Sweet grown-up James
The kids file quietly into their seats, as though being led to a gruesome, inevitable fate. They are quiet, respectful, the shuffle of their feet the only sound echoing through the majestic concert hall. "Man, I hope this is cool," whispers one bespectacled teenage boy to another. "Dude, it will be," his friend reassures him. At the very least, he says, "My parents love him." It's hard to tell whether he's saying this with any sarcasm, though a little later, a 17-year-old girl who sings in the Garland High School pop choir will express her profound joy at meeting the man who wrote and sang "Shower the People" and "Fire and Rain."
"I saw you on Sesame Street when I was a kid!" the perky blonde girl tells James Taylor. All he can do with such information is laugh. "When you were a kid?" Taylor says, a crooked smile running across his angular face.
About 150 music students from Garland High School -- members of the school's choirs, band, and orchestra -- have been invited to the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center this Monday afternoon to attend a rehearsal hours before the first of Taylor's five local performances. It's their reward for winning one of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' special Grammy Awards presented to high school music programs. They've been given the opportunity to watch Taylor and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra rehearse, then to ask him some questions about, ya know, his career and stuff. For instance: What's your favorite concert? Or, Do you get stage fright? Or, How did you get started?
This is the second time Taylor has participated in a Q&A session with high school students. According to his tour manager, the singer-songwriter had a "dry run" in Chicago recently, if only to find out whether high school students would get too, well, bored by the whole thing. They didn't.
"For these students," says Eric Fahrlander, Garland High School's band director, "this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's one thing to buy a ticket and go see a concert. It's something else to see a master at work, to see how he puts it together. Here, you can see it at a more personal level. And our kids have well-rounded musical tastes. Some listen to Mahler and Metallica -- though not at the same time."
Today's experience falls, perhaps, somewhere in the middle: Taylor stands on stage, balding and bespectacled, outfitted in a rumpled blue button-down and khakis to match, his every move hesitant and deliberate as he discusses something with a much shorter man who sports a hairdo carved from burning bush. The kids watch him, and some try to figure out what the big deal is. At this moment, from no fewer than 11 rows away, the 51-year-old Taylor looks like a teacher. Or a parent.
Slowly, members of the DSO file onto the stage and begin fumbling with their instruments. The conductor quiets them down as he signals that rehearsal is about to begin. Taylor stands at the front of the stage, his acoustic guitar slung around his neck. When he speaks, his is a nasal voice. And a humble one.
"Welcome to the students contemplating a life in music...or crime," he begins, chuckling softly. "I hope we don't discourage you from that course over the next hour and a half."
Taylor and the orchestra then begin rehearsing a handful of songs they will perform over the next few nights, among them "Millworker," "Frozen Man," "Carolina in My Mind," "You've Got a Friend," and, of course, "Fire and Rain." Though it's only a rehearsal, full of stops and starts and whispered instructions passed between performer and conductor, the performance is rather impressive, quite moving. It offers proof, as though it were needed, that nothing beats a pretty voice propped up against a string section. It's especially true when Taylor lights into delicate renditions of "Our Love is Here to Stay" and "The Way You Look Tonight," ageless standards perfectly suited for a man who makes "easy listening" seem less a pejorative and more a compliment.
But there is no applause after each number: Since this is not an actual concert, the kids have been instructed to remain silent, so Taylor and the orchestra members can critique each performance. It seems odd and a bit awkward, if only because the performances, even half-polished, are worth celebrating: After 30-plus years on a stage -- as would-be rocker in the crash-landed Flying Machine, as an American folkie wandering the streets of Europe, as the Troubadour's troubadour in Los Angeles, then finally as the confessional songwriter's grand old man -- Taylor seems to have found his proper place.
Songs that once sounded so small and intimate, as though they belonged only to him, are born again in the concert hall, writ enormous and breathtaking in such a setting. It's hardly surprising when, during an interview in his dressing room later on, Taylor says he'd like to release an album of his songs dolled up in these arrangements. "It's important to try different things," he says, "because you never know where it's going to lead."
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.
"Songwriting starts by being a very internally motivated thing, a personal form of expression that needs to happen for a personal reason, and you don't have a sense of it being received by anyone," Taylor says, sitting on a couch in his Meyerson dressing room. "If you do, it's only in the most abstract way: I'm singing this song for someone who I want to meet some day, or I'm singing this song to someone I need to tell something to, or I just need to hook into music and get relief from being trapped inside of myself. And then taking it to market and doing it for a living in public changes the way you think about it, and you become very aware of how it will be received. You're aware of how you're doing, and that's something you have to deal with.
"I wouldn't probably sit there and sing 'Carolina in My Mind' by myself on my back porch, but I re-inhabit it and revisit it. As many times as I've sung it, I re-experience emotionally where I was when I wrote it. I heard the song for the first time on the island of Ibetha in the Mediterranean in 1968. It's not as though I wrote it there. I heard it there -- I experienced it, it came through me. And other people have a similar experience to it as I did the first time I heard it. People come up to me frequently and say, 'Your music got me through my first year of college' or, 'Your music got me through my mom's chemotherapy' or, 'I had a tough time in substance-abuse recovery, and a couple of your songs helped get me through it.' It's a good kind of communication."
Taylor talks about his audience with enormous affection; they've never hounded him too much, and he has never felt "seriously misunderstood" or experienced the need to run and hide from fans. Oh, every now and then someone will send a videotape of themselves performing one of his songs at a wedding, and he will be amused, maybe a little horrified. But he knows a closeness, real or imagined (on their part), with his audience comes with the turf: You do not spend a career making the very personal so very public and expect to maintain a distance from the audience.
There are no secrets between Taylor and the people who buy his albums -- not even when the songs are veiled behind metaphor, such as "Jump Up Behind Me" off 1997's Hourglass. A song about a man longing to return to his childhood home is, in truth, about how his late father came from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to New York City in the late 1960s and rescued his strung-out son: "Jump up behind me / We follow this road till we reach the sea / Jump up behind me." Listen to that song, then go back and listen to "Fire and Rain": It's the same story, told an entirely different way. It's hardly surprising, then, that Taylor's audience thinks of his songs as handwritten notes -- occasional postcards dropped in the mail, just to say hello and tell you what's been going on.
"I have to try to suspend that idea, because it would be sort of paralyzing to think too much of people receiving these things," Taylor says. "What I have to do is just let them come through and just trust that that's the right thing to do. There's also an aspect of a life lived in this role as a performing artist and a pop composer and an autobiographer and self-navigator or whatever it is. Over time, you wonder for how long is it worthwhile to do it. When should one stop, or when does it run out of meaning to continue to do it? I find myself asking these questions. In the beginning, I never thought beyond what was happening next week or next month. I never thought of the future, and I don't think there's any reason why I should not any more than I have to.
"If you're a professional autobiographer, sooner or later you run the risk of writing songs about writing songs. It is interesting to inhabit a role and catch up with yourself, I suppose. But you want to know how much of the way people perceive these songs has to do with having a sense of me as an individual person, as opposed to in the beginning, when they heard the songs not knowing who they were connected with. I think it's a relatively small percentage of people who listen to my records that have that much of an investment in my personal history. I don't think that means much. I think people respond to a song like 'Jump Up Behind Me' because it has its own thing. Then again, when you hear Neil Young sing 'Keep on Rockin' in the Free World,' you do think about his persona in the music business and his take on culture. I guess it is important." He pauses, as though he has just surprised himself. "I hadn't thought about that."
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