At the beginning of James Taylor’s new audio memoir, Break Shot, the singer-songwriter summarizes his catalogue in relation to the tumultuous events within his family. “You could make a case that most of the songs I’ve written have been a way of trying to work out just what happened to us,” he says. “It’s like that movie Groundhog Day: I am assigned to keep going through it over and over until I figure it out.”
Taylor continues his quest to figure it out in Break Shot, a billiard term used to describe the opening shot in a game of pool, when the cue stick sends the 15 balls flying in every direction across the cloth. Stemming from interviews conducted by long-time music journalist and former MTV executive Bill Flanagan, Taylor recalls his early life leading up to his own personal “break shot,” when he gained worldwide success from 1970’s Sweet Baby James — which turned 50 this month.
He recounts his early life, when his parents — Isaac “Ike” Taylor and Gertrude “Trudy” Woodward — relocated Taylor and his four siblings from their home in Boston, Massachusetts (“Our lost Eden”) to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, after his father accepted a prestigious position at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “It felt like a Faulkner novel,” he says of the move.
He describes how this change affected his family, providing providing intimate details while delving into his depression and growing interest in music.
Though the story of his early life has been told again and again, it doesn’t make it less fascinating, especially now that the musician is telling it in his own words. Here are 5 highlights from Break Shot.
1. He Traces His Fractured Family Life to One Moment in 1955
Taylor notes that he feels comfortable talking about his late parents and brother, Alex, who died in 1993 from alcoholism. But he prefers to leave his surviving siblings, Livingston, Hugh and Kate, out of the memoir. “They have their own versions of what happened to us and their own stories to tell,” he explains. “I have made a living of putting my business in the street. That may be good or bad.”
So he delves into his mother’s and father’s fractured marriage, which boils down to one decision his father made in 1955, when he volunteered to be a medical officer for 100 Navy Seabees, who were building a scientific base at McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. He spent two years there, while Trudy was left raising the five children on her own, inside the house she had designed. “Our family falls to either side of that decision,” he says.
Ike returned from the South Pole an alcoholic, and his marriage with Trudy was strained — as well as his relationship with his children. “You can construct a usable father out of relatively little material,” he says. “But a mother has to be there.” Taylor and two of his siblings would wind up institutionalized, and his father was unable to help. “You would think that if you’re a physician, and three of your children ended up in a psychiatric hospital, you would step up with some advice,” Taylor says.
2. Carly Simon is Literally Mentioned Once
Taylor notes that he grew up white and privileged, and that he and his siblings were immersed in culture, attending museums and the theater in New York City. They’d go on frequent trips up to Massachusetts, spending time with other families on Martha’s Vineyard. It was there he met Carly Simon, whom he’d marry in 1972. His only mention of her in the memoir is that he met the Simon sisters at the Vineyard, who he described as out of his league. “It’s hard to talk about, to tell half of a story like that,” he told the Los Angeles Times of the exclusion.
Taylor makes note of other relationships, including his stint with Joni Mitchell, whom he met at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival. “Our romance did not last that long, but our friendship has sustained for almost 50 years,” he says. He also praises his current wife, Kim, who “gave him a second chance at having a family.” But Simon isn’t mentioned anywhere else.
3. He Got Deferred from Vietnam Within Seconds
Taylor was famously institutionalized at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts (other well known patients include Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace). He was living there when he turned 18 in 1966, and was quickly summoned to the Selective Service in Cambridge to register for the Vietnam War.
“This was one time I was happy to be living in a locked ward of a psychiatric hospital,” he said. He organized a ruse to evade the draft, in which an attendant named Carl and another nurse donned white coats while escorting Taylor inside. “James here is a mental patient,” they told the board. “He’s a good kid, but really fucked up.” He was deferred within seconds.
4. He Nearly Overdosed John Lennon on Methadone
Through his bandmate and longtime friend Danny Kortchmar, Taylor met Peter Asher, who signed him to the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1968. He became immersed in Beatle Land, recording his self-titled debut as the band was recording the White Album. John Lennon asked him to score hash, and later asked to try Taylor’s methadone. “I gave him a dose too big to be taken by a civilian,” he admits. “I’m sure glad I didn’t kill John Lennon that day.”
Taylor also mentions one of the most frightening and morbid tales in classic rock history: that he had run into Mark David Chapman on the street in Manhattan the day before he murdered John Lennon in 1980. “A creepy, sweaty guy recognized me and got in my face,” Taylor recalls quietly. “He was talking fast, telling me about himself — that he was working on a project with John Lennon. I had spent nine months in a psychiatric hospital, and it seemed to me that he was mentally ill.” He says he lived one block north of Lennon’s home at the Dakota on the Upper West Side, and heard the gunshots from his apartment the next evening.
“50 years later, I can’t get over what the Beatles did for me,” Taylor says. “Their approval validated my music and introduced me to the world I have lived in ever since.”
5. He Wrote “Fire and Rain” After Tragedy Struck
After Taylor finished recording his debut in London, he went out drinking with his friend Joel O’Brien. He revealed a secret he and Taylor’s friends had been keeping from him for months: their friend, Suzanne Schnerr, had committed suicide. Taylor had known her while living in New York while playing in his band the Flying Machine. “I was stronger than they thought, but of course it shook me up,” Taylor says. “I reacted to the news by starting a song. ‘Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone/Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.”
“I would carry that song with me for the next year or so,” he says of “Fire and Rain.” “Then that song would carry me for the rest of my life.” The memoir concludes with a live recording of the track.