It’s probably the epitome of cliche for me to tell you I’m a James Taylor fan. Just about every guy my age who ever picked up an acoustic guitar has publicly pledged his troth to the music of James Taylor. So, yeah, it’s probably not hip to say this. And, yeah, it’s probably cliche.
Know what? I could care less. I’m a huge fan, and have been for years. And as both he and me have gotten older, my admiration has deepened and grown. As with Fogelberg’s music, as I was learning the guitar I learned the “Greatest Hits of James Taylor.” Or, I should say more accurately say that for many years I could play the chords from the song book. But what came out of my guitar never sounded close to what Taylor played. (This may be why I gravitated more to Fogelberg…at least on some of his stuff I could approximate the records…)
So it’s been gratifying is that, as my playing has improved through the years, so has may ability to mimic those records. Or at least, as I often say, I’ve been able to get “good enough to fool most people.” In fact the “carrot and stick” of playing a flawless “You’ve Got a Friend,” or “Something in the Way She Moves,” was one of the key ways my own playing improved, especially in the early years.
A part of why I am adding JT to my “balcony people” list right now is, of course, because of the tribute show tonight. Connections Band rides again with a tribute show to the music of James Taylor and Carole King. As I’ve mentioned, the first set will be King. The second Taylor. I suppose I ought to write an entry for Carole King too. She is arguably not the most prolific woman songwriter of a generation, but the most prolific songwriter of a generation, period. But for me personally, Taylor’s the one whose music is so much a part of my cultural DNA.
“Goodnight you moonlight ladies
Rockabye sweet baby james
Deep greens and blues are the colors I choose
Wont you let me go down in my dreams
And rockabye sweet baby james”
What I’m about to write is based on stories I’ve heard over the years. Is it all true? Who knows. Write a comment if I get it wrong.
Taylor’s first big hit was “Fire and Rain,” a song that folks have struggled for years to interpret. The bottom line is: it was a song written out of some of the deep pain of his life at the time. And had it never been written, we might never have heard the name James Taylor.
Taylor has suffered from depression and mental illness for many years, and was first hospitalized for it during high school. Drug addiction, heroin specifically, has also been a minor chord of his life for decades.
Early in his musical life, Taylor formed a band called “Flying Machine” with his lifelong friend, Danny Kortchmar. But the group bombed out, and ended up in “pieces on the ground.”
A big break came after he sent a demo tape to the great Peter Asher, who would become extremely important in his career. That tape eventually led to a deal as the very first artist signed by Apple Records, the Beatles brand new label.
But even though his first record was recorded at Abbey Road, and even though George and Paul both played on it, it didn’t do well. (An historical tidbit to give anyone whose record ever bombs a little comfort…)
When JT got back from England, depression and drug addiction reared their heads again. Add to this, he got the news that an old friend, Suzanne Schnerr, had committed suicide. There is some indication that perhaps Taylor’s friends and family actually kept the news from him for the months he’d been in England, hoping to not upset him or interrupt the recording of that first record.
He made a couple of major appearances in 69, but the heroin was really gripping him tightly. And to top it all off, he had a motorcycle accident where he broke both of his hands!!!
At the turn of the decade he couldn’t even play guitar, he’d lost a good friend to suicide, struggled with depression and drugs, seen the failure of an early band and a first record. It was looking like nobody would ever know the name James Taylor.
It’s right about then that he sits down to write “Fire and Rain.” That song, from his second album, would become the breakthrough smash hit that propelled him to stardom. (In fact, it caused folks to take another look at that first record, which pushed “Carolina on my Mind” into the charts almost two years after the album’s release…)
It was a heady time for singer songwriters. As the decade progressed, they dominated Pop Radio. Taylor, King, Cat Stevens, Fogelberg, Harry Chapin, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Stephen Bishop…and no doubt a host of others I’m leaving out. Taylor was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as the quintessential American “singer-songwriter.” Arguably, when folks think of that generation, it’s his name they remember most. Taylor and Simon got married, and were something of an early pop-icon marriage (at least as far as singer songwriters go…)
Hits poured forth: a covers like “You’ve Got a Friend,” and “Up on the Roof;” originals like “Something in the Way She Moves,” Walking Man,” and “Shower the People.”
This incredible career has seen five Grammy Awards, 40 gold, platinum, and multi-platinum records, induction into the Rock and Roll and Songwriter Hall of Fames. Taylor was awarded Billboard’s “Century Award,” given for the highest level of creative attainment, and more recently he recieved the honor of “GrammiCares Person of the Year.” On Taylor’s Wikipedia site, it says this about that event:
“At a black tie ceremony held in Los Angeles, musicians from several eras paid tribute to Taylor by performing his songs, often prefacing them with remarks on his influence on their decisions to become musicians. These artists included Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Taj Mahal, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Sheryl Crow, India.Arie, the Dixie Chicks, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, and Keith Urban. Paul Simon performed as well, although he was not included in the televised program…”
In other words, there is no doubting that Taylor’s music and career have had an influence not only on countless guys like me, but on many of today’s most famous musicians.
Taylor’s first “Greatest Hits” record featured new versions of “Carolina” and “Something in the Way.” And although it never rose to higher than 26th place on the charts, it eventually blew away every higher charting album of that era. In fact, to this day, thirty years later, it still holds the record for second longest number of consecutive weeks on the charts. (Right behind Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”) It stayed on those charts for 573 weeks…or eleven years!! It’s sold more than 10 million copies, making it not just platinum, but the very rare “diamond” record.
Despite the professional success, Taylor was beset with personal problems. His marriage to Carly Simon was rocky. There are stories that she was often frustrated by his long touring schedule, and there are stories that his album “Dad Loves His Work” was something of a response to this. If true, this was hardly a way to keep a marriage together. Sure enough, the marriage ended two years after that record. Their children, Ben and Sally Taylor are now also both musicians, and have had some success among twenty-somethings in the past few years.
His siblings, Livingston and Kate, have also been musicians of some note. I have a couple of Livingston Taylor records, and they’re all quite good.
“Oh my God, a monkey can move a man
Send him to hell
And home again
With an empty hand in the afternoon
Shooting for the moon
It’s halfway sick
And it’s halfway stoned
He’d sure like to kick
But it’s too far gone
They wind him down with the methadone
He’s all on his own”
Heroin was an addiction Taylor struggled with for much of his adult life. It no doubt colored many of his relationships, and his ability to work and produce. As successful as he’s been, it’s something to wonder what else might have been possible, had he not been trapped by the addiction. Add to this, as time passes and songs get more famous and take on a life of their own, and become larger than life. The demand to hear the “old stuff” outpaces the desire of fans to let an artist change and grow. I don’t know, but I would guess these are issues that Taylor has struggled over the years.
As I understand, it was the death of Taylor’s friend, John Belushi, that was something of a wakeup call for him concerning his life. It’s mentioned in this verse from the song, “That’s Why I’m Here.”
“John’s gone found dead he dies high he’s brown bread
Later said to have drowned in his bed
After the laughter the wave of the dread
It hits us like a ton of lead
It seems “learn not to burn” means to turn on a dime
Walk on if you’re walking even if it’s an uphill climb
Try to remember that working’s no crime
Just don’t let ’em take and waste your time”
That record, “That’s Why I’m Here” marked something of a return to James Taylor for me. It was roughly around the time I was discovering other contemporary songwriters (Wilcox, Gorka, Larkin, etc…) and also roughly around the time when I began to think most of the rest of pop music on the radio really sucked. It seemed like Taylor had lifted out of a fog in his life and career and was at a place where he could finally look back and see (and accept) his own place in life. In fact, it would later be said that Taylor was close to walking away from his career in the time just before this record. But then, he played an incredible show down in Rio. Taylor’s Wikipedia entry tells the story:
“He was quoted in various interviews that he was thinking of retiring after fulfilling his last contractual obligation, the Rock In Rio in 1985. However, he was surprised by the reception of the audience on Saturday, January 12 (there were 250,000 people, the biggest attendance of the 10-day festival), when he performed right before George Benson. Two days later, they were scheduled to perform in the same order, but because Taylor’s extended performance had caused a delay to Benson’s on Saturday, Benson proposed that they switch the order. Taylor ended up the finale in this second performance. Buoyed by the audience’s reception, he decided to take back his life and his career. (Sixteen years later, on January 12, 2001, he played the very same site, at the opening night of the third Rock in Rio, whose organizer, Roberto Medina, described Taylor to the Brazilian press then as “his good luck charm”.) The song “Only a Dream in Rio” was written in tribute to that night…The album, That’s Why I’m Here, from which that song came, started a series of studio recordings that, while spaced further apart than his previous records, showed a more consistent level of quality and fewer covers.”
Oh what a night wonderful one in a million
Frozen fire brazillian stars
Oh holy southern cross
If “Fire and Rain” had defined the young man –and an early life filled with pain and disappointment– it seems to me that “That’s Why I’m Here” –the album and song– marked the beginning of a new era; a turning point for a guy who was now a little older, a little wiser, less tormented by ghosts, and much more comfortable inside his own skin. Taylor sings as much in the final verse:
“Oh, fortune and fame’s such a curious game
Perfect strangers can call you by name
Pay good money to hear fire and rain
Again and again and again
Some are like summer coming back every year
Got your baby got your blanket got your bucket of beer
I break into a grin from ear to ear
And suddenly it’s perfectly clear
That’s why I’m here
Singin tonight, tomorrow, everyday
That’s why I’m standing here
That’s why I’m here”
Here’s a RealPlayer video of a CBS story about James Taylor from a couple of years back. It gives a lot of nice background on him, and features him talking candidly about his life.
If you haven’t heard JT’s more current work, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Start with “That’s Why I’m Here.” But don’t forget “Hourglass,” “Never Die Young,” and New Moon Shine. His newest record, “October Road” has song that will take you back to all those old hits, and new ones that are fresh and unique.
To me, Taylor’s recent recordings and live shows have a jazz undertone to them that separates him from a lot of singersongwriters. If you listen to the chords even in his earliest records, you can hear jazz-like progressions even then. They’ve always been there. In fact, you could argue that, structurally, his chord progressions have always borrowed more from Jazz than from Pete Seeger. (Which may be why they’re so hard for the aspiring folkie to learn…)
His 1993 Live CD is a gem, and you shouldn’t miss it. It gives a great flavor of all those live shows. His live band, which has been together for years, is awesome.
I’m certainly one of those guys, coming back summer after summer to hear those songs “again and again.” There is something magical about a JT concert in the summertime. I’ve been that guy with the “baby and beer,” sitting on the lawn at StarPlex, allowing the music to take me back through time, but also right into the present too.
There is something incredible about the connection of those songs to your life and your personal history, and sense that Taylor now realizes what an honor it is to be a part of so many people’s musical DNA and personal life stories. Few artists ever get to that level, really…where their songs are really part of the story so many people tell about their own history. In fact, just last Friday at the Northaven Coffeehouse, a member came up to me afterwards because I’d closed my set with two JT songs (trying to pitch tonight’s show…). Everyone in the room had been singing along with every word, and he said, “Wow I’d forgotten how much a part of me those songs were.”
And yet, it’s also great to see how he’s stayed relevant, and even thrived, in recent decades. As he knows all too painfully, some of his generation didn’t make it. Some, literally. Some faded away, professionally.
But he’s kept at it, and it’s always been a grace-filled experience to have his music as a soundtrack for life.
“I forget what to ask for
There isn’t anything I haven’t been given
How could I wish for anything more
As I am here living in heaven
This moment in the sun
To feel the wheel turning on
Carry me on my way”