Photo by Timothy White
James celebrated his birthday yesterday and he is still going strong. He’s been on the road touring for the past few years with his latest album, Before This World. He’s wrapping that tour up in South America, but will back on the road this Summer with Bonnie Raitt in the US. Let’s jump back in our time machine to Cameron’s 1976 story from the L.A. Times.
James Taylor: Just a Homebody Who Finds No Warmth in the Spotlight
The young man edged closer and stared for a moment to make sure the lanky figure in the corner of the restaurant was indeed James Taylor. The man then tore a soiled bandage from his own forehead and began shrieking that Taylor had just miraculously healed him.Within seconds, the other customers in the restaurant were gawking at the shy singer-songwriter. Taylor sighed quietly and buried his head in his hands. All he had wanted was a burger.
James Taylor has never been quite sure about stardom. His seven albums, if anything, telling an ongoing tale of the struggle for maturity in spite of it. Now 28 and feeling the strong pull of family life with wife Carly Simon and their 2-year-old daughter Sarah Maria, Taylor is seriously wondering how active a rock ‘n roll life he really wants.
The life I used to lead was a little too frantic.
I guess I got eyes to grow old and gray. And if what I have in mind isn’t super- romantic,
I guess I always saw myself this way.
“I’m sure I’ll always continue to make music, “he softly explains later. “It’s just that expected ritual of going out on the road to promote her albums… I don’t know if I can can or want to explain to my child that I need to be away from her and her mother. I wish they could come with me, but it’s really tough.”I find myself doing a lot of reconsidering these days. I must say that my head is definitely been messed up by the whole process of selling and making a living out of what was once just a totally pleasurable thing. Not that it’s a drag now… It’s simply my life’s work. But if I’m a professional autobiographer, then I’m never going to get what I want, which is to get away from marketing myself. So perhaps I should get more serious and treat it like a craft. Go to school, pick up some more tools, learn piano, apply myself to some projects and look at this as a trade. ”
Just as his writing shows, Taylor is a deeply introspective man. In conversation, he sifts his thoughts carefully before speaking. Yet, as is the ironic case with most interview-shy artists, he has made his life and open book of songs. Incidents like the restaurant confrontation are not uncommon. His fans feel as if they already know him intimately and, basically, they’re right.
“I do have my doubts about being so open, “he admits, “but there’s no sense in holding anything back. I can only write about myself anyway. It’s the personal gratification of songwriting that makes it all worthwhile, the navigation through life by self-expression. I mean, this all started with me singing lullabies to soothe myself… ”
With psychedelia down to its last dying embers, those early lullabies (and, in particular, his classic “Sweet baby James “album) were a welcome return to romantic innocence. His first single, “fire and rain, “managed to move not only the usual pop audience, but their parents as well. Rarely has an artist had as much early media attention is Taylor did and 70. He was 23, had made only two albums, and was on the cover of Time and Rolling Stone.
“The cover of time, “Taylor reflects, “really is a jinx. It’s a publicity wallop the few people can handle. Elton John and David Bowie seemed to be able to, but it really froze me. It made me over conscious about trying to keep doing what I did to get there. I was reeling, everything was happening so fast. Nothing seemed all that real to me. It’s only in retrospect that I realized all that I survived. “
The son of a staff physician at the University of North Carolina medical school, Taylor had a fairly typical upper-middle-class upbringing. His family summered every year on Martha’s Vineyard, where he was first exposed to folk music at the island’s coffee houses. It was also there that he first met a teen-age Carly Simon and his longtime guitarist Danny (Kootch) Kortchmar.With Kortchmar, Taylor later moved to New York and started his first band, the Flying Machine. After a hard year on the club circuit, the band broke up “from general city malaise and frustration of knocking on all the doors and being told no.”
Taylor fled to England to try his hand in the folk houses there. Another brick wall. Without working papers, there was no chance of any work outside of street-corner busking. In desperation, Taylor brought 45 minutes of time in a tiny Soho studio to record some of his songs.
The tape was soundly rejected by countless record executives before it finally fell into the hands of Peter Asher, then head of talent acquisition for the Beatles’ Apple records. Asher was impressed enough to play the songs for Paul McCartney, who gave the final go-ahead for Taylor to become the first artist signed Apple.
“It was incredible time to be around the Beatles, “he remembers. “I recorded my Album while they were making the white album. McCartney played bass on Carolina in my mind and George Harrison sang on another song. It was terrific. It was too good to be true and, in fact, it was… “
While it was well reviewed, if some- what overarranged, “James Taylor” sold only a few copies. Allen Klein, the former president of Apple, dropped him from the label. In a “rough state of mind and in bad health, “Taylor returned to America. Asher followed suit shortly thereafter, leaving Apple and his life in London to manage and produce Taylor full-time. Their first album under the new arrangement was sweet baby James, A comparatively stark work. Made for a remarkably inexpensive $8000, the album sold more than 3 million copies and ushered in a renaissance of the solo artist. “A pleasant surprise, “smiles Taylor.
Not unlike the case of his close friend Carole King and tapestry, the success and expectations of Sweet baby James cast a shadow over his next three albums. Not until Gorilla, which spawned the hits “How sweet it is and Mexico, did Taylor fully outgrow his lonesome picker image. Produced by Russ titleman and Lenny Waronker, it was a sophisticated and fully realized effort. Of all his albums, including the newest “In the Pocket,” “Gorilla” Remains the only one Taylor can listen to. “I don’t know why that’s the way it is, “he says, “I just think it’s a nice album. Not that the other ones aren’t, but… you know what I mean. “The reason for Taylor’s creative and personal longevity, he will tell you without hesitation, is his wife. “I think actually that she saved my life, but that’s hypothetical, of course. If she didn’t actually pull me from the teeth of disaster, she certainly turned my life around to the extent that I won’t die in 10 years, where I might have before.
“Carly taught me to treat myself well. She’s an incredibly strong woman… I’ve watched her do 35 takes of ‘You’re So Vain’ in one night and freshen her mind effortlessly at the top of each one. That’s without filling her nose or destroying herself in any way. Besides being the love of my life, she’s a great inspiration to me. My health was never good to begin with… And I was once in circles where it’s the accepted thing to be killing yourself. “
The reference, of course, is to Taylor’s brief flirtations with heroin. It’s passed and it’s gone and it was just a big waste of time, “he states. “Deadhead miles without a load. It’s a pity that people consider it sensational. Drugs are the least sensational thing there is. If people would stop looking at it as romantic, then maybe fewer kids would get into it. Drug culture is definitely stupidity. Besides, if you’ve got a family and your blasted all the time, you lose them.
“I really enjoy being with my family, as stodgy as that may sound. I’d like to spend quite a bit of time doing that, and the rest working on perfecting my recording Technique. That plan, I think, means me moving further away from the celebrity side to all this… which doesn’t really disappoint me too much. “
And does he think that simply making albums is enough for Carly, who does not perform live because of stage fright? “No. “James Taylor shrugs and laughs. “She wants more. ”
Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – August 15, 1976