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Once he is done rehearsing, Taylor comes down off the stage and sits in the audience, fielding the kids' rather thoughtful questions. He offers them a brief sketch of his life's story, beginning with how he began playing cello when he was 10, picked up guitar when he was 12, wrote his first song when he was 14, was influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and Elizabeth Cotten, traveled Europe ("to play for whoever would listen"), formed a band with best friend Danny Kortchmar, then was discovered by the Beatles, who signed him to their Apple Records label before the end of the 1960s. One kid asks who his favorite Beatle is; Taylor says Paul McCartney, if only because "he took the most interest in my music." Another boy asks him about his style of songwriting, which Taylor describes as "personal and autobiographical," meaning he has trouble writing in the third person.
"The best stuff I write is personal," he explains. "I wish it wasn't that way." Taylor sort of grins. He explains that the beginning of songs "are like lightning bolts" that come to him at the most unexpected moments. Perhaps this is his way of relating to high school kids that inspiration can't be manufactured; it comes looking for you.
Once the session ends, a group of choir students gathers to serenade Taylor with one of his own songs: "That Lonesome Road." He stands patiently and respectfully as they turn his old song into an angelic lament. He does not seem at all embarrassed; rather, he graciously accepts the gift, poses for a group portrait, signs some autographs, then says farewell. One choral student, who says he dreams of being a fireman and a singer, says he will forever remember the day he met James Taylor and had him sign his sheet music. "Now I'm gonna go out and buy some of his CDs," he says. His parents, no doubt, will be thrilled.
On the way to his dressing room, Taylor talks about how amazed he is by the high school students of today -- how all at once old and young they seem. "They're so well-formed and half-baked," he says, cracking a thin smile. "I liked 'em."
"Hi, I'm James," he says, extending his hand. It is hardly surprising to discover that James Taylor is, at the very least, a very kind, open, and warm man; you don't spend a lifetime writing about your drug addiction, the deaths in your family, and your two failed marriages only to hide when someone asks you questions about your work. That would be disingenuous, and James Taylor and that word have never met before, not even in a dark alley.
There was a moment in the late 1960s and early '70s when Taylor turned narcissism into High Art; he made his personal pain very public, and his early records were affecting -- and, to some, infuriating. In 1971, Lester Bangs excoriated Taylor's brand of I-Rock, so called "because most of it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric that you finally actually stop hating the punk and just want to take the poor bastard out and get him a drink, and then kick his ass, preferably off a high cliff and into the nearest ocean." Bangs insisted his brand of soft-focus songpoems would be the death of rock and roll. Bangs never took into account that Taylor wasn't a rocker at all, but a Tin Pan Alley refugee who plumbed the depths of his tortured soul in that pretty little voice and proved there was extraordinary truth and beauty in a shitload of pain.
With the sort of wry hatred born only of backhanded affection, Bangs also used to insist that James Taylor was the folk equivalent of Lou Reed: They were dead-end junkies drooling on the street corner waiting for the man to deliver their fix; but where Reed recounted his needle fantasies in a feedback drone, Taylor told his stories of drug-induced madness in a folkie's whine. But Bangs and his ilk thought J.T. was, in the end, a wimp -- his voice as soulful as a rich white boy's can be, his lyrics as introspective as a well-read English-lit major, his guitar-playing as functional as a Timex. And maybe there was some truth to that. As Danny Kortchmar once said: "I joke that I knew James before he was sensitive." And, after all, James Taylor had a kid: Garth Brooks.
Truth is, Taylor should have long ago grown weary of performing all these songs: "How Sweet It Is," "Country Road," "Your Smiling Face," "Walking Man," and bloody so on. But he never has, if only because each time he performs some 25-year-old song, it still resonates with him. He still recalls where he was when he wrote it, why he wrote it, how he felt upon its completion, and the first time he performed it for someone. Perhaps that is the ultimate benefit of writing for yourself and, yes, about yourself: The songs always grow with you, and they are forever attached to you. They do not grow old; they merely age with you, taking on experience the way a face takes on wrinkles.