James Taylor’s new CD/DVD set “One Man Band” is a musical self-portrait that takes him back to the start of his career in the late ’60s when he could travel light with just his songs, guitar and a suitcase, and up through the present when he is enjoying a rare second chance at getting his life right.
Over the years, Taylor had gotten accustomed to performing in bigger venues, often with large bands or even symphony orchestras. But on this live recording of his July concerts in the intimate setting of the restored Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, Mass., near his home, Taylor begins his performance alone on acoustic guitar and later is sensitively accompanied by jazz keyboard player Larry Goldings, and on two songs by a custom-made, Rube Goldberg-like drum machine.
Taylor’s recently concluded tour marked the first time since the late ’70s that he had gone out on a stripped-down solo tour.
“It’s how I started performing and I think it’s important every once in a while to get back to it,” Taylor said in a telephone interview from Sacramento, Calif., as he headed for the next stop on his current tour with his regular band. “I think in a way this album is a James Taylor primer because it goes back to the foundations of how the songs were written. ... The arrangements are distilled down to the very essence. ... It spans the whole stretch of the three or four decades I’ve been doing this, but there are a lot of those early guitar-and-voice songs, ‘Fire and Rain,’ ‘Sweet Baby James,’ that were written before I had any hope of playing with a band.”
Adding visuals to the musicBut on the “One Man Band” tour, Taylor did something he had never done before by offering a multimedia presentation that included old photographs, family home movies and even a videotape of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus singing backup on two songs. The two-hour concert DVD, which augments the 19-song music CD, finds Taylor using a laptop computer to change the images on an overhead screen as he spins out humorous anecdotes that shed new light on the inspiration for his songs.
As he introduces songs like “Line ’Em Up” — projecting images of President Nixon’s last day in office and a mass Moonie wedding in Madison Square Garden that figure in the lyrics, Taylor reveals another side of his personality fans may be less familiar with.
“There’s somewhat a perception of me as being sort of the sensitive, suffering songwriter,” said Taylor. “The success of songs like ‘Fire and Rain’ gave people an idea of me that’s a lot more serious than is appropriate. I actually enjoy being on stage. ... I guess the news here is just that I’m a slightly more upbeat person than my public persona has been.”
All of the songs are Taylor’s own except for probably his most requested hit — “You’ve Got A Friend” by Carole King.
Taylor, whose hairline has receded past the point of no return, introduces the song with photographs of his younger long-haired mustachioed self with his 1970 band and of himself with his then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell, who sang backup harmonies on his Grammy-winning recording of the song.
“Carole was amazingly generous to just sort of give me the first shot at it ... but she’s just that way,”’ said Taylor, whose 1971 version of ‘You’ve Got A Friend” hit No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. “The audience loves the song ... It’s a sort of a shared emotional experience.”
Sex symbol in ’71This week, Taylor and King reunited with several members of their original band, drummer Russ Kunkel, bassist Lee Sklar and guitarist Danny Kortchmar, for some benefit concerts to mark the 50th anniversary of the Troubadour, the legendary West Hollywood club where the two singer-songwriters made their solo performing debuts in 1969.
Taylor, who in 1971 landed on the cover of Time magazine as the symbol of a new trend of introspective singer-songwriters, has provided a personal soundtrack for the baby boomer generation dating back to such early hits as “Fire and Rain,” written during a stay in a mental institution when he was dealing with a friend’s suicide and struggling with depression and drug addiction.
But he never deliberately set out to become a spokesman for his generation. He inherited his doctor-father’s commitment to liberal causes, currently serving as a board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, but only a few of his songs are openly political.
“Songwriting is too mysterious and uncontrolled a process for me to direct it towards any one thing,” said Taylor. “I write from a very personal place ... because I want to hear them myself. They do something for me or solve a problem or take me through a passage or put a situation to rest ... for me internally.”
“Though ‘Fire and Rain’ is very personal, for other people it resonates as a sort of commonly held experience ... And that’s what happens with me. I write things for personal reasons, and then in some cases it ... can be a shared experience.”
Songs have new meaningTaylor now finds that some of his oldest songs have taken on new meaning for him as he’s grown older and wiser. He opens the new CD with “the first presentable song” he ever wrote at age 17 in 1965 — the tender love song “Something In The Way She Moves,” originally inspired by a teenage girlfriend.
Her jokes that he didn’t know it at the time but the song was actually written for his third wife, Caroline “Kim” Smedvig, an executive with the Boston Symphony Orchestra whom he married in 2001. Such lyrics as “There’s something in the way she moves / Or looks my way, or calls my name / That seems to leave this troubled world behind” aptly describe his current state of mind.
His late-blooming romance also inspired one of the newest songs, “Mean Old Man,” which he says tells the story “about being a mean old curmudgeon who was turned around by somebody with a limitless, effortless love.” Taylor was especially flattered when Paul McCartney, who signed the singer-songwriter to record his debut album in London for Apple Records in 1968, wrote a letter praising the song which he initially assumed was an obscure Broadway show tune.
“It took me a long time to find the person that I’m meant to be with in my life,” said Taylor, whose past includes a tumultuous 1972-83 show business marriage to singer Carly Simon and a second marriage to actress Kathryn Walker, who along with the jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker helped him on his 12-step recovery from heroin addiction in the ’80s.
“I simply wasn’t a suitable partner for a long, long time and it really was a miracle that Kim was available and unspoken for when I met her. ... I just couldn’t believe my luck.”
‘I emotionally sat out 20 years of my life’Taylor, who expressed his rootlessness in such songs as “Wandering” and “Walking Man,” has made the scenic Berkshires in Massachusetts his permanent home since 1999. His first marriage to Simon broke up in part because his long absences kept him apart from his two children, but now he’s devoted to his twin 6-year-old sons. And as an avid member of Red Sox Nation, he enjoyed a special thrill singing the national anthem before Game 2 of the World Series at Fenway Park in October.
Reflecting on life’s painful lessons, Taylor has some advice for today’s generation of pop performers: “Keep your overhead low so you can afford to do your work, keep away from a major drug habit. don’t pick up a lot of debt so you become a wage slave, and don’t have kids before you’re ready to settle down. In other words, just try to travel light.”
Last month. Taylor became a grandfather when his and Simon’s 33-year-old singer-songwriter daughter Sally gave birth to a boy. He turns 60 in March, but doesn’t feel his age.
“Partly because of being a drug addict for 20 years and partly because ... I emotionally sat out 20 years of my life, I got started late. It was sort of embarrassing to be feeling like a teenager at the age of 35, but that’s what happens when you put yourself in suspended animation with substance abuse.
“If you’re lucky enough to live beyond it, you just have to start all over again. ... This is an extremely positive time for me. ... I’m trying to look at my blessings and how amazingly well against all odds things have turned out for me.”