James Taylor looks back at his early years, and struggles, for new audio memoir
Even here, in the stillness of the Berkshires forest, James Taylor grows anxious. He has to be conscious of how he enters his days, since he most often experiences stress during the first six hours of being awake.
“I was glad to get a chance to see my shrink. I haven’t seen her since before the break,” he says. “I think any attempt at mental health is an excellent idea. It’s a little bit self-centered and navel-gazing, to a certain extent, to focus on yourself to that degree. But some of us need to become conscious of what we’re doing that we need to stop doing.”
It’s early January, and the 71-year-old, who has just driven the mile of his maple-lined entry after visiting with his therapist, walks into TheBarn – his recording studio, a building just a few paces from where he sleeps – and takes off his coat. He keeps on his trademark newsboy cap while tending to the fire in the wood-burning stove.
It’s difficult to imagine a more tranquil environment. But in recent years, Taylor says, he has found his anxiety becoming “a bear.” From the inception of his career, the musician, who spent much of his youth in Chapel Hill, has been open about his mental health struggles.
In his senior year of high school, he spent 10 months at Boston’s McLean Hospital during his first depressive episode. A couple of years later, he checked into another residential treatment center in an attempt to kick his heroin addiction. It was there that he composed the majority of his first hit record, 1970’s “Sweet Baby James” – a story he shared whenever he spoke about his songwriting.
Which is why, when Taylor has been asked by publishers over the years to write his memoirs, he has declined. Because he finds it redundant to talk about his music – “it should be listened to, and it either connects or it doesn’t” – he’s been more forthcoming about his personal struggles since he became famous 50 years ago.
“I didn’t necessarily feel worthy of anyone’s attention, so when I was interviewed, I’d just say, ‘Well, whatever you think is worthy of writing about. Here’s the whole thing,’ ” he says, settling into a chair at the kitchen table. “I think that’s part of being a public person. You have to accept that people can have any of it that they want, and they will interpret it as they will. Self-doubt is a trait I really like in people — I trust people who are right-sized. But I don’t think it’s a very helpful trait if you’re going to be a celebrity. I think you have to be very entitled to pull it off.”
Then, last summer, Audible approached Taylor about collaborating on a project. Because he was preparing to release an album of classic covers – “American Standard,” out Feb. 28 – his manager thought that teaming up with the audio company might help to promote the new music.
“My wife and I like ‘Blue Bloods,’ and when you watch one of those, they set out three plot lines at the beginning. You follow them and they all resolve,” Taylor says, referring to the CBS family and police procedural drama. “We can’t just have one plot line anymore. I feel as though multitasking in that way is
sort of the new norm, and I think my manager looks at it from the same point of view: ‘Let’s do something that allows us to make even more noise in the popular culture for a second.’ ”
Initially, Taylor envisioned creating something for Audible that would focus on his songwriting. He planned on selecting six of his tunes and talking about the process of writing them, their meaning and reception.
But when he began talking to the project’s producer, Bill Flanagan – an author and television executive who oversaw VH1’s “Storytellers” and CMT’s “Crossroads” – a different idea emerged.
“We talked on the phone about the parameters – about 90 minutes of James talking about something – and the best idea that came up was his detailing the first 21 years of his life,” says Flanagan, who has known Taylor for 35 years. “In the years I was at VH1 and MTV, he never wanted to do a ‘Behind the Music’ special – he could never be talked into it. So it was interesting to me how fully committed and into this he was once we started going. He told me a lot of stuff I never knew. And he’s one of the only rock stars you’ll ever meet who speaks in full paragraphs.”
TAYLOR’S EARLY YEARS
Taylor decided to call the audio memoir “Break Shot: My First 21 Years.” The title is a reference to the first shot of a billiards game, when the cue ball slams into the other balls, sending them off into various directions.
For Taylor, that moment occurred when he left his Massachusetts boarding school, Milton Academy, and went to McLean. But
“it had been building,” he says, “to a real discontinuity:” His father’s alcoholism had reached a critical point. His parents’ marriage was coming to an end. The Vietnam War was underway. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. The U.S. was living under the threat of nuclear annihilation amid the Cuban Missile Crisis.
He was on the precipice of adulthood, but he didn’t have any direction. Growing up, Taylor often felt crushed by the weight of his family’s unspoken expectations. His father was, as he puts it, “the ultimate academician” – a star student who went from Harvard Medical School to head resident at Massachusetts General Hospital. When Taylor and his four siblings were still kids, their father uprooted them from the Northeast to North Carolina, where he would later become dean of the University of North Carolina Medical School.
But as he remembers in “Break Shot,” Taylor wasn’t getting any clear instruction from his parents on how to achieve such success – about how to apply to college or pursue a career. He grapples with his relationship to his parents throughout the audio memoir, which he says he largely felt comfortable making at all because his parents are no longer around.
“I wanted to be careful not to drag other people’s business into the street – people who are my contemporaries and my siblings – anyone who’s still alive,” he explains.
SELECTIVE ABOUT SHARING DETAILS
But, as promised, he never reveals much about his intimate relationships with other living public figures. He briefly mentions taking up with Joni Mitchell, saying only: “Our romance did not last that long, but our friendship has sustained for 50 years.” And the only reference to his first wife, Carly Simon, occurs as he is recalling his childhood summers on Martha’s Vineyard, where he says he first met the Simon sisters who, at 14, were out of his league. He married Simon in 1972, a few years after “Break Shot” cuts off.
“Maybe that’s why Bill suggested we do that early part (of my life), so as not to have to make decisions like that,” Taylor says of excluding his romance with Simon from the story. “It’s hard to talk about, to tell half of a story like that. To own the whole thing – I’m glad I didn’t have to talk about those intimate relationships with people who are still alive.”
Simon – with whom Taylor has two adult children, Sally, 46, and Ben, 43 – made a very different choice when she wrote her own memoir in 2015, “Boys in the Trees.” In the book, she wrote extensively about her 10-year marriage to Taylor, detailing how she watched him shoot up in a room at the Chateau Marmont and her intense physical attraction to him.
“The connecting of our skin went more than inches,” she wrote of the first night they spent together in 1971. “He was four inches taller and his torso was much longer than mine, but it felt as though a manufacturer of bodies had copied our limbs and made them a perfect double.”
But if Taylor was upset about the revelations in Simon’s book, he doesn’t show it.
“I think she’s been pretty kind to me, and that’s certainly her story to tell,” he says of his ex-wife, who told The Times in 2015 that her kids weren’t allowed to give her Taylor’s phone number. “Maybe she got better offers. Or maybe they were more compelling, somehow. One should be free to be one’s self and not the prosecuting attorney and the defense. It would be hard for me.”
Taylor has two other children, 18-year-old twins Rufus and Henry, with his third wife, Caroline “Kim” Smedvig, whom he married in 2001. Like their father, the boys attend Milton Academy and are both interested in music. Rufus is a fan of musical theater, while Henry is the head of the school’s male a cappella group and plays jazz guitar.
“Looking at Sally and Ben’s experience with two parents who were successful in music, it may open a few doors, but you pay much more for it,” Taylor says of his elder children, who are also singer-songwriters. “Celebrity is good for the celebrity, but it’s really not that great for everyone around the celebrity. It’s something you have to cope with. It’s not really an advantage. It’s not the ideal situation for a kid coming up to have a parent who’s in the spotlight somehow.”
Raising his younger boys, Taylor says, he was especially cognizant of making sure his sons realized that “their parents’ emotional needs are not their responsibility.” As he recites in “Break Shot,” he often felt he had to parent his parents – particularly during ages 7 to 9, when his father left the family for two years to serve as a medical officer for the U.S. Navy in Antarctica. The eventual divorce of Taylor’s parents was hard on him, and as an adult, he invited his father to one of his therapy sessions in New York to discuss it.
During the meeting, he says in “Break Shot,” the psychologist confronted Taylor’s father, asking why he’d had five children with a woman he didn’t love. He replied that his own mother had died in childbirth, so he surmised his ex-wife might come to the same fate.
Taylor has found himself reflecting more on his youth as he ages. “It seems to be a time of summing up,” he says, “when there’s a finite amount of time that remains.” When he listens to music – which is, in fact, a rarity, because he prefers silence so he can “put something together” in his head – he finds himself returning to favorites from his childhood.
TAYLOR’S TAKE ON CLASSICS
“American Standard,” which he began work on in 2018, includes 14 guitarcentric arrangements of songs he treasured as a boy: “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” from “Oklahoma,” Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”
“Not only do these songs inform my music, but very early on, they were what I was playing,” he says. “Those songs were so smart and so capable and so well done that as songs, they need to have a presence in the life of music. I think it’s good to reiterate them. Bill Evans played these songs so beautifully. He threw them into a whole new light on the piano that it inspired an entire generation of jazz players. I’m not saying that I’m as capable as he, but the thing is, it’s worth doing if you bring something new to it or see it in a new light.”
In May, Taylor will embark on a 26-date U.S. tour with Jackson Browne to promote the new music. No North Carolina stops are scheduled yet.
He is rarely at home for more than a month, but tries to balance his touring schedule just enough so that he doesn’t tire of it.
“In its season, there’s nothing like it,” he says of being on the road. “I don’t know if I’ve got another studio album in me of my own material. It’s hard to know what will happen in the next 10 years. I’m still writing. I feel as though I’ve done this all my life, and I just want to take it as far as I can go.”
Music legend James Taylor has a new album, “American Standard,” out Feb. 28, and a new tour with Jackson Browne. He also is releasing an audio memoir Jan. 31: “Break Shot: My First 21 Years.”
James Taylor is releasing his audio-only memoir “Break Shot,” which focuses on his early years and ends on “the cusp” of his 1970s fame. He also has a new album, “American Standard.”
James Taylor says the title of “Break Shot” refers to the first shot of a billiards game, when the cue ball slams into the other balls. It features an interview with journalist Bill Flanagan and highlights from his music.