By: Paul Sexton
Original Source: www.telegraph.co.uk
At the age of 67, James Taylor has made his 16th album, his first in 13 years. After spending his early career addicted to heroin, he’s surprised he made it this far
In the centre of Florence, a short walk from the Ponte Vecchio, a rangy, bespectacled figure in a baseball cap clutches a cup of coffee and slips back into his hotel unrecognised. He is perhaps the definitive singer-songwriter of his generation, he has come to represent everything noble and dignified about American artistry, and he is preparing to tell me how he is amazed to be alive.
At 67, James Taylor has an air of low-key statesmanship that most senior politicians can only aspire to. A lifelong Democrat (‘I inherit my politics from my father, and my aesthetic, probably, from my mum’), he has sung for presidents, calls Bill and Barack by their first names, and is vehemently backing Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.
His learned demeanour is rooted in his 1960s upbringing, during which musicians were not just allowed to have opinions, but required to. Like most of his peers, Taylor played every benefit and protest gig going, from Greenpeace to No Nukes. The articulate conscientiousness he brought to the table was somewhat at odds with his image as the soft-pop king of songs such as You’ve Got a Friend, Fire and Rain and dozens more.
Yet, away from the stage, his personal circumstances were a train wreck even before he was famous. He was a heroin addict and a psychiatric patient in his teens, and his narcotic dependency fuelled the ultimate failure of perhaps America’s favourite celebrity music marriage of the 1970s, Taylor’s to Carly Simon. He did not finally get sober until his mid-30s, when he started the reinvention that makes that untamed past impossible to recognise now.
All of which makes the lyric of Today Today Today, the opening song on Before This World, his 16th album of new songs, the first in 13 years, starkly relevant. It has him assessing his role in the musical firmament as an older man, with a palpable sense of wonder.
‘Somehow I haven’t died,’ he sings.
He toured in Italy and around Europe (but not in Britain, where he played last year) ahead of the release of Before This World, and will play extensively in America through the summer. As word emerged that the album was finally ready, he hinted that it will be his last record, on the basis that, at this level of productivity, the next one would be coming to fruition as he turned 80. Thankfully, the new record was such a pleasure to make that, he tells me, he would love to make another one.
Nevertheless, when we chat at length in his hotel room, Taylor – whom I first interviewed more than 20 years ago, and who remains hugely engaging company – admits that he still knows the version of himself who almost did not make it here: the man whose friend and fellow sybarite John Belushi let it be known that he was worried for him, a comment put into sharp relief by Belushi’s own fatal overdose soon afterwards in 1982.
That was the wake-up call Taylor needed. In his 1985 song That’s Why I’m Here, written following Belushi’s death, he sang, ‘John’s gone, found dead, he dies high, he’s brown bread. Later said to have drowned in his bed. After the laughter, the wave of dread, it hits us like a ton of lead.’
‘A big part of my story is recovery from addiction,’ he says now, matter-of-factly. ‘One thing that addiction does is, it freezes you. You don’t develop, you don’t learn the skills by trial and error of having experiences and learning from them, and finding out what it is you want, and how to go about getting it, by relating with other people. You short-circuit all of that stuff and just go for the button that says this feels good over and over again. So you can wake up, as I did, at the age of 36, feeling like you’re still 17. One of the things you learn as you get older is that you’re just the same.’
He laughs at the absurdity. Today Today Today glances back specifically to the time when Taylor was a teenager.
One of five children born into a well-to-do Boston family, he learnt cello as a child before switching to guitar, not least as a way to impress girls. But by the time he was applying to colleges, he was falling into depression, and at the age of 17 he checked himself into McLean psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts for 10 months.
His early efforts in bands, notably fronting the Flying Machine, landed ‘in pieces on the ground’, as he later wrote in Fire and Rain. On arriving in England at the age of 19 he found, to his astonishment, not only that the musical climate was more conducive, but that he was noticed and admired by the Beatles, who made him the first international signing to their Apple record label.
‘It was the epitome of the big showbusiness break,’ he says of his first Atlantic crossing. ‘[My] song Carolina in My Mind says, “With a holy host of others standing round me,” and that’s how I thought of the Beatles. Everybody did, and for them to actually say, “Sure, we’ll record you,” and then to go on to Trident Studios, where they were making the White Album, and be a fly on the wall listening back to all of those songs – it was just an amazing thing.’ Paul McCartney played bass on Carolina, and George Harrison sang backing vocals; Taylor and McCartney remain friends to this day.
Taylor met Carly Simon – whose father, Richard, co-founded the publishing house Simon & Schuster, and who had also been toiling for recognition in music for several years – at one of her concerts in 1971, just as her self-titled debut album was catching the industry’s ear. They married the following year and, from a distance, seemed the perfect match: they charted in the American top five together with their 1974 cover of Inez & Charlie Foxx’s Mockingbird, and each mentioned the other by name in love songs. But they separated in 1981 and divorced two years later.
Taylor does not keep direct contact with Simon, and does not refer to her by name, but he speaks fondly of their children, Sally, now 41, and Ben, 38. (Ben, himself a gifted singer and writer whom I have met on several occasions, always speaks of his father with great admiration, even if he has privately described to me times in his childhood when Taylor was indeed a reckless parent.)
Simon is, however, acknowledged when I ask Taylor about the challenges they faced in such a high-profile partnership. ‘We were a very public couple, yeah,’ he says quietly. ‘But I just wasn’t in front of anything, I was always reacting. The kind of artist – if I can presume to call myself that – that I am is very self-absorbed, very personally engaged.
It’s a kind of autobiographical running commentary, and that kind of expression doesn’t happen to the kid who’s the most popular in the class, and who’s dating the lead cheerleader. That happens to the alienated kid who’s got problems and has to go off by himself and invent a sort of fantasy context for himself. Which then, if you’re lucky, resonates with other people, and they can use it too, when they’re assembling their personal myth.’
More interested in playing folk and blues clubs with his lifelong friend and collaborator Danny Kortchmar than in the high expectations of his prep-school environment, Taylor was, sometimes at least, that alienated kid. After checking himself out of McLean, where he was prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, he moved to New York to pursue music but fell into heroin use. (He once told me that he came to see his drug use as “not a wild and savage thing [but]always conservative, withdrawn and controlling”.) He would not get completely clean for another 17 years.
After a second, decade-long marriage to the actress Kathryn Walker, Taylor was married a third time in 2001 to Caroline Smedvig, known as Kim. Six years his junior, she was the director of PR and marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they met when he played with John Williams and the Boston Pops. Taylor and Smedvig’s twin sons, Rufus and Henry, were born to a surrogate mother a month after the wedding. Their father confesses that he has been better equipped for responsible parenthood this time around.
‘It’s amazing to me how well Sally and Ben have turned out. They are really quite wonderful adult people. But I think that I wasn’t ready. Well, who’s ever really ready? When you’re older, more settled, more established, having come to terms with most of your demons, there are just many different ways that parenthood is better at the age of 45 or 50.
‘Of course, you don’t want to wait too late, or you’re going to leave them too soon. My dad had a second family at the age of 65, and that really wasn’t a good idea. Both parents were dead by the time the eldest was 12, and that was really sad to see.’
The 13-year gap between studio releases belies the fact that Taylor has been exceedingly busy in the interim. He has released two live records, including one with his old friend Carole King, a Christmas album and two albums of other covers, and continues to tour tirelessly. He was even on the road, away from the family home in Massachusetts, while making Before This World. But the problems that presents to fatherhood are not lost on him.
‘Rufus and Henry are beginning to notice when it’s out of balance. I hear from them,’ he says. ‘They’ve been saying, “It’s enough now, Dad.” But they realise that when I’m home, I’m around, I’m not gone from nine to five, and they also know that that’s the nature of the work.’ Indeed Henry makes an appearance on the new album, singing on Angels of Fenway, a song about Taylor’s beloved home-town baseball team the Boston Red Sox, who play at Fenway Park.
Taylor was a friend and supporter of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama long before either became president, playing benefit shows and publicly backing their campaigns. Commenting on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in a recent US interview, he described her as a public servant who would bring the country together.
But back at the day job, the feeling that he may just be too old by the time the muse completes another visit is informed by his awareness of how the songwriting process has changed. ‘It used to be that these songs got squeezed out of every pore, and you just couldn’t stop ’em. Then it slowly turned to where you had to kind of coax them out. Now you have to pull them out with a winch. I actually need three days of empty time, just waiting and being still, before things start to happen. Otherwise, anything can distract me.’
Before This World includes a ballad that may be Taylor’s most affecting love song since the 1970s era of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight. It describes the belated happiness that he is, again, surprised to have stumbled upon.
‘You and I Again is basically about that sense that in the first six months that I knew Kim, it felt as though I were encountering her from a former life. As if we had been maybe siblings in a prior existence, or parent and child, or maybe we’d been lovers. But there was piece after piece after piece that we were so in sync. It was so remarkable that I wrote this song about finding someone on the other side of death, in this lifetime.’
When did she first hear it? ‘It’s funny, it’s a song written on the piano, and I don’t really play the piano, but I had this little piece and I was driving her crazy with it. She plays piano, and she was saying, “That’s something Bach would have played when he was three.” I got it together enough to be able to write a lyric to it, and a melody as well.
‘I called her up from Rhode Island, where I was borrowing a friend’s flat to write, and said, “I got this new song that I need you to hear.” But she didn’t hear it until we had cut it, and it was a fait accompli. Her response was most satisfactory.’ When Taylor plays it the following evening, during his rapturously received concert in Florence, he closes his eyes and, just for a second, appears so lost in thought that he almost forgets to sing the next line.
Continue Reading: telegraph.uk