Saturday, February 29, 2020

Flashback, February 1970: James Taylor Breaks Through With Cathartic ‘Fire and Rain’

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 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.

Quote of the Day (Suzanne Vega, on the Creation of ‘Tom’s Diner’)

“I had just been in Tom's, and I thought, wouldn't it be cool to have a song called 'Tom's Diner' about alienation, where you're not connected to anything you see. Lately on the Internet I've been reading people saying this song is really random and it's about nothing. It’s not about nothing! It’s about something! Every single scene has been set up to show that this person is alienated from life in general.”—Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega quoted in David Honigman, “The Life of a Song: ‘Tom’s Diner,’” The Financial Times, Feb. 1-2, 2020

Vega and I were on Morningside Heights—she at Barnard, me across Broadway at Columbia—in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and were both even English majors (or to be exact, in my case, English-History double-major). 

But we never bumped into each other, in no small part because I was a commuter. Only seldom did I venture down to the corner of 112th Street and Broadway where Tom’s was located.

Since then, of course, this eatery has become a worldwide landmark, in no small part due to its exterior being featured in numerous episodes of Seinfeld. Maybe for that reason, it occurs to me, some listeners might feel that, as the sitcom is “a show about nothing,” everything associated with its locales might be, too. 

I’m glad to see that Vega is trying to put that notion to rest.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Quote of the Day (Joe Walsh, on the Insanity of Fame)

“The first thing that happens is that you get some kind of label, and you gotta live up in it, and you just get caught up in that, and I forget what the second thing is.”—Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh, on the insanity coming with fame, quoted in Bill Simmons, “The Eagles' Greatest Hit,”, Aug. 14, 2013

Maybe he would have remembered “the second thing” without all that booze and drugs back in the day…

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. Teresa of Avila, on Mercy and Gratitude to God)

 “I cannot believe that a soul which has arrived so near to Mercy itself, where she knows what she is, and how many sins God has forgiven her, should not instantly and willingly forgive others, and be pacified and wish well to everyone who has injured her, because she remembers the kindness and favors our Lord has shown her, whereby she has seen proofs of exceeding great love, and she is glad to have an opportunity offered to show some gratitude to her Lord.” — Spanish nun and mystic St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), The Way of Perfection, and Conceptions of Divine Love, translated by the Rev. John Dalton (1852)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

This Day in Reconstruction History (Hiram Revels Becomes First African-American U.S. Senator)

Feb. 25, 1870— Forty-eight hours after racist Democrats in the U.S. Senate had balked at accepting his credentials from the state of Mississippi as a new member of “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Hiram Revels, a former minister and educator, became the first African-American member of the Senate. 

The vote to accept his credentials from Mississippi and seat him was symbolic—the new Senator was filling the seat left vacant when Jefferson Davis left it to become President of the Confederacy. But it was also dramatic (the audience in the galleries rose up to cheer when he entered the body).

Additionally, the vote was ironic in that a selection meant to diminish racism succeeded because of a vestige of it: supporters argued that Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry, and therefore exempt from the infamous Dred Scott decision that barred full-blooded African-Americans from citizenship.

The Reconstruction era in which Revels rose briefly to prominence does not have the dramatic, life-or-death clashes of the Civil War, but it should not be overlooked. Above all, exploring its representative figures like Revels helps us understand what difficulties they encountered, what compromises they made, and where they fell tragically short.

Though not a political organizer in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the Northern-educated Revels’ background as a free black before the conflict marked him as a potential Republican recruit. He had honed his speaking skills as a minister in African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. His travels to Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri gave him experience in spreading the gospel and in educating his congregants. During the Civil War, he had demonstrated his commitment to the Union by helping recruit two black regiments from Maryland.

When the fighting ceased, Revels was at the center of a Mississippi group deemed crucial by Republicans for gaining control of the state: educators teaching freedmen the literacy skills that might allow them to rise in the postbellum South. Putting aside his fear that public office might interfere with his ministry, he went along with his nomination and victory as a Natchez alderman in 1868. A year later, he became a member of the state legislature.

In January 1870, Revels delivered the opening prayer to the legislature. "That prayer,—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the Senate Chamber,—made Revels a United States Senator,” remembered his friend, John Roy Lynch. “He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments."

Once in office, Revels was careful to seek common ground, even favoring universal amnesty for former Confederates, as long as they swore loyalty to the Union. He also supported the Grant Administration’s ill-starred attempt to purchase the Dominican Republic from Spain. He was able to wield just enough influence that he persuaded the War Department to reverse the decision barring black mechanics from Baltimore from working at the U.S. Navy Yard.

But not all his initiatives succeeded. His nomination of an African-American to West Point, for instance, ran aground. And, in his maiden speech in the Senate, he observed presciently that a provision in the state constitution to Georgia, newly readmitted to the Union, would be used as a weapon to prevent black officeholders.

A year later, with his term expiring, rather than accepting a patronage position from President Grant, Revels returned to Mississippi to become head of Alcorn University, the first land–grant school in the United States for black students. His political influence declined as he became caught up in the bitter battle for control between Republicans and the resurgent Democrats in Mississippi.

By the time he died three decades after his brief period in the U.S. Senate, Revels had witnessed America’s retreat from the promise of Reconstruction: full political, social and economic equality for all its citizens. He himself consistently preferred caution to confrontation. His intelligence, service to his state, and independent streak should have been enough all by themselves to disprove the canard that freedmen were ignorant tools of Northern carpetbaggers. 

It would take a mass movement to spark, in the civil-rights movement, a second Reconstruction—and, among historians, a fresh reconsideration of Revels and other African-American officeholders.