At 67, James Taylor just scored #1 on the Billboard charts for the first time since 1970. That was when he released his second album, "Sweet Baby James," propelled to the top by his sad, sensitive and heroic stoic ballad "Fire and Rain." That 70's disc even led to a cottage industry of Taylors (Livingston, Kate and Alex, all with new releases) and some powerful near-hits including "Mockingbird" with his then-wife Carly Simon.
All seriousness aside, when you consider that Carly (and Joni and Don McLean and Cat Stevens and just about every singer-songwriter from that era) can't get arrested, Taylor's "Before This World" is a triumph. It's a triumph I haven't heard, and don't care about. So what; Taylor in the 70's primarily appealed to women, and to a few guys who identified with cracking up, doing drugs, and conning women. That would explain peculiar tribute songs at the time such as "Keep Driving James" from Harriet Schock and "Oh James" by Andy Bown. As he aged, Taylor held onto his aging hippie-to-Yuppie fans, who were also glad to have escaped drug addiction for affluence, and to still have enough of their own teeth to have morning granola.
Back in the 70's the cockeyed and brooding singer with the soft voice seemed like he might kill himself. Gradually he emerged with a self-confident Anthony Perkins smirk, and today looks like he could stab somebody in a shower.
Look, no less a critic and artist than George Harrison once admitted, "I never cared for the Sweet Baby." He said it back in the 70's, perhaps still cringing about Taylor having been originally signed to Apple. Or he just found something creepy and formulaic about Taylor's "pity me" numbers, his predictable strumming, his very limited singing ability, and eventually his even more limited subject matter, which ended up including a cover of "Handy Man" and an ode to "branch water and tomato wine, creosote and turpentine, sour mash and new moon shine, Down on Copperline.").
Yes, here in Illvllle, we acknowledge a survivor, and James Taylor is that. He also turned in a beautifully sardonic turn as an egocentric, somewhat evil God in Randy Newman's "Faust." While sweet dreams and flying machines crashed along the way, and Carly was quite exasperated with the guy, he became that rarity, a living legend. His big hit on the new album is "Angels of Fenway," about his beloved Boston Red Sox. He'll be performing it at Fenway Park on August 6th, as part of his "You don't have to just wait around for Paul Simon or Jimmy Buffett to tour Tour."
Brother Alex is long gone. Kate never was much of a factor (although I play her stuff more than any of the other Taylors, and she did a nice job on her cover of "Harriet Tubman" as well as her light versions of Four Tops hits). Livingston? Oh, I did interview that guy and I found him pretty intimidating and intense at first, but we had some laughs.
Speaking of laughs, back when he was super-hot, James was given a different type of "tribute" via the National Lampoon "Lemmings" rock-parody show. The show was helmed by John Belushi, but the prime star was Christopher Guest, who co-wrote and performed skewering takes on both Bob Dylan and Mr. Taylor. Just how skewering did it get? Well, even in Illville, and even after all this time, one has to both laugh and shiver over the great line alluding to Taylor's hypodermic use and another hinting at lobotomy. It goes beyond the jabs at Taylor the sell-out and womanizer. Listen to the self-described "soulful, moody" Taylor bash called "Highway Toes"…
SKEWERING James Taylor