything I did with my family, i.e., watching TV on a Friday night. But we were on vacation and all bets were off. All the rigidity was left behind in Long Beach, together with the perceptions of who I was supposed to be.
Saturday morning we went to shul; C. and G. were already there when I showed up. My father, C.'s father, and G.'s father all spent the entire time there kibitzing. I was given the honor of reading maftir and flubbed it pretty badly, but nobody said anything about it. We all walked back to the house and had lunch — again, I sat with C. and G. The whole afternoon was a mishmosh of TV, pillowfights, banter, and teenage flirtation, with our parents leaving us all alone (and my sister was upstairs, sick, so I had no pesky younger sibling chasing me and giving me grief). Then Saturday turned to Saturday night, and we all somehow found ourselves up in C.’s room, where she and I sat on the shag rug on her floor and I stared deep into her eyes and turned on the charm that somehow I knew I had but hadn’t had the chance to use till then. (Previous rejections by girls at my school didn’t help matters either.) But soon C. had a piano lesson (on Saturday night?!?) and the rest of us — me, G., G.’s brothers, and C.’s sister — went to the movies. We saw The Big Fix with Richard Dreyfuss, which I sort of understood — but it is chiefly remembered for the scene in which Dreyfuss visits his old flame to the tune of a song called “I Want To Be Seduced”; as it played out on the screen, G. turned to me and said, “Don’t you wish C. was here?”, and I just stuck my tongue out in response.
Well, C.'s father showed up in his van and took us all home, first dropping G. and her brothers off and then returning to the homestead. Once in the house, I was on my own. I went upstairs to the room I was staying in, took out a comb, and stood in front of the full-length mirror like The Fonz, or the as-yet-unknown character in Bruce Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up.” And sure enough, at that moment, C. turned up. We stayed up together till all hours, going from my room (Orleans’ “Dance With Me”) to her room (the Grease soundtrack) to downstairs, first to the den (where my mom was knitting while The President’s Plane Is Missing played on TV) to the garden room (Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel”), where I told her that I loved her. Well, I wrote it on a piece of paper that I gave her because I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth. But she could tell I had been wanting to tell her “how much I feel” all night, and finally I did. She did not say anything similar in return, but she smiled and said she wanted to keep that paper. It was the most a 13-year-old in love could hope for. We went back to the den, which was now dark and uninhabited, and we sat on the couch — at opposite ends, because in my early-teen awkwardness I couldn’t muster up the courage to slide across the smooth maroon leather and put my arm around her. I didn’t know how to do it. And she fell asleep — either for real, or just for show, to get rid of me. But once she was not responding to my conversation, I hauled myself upstairs, threw myself on the four-poster bed, and went to sleep.
Next morning I went to shul with my father, to Sons of Israel in Asbury Park. On the way back to the ranch, he wanted to drive on Main Street, but I convinced him to take Ocean Avenue so I could get one more glimpse of the waterfront with its ornate pleasure palaces and dormant amusement parks. Oddly enough, he obliged. But once we got back to the house, it was decided to go home right away because my sister was still sick. I tried to cajole my parents into leaving later in the day — say 1:00 or 2:00, once I had another chance to go to the boardwalk, by myself, or perhaps even with C., who was on the couch in the den, watching TV and generally ignoring me. But to no avail. My parents wanted to leave ASAP. We did — and I was heartbroken. I had come into contact with My Real Self, and, coupled with the kick-in of adolescent hormones, the feeling was overwhelming — the very thought of going back to Long Beach, with its asshole teachers and friends and all their prejudices, was akin to the thought of being forced back into a very small bottle. My eyes welled up with tears every few minutes on that long, long ride back to Long Beach. A lot of songs formed the backdrop to that — “How Much I Feel,” even Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen” — but the third part of “MacArthur Park” is what captures the desperation of not wanting to go back. From the transition from the solo into the third chorus, to the third chorus itself, with its variation on the chord progression of the previous two choruses, to the outro, with Donna vocalizing wordlessly, to those staccato horn blasts bringing it all to a sudden stop, it paints the image of the bike ride I didn’t take on Sunday morning through the streets of Asbury Park trying to escape the clutches of all those who wanted to pull me back to Long Beach and force me back into that bottle. But I would never be forced back into that bottle.
Imagine if I did take that ride. My parents told me that I need to go upstairs to pack my bag, because we were going home. Why now? I ask. Why not later? It’s not like we have to be somewhere before tonight, and it’s only an hour and a half ride. No, my father would say. Your sister is sick. We need to go now. In my desperation, instead of going upstairs to pack my bag, I veer to the left, down the narrow hall to the laundry room at the back of the house, and out the back door. I’m free! No one chasing me! I take the same bike I rode on Friday. Without a word, I’m down the driveway, then I’m speeding east on Windermere Avenue back to the city of Asbury Park. The sun shines through the cumuli, illuminating the crisp late-November Sunday. My parents don’t know where I am. They call my name and wonder where I went. By that time I’m already on the boardwalk. A few people are walking, mostly old folks in pairs. Lee’s is open and I shoot some skee ball, but I figure that my parents would find me there, so I keep going. I fly down the boardwalk, toward the Casino again, and then back up Ocean Avenue like I did on Friday — but instead of the sweet taste of unbridled freedom, there’s the sour taste of desperation, wanting so badly to stay in this place. The fast parts of “MacArthur Park” play rapidly in my mind’s ear as I speed up Ocean Avenue. I get tired, or curious, or desperate to the point of needing to hide from whoever is seeking me, so I skid to a stop in the driveway of the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel, the disco beat of “MacArthur Park” still thumping, only now in sync with my pounding heartbeat. I am inside seeking sanctuary, but I run into … my mother, sitting at a table in the hotel lounge by herself. She tells me I have to come home. My father is nowhere to be seen in this scenario. But no matter how you slice it, they bring me back home. But Long Beach can never be my home again, and it wouldn’t be for another 30 years.
That’s “MacArthur Park” to me. Many have ridiculed and derided it over the years, including my sister, who especially despised the “someone left the cake out” line and Donna’s “AHahaha!” But that song will always take me back to that time, that bittersweet era — the stagnation, the breakthrough and blooming, the desperation, and the not ever going back to the way things were.
MacArthur Park, single version
MacArthur Park Suite