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James Taylor Fire and Rain

James Taylor - Image from Commons. wikimedia.org

James Taylor – Image from Commons. wikimedia.org

James Vernon Taylor (born March 12, 1948) is one of the most popular American singer-songwriter-guitarist. He is a five-time Grammy Award winner and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. Having sold more than 100 million records worldwide, he is one of the best-selling music artists of all time.

One of the first things we did after moving to Knoxville, TN was to go to a James Taylor concert. Since I live in the United States and I do listen to the radio, I have heard James Taylor Songs. Was I a big fan? I’d have to say ‘no,’ but Larry was.

The Thompson-Boling Arena was packed with dedicated fans. As I listened I could tell why. James isn’t just a musician or a songwriter, he’s a storyteller. The emotion he puts into the lyrics moves the listener.


 Fire and Rain

Look at the lyrics from James Taylors Fire and Rain, written in 1968, one of Taylor’s most popular songs. In an interview, he did about Fire and Rain, Taylor reveals that the three verses are from three different experiences followed by the chorus.

Just yesterday mornin’, they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can’t remember who to send it to

 This first verse tells about a friend who committed suicide while he was in London recording. Everyone was afraid to tell him about what happened, afraid it would bring him down, making it difficult finishing recording his first solo album.

Second Verse of Fire and Rain

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus?
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

This second verse speaks about when he was trying to get off heroin. These lyrics strike me as very interesting. He’s in the throes of heroin addiction and he cries out to Jesus, please look down upon me help me make a stand, see me through another day. According to the posts I’ve read, he was so addicted and in such a bad way that Asher, the one in charge of his recording, had to fly with him to the states. His mother then got him into a rehab center.

Many of us cry out to God when we’re in a bad way, but when things straighten out we forget those cries of help.

In interviews with The Bluerailroad (July 5, 2009) and Rolling Stone (June 24, 1997), Taylor stated:

“My father was an atheist, as distinguished from an agnostic. He felt that anyone who suggested that they represented God was to be deeply distrusted, that anyone who opened his mouth saying that he represented anything divine was a charlatan,” Taylor told music journalist Paul Zollo in a 2009 interview. Asked if he shared that feeling, Taylor said, “Sure, that’s what I was given as a set of beliefs from my father.”

“I think God is the name of a question. God is not an existing thing. That’s what we’ve named an unknown.”

 ROLLING STONE: “Does not having faith in a personal god make it harder to stick with a 12-step recovery program?”

TAYLOR: “Twelve-step programs say an interesting thing; Either you have a god, or you are God and you don’t want the job.”

 Third Verse

The lyrics in the third verse of Fire and Rain were about his stay in the McLean Psychiatric Hospital and his experiences with the band, Flying Machines.

 Been walking my mind to an easy time
My back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows
It’ll turn your head around
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line
To talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

 Each verse is followed by the chorus:

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

The Flying Machine

During one of Taylor’s family summer vacations on Martha’s Vineyard, he met and befriended Danny Kortchmar, an aspiring teenage guitarist from Larchmont, New York. In 1966, at Kortchmar’s urging, Taylor checked himself out of McLean Psychiatric Hospital  and moved to New York City to form the band, the “Flying Machine.”

The band played songs that Taylor had written during his stay at McLean, such as “Knocking ‘Round the Zoo,” “Don’t Talk Now,” and “The Blues Is Just a Bad Dream.” By the summer of 1966, the band was playing regular gigs at the high-visibility Night Owl Café in Greenwich Village, along with other groups such as “The Turtles, Lovin’ Spoonful, The Magicians, and The Blue Magoos” to mention a few.

It was during this time that he first began using drugs, heroin in particular. He stated that he just fell into drug use because it was as easy to get drugs in the village as to get a drink. His drug use got so bad that his manager left him. One night he called his dad who flew to New York and rented a car to take him home. He went through a tentative recovery.

James Taylor Self-Titled Album 1968

James Taylor Self-Titled Album 1968

In late 1967, funded by a small family inheritance, he flew to London to try being a solo act. After cutting a demo of “Something in the Way She Moves,” Kortchmar gave him his big break by introducing him to Peter Ashar, the A&R rep for Apple Records, the Beatle’s newly formed record label. Taylor was the first non-British artist to be signed with Apple.

With drugs much more available in London than even in Greenwich Village, he lapsed back into heavy drug use and barely finished recording his first album before Asher had to fly him back to the states. His first album was released in the UK in 1968 and in the US in 1969.

Peter Asher on Jame Taylors Songs

“James had been through so much by the time he was twenty that he had so much to express in his music. Other young artists of his age whom I worked with sang about how good or bad life was but really had no idea what they were singing about. James was already singing with the conviction of a singer much older than himself. Everything that he had already been through was evident in his songwriting,” Peter Asher.

 An Interview with NPR Music

 Fire and Rain was written in 1968 during his stay at Austin Riggs mental institution in Stockbridge, MA. after returning from London. During an interview with NPR Music, Taylor was asked about the longevity of Fire and Rain and the emotional connection that it makes with the audience.

“It’s not about the actual information of the song, but the emotional connection with that information.”

 “You want to feel as though you’re making a connection with it. It helps to have an audience there receiving it, because then you want it to happen for them, too. It’s, like, just a common–you know, making music for an audience is a communal process. And so, you know, they’re resonating with it, I catch that, too. That’s contagious.”

 James Taylor as Guitarist

No matter what people say about Taylor’s drug use days or the lyrics of his songs, one must acknowledge his accomplished acoustic fingerpickin’, which is very much his own style. He exercises great control over the tone, dynamics, and melodic intricacies. All of the parts he plays contain both bass and melody lines. His parts are very inventive and not fixed patterns played over chord changes.

As you know, if you’re an acoustic guitarist, it’s very difficult to nail a perfect acoustic guitar part in the studio where the feeling and technique come together throughout the entire arrangement for a perfect take. Many have said that that is Taylor’s forte. Some have said it’s nothing less than masterful playing.

According to Tom Greeves on Quora, “Taylor is an INCREDIBLE guitar player. Here’s some evidence to support that statement:

  • “When you hear him, you likely know it’s him – which is always a sign that a guitarist is special.
  • He doesn’t just pick arpeggios but plays complex and gorgeous counter melodies.
  • His chord choices are brilliant and unique.
  • He is exceptionally thoughtful and insightful when it comes to choosing guitars, strings, action, and capo placement.
  • He developed his own tuning system, to offset the fact that strings can often pull sharp to different extents.
  • His playing is one of the reasons that he is a giant of the music world. (He’s also an amazing singer, lyricist, and composer.)”

Larry Warfield states that Taylor is one of his favorite guitarists. He comments that the combination of Taylor’s lyrics, which pull on your heartstrings, his voice, a little on the soft nasally side and his intricate guitar phrasing style has created a unique sound that has carved out his own lane in the music universe.

Beginning Guitarist

Taylor began his musical journey taking cello lessons during childhood in North Carolina. He didn’t begin learning to play the guitar until in the 60s. Taylor states that his guitar playing was “influenced by hymns, carols, and the music of Woody Guthrie.”  When he was learning to play he’d strum along with his parent’s records by Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Judy Garland, and Lead Belly.

Taylor states that his technique was developed from his bass clef-oriented cello training and from experimenting on his sister Kate’s keyboards. “My style was a finger-picking style that was meant to be like a piano as if my thumb were my left hand, and my first, second, and third fingers were my right hand.” Taylor’s fingerpicking, then, became as unique as his lyrics.

The combination of the themes of his lyrics, playing style, and voice touch the emotions of his listeners. As listeners, we feel the sadness of finding out that his friend had died or happiness as something we treasure. The lyrics move us in different ways. The line from Fire and Rain, “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,” moved Carole King to write the song in response, “You’ve Got a Friend.”

by Dena Warfield