Happy Birthday James Taylor

Celebrating James Taylor’s upcoming (March 12) sixty fourth birthday with… a look back at the months around the time of his nineteenth, with his band, the Flying Machine, crashing, his friends drawing back as he delved deeper into drugs, and management really not doing much of anything to make things better.

Their Night Owl residency ended with the summer-time tourist season, and they were thrown back onto the general circuit, playing whichever venues would take them, sometimes for even less than the twelve bucks they’d been happy to accept at the beginning.

One gig found them performing at a supermarket opening in Union, New Jersey, strumming “Knockin’ ‘Round The Zoo” for the medicated housewives of bored suburbia.     Another saw them booked to play a set at a United Jewish Appeal fashion show, although that one at least packed a memorable few moments, when they espied jazz man Charles Mingus in the audience.  His daughter Carolyn was a model at the event, but he couldn’t resist a few minutes on stage in his own right, joining the Flying Machine and pounding electric bass through a rendition of Little Richard’s “Lucille.”

The end for the Flying Machine, however, came in the sunniest climes imaginable.  A booking came in from Freeport in the Bahamas, the Caribbean paradise that was just finding its feet in the tourist trade.  The venue was called Jokers Wild and even the name seemed to breathe promise and renewal.  But of course it didn’t work out like that.

No matter that the band members’ rooms overlooked the same placid blue waters where the likes of Frank Sinatra moored their personal yachts.  No matter that the sun beat down on endless miles of sand and palm trees, while somber reptiles went about their lizardy business.  No matter that the club had already hosted several dozen American and British bands in the past, and therefore knew exactly what luxuries would impress them the most.  For three weeks, the Flying Machine endured hell on earth, a failing club in a rundown neighborhood with zero class and a not much larger crowd.

The food they were served was awful, the hours they were expected to play were regimental.  As day slipped into interminable day, and even another week in this hell-hole loomed endlessly ahead of them, all the Flying Machine had to show for their time there were suntans, gut ache and their return tickets home.  So they packed all three together and fled.  Then, safely back in New York City, they broke up.

“My memory is pretty spotty about this stuff, because I was getting high a lot back then,” Taylor admitted to Billboard magazine in 1998.  Dope had circulated freely on the circuit that Flying Machine plied; but when they fell off that circuit, Taylor found himself into a world that was even darker.

Chip Taylor saw him one day, just as the band was falling apart.  Still disappointed by Jubilee’s reluctance to take a chance on the Flying Machine, still convinced that, with the right handling, James Taylor had what it took to make a major splash, the older man listened wistfully as his protégé played through his latest composition, a melody and a few words that would one day become “Fire And Rain,” then agreed to step back for a short time, while James sorted himself out.  “We made an appointment to meet up again in six months time at a place called McGuinesses, where we used to enjoy hanging out,” Chip Taylor recalled.  And a door quietly closed in James Taylor’s mind.

Bereft of a band, and with his one serious contact in the music industry no longer going full bore behind him, Taylor tried to keep things going alone.  One afternoon he wandered into the Elektra Records office at 51 West 51st Street, guitar in hand.  He was looking, he said, for Paul Rothschild, and somebody called the great producer out to meet him.

Maybe Rothchild wasn’t in the mood to audition new talent that day.  Maybe he was on his way to lunch.  Or maybe he’d already caught Taylor onstage with the Flying Machine and not been impressed.  His job, after all, entailed attending live shows whenever he could, checking out talent before another label got in there.  Either way, he made his excuses and slipped away, but not before he spotted somebody else to pass the young hopeful onto.  A passing Tom Rush.

Ushered into an empty office, a room which had not even been furnished, the pair made themselves comfortable on the floor.  They talked about their shared roots on the Massachusetts folk scene; about the Vineyard and Cambridge and the friends they had in common.

“The funny thing about James,” Rush recalled, “was that Paul introduced me but I should have met him earlier because my room mate when I was still living in Cambridge was a guy named Zac Weisner, who was a part of a band called the Flying Machine.  And he kept saying ‘there’s a guy in my band, you really got to hear his stuff,’ and I’d be brushing him off, ‘Zac, pick up the living room.’  I’m not a neat freak but this guy was spectacular….”

Introductions now made, Rush decided to test Weisner’s recommendation.  He asked (or maybe Taylor suggested) to hear a few of the young unknown’s songs.  A tape recorder was procured from somewhere and, moments into “Something In The Way She Moves,” Rush knew he had struck songwriting gold.

Two years had passed since Rush’s last album, Take A Little Walk With Me, and  though he was not being rushed, Rush was nevertheless aware that Elektra’s patience would not last forever.  Two years over his contracted deadline to release his third album for the label, he admitted he was growing desperate.  He was on the road a lot of the time, “and I was trying to find enough material to make another album and coming up empty handed.  I just couldn’t find enough traditional folk music that I felt I could bring anything to”

What became The Circle Game was birthed in Detroit in 1966.  Barely into her twenties, a Canadian folk singer named Joni Mitchell had been gigging around the area and when Rush arrived for a scheduled gig at the Chessmate, she was there awaiting him.  “Joni asked if she could do a guest set, and I was blown away.”

Already performing many of the songs that would mark out her debut LP two years later, “The Dawntreader,” “Sisotowbell Lane” and “Song To A Seagull,” Mitchell held audience and headliner spellbound, so much so that Mitchell joined Rush on the road as his support at a number of shows, while he even arranged an introduction to Jac Holzman..

“Joni, I was trying to champion for a while,” Rush remembered.  “I was trying to get Jac to sign her, but he said no; ‘she sounds too much like Judy Collins,’ which she actually did at the outset.  She was clearly very heavily influenced by Judy.  ‘Just listen to the songs,’ I said, but it didn’t work.”

Instead, he decided to showcase her music himself.  Three of Mitchell’s compositions would be earmarked for the new album; “The Urge For Going,” which crept out as a single that fall, and was a massive hit in Boston; the title track and the opening “Tin Angel.”  And with them came the notion of creating a thread that ran through the LP, tracing the rise and fall of a love affair.  It was, Rush modestly points out today, “one of the first concept albums”; in fact, ignoring the Beatles apologists who insist that Sgt Pepper be given that tag, it was probably the first.  Although he never intended it as such.

“The writers came to me by divine design or something,” Rush continued.  Just two of his own compositions, “Rockport Town” and “No Regrets” (later to become a major hit for Cat Stevens’ old touring buddies in the Walker brothers) were scheduled for inclusion.  Elsewhere, he relied upon friends and acquaintances to introduce him to material.

A song from country veteran Charlie Rich, and one hold-over from his coffee house days, Billy Hill’s “The Glory Of Love,” he told Taylor, were already set for inclusion alongside the Mitchell songs, while time spent with a Californian singer named Steve Noonan, newly signed to Elektra Records, had introduced him to another unknown, a teenaged songwriter named Jackson Browne.  His “Shadow Dream Song,” familiar to so many readers of Time, was another strong contender for the new record.

Now, he was thinking, no less than two of  James Taylor’s songs, “Something In The Way She Moves” and “Sunshine Sunshine,” felt like ideal bedmates for the songs he’d collected.

Taylor’s encounter with Rush was a rare bright spot in an increasingly dismal fall, however.  Drugs, increasingly, provided the only other, especially after he was introduced to two gentlemen known only as Bobby and Smack. A mutual friend introduced them, simply telling Taylor that they needed a place to “hide out.”  Taylor agreed, and he swiftly discovered that Smack was aptly named.

Later, Taylor would reason that his own addiction to heroin was more of a psychological issue than a physical dependency, because he rarely used more than twice a week.  But he also admitted that it could be very difficult to distinguish the two states of mind, particularly when his room mates, Smack and Bobby, were out robbing and mugging people in order to feed their own habits, then hightailing it back to Taylor’s apartment to hide out from any pursuers.

Police arrest warrants were out for the pair of them and Taylor, somewhere within his opiate haze, knew that if things continued down this path, there might also soon be one out for him.  “James just couldn’t take it anymore,” Kootch recalled.  “He was living in this shitty little apartment that was just junkies and alcoholics.”  So he did what no teenaged kid ever wants to do – he called his dad and begged for help.  Twenty-four hours later, a rental car pulled up outside his apartment and the unflappable old Ike bundled Taylor and his last remaining possessions (those that were worth the trip downstairs, anyway) inside.

Hours later, Taylor was back in North Carolina and he might as well have never left.  So, six months of rest and recuperation later, he set out on his travels once again.  He spent Christmas 1967 with his family, and the packed his guitar and suitcase.  Only this time, he was going to London.

Pre-order Hearts of Darkness by Dave Thompson, now from Amazon.


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