Does anybody really listen to James Taylor anymore? Like Salinger's Catcher in the Rye – which was an eye-opener at age 15 but a yawning eye-closer at 50 – Taylor's music conjures up a time and a place of youthful love, when the world might have seemed simpler. His tunes are idyllic little frivolities, with few exceptions, that promise enduring friendship (his version of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend"), the sweetness of a newborn baby ("Sarah Maria"), the comforts and pleasures of home ("Carolina in My Mind," a song so revered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, that it's become an anthem for university students over the years), and the appeal of a sing-along ballad about his own charms and shortcomings ("Sweet Baby James”). Somehow, Taylor's music – even his most recent effort, last year’s Before This World – seems stuck in time, and by now a little uninteresting.
While I'll admit to still playing "Fire and Rain" and "Carolina in My Mind" (I am a native Tarheel) in my sets, and while I cue up Gorilla because it brings back memories of seeing Taylor live at the University of Florida in 1975, I think his music lives in a certain space and time, to be revisited mainly in memories.
I'm not the only one to feel this way, of course. The late, great Lester Bangs famously denounced Taylor long ago in his essay, "James Taylor Marked for Death," which was as much about The Troggs saving rock and roll as it was about Taylor. He wrote that Taylor's music was "I-Rock, because it is so relentlessly, involutedly egocentric," and that it made him want to push Taylor – and Elton John – off a cliff.
Of course, like Bangs, I'm in a minority. Taylor sells out shows regularly, appealing to the wine and cheese crowd, singing enough of his "classics" to satisfy the audience that sings along to every word. "I want to be in tune. I want to sing pretty, I want to sing sweet. You find a way forward," says Taylor, "if your audience keeps showing up." He works his magic so well that he's convinced almost every member of the audience that he's their lifelong friend and it's 1970 again, if just for a few hours.
At least one critic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, in his AllMusic review, called Taylor's latest, Before This World, "something unexpected: a record as relaxed as the average James Taylor album but one that's also riskier and richer, the right album for him to make at this date." And indeed, Before This World sold 96,000 copies in its first week, catapulting it to number 1 on the Billboard album chart, leaping over Taylor Swift's 1989.
Now music historian Mark Ribowsky (Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul) comes not to bury Taylor but to praise him in Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines: The Life and Music of James Taylor (Chicago Review Press).
Drawing deeply on recent interviews with Taylor's friends, family, and fellow musicians – as well as older interviews with Taylor himself – Ribowsky chronicles the ups and downs of a singer, songwriter, and troubadour who started out playing cello, worked out a deal with his mother to continue learning cello as long as he could also learn guitar, hooked up with lifelong pal Danny Kortchmar, and set out to fly those flying machines through some sweet and not-so-sweet dreams.
As Ribowsky points out in the beginning of his book: "The James Taylor in these pages emerges as a rather strange man, one of impeccable, implacable Southern-bred manners, awkward social skills, and for many years, sexism and outright stupidity. He always existed in a strange warp. He was never the biggest-selling artist in the world, or in America, yet despite other acts selling more units, he was the fulcrum of a movement growing from L.A. that fully converted rock from an impulse behavior to a corporate behemoth. … Taylor, a child of wealth, cashed in on his grasp of middle-class angst to the extent that few of his contemporaries are now able to rouse inner emotions formed so long ago in their fans quite like he does."
Although Ribowsky recounts the deep biographical details of Taylor's family, he's more interested in the ways that Taylor's life and music intersect and the ways that Taylor's personality shapes his music. Early on, Kortchmar recognized Taylor's "special instrument – his voice," though he also wondered if Taylor could ever get over his reticence and stage fright and hoped that Taylor could "master singing in front of a crowd without his voice cracking in cold fear."
It's not that long, though, before Taylor and Kortchmar and their band are playing in folk clubs in the Village, and it's an even shorter time before Taylor embarks on an addiction to drugs that will trail him throughout much of the late 1960s and into the mid-'70s. Realizing that his friend's potential is threatened by his habits, Kortchmar is relieved when Taylor tells him he wants to head over to England to see what was going on there. He calls up Peter Asher – of Peter and Gordon – who had heard Taylor's band, the King Bees, when they opened a few dates for Peter and Gordon, hoping Asher could help him. According to Ribowsky, "Taylor believed that drugs were less prominent, less necessary" in London. Once there, he becomes the first American artist to record on Apple Records, a move that leads to some ups and downs when he attempts to move on to a different label.
Ribowsky recounts Taylor's high-profile romances with Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon – who herself reveals the tawdry and the tepid of her relationship with Taylor and his ways in her recent memoir, Boys in the Trees. Yet it's less Taylor's womanizing than it is his anxiety over his songwriting that emerges as a key to his character in Ribowsky's account: "Sometimes I wonder if I'll be able to write songs now that things are going better. Because I think a lot of art comes from a painful place. I think fear or pain or some kind of discomfort is the motivation for almost all endeavor."
Although Taylor said that 45 years ago, he still feels, in Ribowsky's words, that "love is never given or taken easily, or without cause. … The working of the human heart and the baggage it always seems to leave, that's nothing to trifle with."
Regrettably, Ribowsky wasn't able to speak to Taylor for this book, so he couldn’t include any new interviews. While it would have been very useful to have the singer's thoughts about himself, his journey, and his music – and Taylor's absence remains a shortcoming of the book – Ribowsky nevertheless provokes us to wonder why we should still listen to James Taylor after all. This book succeeds in doing what good books of this sort do best: getting us to listen to Taylor's music again, or for the first time, to recall why – or to determine if – we love it.