I was trawling youtube for inspiration last night, when I suddenly got the hankering for some James Taylor. I knew what I wanted – Fire and Rain, 1970, James looking his scuzziest and most wasted, his superlative acoustic picking accompanying his sweet voice. I needed to hear about ‘flying machines in pieces on the ground’ (his band, Flying Machine breaking up) and how lonely times got him feeling sad and nostalgic for the good and the bad of the past. It is the perfect ode to the highs and the lows. James Taylor plays some of the sweetest guitar out there – his Gibson J50 rings out just as sweet in his hands as any Martin ever did, including Kurt Cobain’s legendary Unplugged sessions Martin D18E. I am a bit of a guitar nerd, having once, for a few years owned a lovely 1980s Martin given to me by a friend, and now sitting with my sweet tobacco sunburnt Taylor, quietly playing for my own amusement when I get the inspiration to do so. It is always a pleasure to watch James Taylor play. He is a superlative acoustic guitarist, his picking is second to none, not even the late Townes Van Zandt. James can make a guitar do beautiful things, his ear for melody and feeling marry together to make beautiful songs. I am not always in the mood to listen to James, I sometimes find him too ‘nice’, but when I am, he never disappoints.
Taylor’s story is a lot less wholesome than his sound. He formed a band, Flying Machine, and developed a heroin habit. In Jenny Stevens interview of Taylor for the Independent newspaper on Mon 17 Feb 2020 he said:
“To be able to take a juice that solves your internal stress . . . One of the signs that you have an addiction problem is how well it works for you at the very beginning. It’s the thing that makes you say: ‘Damn, I like my life now.’ That’s when you know you shouldn’t do it again.”James Taylor, INDEPENDENT, 17th Feb 2020
He carried on later in the same interview:
“Well, I was a bad influence to be around the Beatles at that time, too.” Why? “Because I gave John opiates.” Did you introduce him to them? “I don’t know.”
James knew fire and pain. He was meant to be ‘sweet baby James’, but instead was living the life of a potential 27 Club member, who was as much rock and roll as he was Laurel Canyon folkster. As I was watching James do his thing, dressed in his shabby multiple layers, with a nice scruffy sensible cardigan, three days of stubble and his hair hanging greasily over his pinched looking face I was suddenly struck by the similarity to another artist. They look like they have the same tailor, as if they are cut from the same cloth. Kurt in his iconic 1993 Unplugged performance went for the same aesthetic: multiple layers, greasy mid length hair, three days stubble of skanky, not fashionable kind, scruffy cardigan that the cat looked like it had nested in, and a dreadnaught balanced on his knee. The resemblance was uncanny, and went beyond the physical junkie-musician-boy chic. Both Kurt and James share an incredible sensitivity for melody and tunefulness.
The two, whilst not immediately recognizable as musical and sartorial twins have a lot in common. Cobain was going for a more acoustic, pared down lo-fi sound in the time before his death and had been talking to Michael Stipe about doing a project together. Even in his most grunge and electric songs, like Sliver with its stunningly harmonious bassline, and Smells Like Teen Spirit which is infinitely radio-friendly teen anthem fodder, the melodious and pleasant, sing-a-long-able nature of the song cuts through the fuzz and noise and fury like a knife through butter. Polly, which is perhaps Cobain’s masterpiece, is pure melody, with periods of quiet and noise, the dynamics running through the acoustic brilliance of the tunefulness and horror-show lyrics.
In the Unplugged sessions, the influence of REM’s Automatic For The People can clearly be heard. It was the melding of melody and noise that worked for The Velvet Underground first, when they were pioneers into the territory of drone and noise, and Kurt picked up that challenge in the 1990s and turned it into musical gold. Polly and Sweet Baby James are cut from the same cloth, a folk-based harmony. Both are songs about America: James sticks to the America of cowboy mythos, where ‘if it helps you to sleep’ you can think of the green grass of home and all those little dogies being sent off to bed. Kurt instead tells the true story of a 14 year old girl who got abducted on her way back from a concert in Tacoma in 1987. The abductor, Gerald Friend, took her back to his mobile home and raped her. She managed to escape when Friend took her for a ride and stopped for gas. Friend was convicted and jailed for 75 years, plus the remainder of the sentence for earlier sexual crimes that he was paroled early for. Both James and Kurt were writing classic American tales from the highway, tales from the road. One to relax and reassure, the other to warn and shed light in the darkness.
Kurt and James are the yin and yang of American music: one to comfort, the other to enliven, yet both inspire. Kurt’s Something In The Way, is a disturbing song set ‘underneath the bridge’, where the homeless live, in the dank with wild animals and a ‘tarp’ which has ‘sprung a leak’. Kurt talks about fish not feeling anything so it is ok to consume them, leading the listener to wonder if we have any feelings for the person suffering. There is ‘something in the way’ of empathy. “Something in the way” of feeling and compassion. “Something in the way” of helping, of seeing others as fully human because they are suffering.
The extra two words in James Taylor’s Something In The Way (She Moves), turns the song away from the dirge like depression of the dripping ceiling of Nirvana’s song, and towards the light of romantic and gentle admiration for a lover. It is amazing how much impact those extra two words have. James is a songwriter that deals in longing and love, desire and comfort. How can you appreciate the beauty of love, without the horror of alienation. To love Kurt’s D18E’s warm sustain, you need the bright and perky tones of James Taylor’s Gibson and his precise and perfect picking. There is an old guitar player’s saying, “if you pick it, it will never heal.” James proves this wrong – he picks and it heals the soul. Kurt thrashes, picks and plucks noise and melody out of his Mustang, and his Martin: both have immense compassion, but also huge energy. This energy is the other half of the story, the other side of the coin of music to James.
James Taylor and Kurt Cobain should both be alive today, but we lost Kurt to suicide in the midst of a reportedly serious heroin problem. His star burnt itself out hard and fast. Taylor made it through addiction, and is still playing shows today. James Taylor and Kurt Cobain, cut from the same cloth, made by the same tailor of Americana…and apparently with the same taste in scuzzy facial hair, elderly sweaters, and greasy long hair. It must be something in the way they feel and felt the music they were inspired to create that expresses itself visually.
It is too easy to hide behind the sweetness of Taylor, or immerse in the anger and passion of Cobain, truth is, we all need a bit of both in our musical lives. I know I do. . .