Friday, January 6, 2012

Fire and Rain and the "James Taylor Controversy"

Before I talked about Early ‘70s Radio as part of the “Views and Brews” series at the Cactus Café last October, the notion of a “James Taylor controversy” managed to work its way into the promotional language of Austin's KUT, who sponsored the event. Although I'd initially scratched my head a bit over this, the phrase turned out to be a pretty brilliant attention-getter, prompting a flurry of phone calls and emails. What could possibly be controversial about James Taylor?, people wondered. Why haven’t I ever heard about this?

Taylor’s non-controversial persona is precisely the controversy. Many among those who have stretched out in JT's comfortable, musical hammock have likely never considered his powers to alienate those whose ears habitually crave the slightest dose of aggression and confrontation. While his immense popularity and poster boy status for what Life magazine called the “un-radical young” ran counter to the musical experimentation and political activism that characterized the late ‘60s, it was the vehemently apolitical early '70s heavy rock crowd that hated him loudest.

For these folks, enfant terrible rock critic Lester Bangs was as much of a spokesperson as was an artist - through example - such as Alice Cooper, and one needed to look no further for proof than Bangs's 1971 essay, “James Taylor Marked for Death.” This is where he fantasized about twisting a broken bottle into JT’s guts as payback for the “bardic auteur crap” the singer-songwriter epitomized. “By the end of the decade it had become obvious that perhaps the one constant of our variegated and strung-out peer groups was a pervasive sense of self-consciousness,” wrote Bangs in that same essay. “[It was] as if all of this meant something greater than that we were kids who liked rock 'n' roll and came out to have a good time.”

Bangs’s notorious words, though, have overshadowed the extent to which Taylor first made his mark as something quite different from what the ‘60s generation, for whom the term "singer-songwriter" did not yet exist, was accustomed to. He was different enough, in fact, to grace the cover of Time magazine as a symbol of the “new rock.” At the Cactus that night, I was interested to hear KUT’s Jay Trachtenberg talking about a seemingly nationwide sigh of exhaustion one could sense in post-Kent State America. To the irritation of musical adventurers like Jay, the mellow sounds of Sweet Baby James and its ilk oozed out of college dorm rooms all at once. This makes sense, in retrospect. With his soothing musicality offset by a history of mental illness and drug abuse, Taylor embodied a widespread, broken-hearted pause for personal reflection.

David Browne’s Fire and Rain, which came out on Da Capo the same month as my Early ‘70s Radio, captures this aspect of Taylor’s quintessentially early-‘70s appeal quite wonderfully. (I admit to a special thrill in discovering that a publication that corroborates elements of my own book’s subject came out right at the same time.) Browne zeroes in on the musical and cultural interweavings of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and James Taylor as vivid signposts for changing times. The book's overarching thread is the dismantling of a ‘60s “get together” ethos at the seemingly irresistible onset of the “me generation,” so called by Tom Wolfe only because it was true.

Browne supports this “lost story of 1970” with enough behind-the-music episodes to satisfy widely-read rock historians and dabblers alike: Paul Simon teaching songwriting courses at New York University while his increasingly AWOL partner racks up screen credits as “Arthur Garfunkel”; Simon’s first appearance as a solo entity in front of an apathetic crowd at Shea Stadium; Stephen Stills and Graham Nash fracturing the chances for CSNY’s survival by competing for Rita Coolidge; the touchy set list politics underneath the concerts CSNY audiences otherwise perceived as being “from the hip”; James Taylor on the set of Two Lane Blacktop, wherein we learn that the film is one of JT’s edgiest endeavors because he was extremely miserable; and narratives that depict all four Beatles as being alternately giddy and frightened about their forthcoming split.

Fire and Rain also serves as a useful one-stop summary of the very real onslaught of bombing and violence that was contaminating the New Left, the only resolution of which had to be a calming down of sorts, if not full cultural recalibration by the end of 1970. “By then, the country, even the world, was exhausted after ten months of Vietnam-related anguish and homegrown terrorism, pandemonium and death on campus, and the collapse or failure of so much from the past decade, be it the Beatles or moon missions,” Browne writes. “The two previous years had jarringly demonstrated that social or political change was no longer in plain sight…the worlds of January 1970 and twelve months later felt like polar opposites.”

What this new mass impulse for personal reflection meant for pop music heavyweights like the Beatles, and "American Beatles" candidates like Simon and Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, was that it was time to go solo. For John Lennon this meant naked honesty, while for Paul McCartney it was home studio dabbling. The personal statement, however a given artist saw fit to express it, was the important part. As baffling as Dylan's Self Portrait might have seemed to many a listener, therefore, it did march in step with the times.

In Early ‘70s Radio, I address this new pop music climate in terms of “feminization,” and now that I've just finished Fire and Rain, I suggest that one might do well to follow up that book with Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us for a look at the iconic early ‘70s female singer-songwriters Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. James Taylor, who was in close platonic and/or romantic relationships with all three, is the perfect bridge between the two books, and Browne, after all (who titled his book after his most famous song), zooms in on JT as the book’s closing image. “For many, there was no better way to wind down from one year, one decade, and one moment, than with James Taylor,” Browne writes. And this brings us back to the provocative notion of a "James Taylor controversy": All of that early '70s clamoring for a "new Beatles" or a "new Dylan" was entirely misguided because, like it or not, James Taylor - according to the revamped standards of a new decade - was both.

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