James Tay­lor looks back at his early years, and strug­gles, for new au­dio mem­oir

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY AMY KAUFMAN

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 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.


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.


“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.

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