BOSTONGLOBE.COM — Singing has worked just fine for James Taylor
By Lauren Daley
It feels fitting that Red Sox fan James Taylor will be playing some of the first shows at the MGM Music Hall at Fenway, Boston’s brand-new, 5,000-person concert venue.
“I’m a Sox fan. I’m a Boston boy. I love Massachusetts. I love New England,” says Taylor, 74, in a phone interview from his Berkshires home. “We’re not perfect, God knows. But . . . whenever I get home to Massachusetts, I breathe a sigh of relief and say, you know, the rest of the world may be going to hell, but I live in Massachusetts.”
Born in Boston in 1948 to Isaac Taylor, a Harvard Medical School graduate, and Gertrude Woodard, a New England Conservatory of Music student, Taylor and his siblings — Kate, Livingston, Hugh, and the late Alex — were raised largely in North Carolina and Martha’s Vineyard. Taylor attended Milton Academy.
He met his wife, Kim, then working for the Boston Symphony, at a Pops concert. Composer and conductor John Williams later walked her down the aisle in 2001. The couple settled in the Berkshires and have twin boys, Henry and Rufus.
Among Taylor’s career honors: a half-dozen Grammys, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a National Medal of Arts, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a 2016 Kennedy Center Honor, and this year, an honorary doctorate from the New England Conservatory. Maybe it doesn’t rank among those achievements, but it looked like fun: Earlier this month he also completed a weeklong “musical residency” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
But, of course, he’s seen fire and he’s seen rain. He’s battled depression and addiction, both of which he discusses in his audio memoir recorded at his Western Massachusetts home, “Break Shot: My First 21 Years.”
Ahead of his two Boston shows Monday and Tuesday, Taylor talked with the Globe about his start in the music business, kicking heroin, reassessing his priorities during lockdown, and thoughts on retirement.
Q. You opened your audiobook memoir by saying you’re a “professional autobiographer.”
A. I basically write about my own experiences. I have friends who are songwriters, specifically Carole King, who for the first part of her career was basically a hired gun. She’d come in and write a follow-up single, bespoke material. I don’t get a whole lot of covers [of his music] because it’s not written necessarily for that. For better or for worse, it’s been a process of sharing my experiences lyrically.
Q. What are your most personal songs?
A. “Fire and Rain” or “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” “Rainy Day Man.” The earlier, confessional, up-close-and-personal stuff.
Q. In the audiobook, you talk about your family’s struggles, and how you’ve been trying to figure out your family.
A. To a certain extent, we’re programmed by our family experience and by the role we find for ourselves in the family. When you’re trying to figure out what makes you tick, you’re trying to figure out what kind of programming you were accommodating in the beginning, how and why that continues to work for you, work against you, keep you trapped.
Q. Was the audiobook cathartic?
A. It wasn’t that intense because it’s all familiar stuff — I’ve thought about it a lot. So not so much cathartic as it was grounding. It summed up the first 20 years for me, contained them. It was a useful thing.
Q. You also talked about your heroin addiction.
A. That was a major event. I’d say 17, 18, maybe 20 years actively addicted, on and off. I also got a lot done in those years, they were productive times, too. But yeah, that’s a big part of my story. I was 35 when I sobered up in 1983. I’m lucky to have made it through. I think I was self-medicating. It was never much fun, let me put it that way. It rapidly became a maintenance situation, my relationship with opiates.
My way of dealing with it was rigorous physical exercises. I’m talking about three hours a day, six or seven days a week. Eventually I just wore myself out — my knees went. But that’s another conversation, if you want to get what the challenge is, physiologically, of trying to get people clean.
Q. So you quit cold turkey.
A. Well, cold turkey is like two weeks. The problem is six months later, two years later. That’s the challenge.
I had [tried] methadone maintenance treatments, but nobody ever told me about the 12 steps, or about the only available or functioning way to get clean. Finally, a friend of mine, a sax player named Michael Brecker, saved me.
Q. By introducing you to the 12 steps?
A. Yeah, and telling me that abstinence is the only option.
Q. True. And so going backward here to your childhood, you started out on cello.
A. My mother wanted all of us to have an instrument, or at least give it a try. I don’t know how much the choice was mine.
Q. [Laughs] Right.
A. I was a terrible student for four years, but came away with some good tools. But ultimately what you need is a relationship with your instrument, feedback that’s rewarding. It’s not a matter of discipline or pleasing somebody, it’s a matter of pleasing yourself. At that point, it’s like a fire that catches.
Q. When did that happen for you?
A. I was about 12. I told my parents I’d like a guitar for Christmas. I was interested in a Fender Stratocaster but ended up [getting] a cheap nylon-string classical guitar. That got me started.
Q. Why guitar?
A. It was the great folk scare of the early ‘60s. It was very accessible music, by definition, easy to get into. I loved those songs and I loved playing them. It was a social thing, too. Much more socially appealing than cello.
Q. You played in the Flying Machine.
A. That was in ‘76 and ‘77 in New York City. Before that, my [late] brother Alex and I were in a band that he basically put together [The Fabulous Corsairs]. We did frat parties, prom dances, sock hops for pennies.
Q. Did you play on the Vineyard?
A. I played [there] solo mostly. There were lots of open-mic nights. Club 47 [now Passim] had a summer campus in Oak Bluffs called The Mooncusser. There was a club in Boston called The Unicorn, they had a summer version in Oak Bluffs, The Unicorn Cafe. In 1970, I was 21 or 22 years old, and [folk] manifested on college campuses in a way that we haven’t seen anything like it since. It was a cultural movement that had amazing dynamics and energy. Anyone who got to ride that wave was lucky.
Q. How did you go from the Vineyard to Apple Records?
A. I was playing with my friend Danny Kortchmar. We were leaving home in 1967, ‘66. Kootch already had his own apartment in New York and was engaged to be married — he was a couple of years older. I was 18, and after leaving McLean Hospital [in Belmont, where Taylor had been treated for depression], I followed him down to New York with another friend of ours, Zach Wiesner. [We later] moved into a burned-out floor in the Hotel Albert. We were able to, on the cheap, rehearse, and get started.
[After a bad record deal] I went back home and licked my wounds. I had a college fund which I mostly spent at McLean Hospital, but there was some left, and I got a plane ticket to London to visit a friend and started peddling my songs. Danny Kortchmar had been with a group [that] backed up Peter and Gordon, an English group. Kootch had a telephone number for Peter [Asher], and as luck would have it, he’d just started looking for talent for Apple Records, the Beatles label.
I got a first album out of it. [Then] Peter went to Los Angeles and we made a second record for Warner Brothers, “Sweet Baby James,” which did well enough for me to get up on my wheels and start moving. So that was the progression. Throw in a couple of marriages and addiction and recovery and a couple of kids and it’s actually a pretty short story.
Q. [Laughs] So what was lockdown like for you? Did you stay in Western Mass.?
A. We were skiing in Montana when everything closed down. We got trapped out there, which was great. I think in June we came back to Massachusetts. It was a quiet time and really interesting. I think it broke the spell that a lot of people had been in unconsciously.
Q. What do you mean?
A. Well, I think there’s just a certain amount we’re driven to just keep producing, to turn the treadmill up faster and faster. Basically, I think people started asking themselves, “Why do I really want to go back to that?” It’s like a spell was broken, in terms of working overtime, succeeding. You’re encouraged to go, go, go. Meanwhile your time’s running out. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who are reconsidering how they live their lives.
There are different ways to measure success — the obvious ones: How many toys have you got? How many people’s lives do you control? Another way of looking at it is: Are you of service to anyone? Are you contributing anything to your culture?
Q. Did it make you look at anything differently?
A. Yeah, it’s made me think about — well, I’m also [almost] 75. I can’t tell whether it’s COVID reconsideration or whether retirement is creeping up on me. Although I’m about to leave on a European tour that’ll take me through Thanksgiving.
Q. Can you see a time when you’d retire?
A. Oh, absolutely. The mind may be willing, but the flesh is weak. So far, [touring is] great — I love it. Maybe two years away from it taught me how much I missed it.