112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

Posted by on Sep 23, 2011 in Rock, Song Of the week |

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.

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, 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’.

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”).

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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5 Comments

Steve
Sep 23, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Hi Jeff

I live in London and since my visit to the Zichron Music Fest last year, I’ve so enjoyed your weekly songs.

You’re just great and please don’t let those shmoks who dished out a couple of rejections to you, get you down. What do they know???

You bring so much pleasure to me and I’m sure many many others.

Every week I have a “new”song buzzing around in my head – wonderful.

You’re GREAT.

L’shana Tova and be well

Steve Noble ( Clive’s brother)


 
Mark L. Levinson
Sep 23, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Plenty of enthusiasm awaited the release of the first records on the Apple label. I bought all the Apple 45s that the record store offered on that first day, but to invest in the James Taylor album– which featured him reclining in that foppish wardrobe, with his legs stretched over onto the back cover, as if to make a suitable poster for the wall of a 15-year-old girl, did not seem like a reasonable thing to do.


 
jeff
Sep 23, 2011 at 12:49 pm

@Mark. I wouldn’t put James on the same level as Billy Preston and Mary Hopkin and Badfinger. I’m wagering you also wore some foppish clothing in 1968. I know I did.
@Steve. Very kind of you. I really do appreciate it. As James says, “That’s why I’m here.”


 
Sue (ex-Dayton)
Sep 25, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Oy, Jeff, you have done it again.
Since seeing James original tour with Carol King in Dayton in 1973, he has been
my absolute favorite. And you are right…there is nothing like James’ warm voice and lyrics to be playing in the background when “your down and troubled”. Thank you so much for posting the Syracuse recording…for me it’s like finding a diamond on the sidewalk..nothing can make me feel the way hearing new (in the case, old) JT tunes can.
I wish you a speedy recovery from your disappointments and pain, and only good things, health ,and lot’s of wonderful music, in the new year.

Sue-Ellen (one of Shmiel’s Yakintons”)


 
Elizabeth
Feb 8, 2012 at 5:58 am

Jeff, I stumbled on your website when searching randomly for info on James Taylor’s first album with Apple. (I just started collecting some old Badfinger and became intrigued by some of the rest of the Apple catalogue.) I want to thank you deeply for sharing the clip of Taylor singing “Yesterday.” I was blown away. This is a song I can hardly bear to listen to in any version any more–a great song morphed into cliche by overexposure. You are absolutely right that the Taylor version made me feel I was hearing the real heart of the song for the first time in 40 years. An amazing, intimate performance. Just beautiful.

Recently I also rewatched the whole Beatles Anthology series, and I was struck then (watching the iconic performance of “Yesterday” on the Ed Sullivan show) how emotionless Paul seemed (but then adding a few wistful looks here and there for the camera). In retrospect, I sort of get, perhaps, that the song may have been a beautiful melody gifted by the gods to him, but not a deeply felt lyric. Taylor puts the song on, inhabits it, and makes it emotionally real in a way that even Paul couldn’t do.

And I’m not even a huge James Taylor fan, but after listening to these clips (I also liked “If I Needed Someone” very much), my respect for him has increased.

Well, just my two cents ruminating on the songs you posted. Thank you, again. It made my day.


 

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