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FROM SWEET BABY TO HANDYMAN
by Franc Gavin
We wanted to be adults, overnight. In 1970, liking James Taylor filled the bill. It wasn't so much that the class of '70 had outgrown ear-busting music. We just wanted to feel like we had.
"Sweet Baby James" appeared unobtrusively, along with the usual periodic shitload of Warner's releases, and the local cool-dude record store jerk said, "Thumbs up" to a release that contained James Taylor, John Martyn, John Simon, et al. (Record store boy being the one who, in the beginning, had shamed us into forgetting that we liked the hard stuff for hardness' sake.) Time to be cool, jazzy, mellow and tasteful. Tasteful for sure, man.
I mean, really. James seemed to fit all the requirements, so we all got "Sweet Baby" boy hisself, ran home and slapped him on our baby-Garrards. Sumbitch was quiet. Sang about cowboys, li'l fellers and just plain goin' wacko-bananas. Played de blooz for you. And behold, before it was pronounced that one could have too much of it, a modicum of taste. A word that has since erroneously entered the popular vocabulary via many a tinhorn FM deejay for astounding breadth of misusage. Past said point, it became synonymous with dull. Somewhere along the line, so did James. Releasing lps like "Mudslide Jim" and "One Man Dog," his rock airplay decreased and his MOR following increased by leaps and bounds. He became a media-age folk hero, and marrying Carly Simon didn't hurt the image a bit. In many a housewife and secretary's mind, he became the stuff of which their dreams were made.
Smartass critics began riding him mercilessly, and as his initial listenership make that transition, he lost his early small, "hipper" clientele. They, despite their claims to elite prescience, all apparently believed the pompous pronouncements that accompanied the Time magazine cover. Truth was, James hadn't changed a whit. As far as conviction went, his music was and still remains rooted in unobtrusively traditional vein and not the kind at all that lends itself to the radical turnabout.
To reiterate: Mothers loved him. Little sisters (big-comb handles protruding from the back pockets of their straight-legged jeans, too young to remember the sullen lad who reclined across the portfolio cover of his debut on Apple) eagerly picked up on him. His prosperity knew no bounds.
With the release of "Gorilla," the critics backed up a wee bit. "Mexico" was an undeniably fine song, and it sounded good on the car-radio driving home from work on a hot afternoon. It certainly appealed to everybody's irresponsible side. Drive up to the split level, plunk down a FOR SALE sign, grab the little woman even as she heats up the Stir n' Server,
Whatever . . . "C'mon baby we're goin to MEH-HEE-CKOO!!" Keep askin' her if she can hear them maracas just tattlin' and she sez - "But what about your job, what about the kids? What about my mother who's coming tomorrow?
"Screw `em all baby, we'll catch the next flight to Puerto Vallarta, live on palm syrup and margaritas, knotch-oes and free-holees? And when we run outta pay-sos, we'll just put the little bastards out on the street, shinin' turista's shoes . . ."
Going native. A nice dream, even for the majority who just went home and unprotestingly ate their Slit n' Serve and hit the same old office grind the very next day. "Gorilla's" title track referred to a certain ". . . heart o'darkness" and the critics said goddamn: A sly ref to Joe Conrad. James re-did, "How Sweet It Is" and very every double-knitter in the world got up to dance. By now the intellectuals were puzzled, and JT was essentially no different `75 than he had been in `70.
There came the switch to CBS and the release of "JT." Mothers looked at his shorn locks and noted how much he now resembled Dennis Weaver. "McCloud" rides again. "Handyman" is Otis Blackwell's answer to a Eubie Blake song, and everyone is bullish on Taylor once more. Even the critics. "Your Smiling Face" is the usual compendium of reflections, but "Honey Don't Leave L.A." and "I Was Only Telling a Lie" lurch to and fro with a wry rock and roll elegance that is yet still Taylor.
He was only telling a lie. Not hardly, one thinks, considering the finely drawn imagery of that particular portrait in black and white, a stark photographic image of screwed up love set amidst the desert outskirts of the urban ruin.
In perfect "Who Do You Love?" growl, this boy sez:
"Got the one room suite in the downtown motel
got a lovely view
classic shot of the parking lot
An off ramp of Route 72 . . . .
A half flat six pack of lukewarm beer
So lay down by my side
Like to whisper sweet nothings in filthy ear . . .
I was only telling a lie
There ain't no need to act like I
Shot your dog, no
I was only telling a lie . . ."
"Got the one room suite in the downtown motel
@ 1977 Country Road Music
These two tracks, in particular, stand out like twin tidal pools amidst the usual calm consistency of the Taylor Lagoon, and yet they reveal a JT once more at his storytelling best, in the myth of the travellin' man de-pressurized.
Mercilessly depicting a character so etched into superficial patterns he has no more ideas on how to escape, his voice trailing off in desperation "I was only telling a lie, lie, lie . . . "The word "lie" then acquires an almost mantric quality that betrays the pathological despair of this existential jukebox litany. It could have been cute, a common accusation directed toward Senor Jaime in days bygone. Instead, it has the honest guts of reality via the hard-to-groin sensation of Rock and Roll.
Not unlike the figmo he played so well in "Two Lane Blacktop:" an asphalt wolf so used to the blur scenery spilling by the window of his blown '55 Chevy, he begins to see people in the same light. Appreciating scenery is one thing--trying to carry on a two-way conversation with it is something else again. It's particularly tough if you're not the two-way type, but the kind that heads in a single direction--away.
This isn't the poetry that captures the spirituality of the fugitive kind as seen in the highway observations of Joni Mitchell. It's the image of the fugitive alight for moment, ever so precariously on a concrete petal who has become vaguely aware of the fact that running, for him, is no longer a matter of choice.
Because of the lack of a solid-mythology surrounding Taylor, the portrait works all the more toward a perfect center, because he cannot ever really be identified in the strictest sense with his creations--the remarkable maintenance of the Taylor calm acquires just enough of a razor edge to make this simultaneous involvement and separation a workable proposition. Charles Bukowski meets Tom Rush. The third facet of JT is revealed in "Bartender Blues"," which approaches hopelessness with that dead center calm at which he is so adept.
The difficulty James Taylor has faced in past times has been one of consistency. For a certain constituency of volatile poet-tastes, he was too much of the same. They expected more out of him than he was willing or able to give--not that it phased him.
His songs continue to be those of the observer, not always in the alienated sense, just those of a man who more often prefers to watch rather than to participate. He may feel the agony, but he's not fool enough to die for it. Just elucidate a little, through a song. Doubtless he'll be doing it for some years to come.
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