There’s a bus every other hour There’s even a midnight train But that don’t leave me the power To see your face again It’s not that simple
–James Taylor, “Daddy’s All Gone,” 1976
Dr. Isaac Taylor is nervous, apprehensive. Not finishing his sentences. He wants to talk about his celebrated son but doesn’t want to give away any “nuggets.” He phones his son’s wife to make sure I’m “clean.” He starts to talk, and he wants to be upbeat and easygoing about his boy, but it’s not coming out that way. He knows it’s mostly sounding sad, wounded.
We get on the subject of “Jamie’s” new record, Dad Loves His Work, and suddenly Dr. Taylor knows what he wants to say: “This dad certainly loves his work. I’ve been very happy with my career.”
Isaac Taylor was dean of the University of North Carolina’s medical school before retiring in 1971, but he still holds a part-time post there. Now he has an administrative job at the Boston University Medical Center. He’s busy, but he also has a lot of time to, well, think.
“Looking back, I wish I had found work that could have kept me at home.” His voice trails off, and then he asserts, “I made a point of taking the children to my laboratory to see what I did all week, perhaps just as James is trying to do with his new album. I was doing experiments with heart tissue, and I had a colony of hibernating hamsters. I feel sure Jamie and the other children enjoyed seeing them.”
There is an awkward silence.
“It was just a conscious attempt to get closer to my children. On Dad Loves His Work, I think Jamie wants his children to know that although he’s away a lot and seems very burdened by his life, he loves his work, and they shouldn’t worry about him. As for me and him, I don’t contribute to his life now, except when he needs me or when somebody’s ill. When his son, Ben, was sick with kidney problems last year, James called for advice, and I got a great deal of satisfaction out of being able to help.”
He adds that when James was two years old, he got out a wire recorder–this was before the days of portable tape recorders–and had James sing along with him on “Little Red Wagon Painted Blue.” He says it was James’ first recording, right? He says he’s sorry he lost the damned thing.
“You know, I tell my friends, in jest, that I didn’t want James to be a doctor and that I’d tell him to get on back to his guitar and practice, because that’s where his future would lie. But that’s not true, really. I didn’t do that.”
James Taylor wasn’t aware of it at the time, but the cover of his 1979 Flag album, the modest-selling record that preceded his recent success with Dad Loves His Work, was the nautical symbol for “man overboard.” And in the months that followed its release, Taylor sank into as difficult a period as he’s experienced in his notoriously troubled passage.
“This past year has been the worst in my life,” he says bluntly. “I see myself, basically, as a depressed person who tends to hole up and shut systems down. And a lot of things have been happening at once.”
Taylor’s latest troubles include a crisis in confidence concerning his career (“I am a little scared”) and strained relations with his wife, both of which have led to serious doubts about how he rears his own children.
“I was recently telling a friend how much I loved my father, and how much I missed him when he made a two-year-long trip to Antarctica when I was young, and how much I missed him whenever he went to work. I’m a traveling father now, and when I leave, my son cries. “See, Dad Loves His Work is a little whimsical but also sad. Wanting to do your work, wanting to be responsible, loving your father for wanting to be responsible and good and then having work take him away from you when you want him most–it’s like a curse.
“But I think it’s important for children to get the feeling that you enjoy yourself and that life is enjoyable. I see some people–including myself–frequently saying, with a moan, ‘I’m sorry, daddy has to go to work now.’ And my son is crying and my daughter is removing herself from me, and I’m saying, ‘I don’t want to go.’
“Well, that’s not right. I want them to know I’m gonna enjoy it. They miss me, but I’m having a good time. I’d like them to think fondly of me.”
James loves to travel,” says wife Carly Simon. “He has a love of mobilization, and I’ve given him a hard time for that. I’ve never spent a night away from Ben and just a few away from Sally. James’ own father’s absence was very painful to him, and he felt slightly responsible. He had the grandiose and very mistaken idea that because he loved and admired his mother and got to know her better than he did his dad, his father was jealous of their relationship and left all the time for that reason. James had built up an Oedipal dilemma in his mind.
“James’ work is extremely good for him,” Carly continues. “It holds him together. And he’s usually most healthy physically and mentally when he’s on tour. But while he feels justified by his Dad Loves His Work philosophy, it’s still difficult for his children, especially Ben. James is really a country boy, likes being on the loose and disorganized, and it’s one of our incompatibilities. When he comes back from the road, there’s always a feeling of anticlimax, of relief followed by ‘Jesus! Now what?’ It seems that sons cannot help following in their father’s footsteps, whether they like the path or not.”
After 10 albums, numerous hit singles (the latest being “Her Town Too,” his duet with J.D. Souther), near-constant touring for adoring audiences, a movie career (Two-Lane Blacktop, No Nukes) and some composing for the screen and stage (Studs Terkel and Stephen Schwartz’ Working, the films Times Square and Brubaker; his songs were not used in the latter two), Taylor, at 33, is assured a place in the entertainment-industry pantheon.
In 1969, with the release of his debut LP, James Taylor, on the Beatles’ Apple label, he achieved instant prominence and drew considerable praise for the confessional boldness of his dark folk narratives–inky, anguish-wracked songs that would have made for unnerving listening had they not been structured around the bright resonances of his nasal North Carolina twang and the clipped, suspended chordings of his ringing acoustic guitar.
He crooned about confinement in a mental institution, about nervous breakdowns and dungeon-deep depressions, and somehow he left such disquieting realities a little gentler on our minds.
He was handsome in a spindly, lantern-jawed way–his friends in boarding school called him “Moose”–and everybody wanted to embrace and unravel his cool, crisp mysteries. By the time he scored a Number One smash in 1970 with “Fire and Rain,” a song partly written about a friend who had committed suicide, he looked to be a talent capable of great things but destined for self-destruction before he had barely developed his gifts. James, like brother Livingston and sister Kate, had spent time in McLean Hospital, a mental institution outside Boston.
Suddenly, this fragile young man with the gothic Southern lineage was a mainstream superstar. He was on the cover of Time. He was 22. He seemed doomed.
Now, on a Thursday afternoon in the spring of 1981, he just seems a little tired–and anxious. Rawboned and lanky as ever, dressed in baggy jeans, rubber-soled canvas slippers with rent seams (“Whoa,” he says with wild eyes and a manic grin, wiggling his protruding toes, “these here slippers are trying to be sandals!”) and a rumpled white dress shirt with a large jelly stain below the pocket, James is plunking out “Fire and Rain” at a television soundstage on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles.
He’s whipping his band (with guest star J.D. Souther)into shape for yet another road show, and the spring and summer dates are to be taped for a live album, tentatively titled Bicycle Built for a King. (Debilitated at the beginning of the tour, Taylor would grow so weak with pneumonia he would be in danger of collapsing while doing his shows.)
James steps down from the raised platform he’s playing on and extends his hand in a firm greeting. I see that he’s balding, and the affliction seems incongruous with his adolescent demeanor. When I express surprise at what a sturdy old warhorse “Fire and Rain” is after all this time, he smirks and says, “Well, sometimes when I sing ‘Fire and Rain’ at a show, I think someone in the audience is thinking, ‘Aw, you poor guy. You got so upset you had to take two Valiums, eh?'”
He excuses himself to confer with his road manager and then hurries back. “Hey, ah, I don’t mean to make this interview problematic for you,” he says nervously, “but are your bags in the car?”
Huh? “Well, instead of flying back to New York tomorrow morning as I’d planned, I’d like to fly back tonight. If you can get your stuff, we can talk on the plane. That way, I can spend about 12 hours in New York with my son before I fly to Berkeley for the first show of the tour on Saturday night.”
I nod, slowly comprehending the urgency of his request. He must read the puzzlement in my face, because he confides, “Yeah, it amazes me that, with only 12 hours off, there’s nothing I’d rather do in the world than sit on an airplane. I’ll spend 15 hours in transit during the next 36; then, the rest of the time, I’ll watch TV with the kids or read them a story or do whatever silly thing they want to do. It just pleases me.”
He shrugs. I leave to get my luggage.
I first encountered James Taylor in the flesh one chilly July night in 1980, at a house not far from Taylor’s own on Martha’s Vineyard.
I was visiting Timothy Mayer, a friend of James’ who wrote “Sugar Trade” with Taylor and Jimmy Buffett for Dad. When I strolled into the living room, it took me a full minute to realize that the tall, gangling man hunched over on a couch was James. He and Maver each had an open case of Grolsch beer next to them. When they rose in unison, stepped over to a walk-in freezer and extracted yet another case and a half, I stole a second glance at the open boxes and discovered they contained empties, their white ceramic tops all neatly reclamped. The two men were engaged in a lively, rather erudite conversation about public comprehension of “popular” music through the ages, from Bach’s private clavichord recitals to Strauss waltzes to Frank Sinatra.
It’s amazing what people will fixate on when they’re shitfaced. Mayer praised James for the internal rhymes in his songs. “This year, I’m gonna work on the externals,” he said with a smile. As the evening flowed onward, and great insights stumbled into muddled pronouncements, James was politely asked to clear the air with a song or two.
I had heard that he was not overly fond of holding court with his guitar, but he gingerly lifted his Martin to his lap and called for a request. I suggested “She Caught the Katy,” and his tight lips broke into a scamp’s smile. “Oh, I do know that little tune,” he said with mock innocence and began to pick and sing. It seemed remarkable, considering his intake of beer, that he never slurred a word or flubbed a note, but that feat was soon overshadowed by his ability to sustain interest in the song for a solid hour and a half.
Eventually, he moved on to material as diverse as the Sam and Dave hit “I Thank You,” Walter Robinson’s “Harriet Tubman,” his own hilarious “Is That the Way You Look?” and a few Hoagy Carmichael tunes. The sun was winding its way through the snarled scrub forest pressed against the windows when the guitar was finally, carefully, laid in its case.
Then James stood with a studied steadiness and said, “I certainly want to thank you gents for your company, and I wish you all a good day.” With that, he made his way through the labyrinth of beer crates, electric cables and amplifiers and disappeared around the bend into the guest bedroom. There was a crash; a wheeze of bedsprings and the birds began to chirp.
Driving away, I decided he was not the James Taylor I would have expected to meet. I was unprepared for his animation, his good humor, his cordial manner. And then I began to think back on what I had read about the man and his family background, tormented past, painful professional ascent. Despite much press about his problems over the last decade with drugs and married life, Taylor remains a cryptic personality, a maddeningly shy man surrounded by protective friends and relatives. One day, I wanted to hear this guy explain himself.
James is a dreamer,” says Carly. “He dreams a lot about being where he’s not, doing things he isn’t doing, seeing things he hasn’t seen. He’s not well organized and usually lets people plan his day for him, especially in the city, though in the country he’ll get up and say, ‘Okay, I’ll sail or row today,’ or ‘I’ll ride my bike or swim.’
“He is an odd mixture of dependence and independence–quite a paradox. He seemed to be independent as a child because he could, and still can, be aloof and closed off. But when James was sent away to school, his great need to be connected to a home and his parents became critical and traumatic.”
Quiet, reclusive, James enjoyed his boyhood years in the picturesque college town of Chapel Hill; he felt “centered” by the family home. When he wanted to be alone, he would walk out the front door of the tasteful manse and down the great knoll on which it was built, disappearing into 25 acres of encircling woods.
The South was a special place to him; he loved the lazy pace of its people and their tendency to back off when they weren’t wanted and draw near when they were. North Carolina was an elemental environment where the lushness of the landscape, intensity of the sun, fury of the thunderstorms and the brittle sounds made by insects at night culminated in a powerful, benign presence.
For James, the countryside was a constant companion. In the perpetual absence of his father, James clung to the rest of his family the way he hugged his big cello during the Taylors’ “kitchen concerts”–informal recitals at which Alex played violin, Kate and Livingston manned the piano and mother Trudy sang.
During the summer, the clan migrated to Martha’s Vineyard, and James was particularly fond of the fact that it was an island. When he needed to open up to people, he had friend Stan Sheldon to turn to. But he would avoid that kind of intimacy until it was nearly too late. James’ unfettered existence disintegrated when his parents decided he ought to choose a direction in life; so at the age of 14, he was packed off to a Massachusetts boarding school, Milton Academy, where he was expected to cultivate a new independence, succeed academically and get his ass into a good college.
For anybody else, it might have been the best move in the world, but for young James, it was, as he says, “wrong, wrong.” The school was “high-powered”; it functioned by means of “fear-tactic stuff,” and there were “no girls in sight.”
James was jolted; he began to realize that he was not wrapped tight enough for this kind of jostling, and he left school and returned in his junior year to Chapel Hill, only to be confronted with another unsettling reality. “I’d lost touch with everyone in Carolina,” he says with a shudder. “I thought, ‘What the hell, finish boarding school and aim for college, because the past has nothing more to offer.'”
Milton Academy took him back–his grades had been good–but he felt as if he were ambling across an abyss. It didn’t help matters that he was assigned a small room by himself in the schoolmaster’s house. He’d always preferred to be alone before; why was it so fucking frightening now?
“I got more and more depressed,” he says, “and I was sleeping 20 hours a day. Finally, at Thanksgiving, I started thinking about suicide.”
Home for the holidays, he grew panicky at the prospect of returning to Milton but was too paralyzed by fear of failure to speak of it. Vacation ended. It was time to go. He walked out the front door, down the knoll and went over to Stan Sheldon’s house. He told Stan that if he went back to school, he was afraid he was going to take his own life. “He sent me to a shrink,” says James, “and I broke down in the shrink’s office. He said, ‘Listen, I’m gonna put you under observation for a while in a psychiatric hospital.'”
Taylor’s tenure at McLean lasted several months and was a numbing routine of medication, drab meals eaten with plastic forks (confiscated afterward) and weekly consultations with conservative psychiatrists. He didn’t relish the time he spent looking out through 2,000-pound-test security screens on the windows, but he had willingly committed himself to McLean because he saw his “certified crazy papers” as his best exit from Milton Academy–and the draft.
When the army finally beckoned, Taylor asked a husky attendant named Carl and a similarly formidable friend to dress up in the trademark white suits and accompany him to the draft board. They flanked James during his entire interview, answered all the questions for him, and ensured that he received a clean bill of poor mental health.
Taylor eventually slipped out of McLean in a friend’s truck and sped to New York, where he renewed his boyhood friendship with Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar and composed such bleak ballads as “Don’t Talk Now,” “The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream” and “Rainy Day Man.” Together their spirits soared in a four-man group called the Flying Machine–until James’ wings were clipped by a mounting heroin habit with which he would struggle for the next nine years. “It was a dreadful, stressful situation James got into when he was 17,” says Dr. Taylor. “He called me and I flew into New York, rented a station wagon, loaded it with his stuff and we went back to Chapel Hill. Six months later, he went to Europe to seek his fortune.”
That trip resulted in his being signed to Apple through the good graces of A&R man Peter Asher, now his producer and manager.
Last fall, James returned to London on a vacation with his wife and children, feeling, as he sings in “London Town” on Dad, “I do believe/I must believe/I think I can begin again/Become again the man I was back when.”
“I saw some of the places where I used to live, a basement in Beaufort Gardens,” he says. “It had a machine that you would put a two-shilling piece into in return for a few minutes of gas heat. I explained this to Carly and the kids. It was a great time for me back then because I was totally free.
“I think of that early time in London when I sing ‘Carolina in My Mind.’ I was homesick when I wrote it, and the ‘holy host of others standing ’round me’ refers to the Beatles. The lyric dealt with being somewhere else, which has always made me feel real good, and it encouraged me that I could write a song that strong. I can always count on a goose pimple or two when I sing it.”
Famous for the artful angst in many of his songs, Taylor is also one of rock & roll’s reigning eccentrics, and he concedes that he’s capable of “monumental silliness.” Indeed, his sense of humor about his own existence has fortified him against his fears, and even his wife marvels at how “spontaneously goofy and verbally witty” this customarily retiring man can be.
Has James ever composed any screwball songs he wouldn’t dare commit to vinyl?
“Oh, sure,” he says. “I wrote a song called ‘I Guess I’ll Always, Always, Always, Always…’ that went on forever. It had a few chord changes but no word changes. And I wrote ‘Mona,’ a tune about a pig of mine. I was thinking about killing the pig because she was old. I had a new baby [Ben], and my brother Alex noted that the pig sometimes got out and was rambunctious. In fact, I once saw it kill another little pig. They can get ornery in old age. So Alex said, rightly, ‘That pig might kill one of your kids. You gotta be careful.’ I was afraid it was true, so I was considering bumping her off, and I wrote a song about it.”
He carefully recites some lyrics:
Oh, Mona, Mona So much of you to love,
Too much of you to take care of,
And here I’m thinking ’bout you lying underground,
Pushing up a pine tree in my field,
Oh, Mona, Mona, you can close your eyes,
I’ve got a twelve-gauge surprise waiting for you.
“That’s a sweet little song, huh? I occasionally play it at picnics.”
Drummer Rick Marotta, a longtime friend and one-time neighbor of James and Carly’s, offers more evidence of Taylor’s peculiar levity. When he hears I plan to take the redeye flight with James, he offers some counsel.
“Your brother’s an architect?” James exclaims after we’ve taken our seats in the plane’s first-class lounge. “Let me get some stationery. I want to explain this dream house I’ve been thinking about building for about three years.”
He calls for the steward, asks for paper and pencil and sits back sipping beer until the man returns. Comfortable in a gray felt fedora and a blue Gangster Chronicles promo jacket that hides the jelly stain, he takes the paper and begins to sketch in broad, hasty strokes.
“It has three floors and a duct running under the house that pushes cool air out and draws warm air in on a seasonal basis,” he says intently, referring to floor plans that become almost indecipherable in their complexity. He remains engrossed in the dream house until a casual mention of the space shuttle voyage plunges us into a discussion of its shortcomings, which somehow segues into the “kinks” in the origin of prehistoric species and, at length, his own evolution.
During the last year, James has evidently been thinking a great deal about the road behind him, as well as the uncharted course ahead, and as our plane hums on through the night, the talk turns both introspective and retrospective.
“For a long time, all of the album titles were names for myself,” he volunteers. “A large amount of the stuff I was doing was self-definition, exercises in trying different aspects of myself on for size–sometimes fanciful, sometimes serious, sometimes happenstantial.
“People will see me write a song that they think is about Carly,” he says, popping another beer, “or people I know hear themselves described in a song I write and they say, ‘How can you do that?! The song you’ve written about me makes me feel terrible!’ “It’s taken so out of form,” he maintains, exasperated. “You can’t really nail down a person that way, ever. What it comes down to is, if somebody chooses to let this obvious encapsulation or distortion or angle on them supersede the relationship itself, then what does that say for the friendship?
“Although I did not write ‘You’ve Got a Friend,’ I sometimes expect someone to come up to me after I’ve sung it and say, ‘You call yourself a friend?!'”
I ask for another example of a song that has elicited this kind of reaction. “The song ‘B.S.U.R.’ on Flag was inspired by the cartoons of William Steig, who has a book out called CDB! about how to take letters and numbers and turn them into sentences, like ‘IMAUMBN’–’I am a human being‘–or ‘URNNML’–’You are an animal.’ Well, my sister and I used to play that game. So I wrote ‘B.S.U.R.’ [which contains the verse: “She’s been holding on too long/Hoping I’m gonna change/Giving it up just a little bit more/Each time I come home/Looking and acting strange/Putting her down for putting up with me”] and Carly was fine about the song, sang on it, but other people were appalled that I could put our relationship on the line that way. She’s written a song called ‘Fair Weather Father’ that seems to paint me pretty ugly, but I sang backup on it, and I don’t take it seriously.
“For an intimate relationship with one’s mate, the only really important thing is feelings. That’s the main thing; whether or not someone’s right or wrong doesn’t make a damned bit of difference! You can be seething about something that’s so petty you hardly dare bring it up, but the fact is that you must say, ‘I am furious.’
“There’s always a risk. I mean, your wife may call up your friends and say things about you that you trusted her with, or in a loose moment, I might say something about Carly to a reporter, or she might say something to magazines about me. Well, I accept that as a possibility. A close friend called me about a recent article on Carly. I haven’t read the article, because I don’t want to take it seriously when I know I shouldn’t. My friend said, ‘Read it. You’ve been dealt roughly with.’ I said, ‘I don’t think Carly had any intention of hurting me, and I’m not going to indulge.'” Is there a threshold there that shouldn’t be crossed?
“The threshold is whether you are betraying a confidence that is still valuable to you. It has to be looked at in terms of whether or not it damages you.”
I ask about the great solitude of the character in what I have always considered one of Taylor’s finest songs, “Walking Man.” “It was about the coming of winter and the way I feel about it,” he says somberly, shifting in his seat. “I panic a little bit when I feel it coming on. It’s always reminded me of having to go back to school, and maybe it’s a primal thing of realizing that winter means you’re going to have to put up with a tough time–the dark, difficult, cold times you have to be prepared for.”
“I didn’t know James felt that way about winter,” Carly later says, “but winter seems to remind him of the rejections he felt as a child. He always wants to spend winter on the Vineyard, which is a sore point between us, because as a city person, I find it harsh, boring, desolate, while he enjoys the isolation.
“He also has a fear, a great dread of imminent catastrophe, and he wants to have his own self-contained oasis on the Vineyard, where we can farm our own land, draw water from our own well, and so on. He often talks about how we’ll live in safety when ‘the catastrophe’ comes.
“All of that aside, I’ve always felt awfully guilty that I’m not in the Vineyard in winter–that I’m not capable of doing what my husband expects of me. After all, he’s spent so many winters in New York.” James has his own pangs of conscience concerning his marriage, and as he begins to talk about “Hour That the Morning Comes” on Dad, a good deal of his guilt comes to the fore.
“‘Hour That the Morning Comes’ is about people at a party,” he says. “The first one is Carly, who doesn’t get drunk and has a good time without hurting herself. The second guy, with his head ‘kacked‘– that’s a junkie term–in his lap, is just someone who’s miserable. The next person, the fool with the lamp shade on, is somebody else I know, and the ‘secret-agent man’ is a dealer, or someone with an angle he has to play out at the party.
“I don’t have much moderation in my drinking,” he states firmly. “If I get intoxicated, I lose control. And I’ve sometimes made mistakes when I was too high that I deeply regret. I can get real sad thinking about things I’ve said to people and ways I’ve made people I love feel because I was so out of it. But those are in the past.” Yet they haunt him still, as with the tale behind the terrifying “Sleep Come Free Me” on Flag.
“Bob Rafelson, the director, came to the Vineyard one time and asked me if I wanted to act in Brubaker, which he started making before something took him off the project. He said he was also looking for a song for the movie, and I came right out with this line ’10 lonely years without a woman,’ which was part of the original lyric. Then, to make it rhyme, I made it ’10 lonely years of my life taken.’
“A couple of weeks before that, I had gone on a bender, and I got so drunk that I blacked out a whole rampage of awful behavior. I don’t know where I got the energy for it. I can remember that I played ‘She Caught the Katy,’ which I love, at a party for something like eight hours straight, and when someone finally threatened, or offered, to beat me on the head lest I keep playing the song, I actually bit a big hole in the guitar. And this guitar belonged to a good friend of mine, so it was a bad thing to have done.
“I had also recently watched a TV program on angel dust, where some poor bastard killed a man and couldn’t remember afterward. So I began to think of how some person could end up with no memory of what he had to pay for with his time in prison.
“When I came to, I heard for days about my behavior–some people just gave me dirty looks–so I wrote that into the song”:
Now the state of Alabama says I killed a man,
The jury reached the same conclusion,
I remember I was there,
With a tire iron in my hand,
The rest is all confusion.
When I remind him of his lengthy rendition of “Katy” that night at Tim Mayer’s house, he shakes his head. “I go on and on with that tune.”
Has he always had this outrageous nature? “You bet,” he says. “A long time ago in London–when I was nineteen or twenty–I took an acid trip with a friend. There was a candle burning in the middle of the table and we were peaking. It melted down into the dish it was sitting in and made a great pool of wax. And as it did, I took some matchsticks and made a little cabin out of them. Pretty soon the wax was vaporizing inside the cabin and giving off a nice light.
“I went out the window at this point, and I swung from one fire escape to another on these buildings. I used to get crazy on this drug. Then I walked along a ledge, stories and stories up, and jumped into a tree in a park along Baker Street. I climbed out of the tree, hopped into my car, a Cortina GT, and blasted around the West End, doing about 80–just screaming. It was a golden time, and I was right in the pocket.
“When I came back to the apartment, I came up the fire escape and in through the window. I found that everyone was kind of spooked and dragged. This plate of matches had become a nova and blown up. The plate was in shards; there was a hole in the table and a big hole in the ceiling. I later thought of that as being pretty irresponsible.
“That same year, I spent about two days on the island of Formentera drinking Romilar and riding a bicycle, just chanting. It was a hypnotic, antipsychedelic experience. It was nice.”
Gravely concerned about the quality of his fatherhood, the detrimental effects of his wanderlust and personal excesses, the significance of his work and the security of his family life, James Taylor is seeing old patterns and images he thought were long dispersed flooding back into the here and now. Like the bedeviled millworker he wrote about in the song of the same name, Taylor finds himself riding home in the evening, staring at his hands, perplexed as to what he’s ultimately wrought.
“Perhaps I’m at a contradictory point,” he says softly. “I’m trying to be a public figure and at the same time be average. It’s like proclaiming my ordinariness.
“One of the things that’s positive about Japanese culture is that people strive to be ordinary,” he continues. “In other words, what in this country would be displayed as a status symbol–a piece of art, for instance–well, I’ve heard of an industrialist in Japan buying a Monet and hanging it in the bathroom, loving it, but not wanting to be presumptuous about owning it, or not letting possession of it rock the boat. Maybe it’s a Zen kind of thing.
“Being a celebrity is not so great a gig, and it’s not as good as being a good musician or having a particular skill. Celebrity always misses the point, and you end up disappointing the people who thought you were what you never said you were. And from this, people approach your children not only for who they are but for reasons beyond their knowledge or control. To be a celebrity raising children is tough.
“Now for me, I really don’t ever have any problem walking on the street, going to a restaurant, walking away from a concert. “
This is a bit of what ‘Walking Man’ tries to say. I’ve seen a lot of high-flying people hit the big time and then wonder why the fuck they don’t feel special. Everybody’s calling them special. That’s one of the things that I think makes stars tend to take drugs, drink too much.”
As our plane begins its descent into New York, James reaffirms his vow to curb his own vices, especially drinking. I ask what dreams he has in store for the future.
“Well, my brother Hugh and I have been considering a little undertaking for some years now, and this may be the summer we finally get started on it.”
What undertaking is that? “We want to open our own brewery on the Vineyard. How does Taylor’s Lighthouse Lager sound to you?”