My daughters, Caroline and Lexi, sat on either side of me, in-hand their homemade “We Love JT!” posters, rolled but otherwise ready to wave during the encore. The surrounding crowd was settling in, and there he was, nine rows directly ahead of us on stage at Giant Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He opened with “Wandering,” which happened to be exactly what my mind was doing at the time.
WHAT CAN I POSSIBLY SAY TO HIM? Your music has meant so much to me through the years . . . I’m your biggest fan (everyone he meets is his biggest fan) . . . I sing and write songs and . . .
You’d think it would have been easy just to kick back and enjoy a James Taylor concert, but it was hard to kick the nerves, that niggling feeling that I was about to be called on in front of the whole class and not know the answer.
I must have looked like I felt because at one point, my sister-in-law, Anne, tapped me on the shoulder from two seats over, trying to calm me down: “Don’t worry!” she laughed. “It’s a handshake and a photo-opp—you’ll be fine!”
I had been to many of his concerts before: the first, my very first of any concert, at Villanova University, and, I don’t know, maybe ten more shows before that July evening. I would see him play regularly at the Mann Music Center and Wolf Trap; I saw him in Charlottesville, Telluride, in his Berkshires. I’d been in the sweet seats—first row, even—and I’d sat way back on the grass, hardly catching a glimpse except on the big screen, just taking it all in: the latest songs, the classics, the blanket and the bucket-of-beer, the occasional audience member screaming, “I love you, James!”
A JT concert is more than just James and his guitar (though, I do love just James and his guitar). He tells stories, fills us in about when and where he wrote particular songs (“Mexico” in a bathroom that had great acoustics; “Sweet Baby James” on the road to meet his nephew). He’s funny and smart and humble, always giving deserving credit to the wonder band he assembles around him. I remember Don Grolnick playing beautifully on the piano. At every show, I’ve loved the fun of the horn section, the blend of the vocalists, who’ve been with James forever. Arnold McCuller took the vocal reins at the end of “Shower the People”—I think it was at Merriweather Post—and it started to rain; he’s that good.
In the studio, too, James keeps impressive company. Read any album’s little liner notes and you’ll read big names: David Grisman, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, Art Garfunkel, Yo Yo Ma, Sting, etc. I wonder sometimes about the collaboration process: did James actually suggest something to Joni Mitchell, like, “Do that ethereal thing,” before she banged out stunning vocals for “Long Ago and Far Away”? I imagine you just let Branford Marsalis go. Does one edit Carole King as she unloads signature, brilliant piano track after piano track all over the album Mudslide Slim? Whatever the process, James Taylor is no dummy about surrounding himself with artists.
My older sister, Paula, introduced me to his music. Our family was road-tripping from Philadelphia to visit our grandma in Chicago, and Paula had squirreled herself away as best she could in the back seat of our station wagon, crammed between three siblings, listening on headphones through a tape recorder to a cassette of JT. I can see the black and white close-up of his face, which may have been the draw (at even an early age, I knew good looks); for whatever reason, Paula let me listen. “Smiling Face” and “Handy Man” were easy hooks, and like everyone else in 1977, I sang along. But a couple of years later, when I hit the age of insecurity, adolescence, when we turn to something to get us through, I took music, especially James Taylor’s music, and I ran.
I became a bit of a JT snob. Not only did I sprint to purchase each album, like Flag and Dad Loves His Work from the late 70’s on, but I went back to the older stuff: Walking Man, Gorilla, In the Pocket. My brother Dan and I would joke that while normal fans yell out for Greatest Hits during the encore, we could scream for “One Morning in May” or some other more obscure song, one that only crazed fans would know.
I never do yell out for anything, by the way, but I always take note of the less popular songs he’s playing, sing along to every word, and then call my siblings after the show to report the set list.
As will happen, life got a different kind of busy when I grew older and when I had children, but as my husband, two daughters, and I were settling into our new home after a move from Maryland to Pennsylvania, I made taking my girls to a James Taylor concert a priority. Lexi and Caroline, at ages 7 and 9, had not yet been to anyone’s concert. Taylor Swift, yes, they love her, but JT is the foundation: he had to be their introduction. I wanted for them the classic summertime show.
Facebook allows me to think that I am “friends” with James Taylor, so when I got notice from the fan page about his tour, I logged on to get information about the pre-public sales. The day came to purchase; I sat at the computer on a Tuesday at 10:00 a.m., discovered how expensive the tickets were, that the closest he was playing was an hour away in Atlantic City or Hershey, let go a grumpy sigh and gave up. Before exiting the site, however, I noticed a spot to “Email James” and I shot out a mini-cyber-complaint, writing simply that I was disappointed and wondered what had happened to the big venue, affordable JT experience. I’d like to emphasize how uncharacteristic this was (I’m more of a stewer) and also ironic, as I was being the squeaky wheel James sings about. I let it fly and that was it. I knew I’d never hear back from anyone.
I heard back that day. His assistant took the time to explain that because his album was released later than expected, they’d had conflicts scheduling the usual “shed” venues, but that he played those arenas last year and would certainly do so again. I was more than satisfied. What a cool exchange: I had received an email from JT’s assistant!
Her email the following day, was just a smidgeon cooler: “James would like to offer you four tickets to the Hershey Show.”
Now, Reader, please don’t go troubling James for tickets. Since I’ve had time to reflect, the only reasonable explanation as to my good fortune is Karma. Mystic powers were at play. Somehow his assistant knew.
What she did not know is that I’ve actually never really wanted to meet James Taylor. The dream has always been to sing back-up harmony to his song “Millworker.” (There is no harmony track on his record, but what I add when singing in the car or at home, while dusting the living room, is excellent.) Yes, if I shared a stage with him, I’d likely have to meet him, but we’d be singing, so I wouldn’t actually have to talk to him.
Which takes us back to the start of all this. Not only did I get four tickets, but when we arrived at the Box Office, the lady behind the window looked at me funny, informing me that the reason she couldn’t initially find my tickets was because I was “with the band.” She handed me an envelope that had more in it that just four flat tickets: it had depth, some padding. I felt flushed and a rush of nausea as I pulled out four backstage passes. I said aloud to no one, “What am I going to say to him?”
My nine year old rubbed my back and said, “Mom, I got this.”
Unreal to me, still, is that after the show, we were led down a hallway to James Taylor’s dressing room. We were not amidst a crowd of people clamoring for a photo. Instead, we shared the room with a little girl and her parents.
I’d noticed this little girl sitting near us during the concert. She looked to be about the age of my daughters, same size and spunk, but no ponytails or soccer ribbons; she was bald, I imagined because of the effects of cancer treatment. Throughout the show I would see her cuddled and smiling and singing with her parents, who looked to be about my age.
The only other person in the dressing room was James Taylor. He gave us probably fifteen minutes of his time, nearing midnight, after he’d played over two hours and given up his intermission to sign autographs on stage.
What I said to James Taylor, and what, in retrospect, I may have wanted to say to him, did not necessarily coincide. It’s blurry, now. He asked me how I knew his assistant, which caught me off-guard because I don’t know his assistant, so at the start, I had to explain to my idol that though I am not a complainer, I complained. I fumbled around trying to find my good self, while my two big-eyed daughters stood looking cute and deliriously tired.
And there in the corner of the room, another mom smiled. And another daughter leaned, cushioned and nearly asleep, in her father’s arms. I felt heavy-hearted but also acutely aware that this was a moment for my family, as well.
James told Caroline and Lexi that he saw from the stage the hand-drawn posters they’d held up at the end of the show. “I never know how I connect with the audience, but seeing those made me happy up there. Why don’t you let me sign them?” And he did, with a sharpie that he took a while to locate.
As he looked for his pen, I managed to tell him about my siblings and me–how we exchange phone calls after his concerts, how we listen for the hits not necessarily considered his “greatest.” Anne asked him which of his songs he felt were those songs that night—“Well,” he said, “I haven’t played ‘I Will Follow’ in a long time.”
“And ‘Me and My Guitar’—I’ve never heard you play that,” I added, as if I were having a casual conversation with a regular person. We chatted about his assistant’s potential plan to have fans list their favorite songs. I thought then about machine-gun listing my favorites. But I also thought, this man, this lyrical magician, this songwriting icon, who loses pens, wears a baseball hat, says “y’all,” and strategizes with his assistant about connecting on social media. He may just be a regular person. And he may be just as tired as the rest of us.
He handed my girls their respective autographed posters. We gathered for a photo. He shook our hands, and before we walked out, James Taylor thanked my daughters for making his concert their first.
WHAT CAN I POSSIBLY SAY TO HIM?
It’s funny how much that mattered to me. I wanted him to like me. I wanted to make an impression.
I could have asked James Taylor about his writing process, his musical influences. I could have broken into “Millworker” there on the spot (that would have made an impression). My daughters were interested in his children, their ages and hobbies. My sister-in-law wished she’d mentioned that she had eaten at his brother’s restaurant in Martha’s Vineyard. But after all of the post-game “we should have said” analysis, we couldn’t color the time with too much regret. This was a gift, after all, a shared experience, a story we will always tell.
And though the conversation has already begun to take on different shapes and shades, the songs are still right here.
We like a song because we can sing it, because it tells a story, it evokes a memory. Because of the lyrics, the melody, for its tempo, the way it moves us, the way it allows us to be still. We put a song away for years, and like a book, we pick it up again and experience it differently. Or, we experience it exactly as we did when we were younger, and that is why we like a song.
We like a song for its humor, the tip-tat of its hi-hat, its soaring violins, its blues influence, its spiritual quality, the easy way it lets us harmonize, where it takes us or what it takes us from.
I won’t tell you JT has written a bad song: I’m a horrible critic and can’t be trusted. But, in a recent Rolling Stone article, JT presented “My Life in Fifteen Songs.” I figure, if he can narrow down to some of the most significant, so can I.
James Taylor has covered two songs in particular that bring to mind great memories. The first: I sang “How Sweet it Is” at my friend Rachel’s wedding to a spirited audience and an appreciative bride-and-groom. It was a blast of carefree and happy, at what happened to be a sad time in my life. The second: on a trip to Ireland, during a song swap at a friend’s family reunion, two brothers together—each in his 80’s—had valiantly attempted “Danny Boy.” They’d taken some time to reach that infamous high note, but they got there, sort of, and after a lot of laughter, it was time for the “yanks” to sing. I went with “You’ve Got a Friend,” and everyone in the room knew the words.
Covers aside, here’s an attempt at my own list. Fifteen of my favorite James Taylor songs (the list may change tomorrow):
- “Millworker”: with or without harmony, it’s a beauty.
- “Blossom”: the first song of his I learned to play on the piano. Yearbook quote as a high school senior. That song.
- “Love has Brought Me Around”: the traveling bass, the energy, the message.
- “Don’t Be Sad Cause Your Sun is Down”: Stevie Wonder harmonica greatness, but besides that, one solid, feel-good tune.
- “Fading Away”: I sometimes wake up singing it, even if I haven’t heard it in years.
- “Nobody But You”: favorite line is “What you gonna do with folks like that?” as it applies, well, to everything.
- “I Will Follow”: his self-described love anthem. Yes indeed.
- “Up on the Roof” (Ok, one cover): I know he didn’t write it, but he sure did sing it. And at age 11, so did I, loudly and often.
- “Don’t Let me be Lonely”: I learned the opening measures on the piano and felt like a goddess. This. Is. A. Great. Song.
- “Only for Me”: the story he tells.
- “Another Day”: two minutes and 19 seconds. It’s hope. The way it builds and builds then hits the title lyric and is gone, just like a day.
- “Like Everyone She Knows”: familiar JT guitar riffs to start, and one of his only songs I felt could have been written about me.
- I listened to the album October Road during the summer my mom was dying. I would wake each morning to the gentle piano of “Caroline I See You.” (I remember that summer being at my parents’ home, dancing in the kitchen to “Whenever You’re Ready,” wondering how I could be dancing, but so grateful that I was.)
- “You Can Close Your Eyes”: through the years, I’ve sung this at bedtime to my girls,
- and “You and I Again,” we now all sing together.
To process heartache and loss, or big-big love, or any of the emotions that may otherwise choke us if we cannot somehow voice a response—sometimes there’s just no explaining or reacting, but on a different, higher, artistic level. Paint a picture. Take a photo. Ski a slope.
I imagine I would have found songwriting—or writing would have found me—without James Taylor, but there’s no denying his influence. I’m grateful, maybe most of all, for the accessibility of his music because eventually I began to make my own way through my own writing. His was an invitation—be an artist, be a human, sing, play, write it down. And though, initially, you may be writing for only you, perhaps if you share what you’ve created, you will touch the lives of some other folks along the way.
I wish I would have thanked him.
Maybe I did.
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