James Taylor: My Life in 15 Songs
James Taylor‘s new album, Before This World, is his first collection of original songs in 13 years, though he wasn’t exactly taking it easy during that stretch — he toured regularly, released live and cover albums, and helped raise twin boys, now 14. But a few years ago, Taylor realized that he needed to make songwriting a top priority in his life if he was ever going to release another album of new songs. So he borrowed a friend’s apartment and camped out to write what would become Before This World, a sweet, reflective disc that evokes memories of his classic 1970s albums. “I’m not the type of musician who reinvents himself over and over again,” he says. “I am a slow evolution of a style of recording and writing, and I do think that in some ways I get better at it.”
At 67, Taylor is able to look back honestly on his life and career, including the darker moments — from his heroin addiction to his struggles as a parent (he fathered two children, Sally, 41, and singer-songwriter Ben, 38, with ex-wife Carly Simon). “Sally and Ben turned out brilliantly,” he says. “But I can’t take much credit for them. I was a pretty compromised father. Addiction is delayed development, so I may have been late in becoming an adult.”
Sitting in a luxury suite at Fenway Park before his beloved Boston Red Sox took on the New York Yankees one recent evening, Taylor walked us through 50 years of songwriting, going all the way back to getting signed to Apple Records by the Beatles in 1968.
“Rainy Day Man” (1967)
In 1966, I was living at the Albert Hotel in New York with my best friend, Zach Wiesner, who wrote this song with me. We had one of two rooms at the hotel that hadn't been destroyed in a fire, so it was pretty cheap.
The "rainy-day man" was a dope connection. I had taken my first opiate in 1966. Joel "Bishop" O'Brien, the drummer in the Flying Machine, was an addict. I spent a lot of time at his apartment, so it was just a matter of time before I tried heroin. I was pretty much born to shoot dope — it was the key to my lock, so I really was gone for the next 20 years.
“Something in the Way She Moves” (1968)
I spoke to my dad on the phone while I was living in New York, and he didn't like the way I sounded. He was right: I was strung out, malnourished and kind of beat. He arrived the next day with the family station wagon and drove me back to North Carolina, where I had grown up. I took time to recover, and around Christmas 1967 I talked my parents into buying me a ticket to London, where I had a friend who agreed to put me up for a few weeks.
I was hoping to sing in clubs or even on the streets, but I ended up getting in touch with Peter Asher, who had just started working for Apple Records. He got me an audition with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, where I played them this song. Paul said to Peter, "You feel like producing this guy?" And Peter said, "Yeah."
The song is about an early girlfriend and the calm you feel in the presence of someone who knows you really well. When I heard George Harrison used the title for the opening words of "Something," I was thrilled. I didn't feel like I was being poached at all — besides, "Something in the Way She Moves" quotes the Beatles' "I Feel Fine": "She's around me almost all the time/And I feel fine."
“Carolina in My Mind” (1968)
I was making my first album at Trident Studios in London, just as the Beatles were recording the White Album nearby. I realized how lucky I was to be listening to the Beatles playbacks and watching their process in the studio, but at the same time that I was surrounded by this holy host of my absolute idols, I missed my home in North Carolina. This captured that feeling of being called away to another place.
“Sweet Baby James” (1970)
Allen Klein took over Apple Records in 1969. We had it in our contract that we could audit him to see what our sales were, and he didn't want anybody looking at the books, so he let us go. In fact, he let everybody on the label go except the Beatles.
I came back to the States and found out my brother Alex had had a kid. I decided to write a song for the baby boy, who was named after me. A little cowboy song. It starts as a lullaby, then the second half of the song — "the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston…" — talks about what music means to me. It gets pretty spiritual by the end. I think it's my best song.
I came back from London with my heroin habit raging again, so I went to rehab. Well, it wasn't rehab. It was a psychiatric facility in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I'd been in a psychiatric hospital when I was 17, and I think that's just what my folks knew to do with me. This facility wasn't meant to handle opiate rehab, but that's where I went, and I wrote a lot of songs that wound up on Sweet Baby James there.
"Steamroller," however, was from my Flying Machine days, and it was a joke. There were a lot of white guys playing the blues, college students singing Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, and it seemed comical to me. "Steamroller" was just meant to be a take-off.
One of the effects of being hospitalized a couple of times is that any expectations my family might have had for me — academic or professional — had all been abandoned. They kinda threw up their hands and said, "Well, at least he's still alive." They were always very supportive of my music, but I did feel as though I came from a place of being disenfranchised and alienated. So while seeing Sweet Baby James take off was hugely gratifying and everything I wanted, success was a major adjustment.
“You’ve Got a Friend” (1971)
Carole King and I were playing the Troubadour in Los Angeles together. She had just written "You've Got a Friend," which she later said was a response to "Fire and Rain." The chorus to "Fire and Rain" is "I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend." Carole's response was, "Here's your friend." As soon as I heard it, I wanted to play it.
Not long after, we were in the studio recording [1971's] Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. We had already cut two songs that day, but we still had studio time and a lot of energy. Peter [Asher] said, "Well, why don't you play 'You've Got a Friend'?" We did, and it sounded great.
There was just one problem: I hadn't bothered to ask Carole if it was OK. I sheepishly called her up and said, "We didn't really mean to do it, but we've recorded 'You've Got a Friend,'" and she said, "Fine, go ahead, put it out," which was remarkably generous.
“Walking Man” (1974)
I wrote a lot of songs about my dad. It's probably typical, but I have a sense that he was emotionally sort of frozen. "Walking Man" is informed by my longing for him. He disappeared for a few years when I was seven, eight and nine. He was drafted into the Navy, and then he volunteered to go to the South Pole. We missed him a lot. My mother was a daughter of a Yankee fisherman. She had five kids born within six years in the countryside of North Carolina, and here she was waiting for her husband to come home. That always stayed with me, somehow.
“A Junkie’s Lament” (1976)
I've got a lot of recovery songs. This one's a warning not to think of a junkie as a complete functioning human being. Heroin should've killed me about five times, but it never did. My kids suffered from their father being an addict. I think there's no way they can't.
People take drugs to be in control. They want to short-circuit any risk that they might take in life, any uncertainty, any anxiety. They just want to find the chemical route, to just push the button that gets the final result. So all of your relationships suffer, no question about it.
“Secret o’ Life” (1977)
I wrote this in a little patch of sunlight while sitting on the stairs of a house I was literally building on Martha's Vineyard. It took me about 10 minutes. It's as though the song was just sitting there in the guitar. There aren't many that come that easily.
One line goes, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." It's a preposterous thing to write about, and so the title was supposed to recall Life Savers flavors — Pep-O-Mint or But-O-Rum. It's a jab at the presumptuousness of writing a song called "The Secret of Life."
“Only a Dream in Rio” (1985)
I had gone into yet another rehab, to kick methadone after a couple of really nasty "jackpots," which is where you humiliate yourself and the people who love you by fucking up. I tried to detox at a place in Connecticut, but I fell back and continued to use. It wasn't until [saxophonist] Michael Brecker got me involved with the Twelve Steps that I got serious. But even after I got clean, I didn't know whether there was life on the other side of addiction for me. I wasn't sure I could write anymore, either.
Then I went down to Rio de Janeiro to play the Rock in Rio festival. [Brazilian songwriter] Gilberto Gil had left a guitar for me to play. I walked onstage, and 300,000 people knew my songs. They have this tradition of singing along in Brazil that is so loud, so strong, and so in tune and so in time, it's sort of like when they pick up a song that they know and sing it back to you, it's extremely powerful. So I was, like, two feet off the ground coming off the stage, really felt as though I had landed on my feet. It was a turning point in my life.
“Never Die Young” (1988)
This song is written from the point of view of someone who has given up and is looking at the lives of two young people who aren't caught up in the morass of life as the narrator knows it: "Let other hearts be broken/Let other dreams run dry/Let our golden ones sail onto another land beneath another sky." It's a sad song, but also hopeful and celebratory.
This is another song about home, about my father, about a childhood that was very peaceful, which is a rare thing today. I felt like I was part of a landscape in those days — the trees, the streams and the rivers, the animals that lived there.
[My wife] Kim and I are raising our kids in the countryside, but it is not the country life that I experienced. It's connected, constantly connected. Sometimes I feel as though the little snippets of information that we're always receiving are preparing us to have a hive mind. There may come a point where we basically have a communal mind, which is an exciting prospect.
“Enough to Be on Your Way” (1997)
My brother Alex was also an addict, and in 1993, he died of it. There was a sense of relief when he died, for him and for his family, that one felt. It wasn't until a year or so had passed that I got back in touch with the totality of his life rather than just the shambles of its end, the pain of it. That's when I wrote this song.
“Mean Old Man” (2002)
This one was a big accomplishment, because it's a sophisticated song and a throwback. Paul McCartney called me up and said that when he'd first heard it, he assumed it was Frank Loesser or Cole Porter. I was, of course, absolutely thrilled. At one point, Bob Dylan told me that he'd been listening to [Taylor's song] "Frozen Man" and really thought it was great, and that's enough for me. Ten critics can savage me, but I'll be fine as long as every once in a while, someone like Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney says, "Keep going, kid."
“Angels of Fenway” (2015)
I finished this in May 2014, but I had the music for about seven years before that. I knew that I wanted to write about this miracle 2004 season against the Yankees. If you're a Red Sox fan, or even just a baseball fan, it was an amazing event. I cast it as a grandmother who was born the last time the Red Sox won, and she dies on the day they finally do it again.