james, cat, jackson

I’ve just finished Hearts of Darkness: James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and the Unlikely Rise of the Singer-Songwriter, by Dave Thompson.

The other day my daughter told me that a friend of hers was complaining about her parents (as teenagers will do) and said with disgust… “I mean, like, my Mom listens to James Taylor…”

My daughter didn’t miss a beat, responding with a bright “I love  James Taylor,” and she does. It’s not really my doing… I rarely go back and listen to the music of my youth, but rather because she appreciates a well-written song sung from the heart of a soulful singer, my aspiring singer-songwriter, who fills our home so gloriously with the sounds of her own sweet voice.

As such I read the book with two perspectives: that of the mother of an aspiring musician, with an eye to the pitfalls and convoluted paths of the business, and as a once sixteen-year-old myself, who spent endless hours curled up on my couch with these three men. We all did. They were part of our DNA during a time when there was no internet and our collective identity was timelined by the albums we bought.

This was a fascinating read if not necessarily an easy one. It is almost encyclopaedic in its thoroughness, in the discography it includes in its pages, capturing a time when so many greats were just starting out or in the beginnings of their fame, including anecdotes about Dylan, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, the Stones, Bob Marley, Janis Ian etc., etc.

If I were a musicologist I would pore over this book for its detail; as a mere fan it was a bit dense at times, and I found myself skipping to the more narrative passages, but there are some great ones, like this one, about James Taylor, who was the first American to be signed to the Apple label:

“Now here was James Taylor, twenty years old and just two years out of a mental hospital, three thousand, three hundred miles from home, and with no more musical experience than could be gleaned from six months in a Greenwich Village bar and three hours in a cheap New York recording studio; here he was, the center of attention in the heart of London, with Paul McCartney and George Harrison buzzing around him.”

I had no idea that’s how it all began for him, singing nervously for the Beatles. Nor had I ever imagined how the shy “half-Greek singer from the West End of London, and the half-deified guitarist from the West Coast of America” …Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix… would share long talks on a tour bus and would “hang out together after shows, go to discos and talk about girls…”

The author paints a broad portrait of the musical landscape and its influences wide and varied, one shared by all of course the one and only Bob Dylan, about whom Jackson Browne said:

“If, when I die, they open up my brain and do a cross section, like the rings of a tree or something, they will find several years in there when there’s nothing but Bob Dylan.”

How interesting it is to see the paths they all took to fame, how rocky they were, how subject to fate and luck and coincidence. James Taylor signed away half of the rights to three of his most successful songs because, in his words, “I [just] wanted a sandwich.” Jackson Browne taught himself to play on the beach with borrowed guitars. Cat Stevens at age eighteen was a bit sad and dreamy yet a lover of dressing in the fab fashions of Portobello Road.

I loved the Lester Bangs’ quote which the author uses in his introduction and in the book’s trailer, here.

There are also some delightfully quirky stories, like the one of Tom Rush and his first band, formed at the New Hampshire State Mental Institute…

“My mother donated me to the hospital. She was always donating stuff to them, and one day somebody there said, ‘You know, we’ve got a lot of patients in the inmate population who want to form a band.’ And the next thing I know, age sixteen, I’m heading down to the state hospital with my cardboard guitar case, to form a band with the inmates. […] I had an axe murderer on lead guitar, an arsonist on drums, and nobody knew what the bassist was in for because he never spoke. He didn’t often play the same song as the rest of us, either, so it really wasn’t that different from other bands I’ve had, except they were always on time for rehearsals.”

I’m waiting for the mail to bring Sheila Weller’s book Girls Like Us, of which I’ve read a chapter. Her book tells the stories of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon. From what I’ve read it’s clear that the two of these books are quite different: one more detailed, the other more narrative, but together perhaps they capture the magic of those times in the history of music.

As Thompson goes on to say in his discussion of the influence of Bob Dylan on Jackson Browne and the other singer songwriters of this period:

“Across the country, in the wilds of southern New Jersey, the young (two years Browne’s senior) Patti Smith experienced a similar awakening when she caught Dylan onstage with Joan Baez; in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, James Taylor heard the same magic for himself. And in every town and city in between, countless other young teens made their own discovery: that the simplest of musical equations—a guitarist who wrote, sang, and performed his or her own songs—was capable of taking music to a whole new plateau. One where a successful performer did not need to sing about girls and boys and cars and sex in order to be accepted. He needed to simply sing about himself.”

They sang of themselves?—and all those years I thought they were singing about me…

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