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230: The Beach Boys, ‘Here Today’ (“Pet Sounds” Unsurpassed Masters Vol. 14)

Posted by jeff on Jan 22, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

The Beach Boys — ‘Here Today’

CVpqcGYWsAAOe5GI’ve been perfecting my procrastination skills since I was bar mitzvahed. Well, even before—how well I remember avoiding practicing reading the torah portion before I pedaled off to meet the rabbi.

I’ve been listening to “Pet Sounds” regularly for 45 years now, and I’ve successfully put off writing about it. Because it’s too damned daunting. Because my respect for the album is so great that I know I don’t have a snowball’s chance in heck of doing it justice.

Brian+Wilson+Pet+Sounds+Era+BrianBut if Mom shouted long enough and loud enough and persistently enough, I would finally pick up at least a couple of layers of dirty underwear from my floor. And so, I guess, the day of reckoning has arrived.

There are two kinds of people in the world – those who get “Pet Sounds” and those who don’t. If you’re one of those who say: “Oh, right, The Beach Boys. “Fun, Fun, Fun”. The stupid acned, hackneyed lyrics. The strident nasal vocals. Those painful striped shirts.”– I can only say, yeah, you’re right. (Except have you ever taken half a dozen fine singers and tried to sing “Fun, Fun, Fun”? Good luck.)

But if you’re one of those, you’re missing the transcendental melodies, the stunning internal harmonies, the genius of the orchestration, the utter beauty of the composition. You’re depriving yourself of what I think is – in strictly musical terms – the pinnacle of post-WWII popular music.

Brian-Wilson+Paul-McCartneyI call the first witness, Sir Paul McCartney: “I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album.” (Paul’s extensive commentary on “Pet Sounds”)

I call the second witness, Sir George Martin: “Without ‘Pet Sounds,’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ never would have happened. ‘Pepper’ was an attempt to equal ‘Pet Sounds.'” (I highly recommend this clip of George and Brian listening together to the master recording of ‘God Only Knows’.)

I call the third witness, Brian Wilson himself: “After the Beatles heard Pet Sounds, they wanted to make a greater album, so they did Shargen Peppersh Lowly Harsh Cluband. And it was a very, very, very great album. Right up there with Pet Sounds, And it was, like, really good.”

brianinstudioIn case you just moved to earth from Planet 9: 1964 – in the plane setting out on yet another Beach Boys tour, 22-year old band leader Brian Wilson has a panic attack. He sends his brothers Carl and Dennis, cousin Mike, buddy Al, and replacement Bruce out on the road without him. “I’m going to stay in the studio and work, and when you guys get back, I’ll have lots of new material.” But unbeknownst to them, he called in The Wrecking Crew, LA’s premiere studio musicians to record the tracks (whom he’d met when observing Phil Spector sessions). The boys added the vocals upon their return.

1crew0916

The Wrecking Crew recording Pet Sounds, Carol Kaye seated foreground.

Rid of his abusive father and transported into other spheres by LSD, Brian felt liberated enough from the pressures of The Hit Machine to make his album. It was The Beach Boys’ first commercial failure.

I’ve watched films about The Wrecking Crew and The Making of Pet Sounds and The Art of Pet Sounds, listened to podcasts and read books and endless on-line accounts and analyses. I don’t remember a tenth of it, so I’m not going to try to write the definitive summary of all that is “Pet Sounds”. If you’re not already, I fervently hope you’ll be affected and infected enough to pursue it on your own.

20582.007If I have anything to contribute to the corpus of adulation, it’s from my subjective experiences from the literally thousands of times I’ve listened to the album. ‘My’ “Pet Sounds” consists of 10 of the 13 songs. I’ve always felt that ‘Sloop John B’ is an unfortunate implant, and that the instrumentals ‘Let’s Go Away for a While’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ don’t carry their weight. ‘Good Vibrations’, the original work for which was done during the “Pet Sounds” recordings, was wisely reserved for the next project (“Smile”).

(UK OUT) LOS ANGELES - 1966: Music producer Phil Spector with "Beach Boys" Brian Wilson (on left), Mike Love (in hat), and "Righteous Brother" Bobby Hatfield (right) in 1965 at Gold Star Studios in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ray Avery/Getty Images)

Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Righteous Brother Bobby

Every one of these ten cuts is a world of beauty unto itself, to be relished and cherished and touched by. They are collectively as beautiful as music can be.

The heartwrenching slow pieces: ‘You Still Believe In Me’, ‘Don’t Talk’, ‘Caroline, No’.

The mid-tempo cuts, masterpieces each: ‘God Only Knows’, ‘I Know There’s An Answer’, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’.

The upbeat works: ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, ‘That’s Not Me’, ‘I’m Waiting For The Day’, and our SoTW, ‘Here Today’.

brian-wilsonA few basic facts before we start – “Pet Sounds” was originally released in mono. In 1997 it was remixed for stereo under Brian’s supervision. Since then, there have been several rerereremasters and rerererereleases. Purists will go for the original, muddy mono. I go for the newer stereo remastered version – it lets me crawl inside the music, hear as many as possible of the bass harmonicas, ukuleles, bicycle horns, vibraphones, timpani, finger cymbals, Coke cans, accordions, modified twelve-string mandolins, and water jugs.

I do feel humbled, attempting to add my few sense to this magnum opus. But a person’s got to do what a person’s got to do. So today we’re going to pick one of the masterpiece cuts—‘Here Today’, a favorite among favorites – and walk through the recording process via “The Unsurpassed Masters”, a 21-volume, ~50-CD bootleg compendium of Beach Boys studio tracks in process, 1962-67.

photo_7225_0-3I admit I haven’t listened to all the outtakes from “Beach Boys Party”. But I have listened to most of the “Pet Sounds” recordings, many of them numerous times. So here we go, 23-year old Brian, the finest studio musicians LA has to offer at his disposal, for the first time in his life in complete creative control. The Beach Boys Complete Unsurpassed Masters, Volume 14 (The Alternate “Pet Sounds”, Disc 2.

Takes 1 – 3 – Engineer: “I don’t have a title, Take 1”. Organ pumping on the beat, Carol Kaye’s bass introducing a stunning melodic counterpoint to the (yet unheard) main melody line (inspiring Paul’s lead bass on “Sgt Pepper”), then joined by the low drum ornament and the low brass and then the higher brass providing yet another counterpoint.

Takes 4 – 6 – Brian coaches the harpsichord(?) on the nuance he’s seeking.

Take 7, Takes 8 – 10 – We know what the full track will sound like, so we can hear the ghost interplay between the heard backing track being compiled and polished, and the unheard future vocals.

1965-brianwilsonInsert Takes 1 – 4, 11 – 20 – Fine-tuning and tightening the glorious C-part, the instrumental break after the second chorus. Listen to Brian’s perfectionism, explaining to the musicians so precisely the sounds he’s looking for. I can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s saying that the actual filming was just technical work and rather boring—the creative process had occurred at home at his desk. Bruce Johnston has said “this is the break that Brian told me was influenced by Bach – and if you’ve heard any Bach at all, you’ll know what he’s talking about.”

1st Vocal Overdub (Brian solo), 2nd Vocal Overdub (Brian double-tracked) – Brian singing a guide track for cousin Mike for the lead vocal.

1st Vocal Overdub by the band Mike (“Don’t fuck with the formula”) Love’s initial attempts at singing the lead, mostly solo, backing vocals in the background.

2nd Vocal Overdub by the band Mike double-tracked, with prominent backing vocals, The Beach Boys at their Four Freshman/Hi-Lo’s best. Worth the price of admission.

MTMwNjgzODIwNTg3MzYyOTQ3Brian, 1990: ‘Here Today’ was a work of art in my opinion. It was assertive track with utilization of basses played up higher. The trombones gave it that masculine touch…”
Brian, 1996: “‘Here Today’ was probably one of the mystery songs on the album. I don’t really know what it’s about. I liked it, but yet I didn’t. I don’t really identify with that song like I do with ‘You Still Believe In Me’, or ‘Caroline, No.’ It was just one of those songs in there, one little song.”

I get what Brian’s saying. ‘Here Today’ isn’t the most emotionally affective cut on ‘Pet Sounds’. But it is indeed unsurpassed in terms of technical brilliance. In each of the 10 cuts, Brian creates a complete sonic universe of unique beauty.

William Butler Yeats wrote in ‘Long-Legged Fly’:

That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope’s chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
Michael Angelo.
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

‘Quiet! Genius at work’ was never more applicable than here. Brian’s life after Pet Sounds was marred and scarred by drugs, emotional fragility and manipulative sycophants. In these tapes we can witness the process of Brian ‘reclining on the scaffolding’ in the Los Angeles studio. But still, it all remains ultimately a mystery. God only knows how genius creates such beauty.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

142: Kat Edmonson, ‘Champagne’ (including her lovely cover of ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’)

158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

118: Brian Wilson, ‘Surf’s Up’ (“SMiLE”)

004: The Beach Boys, ‘Kiss Me Baby’

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229: The Beatles: ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ (“Rubber Soul” at 50)

Posted by jeff on Jan 8, 2016 in Rock, Song Of the week

720x405-rexfeatures_11258bAs far as I can remember (a dubious premise at best), I had no inkling on December 6, 1965 that “Rubber Soul” was being released in the US. Perhaps I’d heard that it had been released in the UK three days earlier, I don’t really remember. I do remember scouring the racks of the record store frequently, lest I miss such an auspicious event. But by early January it had reached #1, where it stayed for six weeks, prompting me to write a review for my high school newspaper. (You can see the original at the bottom here, if you must.)

Untitled-3

Proto-Rock Journalist

I had forgotten that I was writing record reviews even before college, but an old friend sent me a hard copy of Bulldog Barks with my byline, so I guess it’s undeniable.

It’s a bit spooky to peek into the mind of one’s self at the age of 17 (if one can be said to have a mind at that age). But despite the occasional lapse into teenie-prose, I’m quite proud of the review. The observations are spot-on, really quite perspicacious (I’ve been waiting since a 10th grade vocabulary quiz to use that word!), especially considering the vacuum that was ‘rock journalism’ in 1965. The first edition of Rolling Stone magazine wouldn’t appear for a full two years.

So it’s me, a 17-year old music geek in Cincinnati, trying to figure out all alone just what was going on. But I did understand even back then – without the benefits of hindsight of seeing the seminal impact “Rubber Soul” would have on popular music, without any external resources other than what I could read on the record label and what I could deduce from thousands of listenings to the disc – that this album was something wholly other:

  • Artistically ambitious (an innovation for a pop album)
    If you need a hint of just how unique that was on the market of the time, the best-selling LPs of 1965 were (in order) ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Where Did Our Love Go’, and ‘Goldfinger’.
  • No hit records to drive sales
  • All original compositions
  • Instrumental experimentation (sitar, Hammond, fuzz bass, harmonium, lead piano)
  • Slower tempi (five down-beat songs, versus two on the previous album, “Help”).

People could (and probably have) written doctoral dissertations on each of those seismic events whose portent I am quite proud to have spotted.

rubber-soul21I even spoke of the ‘folksy kind of sound’ of ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’. That was the one element I failed to plumb fully. Today I’d note that John plays an acoustic rhythm guitar on most of the cuts, with an immeasurable impact on the sound of “Rubber Soul” and on the music which would be profoundly influenced by it (i.e., everything).

‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ was recorded in June 1965, released on the UK “Help” (August 1965), but yanked from the US version of the album. It was contemporaneous with The Byrds’ ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ (June 1965), ‘The Eve of Destruction’ (September 1965) and ‘The Sounds of Silence’ (January 1966). If we had to pick a “first” folk-rock song, perhaps it would be ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away’ (February 1965). If ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ wasn’t the Grand Opening of folk-rock, it was at very least the harbinger of acoustic rock.

Packaging Rubber Soul

Packaging Rubber Soul

That ‘folksy’ sound is also umbilically tied to country music, which was in 1965 as far from mainstream rock as Mason was from Dixon. But George Harrison and his buddies listened to Carl Perkins almost as much as they listened to Chuck Berry. It just took a couple of years for those influences to insinuate themselves into the Beatles’ music. It started with ‘Act Naturally’ (June, 1965), which was perceived at the time (okay, by me) as a novelty one-off’er. But then came their original treatment of the same fingerpicking sound in ‘What Goes On’. And then came the giant step, that quantum shift we call ‘creative genius’, with ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’.

rubber-soul-sessionsIt’s got hillbilly all over it, from Ringo’s ra-ta-ta-tum brushes and John’s acoustic core, more pronounced in the Nashville harmony (Paul on top of Paul) of the refrain (“Falling, yes I am falling…”), complete with George’s Nashville Cat-informed acoustic lead guitar.

One intriguing conundrum of which I was unaware at the time was the variant UK and US versions of “Rubber Soul”, on which mountains of verbiage have been written. I’d like to toss my 2₵ on the pile of the ‘Which is Better?’ compost.

No question – the US version is much more organic stylistically than its British cousin. British LPs usually had 14 cuts, American ones only 12 (perhaps out of fear of fidelity loss due to “groove-cramming”. It wouldn’t be until “Sgt Pepper” that The Beatles would have enough artistic control over the packaging of their music to ensure that the same version of the album would be released on both sides of the pond. Here are the two versions – only UK in red, only US in green.

UK US
1.            Drive My Car

2.            Norwegian

3.            You Won’t See Me

4.            Nowhere Man

5.            Think for Yourself

6.            The Word

7.            Michelle

1.            I’ve Just Seen a Face 

2.            Norwegian Wood

3.            You Won’t See Me

4.            Think for Yourself

5.            The Word

6.            Michelle

 

1.            What Goes On

2.            Girl

3.            I’m Looking Through You

4.            In My Life

5.            Wait

6.            If I Needed Someone

7.            Run for Your Life

1.            It’s Only Love

2.            Girl

3.            I’m Looking Through You

4.            In My Life

5.            Wait

6.            Run for Your Life

 

It seems to me that the Capitol Suits bested EMI Suits no less than they did in 1776 and 1812. ‘Drive My Car’ is a fine, quirky, biting rocker. But releasing it as a single (in the US) was a much wiser, aesthetically satisfying decision than using it to open The Beatles’ first album conceived as a coherent whole (George Martin: “Up till then we had been making albums rather like a collection of singles. Now we were really beginning to think about albums as a bit of art on their own, as entities of their own. And “Rubber Soul” was the first to emerge that way.”)

“Rubber Soul” was strongly influenced by Dylan, both by the weed he had introduced the boys to as well as the seriousness with which he related to his music. (Here’s a piece I wrote about the Dylan/Beatles symbiosis.) Seriousness means introspection. Introspection means acoustic. “Rubber Soul” is an acoustic album. ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ is a fitting (and wonderful) clarion call. ‘Dri

Originial undistorted album cover photo

Originial undistorted album cover photo

ve My Car’ is misplaced. Quod erat demonstrandum.

But if we’re already here, let’s beat the horse a bit. ‘Nowhere Man’ has always been a non-favorite of mine, even a bit of an embarrassment. ‘What Goes On’ is interesting only as part of the process, but is a clearly inferior cut. ‘If I Needed Someone’ is the only reject I regret. But we got in its stead ‘It’s Only Love’. John inexplicably said of it “That’s the one song I really hate of mine. Terrible lyric.” I’ve always been very fond of it.

I wonder how many times I’ve listened to “Rubber Soul”. Five hundred? A thousand? Five thousand? Impossible for me to quantify that. I can certainly quality-fy it, though. There’s not a piece of music in this universe that’s dearer to me. ‘Norwegian Wood’ was a formative moment for my entire generation. As was its companion piece, ‘Girl’. Is there any song more fun than ‘You Won’t See Me’? How indelibly ingrained in my brain is the false start of ‘I’m Looking Through You’, as it appeared in the initial US pressings? Where would we be without the compass of ‘In My Life’? How different would our world have been without “Rubber Soul”?

We are who we are, to a significant degree, due to that record.

helpJust picture it – half a million children of the Woodstock generation on half a million little desert islands, each one clutching to his/her breast his own personal, worn, beloved copy of “Rubber Soul”.  In a sense, I think that does accurately describe the world we live in.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

207: The Beatles, ‘Rocky Raccoon’; and Bob Dylan, ‘Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’/’Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’

214: The Beatles, ‘You’re Gonna Lose That Girl’

128: The Isley Brothers, ‘Twist and Shout’

RS-Jeff

 

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061: The Doobie Brothers, ‘What a Fool Believes’

Posted by jeff on Dec 22, 2015 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

‘What a Fool Believes’, The Doobie Brothers, from “No Nukes” (1979)

 

‘What a Fool Believes’, Neri Per Caso

 

I missed the 1970s. Musically, that is. While John Travolta was working up a Saturday night fever, I was building a new life in an obscure little Bolshevik Country Without Music, on the other side of the world from everything, where good radio meant The Tremeloes and Tom Jones. I pretty much missed Heavy Metal (an unmitigated blessing), Disco (a shame, but I shall survive), and Funk (the sacrifices one makes for one’s ideals). I did manage to smuggle across the border the Paul Simon, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell albums of those years, because they were worth risking one’s wellbeing for. I’ve gone back and done my homework on the important voices of the 70s, but even the Billy Joels, Elton Johns, Bruce Springsteens, Mark Knopflers and even Stevie Wonders are not as deeply hardwired into my psyche as many minor luminaries of the preceding two decades.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that The Doobie Brothers look pretty funny to me, with their sleeveless leopard-skin t-shirts. But they sound just fine. I missed them first time around, but have tried to do my homework. From 1971 to 1976 they had an impressive string of hits (‘Listen to the Music’, ‘Rockin’ Down the Highway’, ‘Long Train Running’, ‘Taking It to the Streets’), but those aren’t what I’m here to talk about. They’re roadhouse boogie/hippie-dippy fine, no objections there. But there’s one song of theirs in which they surpass themselves, a song which has given me a ridiculous amount of pleasure for these many years.

In 1976, Michael McDonald joined the band, having graduated from Steely Dan. Mr. McDonald is one of those singers whose chops are the most highly evolved organ above his shoulders.  He’s no intellectual heavyweight, no great songwriter. But, my! that boy can sing! Some of my best friends are tenors, but let’s face it, they’re not known as a group for their manliness. They’re pretty wimpy types, on the whole. Michael McDonald is an exception–a really virile, muscular, sexy tenor. This guy can get away with wearing an Aloha shirt under a white suit with flared pants! That degree of cool still holds, 30something years later. How someone can sing so high and so strong is just beyond me. But it sure is fine. And nowhere finer than on ‘What a Fool Believes’.

MM wrote the song together with Kenny Loggins (of Loggins and Messina), another simpy, country-rock pretty face from 1970s California. If you really need to hear Loggins and MM ruining their terrific song, you can listen to it here, but I recommend passing on the dubious pleasure.

The song describes an intriguing situation–not usually covered in pop songs, but admirably specific, and painfully true for many of us guys. He’s carried a torch for her for so many years that he’s invented a shared history. He tries to talk to her, and she’s polite, although she has no idea what he’s talking about. But his imagined memory is immune to reality. That never happened to me, but some friends of mine have attested that it’s a hard-wired bug in the male genome.

He came from somewhere back in her long ago
The sentimental fool don’t see, trying hard to recreate
What had yet to be created – once in her life
She mustered a smile for his nostalgic tale,
Never coming near what he wanted to say,
Only to realize it never really was.
She had a place in his life; he never made her think twice.
As she rises to her apology, anybody else would surely know– he’s watching her go…
But what a fool believes, he sees.
No wise man has the power to reason away
What seems to be is always better than nothing–
And nothing at all keeps sending him
Somewhere back in her long ago
Where he can still believe there’s a place in her life
Someday, somewhere, she will return.


Technically, the lyrics are pretty rough. Cole Porter need not feel threatened. The melody, at least of the verse, is about as catchy as a Stravinsky line. But it’s got a hall-of-fame hook, and a great beat, I always dance to it, and I’ll always give it a 100. The song really isn’t even good. But it’s great.

The original recording is fine enough. But it’s this performance that gets me, from the film of the early Greenie benefit concert “No Nukes” from 1979, including Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Mr James Taylor and Mrs Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, Jesse Colin Young, and Bruce Springsteen, with lots of fun music in it. But the one you take home is ‘What a Fool Believes‘. I’m embarrassed to tell you how often I’ve watched the video of this performance. It engages me, bounces me, makes me grin. Every single time.

The hopeless happiness of it all, the pure enjoyment of the participants. The sappy grin on the face of lead guitarist Patrick Simmons. The come-on smile the wonderful backup singer Rosemary Butler gives MM. The equally laden ‘Oh, I really am cool and hot and couldn’t be enjoying myself more’ look Michael McDonald returns. The mind-boggling, rhythmically illogical, off-the-beat smash of the cymbal on ‘Anybody else would sure-LY know’. The intertwining lines, the right hand of the piano, the left hand of the piano, the loopy little calliope adornment, the bass line, all six percussionists – every one perfectly enmeshing to form a tapestry of fun-k.

There’s a great a cappella version of this song by a very cool 6- voice Italian vocal group (what is about this song that enables people to surpass their talent?), Neri Per Caso, which means ‘black by chance’. Well, they don’t sound very black here, but they sure do sound good. Guest lead vocalist (the low growl) is one Mario Biondi. This cut goes a long way to explaining why I find contemporary a cappella so riveting when it’s at its best. It’s faithful to the original. In a way, it’s more faithful to the original than the original is. It distills the music. It extracts the music from all the irrelevancies of the instrumental context. Listen to the interweaving lines. To the harmonies. To the fun. To the magic. This 2008 Italian a cappella version is also magic, just like the “No Nukes” version from 1979. But different.

Who cares? They’re both magic. I guess there was enough of it back in those 1970s to have some left over, to still enchant us today.

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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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