The godfather of every sensitive male singer-songwriter on the planet, James Taylor turns 60 today, March 12. In this interview from Petticoat, published on 23 October, 1971, Keith Altham gets to the heart of the reclusive superstar's appeal. Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
Taylor has the most artless presentation on stage since Leonard Cohen — some believe it to be calculated but I believe it more the exaggeration of his real self — and is the broken singer of broken songs like "Fire and Rain" and "Long Ago and Far Away." Watching him sing becomes almost an intrusion upon his privacy.
Taylor's biggest "hang-up" currently — apart from the medical history of mental illness that runs through the entire Taylor children, Livingston, Alexander, Kate and Hugh — is that he is suffering from an overdose of journalists. At first he was welcomed with open arms by the musical press as the antidote to those more promotionally conscious artists who've elevated their image to the charismatic heights of Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney. James was just a "natural little old singer" without the glamour.
But alas, Taylor committed the cardinal sin of becoming popular and, even worse, a cult figure in the United States, where he made the front cover of Time Magazine — a space usually reserved for politicians, royalty and killers. The underground press realized the worst: their anti-hero was becoming a hero!
The net result was that James arrived in England to the tune of "no interviews and no photo sessions," although he did attend a press reception aboard the good restaurant ship Hispaniola on the Thames, looking about as happy as a penguin in the Gobi desert.
I got in early before the national press began upsetting him with little gems like "Are you aware you have a cult following?" He explained his own paranoia.
"Music is my living," he said. "I enjoy selling my music. I don't enjoy selling myself. Photographers and reporters are mostly after me. They want to know what I read and what I'm like and I don't really know myself, so how can I tell them? Things started to get out of control when I began reading that I was a superstar. I'm not what a superstar should be — it's a box with a label on it. I'd just like to see a lot of this confusing rubbish go away and get back to those old times. If I could go back I would. I'm looking forward to being able to retire from being a public figure and being able to afford to be myself!"
"We really are not trying to be nasty to the press," said Peter Asher, his producer and manager. "We are not saying 'F**k off, you nasty snotty plebby press,' because we really are grateful for the nice things that have been written here, but James just doesn't like interviews. It's not what he does — it's what he sings! We did this press reception just to say thank you."
It was approximately two years ago when Asher was working for the Beatles' Apple organization that Taylor knocked on the door of his London flat with a few tapes and an introduction from Danny Kortchmar, who'd once backed Peter [Asher] and Gordon [Waller] on an American tour as a guitarist.
Peter says he was immediately impressed by the strength of the material and saw Taylor's potential, but the proportion to which it has now blown is beyond even his expectations. "It's the kiss of death to say that anyone is the next Beatles or the next Elvis," said Peter. "And I don't think of James in that way. But he is as unique in his way as the Beatles or Elvis were in their way."
Eventually I pulled a few strings and got to meet the real person in a house Taylor had rented off Knightsbridge for his short sojourn in London during the tour. Ushered into a comfortable sitting room by Peter, I found James bent over a chess board bemoaning his position in the match and the fact that a woman had put him there.
"It's difficult to tell why all this has happened," said James quietly. "Maybe some people are able to feel from my songs a sense of belonging to the same world. I've been at the point quite often when I am not able to handle my own emotions and they just boil over — like a child. Some of that goes into my songs while I go into one of these institutions! I am pleased to be able to afford them. Sometimes I write about those experiences — 'Knocking Around The Zoo' was one and 'Fire And Rain' was another. 'Fire And Rain' concerned a girl called Suzanne, who they put into an isolation cell and she couldn't take it and committed suicide. I started that song in Ovington Gardens just around the corner from here. I stole the chord sequence from something my brother Alexander wrote."
"We took a lot of time over the first album — time to arrange it and orchestrate. The second album Sweet Baby James was nailed right down and recorded with a few friends in half the time. Mud Slide And The Blue Horizon was squeezed into slots between engagements. It was a bit like pulling teeth!"
Coming shortly is Taylor's first film, Two-Lane Blacktop, in which he and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson have starring roles. The film concerns a dragster race across America in a pair of beaten up hot rods. "It's really about four people's relationships with each other," says James. "It stretches over a 40-hour period and the star is really the stunt man — J. Wheatley."
James' great talent for most people is his sit-back-and-relax style, which is the one quality I hope he never loses. Maybe that is why he is so backward in coming forward.
"I don't get into heavy political numbers because I don't find them lyrical. I'd like to write for all those commie-fascists but I can't reach them my way. I can't get around to saying 'Mr. Nixon will you please go to hell!' I think he's there anyway!"
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- James Taylor