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205: James Taylor, ‘Something’s Wrong’

Posted by jeff on Oct 17, 2014 in Rock, Song Of the week
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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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046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

Posted by jeff on Jan 1, 2014 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

This is one of those cases where I didn’t find the song of the week – it found me.

By a certain confluence of happenstances, the four living subjects in the picture here have been in contact with each other this week, some of us for the first time in 40 years. Sweet Mitty, the Great Pyrenees, lives on in our hearts and in that Great Kennel in the Sky.

The photo was taken in the winter of 1969-70. Those weren’t ordinary times, by any criterion. Just after Woodstock and Mai Lai, just before the breakup of the Beatles and Kent State. Those glorious, heady days of the Woodstock Generation just before the floor fell out.

Four college buddies, waxing nostalgic, practicing ‘collective memory’ not in the Halbwachian sense of that which is “shared, passed on, and constructed by the group or modern society,” but in the sense of the four of us trying to piece together our fragmented recollection of the seminal events of our lives. “Hey, do you remember when Sandy took us to that hotel gig as pranksters, you rented an Indian chief’s costume…”; “Ah, it was Sandy who got us the gig? I always wondered how that happened, but it was you who was the Indian chief, I was an Indian with a dot. But do you remember what happened with you and the model who was getting her body painted?” “Oh, jeeeez…”

Some of us hadn’t spoken for 40 years, so there is some serious and uncomfortable catching up to do. How do you start talking to someone with whom you once shared so much, and now today–perhaps–so little? Or perhaps we’re still the same people we were back then, just playing out our lives along our disparate paths. One leads a celebrity-laden self-help foundation; one writes adventure novels; one took an expatriate refuge in religion; one is looking for a job. Roots and routes.

Those got-the-world-by-the-balls smiles not withstanding, not too long after that picture was taken, each of the four of us touched a very low place. To tell the truth, all five. I just learned that Mitty was traumatized by an intruding thief. Most of us reassembled the pieces, or reconstructed ourselves by inventing for ourselves replacement parts.


Which brings me to James Taylor, and our Song of The Week. James is half a year older than me, and at the time our bathtub picture was taken, he was in rehab for drug abuse and paralyzing angst. He recorded his first album for Apple, which brilliantly and harrowingly documented the deepest and darkest corners of his soul. And mine. But for our SoTW, we’re going to skip forward to 1988, 20 years on, for his look back at those days, and his own bathtub friends. The song is ‘Never Die Young’ from the 1988 album of the same name, but I find the arrangement there way too glitzy and glib. Here it is in the 2007 “One Man Band” version.

We were indeed ring-around-the-rosy as children, and circles around the sun in the summer of Woodstock. Have we given up? Have we slowed down? Well, I’m sure there’s a substantively different answer for each of the four of us.

There’s a statement by Hank Thoreau (if my memory serves me well–a tenuous postulate at best–the redhead with the beard in the black and white photo read him religiously), part of which is famous: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

Well, James and Hank, all four of us inside the tub are still kicking. “With the song still in us”? Well that’s ambiguous. Three of us have written books, so I guess you can’t say we haven’t achieved self-expression on some level. I won’t speak for the others, but I like to think of my life as one of ‘quiet inspiration’. For me, very much informed by the music from The Day. It’s hard to explain to someone who wasn’t from that generation just how integral a role the music played in our lives. How each Dylan and Beatles album charted new courses for our minds and spirits. ‘The song’, in that sense, remains in me, and I assume in my four rub-a-dub hoodlum friends.

“Never Die Young”, for me, is the multifocal prism through which I squint at that past. In this live version, James himself says he has no idea what the song means exactly. I think I do. It contains all the love and pain and hopes and disappointments and optimism and disillusionment that our lives have traversed. In that, I suppose, we’re like all golden boys grown old. But we were fortunate enough to be children of a very special time. As always, James puts it best:

But our golden ones sail on, sail on
To another land beneath another sky

We were ring-around-the-rosy children
They were circles around the sun
Never give up, never slow down
Never grow old, never ever die young

Synchronized with the rising moon
Even with the evening star
They were true love written in stone
They were never alone, they were never that far apart

And we who couldn’t bear to believe they might make it
We got to close our eyes
Cut up our losses into doable doses
Ration our tears and sighs

You could see them on the street on a Saturday night
Everyone used to run them down
They’re a little too sweet, they’re a little too tight
Not enough tough for this town

We couldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole
No, it didn’t seem to rattle at all
They were glued together body and soul
That much more with their backs up against the wall

Oh, hold them up, hold them up
Never do let them fall
Prey to the dust and the rust and the ruin
That names us and claims us and shames us all

I guess it had to happen someday soon
Wasn’t nothing to hold them down
They would rise from among us like a big baloon
Take the sky, forsake the ground

Oh, yes, other hearts were broken
Yeah, other dreams ran dry
But our golden ones sail on, sail on
To another land beneath another sky

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

070: Buddy Holly, ‘That’ll Be the Day’
050: The Rolling Stones, ‘Gimme Shelter’ (Kent State)
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
177: Joni Mitchell, ‘Woodstock’

 

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

Posted by jeff on Jul 6, 2012 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Hey, America, happy birthday! Two hundred and thirty-six, right? That’s a lot of candles dancing on the head of one cake, but I trust you’ll manage. We just want to wish you all the best—sorry, what’s that? It’s not the birthday of the United States? Huh? So what is it? Oh, it’s the independence of the Colonies from Great Britain that took place in 1776. So when was the US born? Thirteen years later, in 1789, when George W. the First took office? First independence, then coming into being. I get it. It’s like starting with your bar mitzvah, then 13 years later getting born. That makes sense.

Well, Happy Whatever it is you guys are celebrating. July 4th mostly connotes Entebbe for me, but I’m always willing to join a party.  And Momma taught me you don’t come to a party without a gift, so here’s ours – a very lovely James Taylor song as performed a cappella by The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’.

In August, 1963, I was spending my summer vacation before the tenth grade staring at the albums in Neumark’s Record Store in Westsomething Shopping Center across the street from Woodward HS in Cincinnati. This is what I saw:

 

I yawned (having slept only 13 hours that night). Then I saw this:

I stopped yawning. “’Bach’s Greatest Hits’. That’s funny.” Then I peered more closely and saw that the Baroque musicians in the engraving were wearing shades. Cool, man. And I read the blurb “A unique vocal jazz treatment of Johann Sebastian Bach by the creative Swingle Singers.” Wow, really cool. So I shelled out my $2.99 (plus 12¢ sales tax) and spent the next few years listening to that album about as much as I listened to The soon-to-appear Beatles.

It was a revelation, eight voices swinging Bach note for note, accompanied by string bass and a brush of drums. The album was for me both a revelation and an education. I learned to sing bass by listening closely, hour after hour after hour. I literally wore out the album. It was the beginning of my lifelong love of Bach, and it still sounds fine to me today. When I played it for Mr. Lang, he immediately fell for it, brought us ‘Choral No.1‘ to sing, and gave me the finger cymbal solo.

The Swingle Singers evolved from a group of singers formed by the fine cool jazz chanteuse Blossom Dearie (her real name). Working in Paris under the direction of tenor Ward Swingle (of Alabama and Cincinnati) and soprano Christine Legrand (Michel’s sister), they stumbled on a style that would open the ears and minds of many, leading in the short range to children such as Switched-On Bach (the first widely heard electronic music) and Jacques Loussier (piano jazz improvisations on Bach). In the long range, their style had a paradigmatic impact on crossover experimentation, the fun potential of classical music in popular contexts,  vocal jazz and so much more.

Here are two of my favorites: Aria from Orchestral Suite No.3, a luscious, embracing recording I love dearly; and the soprano virtuoso piece Sinfonia from Partita No.2, with Christine Legrand reminding us just how much of a genius JSBach was. I won’t tell you how often I try to sing this soprano solo when I’m alone in the car.

The Swingle Singers recorded and performed extensively and successfully for the next decade, always impeccable, but never reaching the excitement levels of that very first album. In 1973, the original French group disbanded. Ward Swingle formed a new group in London called Swingle II, then The Swingles, then The New Swingle Singers, then simply The Swingle Singers, and they’ve been swingling ever since. They recorded a million albums–the old classical formula, folk songs, Christmas albums, a Beatles tribute, more Christmas albums–all of it faultless, blandly perfect, none of it groundbreaking.

In 2007 they began to metamorphose into a ‘New A Cappella’ group with the CD “Beauty and the Beatbox”, applying hip new vocal percussion to a mix of classics and modern pieces. Here’s their take on the Mexican standard Cielito Lindo. In 2009 this new approach ripened into “Ferris Wheel”, a charming collection of their own arrangements of pop songs. It includes songs from those artists most frequently recorded by New Acappella groups – Bjork, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson (some other time I’ll tell you about my obsession about Brian Wilson being sung a cappella), Joni Mitchell, Sting, John & Paul, Nick Drake and James Taylor.

The Real Group Festival

‘New A Cappella’ is a genre I’m deeply involved in. It was more or less invented 25 years ago by the Swedish quintet The Real Group, who elevated vocal jazz from singing harmony above the accompaniment (Hi-Lo’s, Singers Unlimited, Lambert Hendricks & Ross) to ‘singing the arrangement’ a cappella. It’s a fascinating world of music, most highly evolved in Scandinavia. I’ve written about it a number of times (links), and will probably be doing so a lot more in the near future, because in just over a month I’ll be privileged to attend The Real Group Festival in Stockholm, where The Swingle Singers will be performing and leading workshops, together with a whole host of other stellar folks from our little cult. I was at the first festival four years ago. It was a life-changing experience musically, and even personally to no small degree–lots of lovely people from around the world embracing each other through music. C’mon Cindy, c’mon Sue, get on a plane and join us. You’ll be glad you did, I promise you.

What’s so good about The New A Cappella? Well, here, I’ll show you. There are a couple of songs from The Swingles’ “Ferris Wheel” that are among the very best of what the genre has to offer. Here’s their version Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’. It’s been recorded often–I even wrote an entire SoTW about it. The Swingles’ version shows just how effectively an AC treatment can elicit from a well-known pop song new understandings, new beauties. And here’s our SoTW, the oh-so charming James Taylor song ‘On the 4th of July’.

Ain’t it sweet? It’s from James’ last album of originals, “October Road” (2002). Here’s the original. It’s such shame that James has stopped recording new original material, but we don’t begrudge him. We appreciate what he has done. Like this one, a love song for mature audiences. It’s about a man in his mid-50s starting up with a lady he’s known for a long time.

It’s full of the irrepressible anticipation of a new relationship tempered by the wariness born of a lifetime of bumps and bounces and disappointments. It’s a jolly, inexplicable mix of Colonial America and music on the radio and the sly grin of still getting aroused by what may happen when she comes down for the fireworks. Love and and independence and rebirth, the sort of story James tells so well. So happy 4th of July to everyone, everywhere.

 

Shall I tell it again, how we started as friends who would run into one another now and again

At the Yippee Cai O or the Mesa Dupree or a dozen different everyday places to be?

I was loping along, living alone, we were ever so brave on the telephone.

“Would you care to come down for fireworks time? We could each just reach, we could step out of line.”

And the smell of the smoke and the lay of the land and the feeling of finding one’s heart in one’s hand

And the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “Love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand.

 

Unbelievable you, impossible me, the fool who fell out of the family tree

The fellow that found the philosopher’s stone deep in the ground like a dinosaur bone

Who fell into you at a quarter to two with a tear in your eye for the Fourth of July

For the patriots and the minutemen and the things you believe they believed in then

Such as freedom, and freedom’s land and the kingdom of God and the rights of man

With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand”

Love forever and ever must stand and forever must stand.

 

Oh the smell of the smoke as we lay on the land, and the feeling of finding my heart in my hand

With the tiny tin voice of the radio band singing “love must stand,” love forever and ever must stand

On the fourth of July.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

SoTWs about a cappella music

SoTWs about J.S. Bach

SoTWs about James Taylor

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

Posted by jeff on Mar 30, 2012 in Personal, Rock, Song Of the week

James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’

This week was the fifth anniversary of my 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.

Read more…

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