When I started writing about music back in the Paleozoic Era, I used to spend more time defining my tastes in distinction to what I supposedly opposed. As a bookish student with a penchant for streetwise urban blues and working-class British punk, I found the rootless, complacent self-absorption of Seventies-era singer-songwriters and pop stars a convenient target. The few singer-songwriters that escaped my bop gun–Warren Zevon and Randy Newman, or later, Nick Lowe and Graham Parker–tended to be so arch and acerbic that I could wink along with them, imagining they had more in common with my favorite short story writers.
At the time, James Taylor seemed to sum up all that was rootless and complacent. I snickered when I first read Lester Bangs’ essay James Taylor Marked for Death.Â In that rant, which mainly praises the primitive beats of the Troggs as an alternative to Dostoyevskian despair (his comparison), Bangs goes gonzo on JT, fantasizing that if he heard one more number about “Jesus walking the boys and girls down a Carolina path while the dilemma of existence crashes like a slab of hod” on the singer’s shoulders, he was ready to manhandle the mellow one until he expired in a “spasm of adenoidal poesy.” But that was in another country, and besides, Bangs is dead.
While this site went on a brief hiatus during the fall, a much-loved family member unexpectedly passed away (my wife’s mother, and one of the most capable, compassionate souls this world has seen). As I pulled together the music for her memorial service, I found myself traveling close to the same path Bangs had sneered at with the applause of my teenage self. Honoring the memory of a California woman of Taylor’s generation, I even got misty-eyed over “Fire and Rain.” The same song I’d once rudely dismissed as a mellow make-out anthem now emerged as a hushed gasp for breath. And that shouldn’t really be so surprising. Before he became Sweet Baby James to a generation of gentle people, the young Taylor wrote the song after getting shock treatments in a mental institution and learning that nobody had told him of a friend’s suicide out of fear he couldn’t handle it. (A friend who knew him as a teenager compared his sense of discomfort to that of Kurt Cobain, circa Nirvana Unplugged).Â The line “I always thought that I’d see you again,” which I once thought whiny, now seems haunting and poignant.
If Lester Bangs had built a time machine, I’m not sure what he would have made of 2010. Bearded men with acoustic guitars and banjo-playing ensemble leaders play what used to be known as alternative rock. I have mixed feelings about this. Since I still love screechy jazz and cathartic rock, I’m not quite ready to accept that quiet is the new loud. But I’ll admit that, for example, the quiet urgency of Bon Iver’s acoustic music has more soul for me than most of what’s left of the garage-rock revival. And at the risk of adenoidal poesy, I’ll concede that one of my favorite songs of last year (by Seattle’s Telekinesis) involves a walk down a Carolina path. “Woke up in another lifetime, it’s a shame it’s just not right now.”
Telekinesis, “Coast of Carolina”
James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”