In praise of James Taylor, or A Freak Cannot Live On Punk Alone

It is true, you know: punk is not a healthy balanced diet for the brain and ears. I challenge any serious listener to live fully satiated on punk alone. Punk is a seasoning, a shitty smacked out cake topper, an attitude adjustment – not an entire fully rounded personality. Even Sid-er-knee couldn’t keep it up full time, and ended up singing My Way like any other passionately drunk maudlin Sinatra wannabe, giving it plenty of ‘welly’ as the British like to say, and overexaggerating the feeling of the enterprise. Of course Sid gives in, breaks down, then screams and sneers the rest of the song into the battered microphone, but even Sid was a crooner for five minutes. Even Sid had use for feelings of nostalgia and introspection.

Some of the most tender hearted people I have ever met were punks, and from a long and dedicated obsession with all things punk, it would seem like a lot of the most ardent practitioners of the art form are real sweetie pies really. Possibly with the exception of Sid. Sid was a talentless bastard, and it would not befit him, or the Sex Pistols to pretend he was anything else. Besides, that was his entire pose, who am I to take it away from him?

I feel about proto-punks The Velvet Underground in the kind of way usually reserved for Catholic saints, bodhisattvas and desperate romantic crushes. Some people worship a fragment of finger bone that allegedly once belonged to St Paul the Evangelist, some get overwhelmed by the Śarīra pearls found in the ashes of buddhist masters, thinking these remnants of the physical body hold some kinda special power. Me? I get overexcited by signed first pressings of The Velvet Underground and Nico (banana unpeeled), and pristine discs containing the closet mix eponymous album with the band sitting on a sofa looking as if they just dragged Beethoven out of the grave and had fun doing it. All bow to the combined perfection of Reed, Tucker, Cale, Sterling Morrison, and the gloriously weird and out of tune Nico. I worship the drone and the white heat white light jagged jangling guitars, and the lyrics that wait for men with $26 in their hands, or being mirrors, or caught dancing through all tomorrow’s parties listening to Lou tell me to ‘put jelly on my shoulder’ and ‘do what (I) fear most’.

Once I dug the Velvets there was no going back. I was led there by the careful guidance of the bibles of many an early ’90’s cool kid, NME, Melody Maker, old issues of Creem, Q magazine and Rolling Stone back when it was not totally inanely dullsville, with their lists of best albums of all time. My listening became eclectic in the extreme, Anarchy in the UK one day, Kate Bush The Sensual World the next. It ranged from Sweet Baby James to Kick Out The Jams with the MC5 and The Ramones and their Needles and Pins; from Patti Smith Free Money, to Both Sides Now of Joni Mitchell, both bad bitches in their own sweet very different ways. But even if I could wax lyrical on the musical merits of Elton John’s Madman Across The Water, in all its introspective anthemic glory, I always ended up bouncing home to The Black Angel’s Death Song. I pogo’d and got feisty. I got crushed in mosh pits and pierced my belly button and always came home to sound and fury, noise and dissonance in the end. I have always loved chaos and cool.

That said, re-reading Lester Bangs’ piece James Taylor Marked For Death, I could not help but feel a little protective over old sweet baby James. Lester was full of piss and vinegar for the ‘i-boys’ as he called them, those irretrievably introspective practitioners of self involved, looking inwards songwriting. He leaves Joni Mitchell out of the equation, which to me seemed to me to be an outward expression of the macho bullshit of rock and roll that ignores female songwriters. No one with half a mind would leave Joni out of the list of ‘egocentric and introspective’ song writers.

Joni writes about Joni, about her love affairs and her innermost secrets and doubts. Joni is Empress of Introspection, and by writing about herself so eloquently and beautifully, she is writing about all of us who ever lived and loved and lost, providing perfect expression for all those nameless emotions that are so hard to make sense of. Anyone whose first love has just dumped them would do well to put on Blue, and cry along. Taylor Swift has nothing on Joni. Joni paints rivers to skate away on, and blondes on bleachers waiting for their lovers, feckless useless lovers who want to be ‘free’ and desert her and their baby in Green. “He’s a nonconformer” Joni sings, and in those words gives him both excuse and all her well deserved scorn. James Taylor, Joni’s ex lover, and no doubt the poor schmuck sung about in some of her material, was ‘marked by death’ by Bangs who joked that his kinda behavior and self obsession made him want to buy the errant songwriters a drink and push them, ‘preferably off a high cliff into the nearest ocean’.

I get it, sometimes music is just too nice for this world, sometimes the sweet and soft and heartbroken just irritates, like a grain of grit in an oyster shell, and this irritation, to a writer like Bangs produced a pearl. It was just a very unfair pearl. I don’t blame Bangs at all, after all, considerable effort can go into not feeling feelings, into getting the great big Numb on, and drowning it out with junk drugs, cough syrup, benzedrine and noise. Feeling feelings, worst than that, feeling someone else’s feelings clearly did not appeal to Lester at the point in time he took aim at James Taylor and the ‘i-boys’.

Punk has a melodic lexicon stolen right from Chuck Berry and Little Richard. I suppose, let’s face it, rock and roll was stolen from these guys, but Punk never strayed too far from the roll of their formulas. That see sawing rhythm and those corny three chords and a sneer of punk, is just Buddy Holly dirtied up and forced to submit to a safety pin through the nose and a few lines of nasty yellow crank. Yer average punkster is about as novel as Louie Louie. Don’t just take my word for it, Henry Rollins even covered that song with Black Flag, getting that Johnny B Goode vibe and pushing it face down in the mud and blood and beer n’ spit of the floor of CBGBs and not letting it back up for air until it grows up and dirties up it’s act some.

What punk doesn’t tend to have is any difficult emotions. It is a release, an explosion of anger and abhorrence of life. Nothing is impressive, nothing is much good, no one can play their instruments, or so they would like to have you believe. Listening to The Dead Boys Sonic Reducer, it is clear that all that loser crap just doesn’t hold water. Those boys could play, dead or not. Punk is good medicine for sensitive souls who feel too much and don’t want to be reduced to a puddle of tears on the floor by someone else’s sad songs, but is feeling feelings such a bad thing? Punk is action. The singer songwriter gig is naturally introspection and vocalisation of the human condition through personal experience. It is much easier to push it off a cliff than to let that seed of feeling and thought grow into something troublesome.

Lou Reed once declared, in perhaps his most perfect line that, ‘between thought and expression lies a lifetime’. He was more cuttingly revealing than he had any right to be, for such a noise merchant. Where Lou differs is that Lou uses noise to unsettle, to dislodge from safety and usual thought processes, and so make the listener more open and vulnerable. Lou uses music like scents and smells, Proustian mechanics to induce nostalgia, or as psychological warfare to damage. Lou is yer thinking-freaks punk. Punk with intelligence. Punk with heart, punk with a rock and roll heart and it’s feet in literature, not pure anarchical smash em up fury that signifies…well…pretty much nothing after all.

Nihilism has always been an attractive trip, but rather the presence of pain than the absence of everything. The comfort is in drowning out every ounce of feeling, sorrow and pesky guilt and shame, and replacing it with noise and motion. Nobody can be truly sad and hopeless while pogoing. It is the angry young man and woman syndrome, but I would argue that no freak can live on punk alone. It is not a nutritious balanced diet. Even if blues, or jazz or rock and roll tempers that mix, no one can be that angry for an entire lifetime, surely?

James Taylor should not just be a guilty pleasure, and definitely didn’t deserve to be sacrificed to the Gods of Punk by Bangs using a ‘bottle of ripple’ as a weapon of songwriter destruction. That Carolina down a country path, led by the retiring doogies, and watching his band, Flying Machine, lying in ‘tatters on the ground’, while steamrollers boogie, and all the fire and rain in the world cannot put out the flame of his empathic feeling for something more than the hill of jumping beans that took one look at JT’s flapping pant legged hippy generation with their long hair and their sensitivities, and spat right into the wind that was blowing out of the 60s and into the glam rock 70s disillusionment loathing and feedback. It is all Lou’s fault, he might as well have invented feedback. The old joke that only 100 people every bought a Velvet’s album, but all of them went on to form a band might as well be true. The Velvets were the death of the hippy pop star.

If Punk was the party, well, the party is always there, just behind the door, waiting for someone to strike up the Ramones and I Wanna Be Sedated to let all the mind-numbing fun begin. There is nothing wrong with that. But I can’t help but feel like the party is over, and though Iggy writes some pretty good war-music (I Wanna Be Your Dog might be the most aggro song ever written. It is aggressively self hating, and after all, ain’t that the whole punk schtick in a rotten nutshell), I can’t help but be left longing for something more substantial, something a little deeper. Something a little more James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, something a bit more Dylan watching at the gates, and Neil Young wondering why.

James Taylor’s delicate picking and brutally feeling lyrics, leaving his heart and soul open to the world, and to the listener, has value. James reminds us that we live and love, and that happiness and good times are not anathema to cool. Sometimes words are ‘just nice the way they sound’, and it is ok to enjoy that, and wake up and smell the Carolina sweet potato pie. Feeling is inescapable. Nostalgia and longing is embedded in the human lexicon of living. James Taylor is human. Iggy Pop is alien. Joni Mitchell is the personification of self examination and pure ability to name things as they are, both seen and unseen. The Clash is one heck of a party. The table is full, and the sweet must be eaten with the bitter. No freak can live on anger and bile alone.

How can any artform survive without feeling? Can an empire really be built on numbness? I suppose the chase for the numb is one of the eternal quests of the human nation, from opium wars to fentanyl laced dope on the streets of the city, from The Clash to Black Flag. Bashing the olds and thinking that your generation has really got the best parties, the best jams and the best way of thinking seems to be necessary to teen development from buttheads to real fully formed human beings. Perhaps that is it after all. Maybe it isn’t punk that is lacking and marked for death, perhaps it is me? That must be it. I must be getting old, after all sneering at the snivelling and tender hearted adults in the room, and jumping around to a groinally driven speed jam is a young person’s game. If I pogo’d now I would put my back out permanently. The most I can manage without screaming (and not in a good way) is a gentle bounce, followed by an entire evenings recuperation.

It is just that after a lifetime feeding on Punk thin gruel, I feel a little mentally emaciated, a little sonically reduced to quote my beloved Dead Boys. That is the kicker, that punk is all about destruction and a ‘fuck off and one of us must die’ mentality, and a life spent feeding on that cannot possibly produce a fully rounded individual. James Taylor might be a little overly fond of ‘going to Carolina in (his) mind’ but without that rooting in the past, in the pleasures of childhood and the natural and hopefully eternal joys of hills and mountains that contain memories and are soaked with love and good times, what do we have left? How long can we hate for? How much can we hate the old people, when we have become those old farts ourselves?

There is nothing for it, but to put For The Roses on when I have finished listening to James Taylor’s greatest hits, and hang out with Joni and her unique ability to draw feeling out like sucking the poison from a wound. Of course, I don’t think I will ever completely, grow up. After all, to fully morph into a listener of country roads and fire and rainy days that I thought would never end but did, I would have to accept my mortality, and I am not very fond of doing that at all. Actually, thinking about it, I had better dig out Snuff, and take their cover of I Will Survive out for a disco rooted punk screamfest. Yowling into the void, screaming into the dark, and breaking the top off that bottle of Ripple, running at the future as if I have nothing left to lose, is the only way forwards and for that kind of extreme energy, I am gonna need some fuel, some diddling screaming guitars that soar over feeling and thought right into the primitive reptilian mind.

Moderation in all things, a varied diet, has to be good for the body and soul. It is impossible to kill the ego or the id. Beating up the next hippy I see is hardly going to fix the world, and in that vein, Lester could not save the slide of pop culture into the ditch, by trying to off James Taylor using the written word and his scathing hatred for introspection in music. Punk is dead! Long live Punk!…and Long live James Taylor too.

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