It's weird for me to watch One Man Band, the James Taylor CD/DVD that's coming out next week. Oh, it's an attractive package, recorded in the summer in a small theater in the leafy Berkshire Mountains. As the title suggests, it's just James, a pianist (okay, he cheated) and the occasional jerry-rigged drum machine (another cheat). He sings, he talks about his songs and the people who inspired them, he taps a computer to activate an anthology of family photos and home movies --- here's an exclusive Huffington Post/Head Butler preview of him talking about and singing "Sweet Baby James".
If this production is weird for me, it's because, after all these years, everything has changed and, then again, nothing has. His voice: undented after four decades of regular use. Sense of humor: still charmingly off-center, but never blue. And his stories about his early days --- they take me back to when we were kids.
John F. Kennedy was President when I met James Taylor.
It was September 1963, and my brother Richard and I were "new boys" at Milton Academy, invariably described as an "elite boarding school" a few miles outside of Boston.
James and Richard were 13-year-old eighth-graders, and in their dorm, the little kids slept in a cavernous chamber devised by a demonic 18th century English public school headmaster. Each kid had a room just big enough for a bed, a dresser and a desk. But "room" isn't quite right. The walls made no effort to reach the ceiling; the door was a curtain. Naturally, there was inspection. And demerits, and a lot more silly stuff, all of it gone now.
My brother was "Rocko", because he had a red electric guitar and could play a few chords. James was "Moose", because he was tall and gangly, with a shy, embarrassed smile that suggested he knew he was in the wrong place.
James didn't graduate. No blame on him for leaving --- back then, most schools like Milton were concentration camps with team sports, and a kid with options or problems or who just didn't give a damn usually found a way out.
Cut to Cambridge, a year later. I was a freshman at Harvard --- no biggie; Harvard accepted 27 of my 45 Milton classmates that year, and not because they were wicked smart. The drugs have done their work, and I cannot be sure of this, but I recall that James, now somewhat itinerant, spent the occasional night on my couch. Which makes a kind of sense, because he was then going out with the sister of my girlfriend.
Much clearer is visiting him at McLean Hospital, invariably described as an "elite mental hospital" a few miles outside of Boston. His girlfriend would borrow her father's British Racing Green 1950 MG and we'd drive out to see James. Very Scott and Zelda, until we got there --- McLean's was every bit as grim as the Milton dorms. And James would always hit on us for dope, which gave me about the only moral decision I had to make that year. (I declined. Surprised?)
Through it all, James was making music, but I was never around for it. In 1967, we spent a pleasant afternoon together, watching films of the great comedian, Professor Irwin Corey, with his daughter. And then James was off to England.
Everybody knows what happened next. The Beatles loved his butter-smooth voice and those ultra-laid back, sorta-country-but-not-quite songs, and they made him the first "artist" on their new label --- as James says, he walked through the ultimate door.
And now, in "One Man Band", he's tried to back himself out again. Stripping away the band, getting down to basics --- the impulse to do a straightforward, confessional piece is the musician's equivalent of writing a memoir. It's hard to do. But this one doesn't feel fake, and it doesn't sound forced, and although he's still got that shy, embarrassed smile, James Taylor looks as if he feels he's in the right place.
[cross-posted in HeadButler.com]