…which is its full title, I believe. When I saw Judy Collins perform in Aberdare a few years ago – the first and only time I’ve seen her- she was, as predicted, polished, professional, superb – as you might expect from 50 years ‘on the circuit’. She ran through a familiar repertoire which, I imagine, she imagined fans expected to hear: the hits, a smattering of Joni and Leonard, a couple of traditional (yes we even had ‘The Great Selkie’), some ‘standards’, and in amongst them all, this – “a song by my friend Jimmy Webb”.
OK, if it didn’t literally ‘take my breath away’ it certainly made me sit up a little, and there was, I swear, something of a prickle down the old spine…With Judy’s crystally lucid enunciation, the narrative was clear from the start, from the very first phrase – ‘Gauguin, tired of the climate in Paris..’ and there we were, carried along musically, embarked on that famous artistic journey of discovery.
This is a story easy to glamorize, of course – the idea of leaving behind wage-slave drudgery, conventional and artificial civilization, grey uniformity, suburban mundanity – and heading out – with just some impelling notion of wanting to paint, heading out, further, further to lands of colour and otherness. Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ tackles the story, and …I seem to recall…manages to avoid over-glamorization, I think. But songs, ah well, generally they can’t resist the emotive and the romantic – and we get it here. “So I’m going to go down and look for Paradise..”
Probably the realities of it all were a lot more sordid – selfishness and desertion, stubborn idealism, and an ending in licentiousness and syphilis. Still, but still…there’s something universally valid about ‘the romance of the quest’ – “To paint pictures of Paradise – you’ve got to lose yourself to find Paradise”. We can relate to that, can’t we?
And the song – back to the song – there’s a really engaging architecture to its construction, which indeed draws you in and on. I sought out Webb’s own version as soon as I could. I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s a writer who knows his craft.