13

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

Posted by jeff on Apr 10, 2019 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’

This week was the twelfth anniversary of my only sister’s death, at 62, from lung cancer. She was a denizen of Marlboro country all those years, and succumbed to statistics. Madie was five years older than me, and I loved her dearly. Never, not once in our entire lives, did we fight. Not when we were kids, not when we were adults. As youngsters, we had the age and sex differences to keep us apart, and a mutual enemy to keep us together. As adults, there was a literal ocean between us. From 21, when I left the US, for almost 30 years, I saw her only a few times for a few days each. We would talk on the phone for a short time a couple of times a year, and exchange only sporadic aerograms.

She never came here to visit me in the life I made for myself. For many years it was logistically and financially impractical, and then she got sick. But I understand that she really didn’t want to come, so strongly did she resent my having moved to “the other side of the world”. She loved me simply and deeply and purely, as I did her. She wanted me near her on occasion, in the hard times, in the good times, as she went through her life. But I had removed myself, and she never overcame the resentment of that fact.

Then our folks started getting old, finances and costs changed, and I began visiting every year or two. We’d usually meet in Florida for the best part of a week, without spouses, just the organic family of dinosaurs. She and I would hide out on our parents’ veranda. She’d smoke her Marlboros, and we’d open our hearts to each other.

It was only  long after she’d passed away that I came to understand how she missed me, because that’s how I still miss her. She was the one person to whom I could open up completely unguardedly – one quarter stranger on a plane, one quarter twin personality, one half unadulterated love. Life goes on, with all its blessings and curses, with all its joys and disappointments, with all its tribulations and trials. There’s so much I want to share with that one person in the world through whose veins flowed the same blood as mine. Madie’s absence is a gaping void in my soul.

There’s a song that I associate with my sister’s death. That statement demands some justification. My love for my sister is bigger than any pop song. I don’t equate the depth of my love for her, or my sadness over her absence with dropping a quarter in a juke box. But there’s no denying that that which comes through the car radio is the soundtrack of our lives, as surely as the violinists in a Hollywood tearjerker manipulate our heartstrings. A pop song is just a pop song, and a life is a life. But in our real lives, the two are intertwined, each person with his own background accompaniment.

James Taylor is a few months older than me. I’ve been listening to him closely and attentively since we were 21. James was the second of five children of Trude and Ike Taylor. Ike was a patrician and a closet lush, dean of the Chapel Hill medical school who ran away on an expedition to Antarctica to stay drunk and avoid the real world. Alex Taylor was the firstborn of the five rebellious children, filling the role of convention-breaker and thus drawing the heaviest flack. James moved more comfortably into the role of singer-substance abuser after Alex had broken all the curfews. Alex named his firstborn after brother James, and James in turn wrote the swaddling nephew a lullaby called ‘Sweet Baby James’.  Alex himself was an unsuccessful singer, an accomplished drinker, rough and gruff and unsettled and loveable. In 1993, he died after sinking into a booze-induced coma.

L to R: Hugh, Livingston, Kate, James, Alex Taylor

Here’s a wonderful clip of that “fucked-up family“, the five Taylors singing James’ great song ‘Shower the People’. “Shower the people you love with love.” Boy, triter and truer words were never spoken.

‘Enough To Be On Your Way’ is James’ lament for his brother. “My brother Alex died in ’93 on (not for) my birthday. We all went down to Florida to say goodbye. The day after we flew home (the day after his cremation) a giant mother hurricane followed us north through the Carolina’s; trashing everything in its path and finally raining record rains on Martha’s Vineyard (home). In Paris, a year later I changed his character to a hippie chick named Alice and the location to Santa Fe; but my soulful older brother is still all over this song like a cheap suit.”


The sun shines on this funeral the same as on a birth
The way it shines on everything that happens here on Earth.
It rolls across the western sky and back into the sea
And spends the day’s last rays upon this fucked-up family.
So long old pal.

The last time I saw Alice she was leaving Santa Fe
With a bunch of round-eyed Buddhists in a killer Chevrolet.
Said they turned her out of Texas, yeah, she burned ’em down back home.
Now she’s wild with expectation on the edge of the unknown.

James Taylor: “The idea is of somebody who can’t get home, who can’t find home late in their lives. As you get older- and I’m pushing 50—you grasp that the loneliness of the human condition stems from a wholeness from which we seem separated. Consensus, just the sense of connection with other people, feels so great, and it motivates an awful lot of what we do. The more successful or thwarted you are as an isolated individual, the more you need reconnection.”

Oh it’s enough to be on your way
It’s enough just to cover ground
It’s enough to be moving on
Home, build it behind your eyes
Carry it in your heart
Safe among your own

They brought her back on a Friday night, same day I was born.
We sent her up the smoke stack and back into the storm.
She blew up over the San Juan mountains and spent herself at last.
The threat of heavy weather, that was what she knew the best.

It woke me up on a Sunday an hour before the sun.
It had me watching the headlights out on highway 591
‘Til I stepped into my trousers, ‘til I pulled my big boots on.
I walked out on the Mesa and I stumbled on this song.

James, Alex, Sweet Baby James, Kate Taylor

James made a rare slip in taste in a creating a video in which he portrays the details of this song literally—the old lover Alice (played by Barbara Hershey), the Moonies, the Chevy, the mesa—you get it all, premasticated and spoon-fed. I watched it once, and I’m sorry I did. The only thing it’s good for is to deplete the magic from a magical song. I’m not going to give you the link for it. Go find it yourself if you must.

James says the song is about striving for reconnection. Well, even that’s pinning it down too much for me. Those so-beautiful, so evocative lines – “Oh it’s enough to be on your way/It’s enough just to cover ground/It’s enough to be moving on.”–what do they evoke? Lots of sadness, lots of love, lots of regret, a very strong desire to find some reconciliation with the pain of the loss. I’d rather not parse it. The song is best left with its magic.  I’m best left with my love and my longing.

My  grandchildren are all good siblings, but they’re normal kids. When I see them squabble over whose turn it is to clear the table, say harsh words to each other, raise their voices in anger, I feel a physical pain in my gut. That most treasured gift of a sibling. Who can appreciate how precious it is?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

291: James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

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

205: James Taylor, ‘Something’s Wrong’

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

 

 

 

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1

291: James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

Posted by jeff on Feb 8, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

Happy Valentine’s Day?

Well, maybe. But maybe not.

I’m not here to sell you a designer box of little wrapped chocolates for $74.49 or a dozen long-stemmed roses for a sum that could feed an Indian village for a decade.

I grew up in a United States where stores were closed on Sundays and Valentine’s Day meant handing out handmade cards to The Ones You Liked in your fifth grade class (a crash course in heartbreak for 10-year olds), just before the country was insidiously and invidiously invaded by The Corporate Commercial Machine! Up against the wall, motherfuckers!!!

Valentine’s Day Massacre

If this Hallmark unholiday serves as a reminder to be especially appreciative of the one you love, I’m all for it. But y’all should know there’s a pretty harsh reality lurking beneath the pink wrapping paper, ready to bite us, as James Taylor so beautifully reminds us in this ostensibly modest little ‘pretty song’ from his 1988 album “Never Die Young”.

It’s James’ 12th studio album over 20 years, arguably the last of his great ones. In SoTW 56, ‘Secret o’ Life’, I soapboxed against the myriads of fans of James’ greatest hits. “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’.” In SoTW 112 I explained why I think James Taylor’s version of “Yesterday” is immeasurably superior to that of McCartney.” In SoTW 139, James celebrates mature love ‘On the 4th of July’. And in SoTW 205 I explain why James’ first album is so profound to me. In SoTW 132, James and I mourned the passing of a sibling in ‘Enough to be on Your Way.And in SoTW 46 I explained why the title song of “Never Die Young” speaks so deeply to me about the arc of my life.

I’m a big fan.

‘Valentine’s Day’ is an unusual song for James—all piano (Don Grolnick), with some lovely help from bassist Jay Leonhart (plucked and bowed) and the great violinist Mark O’Connor. No guitar whatsoever. If you see somewhere on the infallible World Wide Web (“But it’s written!”) that the song was penned by Hollywood composer John Debney, it’s an untruth. He scored the movie “Valentine’s Day”, but this song is all James.

Valentine’s Day Massacre

For all of its ostensible pink sweetness, the song is bitterly ironic, an extended comparison of a couple’s relationship to the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, in which four members of Al Capone’s Italian gang (two disguised as policemen) machinegunned seven members of Bugs Malone’s Irish gang in a Chicago garage in a turf war over control of the bootleg market.

Police tried to question survivor Frank Gusenberg as to who shot him. Gusenberg, with fourteen bullets in him, replied “No one shot me.” He died three hours later.

The event was recreated in Howard Hawks’ 1932 movie “Scarface” starring Paul Muni, and subsequently in a dozen more screen treatments. Here’s a medley of those scenes (best not to show this to your Significant Other while presenting the chocolates and flowers). Of course we all recognize the same themes throughout the entire gangster (as opposed to Gangsta) genre (see “The Godfather”, “The Sopranos”, et al).

The first verse is piano and James’ voice. “Beneath the tide the fishes glide/Fin to fin and side to side/For fishy love has now begun/Fishy love, finny fun.” Jabberwocky? Denizens of the deep fishily swimming around some bodies ‘sleeping with the fishes’?

The second verse sets the scene. ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ is a 1933 song written by Harold Arlen, E. Y. Harburg and Billy Rose, so associated with the Great Depression that when Peter Bogdanovich asked his mentor Orson Welles if it was a suitable title for his movie, Welles responded “That title is so good, you shouldn’t even make the picture, you should just release the title!” Here’s James singing it himself.

The third verse provides some less rosy coloring: Bootleg gin — I don’t really need to explain that, do I? The porkpie hat was all the rage during the depression, even though Muni was wearing a fedora in the film. ‘Dew Drop Inn’ was a corny name for a restaurant way back when—there was a film by that name from 1919 and a musical from 1923. “You dirty rat”? Depression-era gangster meme from James Cagney’s 1932 film “Taxi!”. Cupid’s dart? Check out this image from a speed dating ad. Ouch. What have we wrought?

The tone gets more ominous in verse four – “Day to repay the one that you love”. Oh, isn’t that a cute little threat? I wonder what was going through the minds of those seven cronies of Bugs Malone as they were lined up against the wall. ‘Take off your hats’—how many movies have we seen in which the gangsters remove their hats at the funeral of a person they’ve just had laid to rest? Boxing was of course the sport of the Depression/gangster world. Going a few rounds without gloves—with what, then? Machine guns? Bare fists? Fingernails? Those awful words that we speak when we’re in a vicious, bloody argument with our own dear Valentine?

Fifth round. I mean, verse. “Land your punch, I stand my ground/We break for lunch and a second round.” Wow, what a couplet. Could there be a more precise, incisive description of how a couple argues to the death? You might have to go back to Ingmar Bergman to find one.

Or think of all the times when the bell’s finally rung on your gut-wrenching argument with your beloved and you walk away – finally – and you or she slams a door or drops a dictionary or a whatever, to get in the last word. Nothing like that last little jab after the bell has rung, right?

Oh, no similarity between love and boxing at all is there? The biggest difference being that in love all bouts go the full 15 rounds and always end in a bloody draw.

Last verse, last man standing. “We keep score”. Oh, sure. We tally the points, to be absolutely clear how badly both of us are losing. “Love as war.” All of us who have been in a serious relationship have experienced our own domestic siege of Leningrad.

So let’s all try to learn a lesson from James’ beautiful, witty, disarmingly simple but painfully accurate portrayal of how we so frequently most hurt the one we most love. Forget the chocolates and flowers. Let’s remember that no one wins in a war. And that Prohibition is long gone. Let’s use this day to remind ourselves to be decent, patient, loving partners.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

 

Beneath the tide the fishes glide
Fin to fin and side to side
For fishy love has now begun
Fishy love, finny fun

Paper moon, paper heart
Pink balloon, work of art
Al Capone, Bugs Moran
Valentine’s Day

Bootleg gin, porkpie hat
Dew Drop Inn, dirty rat
Through the heart, cupid’s dart
Valentine’s da

Day to repay the one that you love
Gentlemen take off your hats as I speak thereof
Just a brief break from the push and the shove
We may go a few rounds without boxing gloves

Land your punch, I stand my ground
We break for lunch and a second round
We set them up, we knock them down
Valentine’s Day

Me and you, you and him
Him and her, us and them
We keep score, love as war
Valentine’s Day

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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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