"It is very strange making a living out of being yourself," says James Taylor, trying to sum up his work.
It is also very popular: "Being yourself" neatly defines the personal, confessional school of songwriting which promises to supplant much of the hard rock of the Sixties. The songs range in profundity from Neil Young's stylized laments to John Lennon's barings of the soul, but the singers invariably give simple, intimate solo performances which suggest that they are revealing their most genuine feelings.
At 22, and with two best-selling albums behind him, James Taylor stands at the head of this class right now.
They give disturbing glimpses into an appealing but tormented personality; he is the product of a remarkable and sometimes tragic family.
A verse in "Carolina Day," by James' brother Livingston, lists the family activities: "Alec and Brent, they're lovin' their child/James is becomin' a star/Sister Kate's laughin' all of the time/Brother Hugh's out wreckin' the car."
Now, in 1971, that roster needs revision, for Alec, Kate and Liv himself are all becoming stars. Alec, at 23 the oldest of the Taylor offspring, has an album out in January and will tour with a band in February. Kate, 21, is awaiting the January release of her album and then she will go on the road. 20-year-old Liv has sold over 120,000 albums and just finished taping four programs for British TV in London. Only Hugh, 18, has resisted the temptation to enter the sweepstakes. Although he has a good voice — "Probably the best in the family," says Alec — he prefers to work as a carpenter. But in time....
The Taylor family history might have been written by Eugene O'Neill in collaboration with Tennessee Williams. An old North Carolina family, they have tended to produce doctors, alcoholics and suicides — sometimes all three at once. Dr. Isaac Taylor, James' father, was delivered at birth by his grandfather, also a physician. A week later, Dr. Taylor's mother died and within two months his grandfather, filled with guilt, had drunk himself to death.
Dr. Taylor was brought up by his mother's sister who constantly reminded him that his physician-father was a failure and an alcoholic. Thus pressured, he became Dean of the Medical School of the University of North Carolina. "My father," says James, "was haunted, driven, possessed. I caught it. Livvy caught it, and Alec caught it bad."
Tall and prematurely bald, Dr. Taylor dresses in the conservative Brooks Brothers uniform of his profession but holds liberal ideas: he believes in the nationalization of medicine and at the Med School he has stood for curriculum reform. At 49 he looks like a handsome, rugged version of Dean Rusk. He and his wife Trudy were married in 1945, when she was studying to become a lyric soprano at the New England Conservatory of Music. They built two homes — one in Chapel Hill, N.C., a small university town, and a summer home in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Dr. Taylor and his wife have been estranged for most of the last three years.
Dr. Taylor lives alone in a small, comfortable ranch house. As he prepares to retire as Dean this spring, he has become increasingly wrapped up in his children's careers. When I asked him which of James' or Liv's songs were his favorites, he answered without hesitation: "I was terribly touched by Liv's lullabye. I felt it was addressed to me." He proceeded to quote a verse from "Hush A Bye": "I did pray to be like you/To be part of your life/But you were lost to richer lands/Your friends to foot the price."
"God, that was moving for a father to hear," he says. "Aggressive fathers sometimes feel guilty because they have to spend so much time away from their family."
Dr. Taylor and I drove over to the family house in Chapel Hill, hoping to find Mrs. Taylor. She was not there, but the house, which she helped design, embodies her impeccable taste. A model of contemporary, Japanese-flavored architecture, it stands on a knoll surrounded by a pine grove, a sheep meadow and twenty-five acres of woods. The furnishings inside, from the Oriental antiques to the Raak lamps, are surprisingly elegant for a family that turned out five countrified children. The house is a small, modern chateau.
"You couldn't grow up here without having to expect a lot of yourself," said Dr. Taylor. Even the architecture conspired to make the Taylor children feel that they were special individuals, marked for success. "As you grow into the real world," Liv once said, "you suddenly realize that you're not special and you say to yourself, 'Jesus, I must be nothing.' So you start looking for ways to prove to everyone that you are special."
Although music later became the means by which the Taylors tried to show the world that they were special, it began as a family project. The Chapel Hill house was well stocked with folk records — Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, John Jacob Niles. Dr. and Mrs. Taylor sang often. From an early age, Alec took violin, Liv and Kate took piano, and James took cello. They have all since forgotten, or had to relearn, these musical skills. But at the time they became accomplished enough to give what their mother called "kitchen concerts."
Dr. Taylor introduced them to tunes from Broadway shows and from movies (a strong influence on Liv) and Alec bought a steady supply of blues records (an influence on James). They used to sing songs like "Summertime" and the Beatles' "If I Needed Someone" in firsts, fifths, sevenths and ninths. "But we mostly sang blues," says Kate. "That's what we sing now. We usually get into the blues mood. It really is the only thing that calms us down, 'cause if we're not singin', we're scurryin' around a lot."
James became infatuated with music earlier than the other Taylors. He picked up some chords from a kid at summer camp, made some up, and tried to analyze what he heard on records. He often played with Liv, and they even performed hillbilly songs at hootenannies. Then he met Kootch.
Kootch is Danny Kortchmar, now the lead guitarist for Jo Mama and the man James calls "the central figure in my karass." ("Karass" is a word coined by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., meaning "teams that do God's will without ever discovering what they are doing." In this case, it seems, God willed that James should become a star.) Two years older than James, Kootch played Huck to James' Tom on Martha's Vineyard (an island a few miles south of Cape Cod) where the Taylors had begun to spend summer vacations in 1953.
In the artsy, bucolic atmosphere of the Vineyard, the late Fifties folk boom flourished, and the Taylors gained prestige for their musical abilities.
That summer they won a folksinging contest. The prize was a pair of fifty-dollar weekly engagements, one at the Vineyard branch of Boston's Unicorn Coffeehouse, the other at the Unicorn proper. James and Kootch played the first week on the Vineyard with the Rev. Gary Davis. The owner balked at paying the acts. Only when the Reverend pulled a revolver on him did he cough up the fees. He never did book James and Kootch into Boston.
That summer, Kate also made her debut, singing and waiting on tables at the Galley, a greasy spoon in the fishing village of Menemsha.
"The island was a magic place," says Kootch. To get to hoots, he and James often hitchhiked the 20 miles from one end of the Vineyard to the other, sometimes waiting long periods of time for rides on stretches of back road. "When you were alone, you were really alone," says Kootch. "When it was dark, it was absolutely black, and when it was quiet, there wasn't a sound. I think it was a profound experience for James and me, too — a romantic trip. I think that's where his song 'Country Road' came from. He wrote it on the Vineyard the last time we were there together."
"Country Road," from James' second album, captures the restless, anticipatory, vaguely hopeful feeling that plays a large part in James' character, and appears in "Carolina on My Mind," "Blossom," and "Sweet Baby James," The road leads away from his ensnaring family: "Mama don't understand it/She wants to know where I've been/I'd have to be some kind of natural-born fool to want to pass that way again." It also takes him away from shattered affairs, prep school, mental institutions — all manner of traps and bummers. At the end of the road lie freedom and ideal life in Carolina, and "a heavenly band full of angels."
Walking along the Vineyard's country roads, James could feel himself escaping the constraints of adolescence. "If you were a high school kid," says Kootch, "you went up there and did all your living in two months. You'd expect incredible, romantic things to happen. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't. You'd go there to really be alive and then go back to school, back to sleep."
The school that James went back to was Milton Academy, a boarding school just outside of Boston. James arrived at Milton in the eighth grade and was promptly nicknamed "Moose," because of his gangliness. "At a school where sports were so popular, it was unusual for anyone so unathletic as James to be so well-liked," says his tenth grade English teacher. Aside from writing, James was guitar-playing in his room. He gave several concerts for the school, backed up by a couple of older girls from Milton's sister school. But James was lonely and spent most of his free weekends bicycling on the Vineyard. In his junior year, he went back to Chapel Hill.
Back in Carolina, Alec and James formed a band with three local friends. "The Fabulous Corsayers," read their publicity card, "The Sound that Abounds in Musical Style." The sound actually abounded in hard rhythm and blues — songs like "In the Midnight Hour," "Searching" and "Stormy Monday." Alec and James did vocals; James did the rhythm and sometimes the lead parts on a Fender Mustang. "We played mostly proms and a few fraternity gigs 'cause we lived in a university town," he says. "And we were cheap."
James went back to Milton for his senior year. He sank into depression. In December, he went into McLean Hospital, a mental institution.
From the outside, McLean, which is 15 minutes west of Boston, has the look of a beautifully laid out golf course — gentle hills planted with fruit trees. When Ray Charles went there to kick drugs, he remarked of the decor: "Brother, for $50 a day I could be staying at the Plaza, and I'm staying here!"
James has spoken his mind about McLean in "Knockin' Round the Zoo." As the song says, "There's bars on all the windows and they're countin' up the spoons." Well, not bars — actually 2000 pound test "security screens." Inmates eat off heavy plastic dinner service with specially designed utensils. The aides do count up every bit of metal after meals.
To go to McLean, one has to be rich, intelligent, and disturbed. The administration runs the hospital along fairly conservative lines. R. D. Laing's social experimentation and Dr. Janov's acting-out techniques have yet to reach McLean. James sometimes found the controlled, traditional approach of the doctors to be ridiculously unimaginative. "Once, when I was feeling outasight, I went in for a weekly consultation with two psychiatric residents," says James. "And they questioned me, they said 'Why are you feeling so good?' as if this were an abnormal situation. That was really strange — to have to remedy that."
"Knockin' Round the Zoo," with its sinister drum beat and its nervous guitar-picking, reflects his anger and impatience with the institution. And the song seethes with James's hostility towards the aides: "Now the keeper's trying to cool me says I'm bound to be alright/ But I know that he can't fool me 'cause I'm putting him uptight."
There was no outlet for his music at McLean. A year later, when Livingston left the Westown School in Philadelphia and committed himself to McLean, the hospital had a full-time music therapist who encouraged him to develop his guitar-playing and to write songs. When Kate arrived at McLean soon after, she became the vocalist for a group called Sister Kate's Soul Stew Kitchen, one of the three bands organized by the same therapist.
"After several months," says James, "I really wanted to leave and they were going to discharge me and let me out, but they don't let go very easily. And I was self-committed, so I could have signed a yellow sheet, they call it, and gotten out a.m.a. [against medical advice] that way. But that involved spending three days locked in the ward and usually by that time you change your mind. I had a friend with a Dodge truck. He came by and I told the nurse on the hall — I used to be in love with her, and it's very frustrating to be in love with a nurse when you haven't had any ass for eight months and you've been cooped up in that joint.
"At any rate, I told her that I had gotten my discharge and that I was going to get out in two days but that I was going to carry some of my heavier stuff out to my friend's truck just to move it into Boston. She said OK, so my friend and I picked up all of my stuff in one trip out and carried it past the aide who had the keys and put it in the truck and tore off down the hill and I went to New York City and joined a rock and roll band."
Just before James became the only person in history to escape from McLean with all his belongings, Kootch had called him up. He and drummer Joel Bishop O'Brien had been playing in a band called the King Bees, but they were starting a new group. They wanted James to join.
James went to New York by way of the Vineyard. He stayed at Kootch's house and composed "Don't Talk Now," "Rainy Day Man," and "The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream," three of his blackest songs. He and Kootch taught an old friend, Zach Weisner, how to play bass. They moved into Kootch's loft in Greenwich Village and began to rehearse in earnest, adding Bishop on drums. In the fall of 1966, the Flying Machine opened at the Cafe Bizarre and then moved up Third Street to a tiny coffee house called the Night Owl that was functioning as the Village's harder-than-folk emporium. They played there for the better part of seven months, offering a varied repertoire: most of the songs that ended up on James's first album, a few numbers by Kootch and Zach, a Hoagy Carmichael tune, "Circle Round the Sun," and a lot of blues. They also did several ice-breaking routines: the Coke commercial that James still uses, Sam and Dave's Falstaff Beer ad, and a Tumbrose Snuff jingle.
"It was a very good group, I'll tell ya," says James. "And we really flashed on ourselves." Kootch played lead and James played rhythm. "We were fairly conscientious, considering how goofed up we were," says Kootch. Meaning goofed up on drugs.
The sound of the Flying Machine was tenuously preserved on a single they made of James's "Night Owl" and "Brighten Your Night With My Day." They recorded both songs in three hours with James running a temperature of 102. On the Rainy Day Records label. "I think about five copies were released," says James. (The producers have recently released seven of the band's demo tapes on an album called "James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine" — much to James' displeasure. The recording has more than archival value. A high quality job, it contains some excellent rock and roll — especially the up-tempo, R & B versions of "Knockin' Round the Zoo.")
The firm that managed and produced the Flying Machine invested neither money nor time in the band. At the Night Owl, the group made $300 a week, plus all the hamburgers and tuna fish sandwiches they could eat. Once James showed up at his manager's office on speed and an empty stomach to ask for some bread. "Here, have a sandwich," the manager said, pulling a corned beef on white out of his desk drawer. James cried.
It seems strange that James often found himself down and out in New York. The Taylors have a good deal of money, some from Dr. Taylor's practice and some from a family inheritance, and they gave James both financial and moral support.
"They were interested in my doing something that pleased me," says James, "and they never implied that I was doing the wrong thing, not even once. I don't even think that there were any thought in either of my parents' heads or my brothers' and sister's that I should be doing something else and that's why I never got any vibes that way.
"I had some expensive habits at that time that took up most of the money that was coming in from the job and coming from home. There was some scuffling going on, but I wasn't completely poor, I was just mostly spending the money on the wrong things." James had become a junkie. How did it happen? "Oh, I don't know," says James, "just by being on the scene in New York. There was just a junkie-sized hole in my soul at one point. I really dug it, and I stayed with it as long as I really dug it. But it's a waste of time; I feel as though I did deadhead miles.
"And Jesus, I don't mean to say that taking junk is all right. I don't want a kid out in Nebraska to read this and go out and say well, I'm gonna go pick up on some soul and take some smack just like James did.
"I tend to be loathe to talk about smack and being on junk, 'cause a lot of people boast about it. And I had it pretty easy, I had enough money to support my habit. I never had to knock over a grocery store or anything. I have friends, some of whom are dead now, who've been at it for years, who've really paid dues, and I almost feel as if I'm cashing in on some sort of glory. I'm not that proud of it. But it certainly is something I did, and it was central to me for about two years, too."
Except for a brief, drunken gig at a discotheque in the Bahamas, the Flying Machine spent a cold, stoned winter in New York. By the spring of 1967, the Flying Machine was, as "Fire and Rain" says, in pieces on the floor. "We busted up 'cause we were all fucked up, man," says Kootch. "James couldn't stand scuffling and being fucked over, hungry and miserable, and he had to escape."
"I just didn't enjoy living in New York City and I didn't very much enjoy living with myself, either, at that time," says James. "I decided I'd fuck that, I'll travel around some and see if I can get into something interesting." Just before James left for England, Kootch the karass-member gave him a phone number for Peter Asher, of Peter and Gordon; the King Bees had once backed them up.
James went to London and settled in Notting Hill Gate, a then just-growing hippie section. Almost immediately, he began to audition for record companies. For eight quid, he bought himself 45 minutes in a Soho studio to make a demo, which finally he took to Peter Asher, who was working as Apple's A&R man; with Paul McCartney's approval, James was signed.
In February of 1968, James went to work on the album. "I got together with two guys — Don Schinn, who played keyboard, and Louis Cennamo, who played bass — and we worked for about three months," says James. "We just got all the basic tracks down as good as we could to all these tunes. Then Peter would take the basic track by to Richard Hewson." Hewson is a young British arranger.
"Richard would just write out an arrangement completely. There was no head session involved, except on 'Carolina' and 'Rainy Day Man.' It always happened in two separate phases. 'Sunshine, Sunshine' — I recorded a demo of it and he took it and wrote a very specific arrangement to it with three against four and I had to play guitar inside that too. I remember it as being pretty confining. And Richard is a fine arranger, indeed. He had arranged 'Those Were the Days' that McCartney was producing for Mary Hopkin.
"McCartney used to come up every once and a while and see what we were doing. I think he took an interest in me. I'd say the only song that Paul really had any influence over was 'Carolina in My Mind.' He liked it a lot. That was the only one he played on and George Harrison sang harmony on that one, too. We had done that before, using a 30-piece orchestra. I don't know if it was any good.
"At any rate, Peter and Paul agreed that it should be done again and done simpler. So we did it over again. I still don't like that version of it. I do it now and I think I do it a lot better. When I found out that Apple wanted to re-release it, I tried to get in touch with them about re-recording it, but it was too late."
James enjoyed himself more in London than he had in New York. Bishop flew over to play drums on the album. "We had a good time, too," says James, laughing, "really tore it up. Oh, Jesus." London, Bishop adds, was a "laugh a minute." But the laughter had a hysterical ring to it. "I was addicted all the time I was recording the album on Apple," says James. "I was stoned for most of the sessions. I'd shoot speedballs of smack and meth, all pure stuff over there. But pure stuff is just pure poison. Peter didn't know I was on junk. I guess he just thought I was really sleepy or something."
Once, James dropped acid and, filled with artificial energy, ran around the rooftops "jumping great gaps between the roofs and swinging on fire escapes." Another time, James and Bishop were driving home at night, strung-out, when a man ran in front of the car, connected with the fender and flipped eight feet in the air. "Jesus Christ, I thought I'd killed that cat and I went into some heavy freaker right there, man, on the spot. If I hadn't been as doped up as I was I probably would have fallen into about ten pieces. And I was also afraid I was gonna get busted.
"I have accidents and I'm very lucky with what happens after them. It's a lucky thing that the guy was so drunk that he just bounced and landed off the curb and did nothing but bruise his hip. Put a huge dent in my car ... It's also lucky that it was witnessed by two policemen who had been chasing the cat for about three blocks and he'd beat up on both of them terrible." James Taylor turns crimestopper!
In the midst of good times and close scrapes, James was staring down the abyss, writing "Fire and Rain," a perfectly structured melody and a catchy, syncopated drum beat that turned up at the top of the AM charts last year. Its message is hardly standard Top 40 fare.
"James wrote it after the album was pretty well done," Bishop remembers. "There was this friend of my brother's — we both really liked her and she had killed herself six months before. No one had told James — they were afraid I guess. One night late we got drunk and I told him, 'cause I'd wanted to. In a week and a half, he had that song written."
"The first verse," James explains, "was a reaction to a friend of mine killing herself. But I don't think there is such a thing as suicide, or if there is such a thing as suicide there's no other kind of death, except for accidental death and 'acts of God' as they say. I think circumstances always kill, that's what killed her. I often wonder if her parents know that that first verse is about her and about me. Sometimes I feel kind of mercenary — I talked to Joan [Mitchell] about this too and she sometimes feels guilty about using people for songs. But that's what writers do.
"The second verse of it is about my kicking junk just before I left England. And the third verse is about my going into a hospital up in Western Massachusetts. It's just a hard-time song, a blues without having the blues form."
James kicked heroin by using visepdone, the English equivalent of methadone. "I suppose I shook the Jones [habit] that I had," he says, "but I just re-exposed myself to the same conditions that had led me into it in the first place and they came down on me pretty heavy. Whatever they are. I don't know what they are, I think they're indefinable. I can hint at them in songs — those feelings — but I have no idea what they are, still. I think they're too integral a part of me. You couldn't draw them away without taking away half of me."
With his real world in chaos, James tried to build an organized world in his songs. "When you write a song, you have to oversimplify an awful lot," says James. He is a most systematic songwriter, a careful lyricist whose lines teem with neat interior rhymes. His early songs show a near compulsion to divide things into two categories — sunshine vs. moonlight, daytime vs. nighttime, smiles vs. tears. James himself was confused and torn between conflicting ways of living.
"I used to be really hung up on ambivalence and dichotomies, especially when I was having a lot of trouble with my head about conflicting things," says James. "... about something going into your mind and striking all the resonant frequencies that belong to it, and the fact that one thing from without can strike about a million things at the same time and half of them can be positive and half of them can be negative. I felt as though I was being ripped apart by dichotomies."
James returned from London in a state of "nervous and physical exhaustion" and committed himself to Austin Riggs, yet another mental hospital. During his brief stay there he wrote "Sunny Skies." He was, as the song says, "Wondering if where I've been is worth the things I've been through," and he felt that he hadn't a friend. One night, when he was feeling particularly low, he loaded up a station wagon and left the hospital, yet again.
Ultimately, the Taylors have always relied on each other for support, and James went back to the Vineyard, where Kate and Alec were living. "It just may be possible that we can't find anything more comfortable than the time that we had as a family," says James. "Maybe it's something that was never there that we miss and are still trying to put together. Or maybe it's something that was there but just because of circumstances and the way things are has ceased to be. The members of my family have done an awful lot of falling apart in the last past years or so."
Family acts are not unusual in the world of popular music. In folk, there are the Carters, the Stonemans, and the Johnsons, to name only a few; in gospel, the Staples Singers; in soul, the Chambers Brothers; in rock, the Everly Brothers, the Davies brothers (Kinks) and the Fogerty brothers (Creedence). Members of the same family have even become somewhat successful solo acts — Aretha and Erma Franklin; Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina; Peggy and Mike Seeger and their half-brother Pete.
The remarkable thing about the Taylor family is that it produced four children, each good enough and with a personality so distinctive that they all will become solo musicians. Moreover, James and Liv are excellent guitarists and composers in the bargain. And the most extraordinary thing is not that the Taylors surmounted the genetic odds against four talented musicians appearing in the same family; it is that they have so successfully overcome their tendency to "fall apart" that they can contend with the strains of a musical career and the rivalries which still smolder in the family.
For instance, most people suspect that James' fame has generated the careers of his three siblings. That is not entirely the case. Livingston launched his own career long before James' first album caught on. In 1968, soon after having entered McLean for "adolescent turmoil," he began to make the rounds of minor-league Boston folk clubs, playing hoots and picking up an occasional job at the going rate of $15 for four nights' work. The music therapist at McLean introduced him to Jon Landau, who had become a prominent rock critic through his pieces for Crawdaddy! and Rolling Stone. Liv played several of his songs for Landau, who became an immediate fan.
Landau suggested that Liv visit Elektra, but the Elektra people found him too young. A year later, Landau recommended him to Atlantic. They weren't interested either. Eventually, Landau found someone who shared his own enthusiasm for Liv: Phil Walden, a Southerner who had managed and booked such acts as Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Clarence Carter and Johnny Taylor. Walden had just founded Capricorn Records, a small independent company in Macon, Georgia, which has Atlantic for a distributor. Liv, the first artist he signed, recorded his first album last February, with Landau producing.
People take it for granted that James influenced Liv, but the reverse is also true. For instance, James' song "Blossom" sounds a lot like one of Liv's earliest songs, "Good Friends."
"Liv is the one who influenced me on that tune," says James. "That's also the same tuning that I used, before 'Good Friends.' It's a D fingering with a descending bass line. Livingston also uses it in 'I Guess That It's So.' The same thing in 'I Can't Get Back Home' — but in 3/4 time. A lot of people use that descending thing and I use it a lot too — I used it in portions of 'Carolina.'
"Yeah, those two songs are very similar. After I wrote the first verse of 'Blossom' I said, 'Gee, that's Livingston's tune.' I was aware of his influence in it." "Liv and I used to play together a lot," says James. They developed the same finger-picking style, and they both mainly use the bottom of the neck. "There's only a limited amount down there," says James. "It really amazes me that there's not more repetition between Livingston and me than there is."
"I get uptight about using one of James' licks," says Liv, "and vice versa. He'll say 'I borrowed this lick from "In My Reply," ' and I'll say, 'That's OK, I borrowed a lick from "Country Road." ' "
James writes simple melodic lines and consciously avoids using "too many words" in his lyrics. Liv composes trickier, harder-to-sing tunes and often writes intricate, convoluted lyrics. "James has a great knack for writing very pointed metaphors," says Liv. "I pay much more attention to word syllables, syncopated phrasings, and puns."
Liv can sit down and turn out a song. James cannot produce a song to order; instead, it has "to get its own self out somehow."
Liv, the author of "I Can't Get Home Again," has tacitly declared his independence from the rest of the family. With his girlfriend, Maggie, he has created a quiet, relaxed home of his own just outside of Boston. Occasionally he lashes out at Alec for cashing in on his success, but he also clearly feels uneasy about having benefitted from James' fame. For the most part, he has tried to steer clear of the family rivalries that made him unhappy while he was growing up, and which helped drive him into McLean. References to these rivalries have sometimes crept into Liv's songs — "In My Reply," for instance: "He crossed Big Jim and turned his back/A bullet laid him down."
But Liv has slowed down his career, to avoid "the feeling of pressure," but he performs fairly regularly and has already written several songs for his second album.
The four other Taylors all live on Martha's Vineyard. Alec met the ferry at Vineyard Haven, a town which has carefully protected its whaling village character. His house is at the hub of the island, opposite Ally's Variety Store. A narrow dirt driveway led to Alec's low wooden house, which was formerly a large chicken coop; surrounded by the family cars and trucks, it looks more trailer camp than New England. Inside, Alec's son James ("Sweet Baby James") did Keatonesque falls and somersaults on the floor of the small, neat living room.
Alec somehow missed out on the lean-and-hungry looks of his siblings. His silver-blond hair, his moon face and his paunch make him look like a Swedish lumberjack. The only endomorph in the family, he is relaxed and full of bearishly charming anecdotes.
Why had he moved to the Vineyard? "Well," said Alec, taking a swig of ale and licking the drops from his mustache, "this might as well be the whole earth right here. It's detached, quiet, everybody knows each other, waves to each other, doesn't talk to each other."
Alec graduated from Chapel Hill High School in 1966 after two senior years. He went to work on the 3-to-9 AM shift at a local bakery but gave up the job when his father suggested college as an alternative. In Wilmington College in Wrightsville, N.C. — "a dynamite place to go to school but not much for studying" — he chalked up 25 credit hours in three years of non-attendance. The last straw came when he ground out a paper on birth control, only to have his English teacher give him a zero and tell him he had copied it from Time. "I stood up in class, called her a narrow-minded Southern bitch, walked out and never went back."
Brent, Alec's beautiful hometown wife of three years, walks into the room. "Oh! Today's the day we've been going steady together for nine years!" After college, Alec and Brent lived in Atlanta for a year and a half, and through Liv, got to know the people who run the recording studios in Macon, Georgia. Last spring, they moved to the Vineyard and Alec opened a record store for the summer season. "I had a lotta money goin' through my hands," he says, "but not much profit. In fact I got a tax loss for the next three years out of it. But it was fun. Jesus Christ, there was more dope changing hands in that store!"
One day last summer Phil Walden, who owns those studios in Macon, called up and said, "Hey, Alec, you want to be a star?"
"And I said yeah," says Alec. "I said, C'mon, knock it off, 'cause I'd been trying to get in the studio there for two years to do a fuckin' demo and they wouldn't even turn their heads around. Everybody liked me, but ... then James' album took off again and Liv's album was doing really well and so they said, 'Hey, we'd better get a hold of this guy whether he can sing or not, the name's there.' I knew that, and I knew the name was worth somethin'. Like, I don't think I'm hung up at all about bein' James Taylor's brother. I'm gonna capitalize on it. Liv's all torn up tryin' to deny it, but I'm not."
Alec lost no time in putting on a tape of the album. If the keynote of the sessions was a bourbon-soaked spontaneity, the keynote of the record is a rhythmic buoyancy reminiscent of the Band. Alec's voice has the plangency and raunchiness of Levon Helm's. The blues streak reveals itself when he sings a line like "Sweet misunderstanding, won't you leave a poor boy alone," from James's new "Highway Song." The record contains some fine country rockers by Talton and Boyer. There's a version of the Stones' "It's All Over Now" that bounces along on a "Cripple Creek" riff. Alec sings Jimmy Reed's "Take Out Some Insurance" and sounds a good deal like Jimmy Reed. James plays guitar on Alec's rendition of "Night Owl," which rocks even harder than the version on James' first album.
As Alec listens attentively to the tape and solemnly receives compliments, his pride of work begins to show. Because he is the oldest brother, because the family has seldom taken him seriously, and because he has no professional musical background, he cannot afford to admit that he wants to compete with James and Liv as a musician. But in fact, the album is only a first step towards building a serious career. He talks of learning the piano so that he can transcribe the tunes he has written in his head.
In January, he plans to go on a national tour. "My band's gonna be composed of Southern people just 'cause we get along good together," he says. "We all like grits." Alec will be the last Taylor to lose his taste for grits.
Kate Taylor lives in a storefront, a bakery converted into a studio by a Vineyard sculptor. The large, single room contains a phonograph, a spinning wheel, some pussywillows in the window, a bed, a table and a Franklin stove. It has the quaint, bare look of a hundred Cape Cod studios.
Kate greeted me with a trembling hand, openly frightened on the occasion of her first interview. Her manager, also Peter Asher, has phoned from L.A. the night before to warn her of the dangers of premature publicity, but Alec has prevailed on her to talk to the press; she is doing it for him. To postpone the ordeal, she makes herb tea.
Kate is a beauty. She has fine features, slender fingers, and long Dietrich legs; one anticipates a fragile, Joni Mitchell voice. But then she puts on her acetate: she can belt out a song and deliver a fiery blues.
Finally an interview begins. What was it like to grow up surrounded by boys? "It was hard." Her voice has James' soft inflections in it. "It's not hard now, except that it's family and sometimes that gets heavy. But when I was growing up, everybody felt real inferior to everybody else, so everybody liked to tease everybody else and it was pretty vicious for a while."
Kate left the male-dominated Chapel Hill as soon as she could. At the Cambridge School of Weston, just outside of Boston, she gave concerts for the student body, but got cut in Glee Club auditions. She made a point of singing around the music teacher "so he would see what he missed." Toward the end of high school, she began to inflict physical pain on herself, burning her arms. At the recommendation of a psychiatrist, she committed herself to McLean, just after Liv.
Sister Kate's Soul Stew Kitchen, her McLean group, was a juke-box band which churned out copies of current hits. But Kate shone as the vocalist. The band's most successful gig consisted of a set immediately after a college production of The Importance of Being Earnest. They rose from the orchestra pit on an elevator, blasting out the riff from "Sunshine of Your Love."
After several months, Kate left McLean and enrolled in Boston's Berklee School, a jazz institute, "to learn how to write songs like Laura Nyro." She failed miserably. "I was too scared," she says. She also went on a brief trip to London with James, who took her to Apple. Together, they sang for Peter Asher. Two months later, Peter handed her a record contract. "It was pretty nice," she says, "'cause when I sang I was pretty nervous and stuff."
A year ago January, she went to California to make her first record, but was too nervous to perform. "It was just awful for everyone to see me that uptight," she says. Last fall she went back, still scared but determined to succeed. Asher patiently eased her into the sessions and supported her with a spectacular L.A. production job — Elton John and Carole King on piano; Russ Kunkle and Bishop on drums, Dan Kootch, James, and Bernie Leadon of the Burritos on guitar; Merry Clayton, Linda Ronstadt and friends doing backup vocals.... They even flew in Motown's star tambourine player to fill in the rhythm tracks.
Meanwhile, back at the Vineyard, Alec is just rolling up in his Toyota Land Cruiser. "If I had my choice," says Alec, "I wouldn't do anything, but I've got a wife and a kid to support and the music industry is one place where you can make a pantload of money fast."
Kate replies that if she relies on James' fame to sell her records, she'll never have a long career of her own.
"I don't think I'll be around in ten years," Alec says. "If I am still singin' then, that's great, but I'm not counting on it."
Alec's imperturbability is beginning to get to Kate, and his insistence that James is going to sell their records for them isn't doing much for her confidence. Sensing the tension, everybody agrees that the time has come to look for James.
Alec warns us that James is in a bad mood. The contractor had promised James that his new house would be finished last May, then by the first of November. It's now mid-November and the house is still no more than a shell. James has muttered something about giving up the whole project if he can't move in by December.
We turn off the main drag onto a rutted dirt road that makes the Ho Chi Minh Trail look like Highway 61. James has chosen a site a mile in the woods that is not only secluded but almost inaccessible. The house, designed by James, stands on a wooded rise. Narrow, tall and peaked, it looks suspiciously like a church, complete with a rose window in the west wall.
James is sawing off lengths of batten and hammering them to the side of the house. In his new chin whiskers, his Mark Trail shirt and his straw hat, he is the image of the demon-farmer. He does not stop working to greet us; in fact, he actively ignores us. Alec acts as intermediary and holds a mumbled conference with James: He comes back with the intelligence that James will talk to us tonight over dinner and that the photographer can go to work.
Each time the photographer focuses his lens, James shifts position or holds the saw in front of his face. Finally he says, "Don't aim that thing at me, OK? I hear it causes cancer."
Dinner is served that night in James' temporary quarters — a Vineyard summer cottage that contains four small rooms, a collection of Reader's Digest anthologies, James' three guitars and little else. Alec, Brent and Baby James have come, but Kate, still angry with Alec, has stayed at home.
James sits by himself in a corner, quietly eating his steak. There are two radios in the room, both blaring WABC in New York. Baby James walks over to James, holding a glass of beer from which he has been sipping. "I'll teach you a toast," says James. "Chimo!" and he clinks glasses with Baby James. Baby James will not let him alone and insists on doing gymnastics on his knee. Suddenly Cousin Brucie, the manic WABC disc jockey, is saying, "And now Number Five comin' your way, 'Fire and Rain'!"
'That's you," cries Baby James. James gets up and leaves the room. He loathes having James the pop star invade the privacy of James the islander. Not to mention the press.
Alec launches into a long rap about Nashville's WLAC, "the best radio station I've ever heard." The Taylor boys used to listen to it every night, and its black disc jockeys introduced them to Slim Harpo and John Lee Hooker.
Baby James once again becomes the focus of attention, as James and Alec chase him around the house on their hands and knees. Inevitably, Baby James falls down and starts to bawl. Brent takes him in her lap and begins to rock. Alec takes the only record in the house, an acetate of Tom Rush's new album, and puts it on the cheap, tinny portable phonograph. Just as Tom begins to sing "Rockabye, Sweet Baby James," Baby James himself falls asleep in Brent's arms. On that note of poetic perfection, Alec and his family take their leave.
For the next hour, James restlessly seeks ways to escape the tape recorder. He chops wood for the fire, washes dishes, drives down the road to make a phone call, and debates going to a town meeting in Vineyard Haven.
The interview he finally gives recalls Dylan's exercises in evasion. He throws up smokescreens of trivial details but never makes a cleancut generalization. What statements he makes he whittles down with contradictions until they are almost meaningless. "No, that's not true," he says at the end of one story, or "No, all that's bullshit."
He acts so defensively, perhaps, because he has been taught from childhood that anything he says carries tremendous importance. Whatever the reason for his defensiveness, he vacillates between surliness and self-depreciation. At one point he trails off and says. "God, I don't give such a hotshit interview, huh? Ain't one of the heavies."
A month and a half later he seemed a different person. Open, hospitable, and anxious to clarify his points, he volunteered information about his family, his songwriting and his addiction to heroin that he had guarded the first time. Now he was only soft-spoken, perhaps more relaxed in that he knew me, perhaps relieved that his house was nearly finished. At any rate, he showed the other side of James Taylor — a dichotomy come true.
As if to explain his former reticence, he says: "Largely I deal with chunks of myself, selling them, or getting them across, or talking about them in interviews. And sometimes it's very hard, especially if you have serious doubts as to who you are or what you represent, and no strong doctrine or philosophy or anything to draw on. I just want to continue to put out.... I tend to shy away from analyzing myself and thinking of it and stuff 'cause I really don't know what it means. And to be popular, successful and looked at by a lot of people and have a lot of people get a lot of things out of. What you do, just puts that much more pressure on it and it makes you want to seek solid ground more than ever. But I'd like to stay at sea, or in the air, or wherever."
After the first, tentative talk, we drove to Alec's house. Hugh and his old lady have come over to help consume a fifth of Scotch. Alec is under doctor's orders not to talk or smoke for a week, but he is puffing on a Winston, garrulously organizing a concert for 300 people at the Community Center. He, James, Kate, and Joni Mitchell have agreed to perform at a benefit for the Free School, where Baby James goes, and now he is trying to enlist Hugh.
Hugh, who looks like a blond, sharper featured, skinnier version of James, agrees to sing the concert. Someday, he says, he might even sing professionally because he is "interested in the money."
"I could also get into recording studios," he says, "but I wouldn't want to go out and perform for people every night. I'd rather stay here and work for Emmett," the master carpenter. He lives, with his girlfriend and without utilities, in a house which, Vineyard legend has it, once belonged to the harpooner of Moby Dick.
James, Alec, some friends and myself decide to drive to the Ritz Bar in Oak Bluffs. Ritz is a bit of a misnomer; the bar has fake panelling, Formica tables, and a clientele of long hairs and blue collar workers, Dichotomies!
For a nightcap, James drinks three beers, three Scotches on the rocks and a tequila — this on top of the better part of a fifth of Glenlivet. "I can get high on alcohol," says James, but admits, "I'm a druggie." He still uses pot, hash, uppers, downers, opium, cocaine, acid, and mescaline.
Just after he ran his motorcycle into a tree last year, he says, he dropped mescaline, went down to the seashore, and sat on a pile of rocks with casts on his hands and feet. As he sat there, the wind came up, buzzed in his ears, and taught him to sing, just as the Mescalito teaches the Yaqui Indian a song in The Teachings of Don Juan. The words went: "Mescalito has opened up my eyes."
He has also written a peyote song and two acid songs, but he means to give up both mescaline and acid. "Acid waters me down," he says. "After a while my friends who drop a lot of acid know better than to do anything anymore." He intends to record the Mescalito song on his album next month. "To do it right, I may have to take mescaline just one last time."
We talk about the rumor that Henry Luce, the founder of the Time-Life empire, had died while tripping on acid. "Probably his system just did what he wanted to do," says James. "Probably he just saw what every 15- or 16-year-old who takes acid sees — that you might as well die."
With everyone at the table now at new plateaus of inebriation, James begins to give Alice some advice about going on tour.
"Get away from it whenever you can," he says, "and treat yourself good. 'Cause you won't believe how wasted you're gonna get on the road. You meet people who give you all kindsa tastes." He sniffs an imaginary pinch of coke. "Just gotta see if it's poison. Just gotta taste it to see if it's any good."
As we are getting ready to leave, one of the blue collars calls over to James. "What's up?" "What's up?"
James repeats, almost to himself. "Nothing. Ask me what's down. Everything. No."
As we walk away from the Ritz, I keep thinking of something James had said earlier in the day: "Sometimes I wonder if I'll be able to write songs now that things are going better. Because I think a lot of art comes from a painful place. I think fear, or pain or some kind of discomfort is the major motivation for almost all endeavor." The German poet Rilke, when he refused to be psychoanalyzed, said, "If you take away my demons, you will also take away my angels."