I’ve been having a pretty lousy week. It’s included two rejections in creative enterprises where I thought I was in a position to succeed. The first one was a shock and an insult, connected to a project for which I’m overqualified and underappreciated, but which was very convenient and fun for me; the second was the culmination of a long process of positioning myself to succeed at the highest level in a field I care about deeply. The rejection there hits deep and long-range, although the door wasn’t closed for the future.
I’m called a creative guy. I’m always getting involved in Projects, usually of an artistic nature. Joining an existing group, often impacting it strongly, sometimes inventing my own gig, either solo or joint venture. I do this regularly and energetically. The people close to me say, “Oh, you’ll pick yourself up and invent something new.” Well, judging me by my record I probably will.
But this week is a low point, one of those times when you walk around muttering
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Which is where I was this week, back in James’ first album. James is half a year older than me. At twenty, I was a confused and rebellious budding hippie from a good Jewish home, studying (well, kind of) in college. He was a disturbed junkie from a patrician home.
James’ father was dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, an alcoholic. At 18, James was sleeping 20 hours a day. At 19 he was institutionalized for 9 months. At 20 he had formed a band in NYC and was addicted to heroin. At 21 he was dropping acid in London; became the first artist signed to the Beatles’ Apple label; and recorded his first album, which went unnoticed commercially. At 22, in California, he recorded the seminal “Sweet Baby James”, which included the title song and ‘Fire and Rain’, and single-handedly created a genre still thriving half a century later.
But it’s the neglected, overlooked first album that has been such an intimate friend to me all these years, the one I still go back to on days like I’ve been having this week. It’s there that young James first engages the world, and expresses all the bewilderment, the profound disappointment, the discouragement, about this world we live in. I’m no longer 20. But it’s weeks like this where 40 years of experience, inurement, calluses, cynicism, just don’t help. Weeks where the pain cuts right to the bone. James’ first album is the eloquent soundtrack for that pain. So you put on the headphones, and you put on the album. “Something’s wrong, that restless feeling keeps preying on your mind. Roadmaps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.” Or “It does you no good to pretend, you’ve made a hole much too big to mend. And it looks like you’ll lose again, my friend, so call on your rainy day man.” And you feel, if you’ll pardon the expression, that you’ve got a friend.
The Apple album was highly (many say over-) produced by Peter Asher, formerly of Peter & Gordon (‘World Without Love’, ‘Woman’, both written by McCartney), brother of McCartney paramour Jane, just a couple of years later the producer of the iconic West Coast albums of James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and others. Paul McCartney played bass on ‘Carolina In My Mind’ (as far as I remember, the first time a Beatle had guested on another artist’s album; it was akin to a god descending from Olympus). ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, one of the most affective love songs I know, clearly inspired George Harrison’s ‘Something’.
Listening to the Apple album today, as I have been for 40 years now, I find that the sound really has gotten a bit brittle. The strings aren’t bad, but don’t approach the profundity that the solo singer-songwriter-strummer displays. James’ resilient, warm, resonant baritone that two generations have been so drawn to, is not flattered in the Apple recording. It’s a bit thin, a bit reedy.
That being said, the songs are masterpieces of introspection. ‘Something’s Wrong’, ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’, ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, ‘Rainy Day Man’, ‘Carolina in My Mind’ – you can put me on a desert island with those five songs. I might hang myself from the one palm tree. But I’d do it with a smile on my face.
Like any well-balanced adult, I try to steer clear of the state of mind where you’re looking deep into the abyss of the meaninglessness of existence. But this week it caught up with me. So while I was wallowing in self-pity, I put on not the Apple album, but an old bootleg cassette I had of a live performance in Syracuse, NY, from February 1970. James had just finished recording the album; I’m not sure if it had even been released. When he introduces the song ‘Sweet Baby James’, no one claps. He was still reveling in relative obscurity. But it wouldn’t last long.
The Syracuse recording is quite remarkable. The sound is problematic, but who cares? Everything else is perfect. It includes some fine humor (a Ray Charles Coke commercial and his ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’, a snuff commercial), some old folk standards, most of the songs from the Apple album in definitive unadorned versions, a couple from the second. It also has a moving treatment of The Impressions’ ‘People Get Ready’, and his reading of George Harrison’s ‘If I Needed Someone’. If it doesn’t move you, someone ought to put a mirror underneath your nostrils.
And there’s another song you’ve heard several million times called ‘Yesterday’. It was written by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. He woke up one morning with the tune fully formed in his head, and assumed that he had heard it somewhere. He went to John, George, George Martin – none of them recognized it, but they all thought it was great. Paul wrote tentative lyrics for it just to give it some form. ‘Scrambled Eggs’ was what he called it (“Scrambled Eggs/Oh, my baby how I love your legs”).
Paul’s musicality is legendary, at times divine. “All My Loving”, “And I Love Her”, “Another Girl”. And that’s just the A’s up through 1965. But honesty, depth, soul-searching, have never been his fortes, to put it mildly. At his worst, the Prince of Plastic, the Sheikh of Shallow. At his best, a modern-day Mozart. Even the brilliant “Penny Lane”, a nostalgic trip back to childhood, leaves your heartstrings unplucked (compare it to the flip side of the single, “Strawberry Fields”). It’s just not what Paul does.
I caught a lot of flack back then. But when you listen to our Song of The Week, James Taylor’s version of that song, you might just see what I mean. It’s been performed an estimated 7 million times, was voted the best song of the 20th century in a 1999 BBC Radio 2 poll of music experts and listeners, and chosen as the #1 pop song of all time by MTV and Rolling Stone magazine.
Yawn. You listen to James’ treatment of the song. You tell me which version touches you more deeply. You tell me if you don’t feel like you’re hearing the song for the first time since 1965.
The one good thing that happened to me this week was that I sent James’ version of ‘Yesterday’ and ‘If I Needed Someone’ to a few choice friends of refined musical taste. They generated reactions such as “humbled and touched, that was beautiful” and “I have to admit, it’s a lovely touching rendition.” And “I seem to have been missing something in James Taylor”. That’s one of my missions in life, to spread the gospel of great music. I was frustrated in a couple of my endeavors this week, big-time. But I’ve still got James, and I still have some friends on whom I can foist him, so things can’t be all that bad. Can they?
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