8/24/12 - young james taylor

In today's excerpt - James Taylor, composer of such iconic songs as "Fire and Rain," struggled with heroin addiction as a young man. A preamble to this addiction was an often absent father and feelings of isolation:

"Anyone who knew James Taylor knew he was a product, in equal doses, of music and isolation. When Taylor was three, in 1951, his family -- led by his father, Isaac, a doctor educated in Boston, and his mother, Trudy -- had returned to the state where Isaac was born, North Carolina. Isaac had accepted a job as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

"On the surface, their new home in Chapel Hill was idyllic: eight rooms, twenty-five acres, a hammock in the backyard. Music was everywhere. An upright piano took up residence in the living room; in the kitchen, the Taylor kids -- oldest brother Alex, followed by James, Livingston, Hugh, and Kate -- would pull out cans from the cupboards and break spontaneously into the jingles for each product. The chil­dren would sing sea chanties, Woody Guthrie songs, and sing-along favorites like 'On Top of Old Smoky.' Thanks to Trudy, who'd stud­ied voice at the New York Conservatory and had once trained with Aaron Copland at Harvard, the concept of a professional career in music wasn't unthinkable. James himself -- born in Boston in 1948 -- took cello lessons, briefly played in Chapel Hill's first Young People's Orchestra, and performed once with the North Carolina Symphony, playing the ballad 'Blue Bells of Scotland.' Alex brought home Ray Charles and Bobby Blue Bland records and joined a local bar band, the Corsairs.

"The family summered on Martha's Vineyard ... The tranquil settings masked a sense of unease and anxiety. Isaac had a drinking problem and was prone to go off on extended work trips, like the voyage to Antarctica that took him away from the family for nearly two years in the mid '50s. Trudy Taylor had to fend for herself, with sometimes unpleasant results (once she was stung by a swarm of bees while protecting her family). Isaac's isolation impacted on the family in deeper ways. Although Kate remained bubbly, Alex grew into the family rebel, the one always fighting with his parents. James was, according to his younger brother Livingston, 'observant and fairly quiet, always held his cards close.' He could often be seen taking walks alone in the nearby woods. The sense that they were in the South but 'of the North,' as James recalled, led him to feel isolated early; summers in Massachusetts only intensified those feelings. Even a hundred years after the Civil War, Taylor felt in his bones the difference between Southerners and, he re­called, 'Yankees and outsiders,' and he was caught between them.

"The mounting sense of disconnection inside him only grew after the family enrolled him in Milton Academy, a strict boarding school ten miles south of Boston, in the fall of 1961. Although he was returning to the state where his family had once lived, Taylor wasn't comforted by Milton's wide-open yards and brick buildings. As a teacher once recalled, he was hardly an 'activist.' He tended to stay in his room and practice his new instrument, the guitar. When a rowdy classmate broke it, Tay­lor was fairly traumatized --'a bad moment for me,' he would later say. Although it was repaired, it never sounded the same.

"When a depression set in around Thanksgiving of his senior year, the family pulled him out. 'I had a shattered brain,' he recalled, leading to a stint at McLean Hospital, a $36,400-a-year Boston-suburb infirmary that, with its cottages and lawns, resembled a college campus. The sight of her older brother living in a locked ward so upset Kate that she broke down during a visit. One day at dinner in an adjoining ward, he looked over and saw -- or thought he saw -- Ray Charles. 'I thought I was hallu­cinating,' he recalled. 'It scared the shit out of me.' But his eyes didn't deceive him; Charles, who'd been sent to McLean after a heroin bust, was actually there. The sight of one of his heroes in the ward haunted him for decades."


David Browne


Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970


First Da Capo Press


Copyright 2011 by David Browne


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