5

136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’

Posted by jeff on Dec 6, 2018 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – Wonderful World

What happens when three of the finest and most successful singers of our times get together to record a pop paean to pimply passion? Well, when it’s James Taylor hooking up with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to sing “Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all”, it’s pretty darn memorable.

Paul, Art, James

Paul and James had been friends since their teenage backpacking days circa 1966 as the two leading Americans in the nascent London folk scene. Fame snuck up on Paul while he was in London, when (unbeknownst to him) the acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ he had recorded with Art was overdubbed with electric guitars and drums, thereby inventing folk-rock. Meanwhile, James was hanging out with Peter Asher and becoming the first non-British artist signed by The Beatles’ Apple label.

If you don’t know what happened to James and Paul and Art in the late 1960s/early 1970s, you should probably be out mowing the lawn or watching Championship Bowling.

In late 1977, James got a call from his neighbor Paul, who was in a period of reconciliation with Art, who had provided backing vocals on James’ “In The Pocket” album the year before (the very fine ‘Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream’ and the sublime ‘A Junkie’s Lament’) the year before. Art had recorded an album of Jimmy Webb songs, “Watermark”, which was his best solo effort artistically but another commercial flop. It seems Paul was feeling sorry for his ex-, seeing how his own solo career was flourishing. So he called James, and the three of them convened in Paul’s apartment to record a song for belated addition to the already-released album.

In 1978, refashioning up-tempo rock songs into gentle ballads was nothing new—way back in the nascent years of rock and roll, Buddy Holly covered Little Richard’s raucous 1956 ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ twice, in a slow electric version and in an unreleased acoustic version.  (The Band and John Lennon also tried their respective hands at the song, albeit in the spirit of the original.)

Wonderful World

I’m assuming it was James who chose to record the Sam Cooke hit, ‘(What a) Wonderful World’. He had been reworking bouncy rock and roll standards in just the same acoustic, introspective, gentle mode to great success (his mega-hit ‘Handy Man’, a hit for Jimmy Jones in 1959; and his Carole King-penned ‘Up On The Roof’, a hit for The Drifters in 1962). In SoTW 112, we took a look at what James could do to Beatles songs such as ‘If I Needed Someone’ and ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, not to mention the already-ballad ‘Yesterday’.

But whoever picked the song, it’s James’ vocals that invest it with such magic. One of the most common planks in the SoTW soapbox is just how fine an artist James Taylor is, and no matter how much of an icon he has become today, his artistry is loved more than understood or seriously appreciated. One of his many insufficiently appreciated talents is as a harmony singer. In my not-so-humble opinion, James and David Crosby stand head and shoulders above the field as harmonizers supreme.

All the others, Art Garfunkel and Graham Nash and the Everlies included, go for the easy choices—adding a second voice a third or a fourth above the lead. James and Crosby have a penchant for adding subtle harmonies below the lead, where they unobtrusively add a depth and a resonance unique in the world of rock.

Take for example TS&G’s ‘Wonderful World’. In the second verse (‘Don’t know much about Geography’), S sings the lead with G singing a fourth above him. Just like in Simon and Garfunkel. It’s not a bad formula—they sold about three bazillion records that way. Contrast it with the introduction (TS&G) or the first verse (G singing lead, T harmonizing a minor third underneath him, then S adding a falsetto counterpart). Then listen to what happens in the second verse when JT joins in on ‘But I do know one and one is two’. Nothing more than the quantum shift from 2D to 3D.

The choice of the song is no little win in and of itself. It was originally a hit (#12 in the US) for Sam Cooke in 1960, and  placed 373rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was written by Lou Adler (producer of Cooke, The Mamas & the Papas, Barry McGuire, and Carole King, including her Tapestry album; former husband of Shelley Fabares; and Lakers’ courtside crony of Jack Nicholson), Herb Alpert (Mr. Tijuana Brass, producer of The Carpenters and  Sérgio Mendes, and the Broadway “Angels In America”, mogul and sculptor), with finishing touches by Sam Cooke himself. Lou Rawls sings backup on the original.

It is so irresistible that it’s been recycled more times than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill:

  • The 1965 #4 hit for Herman’s Hermits, recorded as a tribute to Sam Cooke after his horrific death
  • An obscure version by Blind Willie (“Magicfingers”) Feigenbaum, the main claim to fame of which is the fact that the soft, acoustic treatment preceded that of TS&G by several years.
  • The 1978 cult classic film “Animal House
  • The 1983 Richard Gere demeaning remake of Godard’s “Breathless
  • The 1985 Harrison Ford/Kelly McGillis film “Witness
  • The 1985 Levi’s 501 commercial (which I don’t understand, but was voted the 19th greatest song ever to feature in a commercial)
  • The 2005 Will Smith film “Hitch

And here are the wonderful lyrics to this whimsical, witty paean to mindless teenage love. I taught high school for 25 years. Believe me, every word of it is true:

Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.
Don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took.
But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

Don’t know much geography, don’t know much trigonometry.
Don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two, and if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Now I don’t claim to be an “A” student, but I’m trying to be.
I think that maybe by being an “A” student baby, I could win your love for me

Don’t know much about the Middle Ages, look at the pictures and I turn the pages.
Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all.
‘Cause it’s you that I’ve been thinking of, and if I could only win your love,
What a wonderful world this would be.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

Sam Cooke Songs of The Week

James Taylor Songs of The Week

Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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8

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

Posted by jeff on May 17, 2018 in Rock, Song Of the week

I originally published this post 7 years ago. I have no recollection of the specific failures referred to in the first paragraphs here. But I’ve been going through a major rough patch lately, walking out of the big musical enterprise I created and which has consumed me in recent years. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I believe we each carry  with us a propensity for optimism/pessimism, to a great extent regardless of circumstances. 

***

James Taylor – ‘Yesterday’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘If I Needed Someone’ (1970, live)

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,
Signifying nothing.

Or drinking a little too much scotch. Or reading Ecclesiastes. Or being short-tempered with those near and dear to you. Or listening to early James Taylor.

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.

James Taylor – ‘Sweet Baby James’ (1970, live)

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.

James Taylor – ‘Rainy Day Man’ (1970, live)

James Taylor, Peter Asher

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’.

James Taylor – ‘Carolina in My Mind’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ (1970, live)

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.

James Taylor – ‘Sunshine, Sunshine‘ (1970, live)

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.

James Taylor – Ray Charles Coke commercial (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So’ (1970, live)

James Taylor – Snuff commercial (1970, live)

James Taylor – ‘People Get Ready’ (1970, live)

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”).

Way back in SoTW 018, I wrote about a little-known Paul song that I dearly love, ‘Distractions’. I maintained that it was an exceptional song in his oeuvre.

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?

For further listening edification:
The BBC broadcast a fine live James Taylor performance in 1970, including another Beatles song with a dark, drug reading, With a Little Help from My Friends.

If you enjoyed this posting, you may also enjoy:

046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’

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2

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’

Posted by jeff on Dec 19, 2015 in Rock, Song Of the week

Beautiful live ‘Secret O’ Life’ from 2010

“Hey, Jeff, who are your favorite rock artists?”
“Beatles, Dylan,…”
“Oh, that’s very original.”
“James Taylor.”
And he snickers, “I thought you were some kind of big music maven? You’re just another hippy-dippy fan of sensitive singer-songwriters, you probably go around humming ‘Oh, baby it’s a wild world‘ and ‘Take me home to the place I belong‘.”

Or, for the more sophisticated, the one who distinguishes between Al Stewart and Rod Stewart, it’s not a snicker but a sneer: “Whoa, ‘Fire and Rain‘/’Sweet Baby James‘/’You’ve Got a Friend’. Very impressive. Classy choice, Meshel.”

And the real aficionado, the one who actually owns a JT Greatest Hits CD, will say, “Ah, ‘Handy Man‘/’How Sweet It Is‘/’Shower the People‘, good singer.” And they’ll say it with a tone of ‘well, okay, if Neil Young is too heavy for your Pooh brain…’

James Taylor is one of the most misperceived and underappreciated artists I’m acquainted with. That may sound a bit off the mark, seeing as we’re talking about an American Icon, a guy who appears in the White House (or maybe it was on “West Wing”, which is for me more prestigious), who’s been filling halls regularly for 40 years, who is now out on the road on a very successful joint tour with Carole King.

On the new CD of that tour, James introduces ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, which Carole wrote about and for James. He says, “I first heard this song right there…I can’t remember anything for one year either side of that, but I remember standing right there and hearing maybe the best pop tune ever written. I didn’t realize at the time that I’d be singing that song every night for the rest of my life.”  (‘YGaF’, then and now)

But folks, to think that James Taylor is ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘Fire and Rain’ is like thinking that The Beatles are ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ or Dylan is ‘Blowing in the Wind’ or The Rolling Stones are ‘Satisfaction’ (whoops, they are—but the other examples hold).

James’ first album is virtually unknown in his canon, and somewhat outside the curve of his recording career. It was made in London in 1968 when he was 21, the first non-Beatle album produced by Apple Records. James had a patrician upbringing in Chapel Hill, NC, where his alcoholic father was dean of the medical school. By 20 he had been institutionalized twice (for depression and heroin addiction, both of which would continue for decades). He moved to London, met Peter Asher, formerly of Peter and Gordon (‘World Without Love‘, ‘Woman‘) and brother of McCartney’s squeeze Jane. Asher introduced him to The Beatles, and went on to produce James’ first ten albums. ‘The Apple album’  hardly made a ripple, but it’s a Desert Island choice of mine, the purest depiction I know of a young man’s distress at facing the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune since those words were first uttered. I promise to revisit that album in a SoTW of its own. But our subject today is James’ career, and that started with his next album,

“Sweet Baby James” (1970, including ‘Fire and Rain’), one of the iconic albums of a pantheonic era, virtually creating the gentle folk-rock singer-songwriter mode. Then came “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” (1971, which included ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and the first use I know of congas as basic color in the musical palette of acoustic rock). Then the uneven “One Man Dog” and “Walking Man”, each with a couple of gems among the dross.

And then, from 1975 to 1991 came a series of seven LPs/cassettes/CDs (well, it’s a long period) that constitute in my mind the heart of James’ career, a body of work as rich and inspired and varied as any artist of the time–”Gorilla”, “In The Pocket”, “JT”, “Flag”, “Dad Loves His Work”, “That’s Why I’m Here” and “Never Die Young”.

Over the next ten years, approximately the 1990s, he released three more workmanlike CDs, each containing two or three memorable cuts. And over the last decade he’s done live rehashes of his hits and two CDs of “Covers”, a specialty of his—see “Handy Man“, “How Sweet It Is“, “Up On the Roof“, and “Wonderful World” (in which, if you listen carefully, you’ll see that he sings circles around both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel; to my mind, James is one of the two great harmony singers in rock, together with David Crosby). This last decade is often thought of as James’ comeback, reflected by his increased profile in the public eye.

I read and follow the advice of critics quite a lot. I have respect for the learning and taste that professionals have cultivated. But I usually use them as guides to music that I’m new to. With music I’m more familiar with I’m not afraid to hold oddball views. Like with James. I don’t think much of his work in the last twenty years, certainly not in comparison to the 15 that preceded them. And it’s this period that I’d like to encourage you to get to know.

I’ve spent a ridiculous number of hours listening to compilations of James’ most typical songs, the downers, the ones describing sweet pain, songs like ‘Rainy Day Man’, ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, ‘Something’s Wrong‘, ‘Oh, Susannah’ (yes, the Stephen Foster tune), ‘You Can Close Your Eyes’, ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight’, ‘Let It Fall Down’, ‘Wandering’, ‘Love Songs’, ‘Junkie’s Lament, ‘Daddy’s All Gone’, ‘Another Grey Morning’. It really does give me great pleasure just to type the names, I love those songs so much.

But from the many, many, many JT songs that have been such an intimate part of my life and ears and soul, I’d like to offer up as SoTW something ‘middling’. From the middle of his career, middling tempo, middling well-known. Just to show you that he’s not all melancholy. That he spent a lot of time churning out works of the finest artistry, one after another.

So here it is, from the album “JT” (1977), the lovely, whimsical, gentle, loving ‘Secret o’ Life’. What can you hear here? The intricate interplay between James’ acoustic guitar and the electric piano (this is the fabric of the song, a technique he employs often, a wonder of beauty); a lovely melody just a little too jazzy to allow you to sing it easily; a warm, human, embracing vocal; humor and wit and wisdom. What the heck more can you ask of a pop song?

The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time
Any fool can do it, there ain’t nothing to it
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill
But since we’re on our way down we might as well enjoy the ride

The secret of love is in opening up your heart
It’s okay to feel afraid, but don’t let that stand in your way
‘Cause anyone knows that love is the only road
And since we’re only here for a while, we might as well show some style
Give us a smile, isn’t it a lovely ride?
Sliding down, gliding down.
Try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride.

Now the thing about time is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view, how does it feel for you.
Einstein said he could never understand it all
Planets spinning through space, the smile upon your face
Welcome to the human race, some kind of lovely ride
I’ll be sliding down, gliding down
Try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

205: James Taylor, ‘Something’s Wrong’

136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’

046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

132: James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’

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4

205: James Taylor, ‘Something’s Wrong’

Posted by jeff on Oct 17, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week
70cd91c5b828b79315da1fe0a959b693

Photo: Ken Souser, 1970

James Taylor — ‘Something’s Wrong’

There’s some music I love so deeply, and feel so intimate with, that I refrain from writing about it, as if to do so would be to be to betray a confidence. There’s also music that packs so powerful an emotional charge for me that simply thinking of it wipes the grin off my face, hearing it can easily make me cry. And there’s music that I estimate far above its market value – no matter how many people tell me I’m overstating the case, in my eyes it’s almost as perfect as my granddaughter.

James Taylor’s first album, the one he recorded for Apple two years before “Sweet Baby James” is all of those for me.

James was born in Massachusetts in 1948, grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina where his father was dean of the UNC School of Medicine (when he wasn’t off drinking himself into a stupor or hiding from his family and the world in Antarctica), one of five musical siblings. Summers and prep school were back in Massachusetts, but he soon spent a year in a mental hospital to deal with his depression. Something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on your mind.

Peter Asher & James Taylor

Peter Asher & James Taylor

At 18 he was living as a musician in NYC and had begun using heroin. At 19, ‘sweet dreams and flying machines [his band] in pieces on the ground’, the heroin habit full-blown, his father drove up to New York to bring him home. A moment’s rest was all he needed.

Six months later, late 1967, James moved to London. Just a town like any other, a second brand-new start. A friend hooked him up with Peter Asher, formerly of the popular duo Peter & Gordon, who had hits with ‘World Without Love’, ‘Woman’, and a bunch of other songs written for them by Peter’s sister’s boyfriend, Paul McCartney. After the duo broke up, Peter went to work for the newly-formed Apple. He heard James’ demo tape, played it for Paul and the boys, and James became Apple’s first non-British signing.

He had some songs from his previous band (‘Knocking Round the Zoo’, ‘Rainy Day Man’, ‘Something’s Wrong’) and needed to fill out the material for a complete album. But with an Apple contract in his hand and pure heroin in his pocket, he was living the high life. “The whole thing was like a swirl. I stayed in lot of different places, I lived with a number of different women, writing a lot of songs like ‘Carolina in My Mind’ and ‘Taking It In’, and forming and breaking off and exchanging volatile romantic attachments.” Wrap your hands around that small change and tiptoe barefoot out the door.

Paul & James

Paul & James

There was also that night when he was playing with a matchstick cabin and a candle, climbed out the window along a ledge, jumped from one rooftop to another and then onto a tree and then into his car for a wild spin and then climbed back into the apartment through the window, only to discover that the cabin had exploded and blown a hole in the table and ceiling above. “I later thought of that as pretty irresponsible.” (James Taylor bio by Timothy White, p. 136.) Road maps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.

Or as he said so perceptively years later in an interview with Charlie Rose, “When you’re 20, you’ve just been issued the equipment you’re going to be using for a whole lifetime—the body, the mind, the skills, the talents, the appetites…”

view (1)Thankfully and surprisingly, James made it into the studio in February, 1968, where he was booked during gaps between the Beatles’ “White Album” sessions. Although the Beatles and Asher recognized the personal, meditative nature of James’ music, Paul decided to couch it in an art-deco setting provided by Richard Hewson, who had done the arrangement for Beatles protégée Mary Hopkins’ hit, ‘Those Were the Days’.

Hewson added brass on the up-beat bluesy numbers, strings and oboes and whatnot on the downers, and a lot of artsy rococo harpsichord connecting tracks to create the faddish impression of ‘concept’ continuity which The Beatles had invented a year earlier in the same studio.JamesTaylorLivingroomThere’s lots of cute trivia we could tell you about the album. Paul plays bass on ‘Carolina in My Mind’, the first time a Beatle was credited as collaborating with another artist. George sings on the cut, uncredited. “It was the Beatles, by the way, that I was referring to when I sang about ‘There’s a holy host of others standing round me’”. George’s ‘Something‘ was inspired by James’ ‘Something in the Way She Moves.’ James admitted to being “stoned for most of the sessions” on speedballs of smack and methedrine. Driving strung-out through London, he knocked a drunk fleeing police eight feet into the air. His friend Suzanne killed herself at this time, but their common friends with whom James was living hid the fact from him till the recording sessions were over (“Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone.”)

217202967_af8f2120a8James has other pre-“Sweet Baby” material, all of it riveting in its unflinching candor: a full video of him on solo guitar at the BBC, and even better a bootleg audio of a concert in Syracuse (here are ‘Sunshine, Sunshine’, ‘Carolina’ and ‘Rainy Day Man’; I’ve also written a posting about his moving treatment of ‘Yesterday’ from this concert). And here’s Apple’s promo video of ‘Something in the Way She Moves’, 1968.

If I could approach the album “James Taylor” objectively, I might agree with all the critics and fans who dismiss it as a rough warm-up for the 1970 landmark “Sweet Baby James,” which contained two mega-hits and created a folk-rock sound (with Carole King on piano) which is still a profoundly influential template of the popular music palette.

But I can’t. I admit I find his 1968 vocals just a bit annoying–thin, reedy. His voice improves immeasurably over the next two years, settling into his oh-so-comforting gentle, warm baritone.

hamlet

Something’s Wrong

But these songs. ‘Don’t Talk Now.’ ‘Something’s Wrong.’ ‘Sunshine, Sunshine.’ ‘Something in the Way She Moves.’ ‘Carolina in My Mind.’ ‘Rainy Day Man.’ In my mind, in my heart, they’re associated with Hamlet, with Bach’s cello suites, with Bill Evans’ “Live at the Village Vanguard” – looking human life squarely in the eye for the first time and realizing down into the very marrow of your being that it ain’t no bowl of cherries. Who among us doesn’t know that that is the seminal moment of our life, when at 20 we first look out at the world from the vantage of an adult and first realize what actually awaits us?

Some of the other songs are more explicitly existential in subject matter. ‘Something’s Wrong’ is ostensibly merely about sneaking away in the early morning from an anonymous tryst, driven by anomie, restlessness, angst; moving on, yet knowing that to do so is futile. When things get bad I’m bound to pack my bags and just leave them all behind.

But it’s the futility here that is so harrowing. The inescapability, the inevitability, the permanence of this condition. That restless feeling’s been preying on my mind.

Something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on your mind.
Road maps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.Picture-92
I won’t try to tell you that those are the fines words of poetry ever composed, or that they rival ‘To be or not to be?’ But they’re certainly talking about the same moment in a young man’s life, where he first understands the weight – the cost – of the life awaiting him.

We go along, day by day, year by year, decade by decade, humming to ourselves ditties of complacency and good cheer. We spend our lives trying to kid ourselves, trying to recolor it, trying to suppress. But since that terrible, profoundly horrifying day when we were 20, we have known the score: Something’s wrong.

Something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on your mind.
Road maps in a well-cracked ceiling, the signs aren’t hard to find.

Now I’m not saying that you’ve been mistreated, no one’s hurt you, nothing’s wrong.
A moment’s rest was all you needed,
So pack your things and kindly move along.

Like dust in the wind you’re gone forever.
You’re wind-blown leaves, you’re a change in the weather.

Just a town like any other, a second brand-new start.
A third or fourth hand wife or lover; no, you won’t break her heart.
Take some bacon, go on and leave your watch chain, she won’t count on nothing more.
Wrap your hands around that small change and tiptoe barefoot out the door.

Yes, something’s wrong, that restless feeling’s been preying on my mind.
When things get bad I’m bound to pack my bags and just leave them all behind.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’
112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’
132: James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’
136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’
139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)
046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

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