I DRIVE up to Livingston Taylor's house in a suburb of Boston in my late-model Oldsmobile. I am greeted first by the largest golden retriever I have ever seen. Then Maggie Taylor comes out and tries to get Livingston's attention. He's blowing leaves, so he's wearing earplugs. Eventually he gets off the tractor he's been riding around the yard, throws a tennis ball to get rid of Diesel, and tells me my car is bound to be a classic. I doubt it. But it takes a good sense of humor to think so. Inside, we sit at the kitchen table. Over a cup of tea, and amid numerous distractions from the impossible-to-ignore Diesel (including Liv's sending him to ``doggie jail''), we talk about what it's like to make a living as a performer.
What role did music play in the Taylor household when you were growing up? Were your parents musical?
My father sings very well and he plays a mean harmonica. And my mother was a trained singer. But when she was young, people didn't make money making pop music. It really took Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan [to make that happen]. The emergence of rock-and-roll was really crucial for being able to make money as a pop musician.
Around the house there was plenty of music. There were five children, and we're very close in ages. No more than a year and a half between any of us. And so music and singing was a way of expressing yourself in a place that didn't allow for that much individuality or self-expression, just in the fact that it was so intense, and so concentrated as a family.
Singing is a way of shouting. If you ever shouted as loud as you sing, somebody would arrest you. But if you shout that loud in organized tones, they call it singing. And if they're good organized tones, they'll even pay you to do it.
What musical tradition do you identify with?
I'm a pop musician. I loved pop music when I was a kid. I sing and write and play pop music as an adult, and I'm extremely proud to be a pop musician.
My music is not made to change people. It's not made to make them give up smoking or stop eating Col. Sanders's Kentucky Fried Chicken. Or if they're a Republican to be a Democrat or a Democrat to be a Republican. My music is simply to make people feel better.
What role does the folk tradition play in your music?
I'm often called a folk musician because I'm an acoustic guitar player. But I don't really know what the ``folk tradition'' is.
In your performances your songs tell stories, normally very funny ones. You improvise. You interact with the audience. Those are all folk elements to me.
OK, I hear what you're saying. Well sure, if that's what folk music is, then that's what I do. A phrase I have is, ``If you're payin', I'm playin'.''
If you hire me and you say that I'm ``country and western,'' well then sure, I'll be country and western. If [you say] I'm ``jazz pop,'' sure I'll be jazz pop. Folk? You're paying the bill. [He sings] ``Michael, row the boat ashore....'' I want to do the job for the people who are hiring me, so if they want it to be that way, then that's the way it is.
You have a busy performance schedule. Tell me about that.
Performing is what I do all the time. I work about a hundred nights a year, so that means I'm doing essentially 150 shows a year. I've been doing it for 20 years, so I've done thousands of shows, thousands of times. So when I get up on stage I'm pretty relaxed about it.
What's it like up there then? How does a typical performance work?
To be on stage is extremely entertaining for me. I'm comfortable, it's what I always wanted to do, so I'm very relaxed with it. I used to get more nervous than I do now.
In the afternoon I go into what is known as a pre-gig slump. I'll just feel logy and depressed. Then I get on stage. The most important thing when you're on stage is to start listening. After a while you sort of hear what the audience wants. I talk a little bit and just pitter-patter around. You don't ever have to be in a rush. They're there to see you. So after you learn where your crowd is, then you just start flowing with it. You can tell when they're not liking it, 'cause they'll start to move and to cough and just fidget around.
Is there an audience you can't handle?
The louder my audience gets, the quieter I get. If they want to hear themselves talk, that is fine with me. Talk on. After a while they will shut themselves up. But if there's a 40 DB [decibel] background noise of blowers or something - I cannot compete with machines. If I go into a club and it's too noisy, I won't play. I'll just say, ``These fans have to go off or I'm not going to play.'' At which point the club owner says, ``Well, the audience will be hot and uncomfortable.'' And I say, ``I don't care. For the hour that I'm on stage, it's gotta be quiet in here.''
What I have on stage is me and a guitar. I have silence. I don't have anything other than being silent and the contrast with silence.
Sometimes I'll go into a club and people will say, ``This audience is really rowdy.'' And I say, ``They're not going to be rowdy.'' I've seen the toughest there is. There's no crowd that's tough, as far as I'm concerned.
What do you mean by tough?
Tough. Obnoxious. Abrasive. Rude. Abusive.
Not with me. I'm really the boss. Sometimes I have to get a little tough. Occasionally I have to leave the stage and go into the crowd to speak with one person or another. The other night I had a person who was very, very disruptive. [At first I used] the standard litany of jokes to deal with it. And finally I put down the guitar - stopped playing - and looked at my audience and said, ``Excuse me for just a moment.''
And I'll tell you, when a performer puts down a guitar and starts walking off stage into the crowd, you know it is not going to be good news. And I went up to the person and I knelt beside him, and I said, ``You're being extremely disruptive. And if you don't stop it, I'm going to leave. And that's going to be the end of it. Do you understand me?'' And until he nodded yes, I was there.
Each situation is different. The more you do something, the more skills you have at your disposal when new situations arise. So, no, I don't get nervous.
The worst you can be is absolutely terrible, and the only thing that's worse than being absolutely terrible - well, there are many things worse than that - but one of them is being terrible and very nervous. And I will explain to you just what it is to go on stage and be absolutely terrible, which I have been many, many times. It's a bit worse than stubbing your toe really hard, and it's not as bad as breaking your leg. That's where it falls in, in terms of pain and injury.
How much of a business is all of this to you?
I love doing it, but I'm very clear about the business aspect. My music has to get up and go to work for a living. It wants to lie on the couch and eat chocolate and watch soap operas. But it simply must stand up and go out and work.
I'm really not an artist. I'm really a craftsperson. The word artist says that there are things that I won't do because of my integrity. I think that people, when they're hungry enough, they'll do just about anything. And certainly that applies to me.
I like to believe that when I'm not hungry I won't take terrible work. But when I'm hungry I will take terrible work, and I'm proud to have the work, even if it's terrible.
How does storytelling play into writing and singing? Is it your skill as a storyteller that wins over the audience?
It all has to do with delivery and interaction with the audience. I never get the sense that I'm doing a show, I get the sense that my audience and I are spending some time together.
What happens is, I find pieces of material, whether I write them or other people write them, it doesn't make any difference to me. But then I start to interpret them. When I sing a song, I have a very clear image of the characters in my brain. They're very real to me.
As a show goes on, sometimes there are active times; other times there are quiet times where the audience is tired of paying strict attention. Let 'em drift off for a while, do a couple of slow things, and then come back and they're rested and ready to have some more.
The more you do it, the more you realize you can ``wait.'' You don't have to rush, because the audience isn't going any place. They're there to see you. You can go C, F, G - you hit that ``five'' and you can just have a cup of coffee, do whatever, 'cause you're on that five chord and nobody's going anywhere until you hit that ``one.''
It takes a long time to understand that they're not going to go any place.