Sweet Baby James brings the generations together

On the aisle to our left, beside two 16-year-olds, sat a couple of senior citizens. To our right, a middle-aged public-school librarian and her husband. Ahead of us, a sea of mostly youthful faces. No punks, no pot, no tatters, no violence of gesture and language. Clearly, this was to be no ordinary rock concert. But then, James Taylor is no ordinary pop star. Once a 1970s counterculture celebrity, he won fame for his sweetly anguished introspection, writing and singing songs like ``Fire and Rain'' to the accompaniment of his superbly played acoustic guitar. He still writes and sings, but something has changed: His latest album, ``Never Die Young,'' has been called by Washington Post writer Joe Brown ``the musical solution to midlife crisis.''

And Sweet Baby James still plays to sellout crowds. So do lots of pop musicians. But many of them appeal largely to a thin slice of the 14- to-24-year-old demography - and to those who wish they were part of that crowd. Taylor brings in a much broader set. Why? What's his secret? How can a man who sings a cowboy ballad in waltz time as readily as a blaring howl of electronic rock find such a following?

Whoever knows the answer, please stand up: You're well on your way to explaining something significant about contemporary American culture.

You notice I'm not standing. Frankly, I can't figure it out. Maybe the audience that packed the Cumberland County Civic Center here the other night was atypical - better behaved, better dressed, more attentive than audiences in those harder-edged, up-to-date urban centers that are more often in the news. Maybe, but I doubt it. You could just as well argue the reverse: that New England is a hotbed of student activism and intellectual ferment, where audiences immersed in cynical chic and radical Angst ought to be writing Taylor off as a wimp. Yet there they were, crowded in to hear a man whose lyrics were neither political, erotic, nor despairing - and whose tightly rehearsed, highly melodic songs were shot through with debts to the down-home Carolina music of his youth.

Did they come, these people, for the spectacle? Hardly. There wasn't a sequin in sight. Taylor draped his tall, gangling frame with an open-necked white shirt and pleated pants. Neither he nor his fine backup singers knew much about dancing. Nor was there a warm-up band to whip the audience into idolatrous expectation before he appeared. The show began when he strolled out on stage alone and sang a number to his own guitar accompaniment - as though to say that, despite all the fancy lighting and synthesizers that would come later, the heart of the matter was still a good song well sung.

Then did they come for the sake of his life? Were they there to listen to a one-time drug addict who, in the words of a '70s hit by another writer, had ``been through the desert on a horse with no name''? To show respect for his having sworn off addictive substances and happily remarried after his divorce from singer Carly Simon? Did they think he'd have something heavy to say? He didn't say it. He talked very little, letting the music and his own easygoing mannerisms communicate the message.

So maybe they came for the message? It was clearly an upbeat one, on the playful rather than earnest side. The pervasive theme was that love is not so much sensual as affectionate - that you should shower people with love, that everyone needs a friend, and that good things happen when you keep holding on. Nothing new there, of course - except that, in a world where pop culture so often promotes instant gratification, it sounds fresh and almost eccentric.

A steadying message, an unselfconscious musicality, a gentle manner, an attention to detail, a sense of authority unconfused about its own identity - is that how you spell maturity? If so, Taylor seems to have done the nearly impossible. Bringing adults to enjoy the idiom of youth - complete with an occasional screaming electric guitar - he's also managed to package the values of maturity in ways that can bring teen-agers to their feet.

And to their feet they came - singing, clapping, cheering. As they streamed out afterward, they looked - all of them, parents and teen-agers alike - like people who had felt something good happen. Hard to explain? Only if you overlook something terribly significant: the solid body of good-hearted, friendly young America that isn't into drugs, crime, and sensuality. You don't hear much about them in the news. But James Taylor seems to have found them. They could do far worse than have him as their model.

A Monday column

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