Life now sings a sweeter song for Sweet Baby James. TAYLOR'S TURNING POINT
New York — `I'M a one-eyed seed of a tumbleweed, in the belly of a rolling stone....'' So sang James Taylor more than a decade ago - that sweet-voiced troubadour, wild wanderer through the alternative route of the '60s, spokesman for a generation of gentle rebels. On his latest album, ``Never Die Young,'' Taylor sings, ``What do I do if my dream comes true?'' (from ``Baby Boom Baby'') - and it seems that his dreams have come true. He and his wife, Kathryn Walker, have been married for 2 years now, and, unlike the rolling stone of the past, Taylor seems to have reached a satisfying plateau.
``I feel extremely lucky to have a life that's livable,'' Taylor said in a recent interview. ``At this point it's a very defined thing. I like my life. I'm glad to have it, and I'm glad to be awake for it, too. That hasn't always been the case with me. I'm pretty thankful.''
Taylor's 20-year career has produced somewhere between 130 and 140 original songs, including numerous hits like ``Fire and Rain,'' ``Sweet Baby James,'' and ``How Sweet It Is.'' He has recorded more than a dozen albums, won a Grammy, and had a Time magazine cover story written about him.
His recent TV special for the Public Broadcasting Service showed a mature, seasoned artist. It is interesting to note that it's really only the lyrics of Taylor's songs that have changed, as his life experience has changed. Musically, he sounds pretty much the same as he always did - with expected but pleasing turns of melody and harmony that continue to touch a deep chord in his wide-ranging audience.
James Taylor first picked up a guitar when he was a 12-year-old, growing up in North Carolina. The year was 1960, and his parents had bought him a classical guitar for his birthday.
``I couldn't put it down. I just turned away from everything and into the guitar and played all the time,'' says Taylor, who is entirely self-taught.
Before long, he dropped out of boarding school and went to New York to play music. He and a friend, guitarist Danny (Kootch) Kortchmar, formed a band, the Flying Machine, and finally got an extended gig at a little joint called the Night Owl Caf'e. After about a year, the band broke up.
``It was good; it was instructive,'' says Taylor of that period. ``We wrote a lot of the music, we played some jazz-oriented rock and some blues, and the sort of folky stuff that I was writing, too.''
Taylor moved to London in 1967 and recorded an album the following year with Peter Asher for Apple Records. He was the first ``outside'' act to be signed to the Beatles label.
Over the years, Taylor has recorded for two major record labels and continued to develop his own private vision through his music. Even though many of his songs seem similar on first hearing, each has its own character. How does James Taylor approach his song-writing?
``There are a number of currents that happen in my music. There are some types of song that I write that evolve very slowly; they're sort of glacial. And then there are other ones that represent a wide range of influences, where I'm influenced by drastically changing things. But they all distill themselves down to my vocal and guitar technique, which is like a lens or filter system, through which they are rendered in many ways the same.''
Taylor has occasionally been criticized for being too self-involved, and for not showing enough social awareness in his lyrics. ``I'm just not very motivated musically by social issues,'' he explains. ``I actually do feel very strongly about a lot of things, but it doesn't find its way into my work. There may be something wrong with that, but there's nothing I can do about it!'' He laughs.
But a song like ``A Junkie's Lament'' (from Taylor's album ``In the Pocket'') touches on what could certainly be called an important social issue, even while it's intensely personal.
Mama don't you call him by name He can't hear you anymore Even if he seems the same to you That's a stranger to your door ... go on, Ask him what's he come here for.
Here Taylor is speaking from his own experience, having been a drug addict himself. He's been called a ``successful addict,'' since he was able to keep producing and progressing as an artist, despite the problem. But now that he's been off drugs for about five years, he says, ``I can only speculate about how well things might have gone, and how much I might have gotten on with in my life, had I not been basically on hold for 20 years. I think it's a waste of time. I wish there weren't drugs around. I wish that they actually could figure some way to kind of dry up the supply a little bit. I think it would be helpful; I mean, it is true that people who are going to be addicted probably will find them. ... To a certain extent that's true, but does everybody have to have such a great opportunity to find out if they're an addict?''
Taylor spoke about the time when practically everyone he knew was on drugs - when their use was taken for granted. He believes that the tendency in our society to want instant gratification tends to promote drug addiction. And, he says, for the addict, drugs do provide that gratification, for a while.
``If it didn't feel great and work great for you, you wouldn't become involved in it. And if it didn't continue to work well for you for a long period of time, you wouldn't be the last person to see that it had turned on you. The denial in an addict goes on beyond when they lose their job, their health, their home. ... They do time in jail; they're still saying, ``This is not a problem - this is my friend!''' He laughs.
Taylor eventually reached the point where he saw that drugs were taking him nowhere, got out of it, with the help of various drug treatment programs. ``Although I may have encouraged people to abuse drugs in the past,'' he says now, ``if there's any way to offer a suggestion for a way out, I'm happy to do it.'' And he adds that, when one decides to stop and actually does stop, ``it makes for real change, and it makes for real change fast. Undeniably, good things happen to you.''
Undeniably, good things are happening in James Taylor's life, with a new album, domestic and European tours coming up, and another whole era of singing and songwriting ahead of him.
`Home by Another Way'
- Excerpted from James Taylor's new album, `Never Die Young' Those magic men the Magi Some people call them wise Or Oriental, even kings Well anyway, those guys They visited with Jesus They sure enjoyed their stay Then warned in a dream of King Herod's scheme They went home by another way. Yes they went home by another way.... Maybe me and you can be wise guys too And go home by another way.... They tell me that life is a miracle And I figure that they're right But Herod's always out there He's got our cards on file It's a lead pipe cinch, if we give an inch Old Herod likes to take a mile. It's best to go home by another way....