Fifty years ago this month, as Vietnam-weary Americans searched for serenity within the national chaos, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter, James Taylor, sought his own separate peace: a place in the musical mainstream based on his own tenuous quest for mental health.
The 11-song Sweet Baby James might have taken its name from the “country lullaby” that became its first single, but it became a commercial smash through the unlikely success of “Fire and Rain,” whose understated chords contrasted with three verses of shattering emotional power.
There really isn’t a bad cut on Sweet Baby James, and devotees of “deep cuts” from the album (heard on what was known, in those days, as “free-form radio”) will still have echoing in their heads the likes of “Sunny Skies,” “Country Road” and “Anywhere Like Heaven.”
(I also confess that, on my occasional trips to Western Massachusetts over the years, even during sweltering summer days, I can’t get out of my mind these lyrics from the title cut: “Now the first of December was covered with snow/So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston/The Berkshires seemed dream-like on account of that frosting.” Indeed, Taylor said, in a recent interview with Parade Magazine’s Jim Farber, that it was his favorite song: “‘Sweet Baby James’ has a rhyming scheme that’s positively Byzantine. For every line, there are three internal rhymes. Every verse is like a Chinese puzzle.")
But above all, “Fire and Rain” continues to weave its mournful magic all this time later, with an oblique recitation of a private tragedy that resonated with a wide public.
As David Shumway noted in Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen, Taylor—and, shortly, his good friend Joni Mitchell—brought to popular music the “confessional” mode popularized by the midcentury American poets Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton: “While the modernists [led by T.S. Eliot] were read as tackling the largest philosophical, religious, or formal issues, the confessional poets reported on their private psychological struggles.”
It took me a number of years—and some intensive research into Taylor’s background—to understand what lies between the lines of the musician’s unique form of poetry, what Robert Frost, in his apt description of the form, called “a stay against confusion”:
* “Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone/Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.” Suzanne Schnerr was a friend Taylor had gotten to know in New York in 1966 and 1967. While he was recording his first LP, James Taylor, for Apple Records in London, she had committed suicide. A group of friends, knowing his emotional fragility, had kept the news from him for several months. But in a booze-filled night out, they finally revealed the news. The “they” in “the plans” were not her parents, he later told Timothy White for the 2002 biography Long Ago and Far Away, but instead “the fates.”
* “My body’s aching and my time is at hand”: As if a teenage depression so severe that it landed him in McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., wasn’t bad enough, Taylor became addicted to heroin while trying to build his musical career in London. (He admitted, in an interview with The Guardian’s Jenny Stevens, to having given opiates to John Lennon during this time.)
* “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground”: In the United States, a band Taylor had put together, The Flying Machine, disintegrated after a series of disastrous, ill-paying concerts. Its failure was a bitter blow to his ambitions.
Matters might have taken an utterly dismal turn if Taylor had not managed to churn out enough highly creative material to make people like producer Peter Asher bear with his difficulties; if his new American record label, Warner Brothers, had given up on him after the first single from his American LP, “Sweet Baby James,” had lost momentum; and if early studio work on “Fire and Rain” hadn’t convinced Asher to scale back the instrumentation so that its quiet power would emerge more firmly.
What “Fire and Rain,” the second, far more successful single from Sweet Baby James, meant to Taylor can’t be measured simply by units sold (nearly 100 million streams on Spotify), nor in how it finally enabled him to establish a foothold in the music industry, nor even in the vogue for singer-songwriters that would see the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Carole King, and Jackson Browne (all associated—a couple intimately—with Taylor) follow him into superstardom. Commercial success is, after all, when it is not downright elusive, likely to be transitory because of passing musical fads, ego, ill health, or the sapping of creative energy that befalls artists in all fields.
But creating the song—not producing a hit record—functioned as a kind of personal purgative for Taylor. “There's a cumulative emotional quality to it, a message that's useful to hear,” he told WSJ.com earlier this month. “Why do people sing the blues? It's because it helps to share it with other people and to expiate it—to have it out in front of you.”
A troubadour of inner turmoil, Taylor may have also taken solace in the comfort countless people wanted to extend to him. One, Carole King, saddened by the line, “lonely times when I could not find a friend,” was inspired by his plight to write “You’ve Got a Friend”—a song that JT then turned into another hit.