Biographies & Memoirs

CHAPTER 2

By the early afternoon of December 8, 1969, James Taylor’s limbs had finally healed. Three months earlier, he’d stumbled across a stolen motorcycle held in storage by the police department on Martha’s Vineyard, where his family had been spending summers the previous sixteen years. Jumping on the bike, Taylor ripped through the backwoods and promptly smashed into a tree so hard he broke both his hands and feet. When his friend and fellow guitar player Danny Kortchmar heard about it, he groaned and thought, “What a fucking asshole,” but part of him wasn’t surprised. Taylor had had a less traumatic motorcycle accident not long before, and Kortchmar—Kootch to his friends—heard Taylor had almost cut his hands off with a chainsaw and wood chipper. Taylor always seemed to be living a bit on the edge. “If he hadn’t done that, he would have jumped off a cliff,” Kortchmar recalled. “He was always trying to kill himself.”

When he first heard about the accident, Peter Asher wasn’t merely concerned; he was terrified. Although Asher knew his way around showbiz, first as part of the British Invasion duo Peter and Gordon and then as a talent scout at the Beatles’ Apple label, Taylor was Asher’s first client as a manager—and was proving to be more of a handful than first imagined. In some regards, Taylor, whose maternal grandfather was a boat builder, was a strong sort—six feet three and projecting a brawny but cerebral new style of American masculinity. Yet his physique masked an inner fragility. At the very least, the accident meant the recording of Taylor’s second album would be delayed, not the best of news for Warner Brothers Records. Later, Taylor would show his manager the chunk of tree that had been taken out by one of his clenched fists.

By the first week of December, Taylor was over three thousand miles away from the Vineyard at Sunset Sound, a studio on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. The casts were off his feet and hands, and he was eager to put his new batch of songs to tape. Joining him were Kortchmar—who, at twenty-three, was two years older than his friend—and, on piano, a twenty-seven-year-old Brooklyn-raised songwriter named Carole King Goffin. Each was experienced at making music, from the string of Brill Building hits King had cowritten to Kortchmar’s tenure in underground bands in New York as well as one with King in L.A. The drummer was Russell Kunkel, a lanky kid from Pittsburgh only three years out of high school. Between two and six P.M. on December 8, the three of them—augmented by Randy Meisner, a bass player who’d briefly been a member of Poco, the country-leaning offshoot of Buffalo Springfield—efficiently cut three songs: “Blossom,” “Country Road,” and “Lo and Behold.” When the work was done, Taylor was paid $170, with $13.60 deducted for his musicians’ union pension.

As both Asher and the musicians discovered, reading Taylor wasn’t always easy. Asher had to look for the smallest signs of any dissatisfaction, like the way Taylor might look grumpy at the end of a take but never articulate what he didn’t like. “It would take a little digging to find out what should or could be changed,” Asher recalled. “You had to extract information from him.” Asher found Taylor a jumble of contradictions: quick-witted and intelligent, yet so gawky and nervous he didn’t always look people in the eye when he spoke to them. At least Taylor wasn’t spending prolonged, unexplained periods of time in the bathroom, as he had during the making of his first album. Given what Taylor had been through already, that alone felt like a significant victory to Asher.

011

Anyone who knew James Taylor knew he was a product, in equal doses, of music and isolation. When Taylor was three, in 1951, his family—led by his father, Isaac, a doctor educated in Boston, and his mother, Trudy—had returned to the state where Isaac was born, North Carolina. Isaac had accepted a job as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

On the surface, their new home in Chapel Hill was idyllic: eight rooms, twenty-five acres, a hammock in the backyard. Music was everywhere. An upright piano took up residence in the living room; in the kitchen, the Taylor kids—oldest brother Alex, followed by James, Livingston, Hugh, and Kate—would pull out cans from the cupboards and break spontaneously into the jingles for each product. The children would sing sea shanties, Woody Guthrie songs, and sing-along favorites like “On Top of Old Smoky.” Thanks to Trudy, who’d studied voice at the New York Conservatory and had once trained with Aaron Copland at Harvard, the concept of a professional career in music wasn’t unthinkable. James himself—born in Boston in 1948—took cello lessons, briefly played in Chapel Hill’s first Young People’s Orchestra, and performed once with the North Carolina Symphony, playing the ballad “Blue Bells of Scotland.” Alex brought home Ray Charles and Bobby Blue Band records and joined a local bar band, the Corsairs.

The family summered on Martha’s Vineyard in Gay Head and Chilmark, where James befriended Kortchmar. Hailing from Larchmont in Westchester County, just north of New York City, Kortchmar couldn’t have been more different from Taylor: He was shorter, more extroverted, and gregarious, a born rock and roller even in his youth. During their first summer hanging out on the Vineyard, they realized they shared a mutual love of soul, R&B, and blues records. “That was so heavy to find someone else who was into that kind of music,” Kortchmar recalled. Kortchmar also learned his friend could sing when Taylor broke into a Ray Charles song while they were hitchhiking. Before long, the two were playing at hootenannies on the Vineyard.

The tranquil settings masked a sense of unease and anxiety. Isaac had a drinking problem and was prone to go off on extended work trips, like the voyage to Antarctica that took him away from the family for nearly two years in the mid ’50s. Trudy Taylor had to fend for herself, with sometimes unpleasant results (once she was stung by a swarm of bees while protecting her family). Isaac’s isolation impacted on the family in deeper ways. Although Kate remained bubbly, Alex grew into the family rebel, the one always fighting with his parents. James was, according to his younger brother Livingston, “observant and fairly quiet, always held his cards close.” He could often be seen taking walks alone in the nearby woods. The sense that they were in the South but “of the North,” as James recalled, led him to feel isolated early; summers in Massachusetts only intensified those feelings. Even a hundred years after the Civil War, Taylor felt in his bones the difference between Southerners and, he recalled, “Yankees and outsiders,” and he was caught between them.

The mounting sense of disconnection inside him only grew after the family enrolled him in Milton Academy, a strict boarding school ten miles south of Boston, in the fall of 1961. Although he was returning to the state where his family had once lived, Taylor wasn’t comforted by Milton’s wide-open yards and brick buildings. As a teacher once recalled, he was hardly an “activist.” He tended to stay in his room and practice his new instrument, the guitar. When a rowdy classmate broke it, Taylor was fairly traumatized—“a bad moment for me,” he would later say. Although it was repaired, it never sounded the same.

When a depression set in around Thanksgiving of his senior year, the family pulled him out. “I had a shattered brain,” he recalled, leading to a stint at McLean Hospital, a $36,400-a-year Boston-suburb infirmary that, with its cottages and lawns, resembled a college campus. The sight of her older brother living in a locked ward so upset Kate that she broke down during a visit. One day at dinner in an adjoining ward, he looked over and saw—or thought he saw—Ray Charles. “I thought I was hallucinating,” he recalled. “It scared the shit out of me.” But his eyes didn’t deceive him; Charles, who’d been sent to McLean after a heroin bust, was actually there. The sight of one of his heroes in the ward haunted him for decades.

After graduating from McLean’s affiliated school, Taylor gravitated to New York City and its folk and blues clubs. His parents put up the money for his first apartment, on the Upper West Side, where he had only a mattress and a radio. With Kortchmar and another friend, drummer Joel O’Brien, he formed a band, the Flying Machine; later, he and O’Brien relocated to the Hotel Albert on East 10th Street, home base of Tim Buckley, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and others whose music spilled out of Village clubs nearly every night. The band landed gigs at some of those spots, particularly the Night Owl, and Taylor’s songwriting began to blossom with songs like “Night Owl,” which alluded to his dark side. Like his physique, his singing voice was sturdy and stoic, with an underlying ruggedness.

Although the Flying Machine recorded a few of its songs, the band struggled, barely taking in $10 a night at clubs. By then, Taylor had discovered heroin. “My family has a history of addiction,” he recalled, “and I’m probably genetically predisposed to substance abuse. So I didn’t stand a chance. Those drugs, powerful drugs, were as available as a beer at the bar. The places I was living, the people I was spending time with—everybody was experimenting with everything all the time. So it was just a matter of time. There wasn’t as much information available about what it meant to be getting high and how addictive things were. You still thought you could take some drugs and not get addicted to them.”

Taylor was wrong, of course. Once again, his body crashed, and Isaac drove up to New York to haul his drug-addled son back home to North Carolina. “Sort of to lick my wounds a little bit,” James later said. He was only home about nine months before he left again—this time for London, again with funding from his parents. Only nineteen, Taylor arrived in the city in late 1967. At first he lived with a friend of the family’s from the Vineyard who had a place in Manhattan; later, his duffel bag became his home. By coincidence, Kortchmar had a contact in London. Several years before, one of Kortchmar’s bands, the King Bees, had played behind Peter and Gordon. Kortchmar heard Asher was now working at Apple and was in charge of signing acts. Kortchmar didn’t think Taylor would actually call Asher; his friend already seemed battered by his experiences in life and the music business. But Kortchmar also knew Taylor was capable of doing the unexpected.

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Wearing a black suit with a yellow tie, Paul McCartney arrived at the Apple office on Baker Street in the early months of 1968 to chair a meeting. The Beatles’ attempt to control their destiny after the death of their manager, Brian Epstein, Apple was a multi-legged beast—part record company, boutique, film studio, electronics company, and any other whim that came to mind. Also in the meeting was Asher, newly appointed as Apple’s A&R man. Asher’s connections with McCartney ran deep. Although he’d begun by singing protest songs in clubs at fifteen, he made a name for himself as one half of Peter and Gordon with his friend Gordon Waller. By chance, Asher’s sister Jane was dating McCartney, and when another British act, Billy J. Kramer, rejected a new McCartney song called “A World Without Love,” Peter and Gordon eagerly recorded it and turned a reject into a number one American hit.

Although the duo crashed the charts a few more times, Asher tired of touring and making too little money. When the Apple offer came along, Asher, a courtly and friendly type, was more than ready to make the switch to talent scout. At this particular meeting, he brought with him a tall, gangly man who sat in a chair against the wall, saying nothing and cracking his knuckles. When the meeting broke, McCartney, Asher, the stranger, and a few employees adjourned to a nearby pub, where Asher finally told everyone who the kid was—James Taylor, an American musician whom Asher wanted to sign to the label.

“Peter says your songs are very good,” McCartney told him.

“Well, uh, I don’t know,” Taylor stammered. “I hope they are.”

Asher had met Taylor only a month or two before, when Taylor called him at his apartment on Marylebone High Street and asked if he could drop off his demo tape, which included songs like “Something in the Way She Moves” (which inspired George Harrison’s “Something”) and “Knocking ’Round the Zoo.” When Taylor showed up, Asher welcomed him into the apartment he shared with his girlfriend Betsy and played Taylor’s acetate, which impressed him. To Taylor’s relief, Asher allowed him to live at the apartment for a while—and, even better, told him McCartney had liked his songs and had received permission from the other Beatles to make Taylor Apple’s first signed artist. Despite his own self-destructive tendencies, Taylor was suddenly the proud owner of a three-year record deal with the most talked-about new label in the business. “I was signed before I knew what was happening,” he recalled. “It was really a remarkable turn of events. I was this huge Beatles fan and I definitely landed on my feet in a great position.”

Like so many situations before in his life, this one began with nothing but promise. While awaiting the chance to begin making his record, he became friendly enough with the Beatles to be able to drop by and hear the first playback of “Hey Jude” and watch them work on “Revolution.” At Asher’s house in the Surrey countryside, he’d sit alone in an empty pool and play and sing. He’d claim he wanted to be alone, but in doing so, drew attention to himself anyway. In July 1968, Taylor and Asher began Taylor’s album, using Trident Studio whenever the Beatles weren’t working there; McCartney dropped by to play bass and sing harmonies on one song, “Carolina in My Mind,” and Harrison also, according to Taylor, sang an uncredited part on the same song. (The “holy host of others standing around me” in the lyric was Taylor’s nod to the Beatles.)

Released in the U.K. first, in 1968, James Taylor revealed a songwriter with a graceful gift for melody and musicality. The best of its songs—“Carolina in My Mind,” “Rainy Day Man,” “Brighten Your Night with My Day”—felt instantly familiar and ingratiating, not unlike McCartney’s sharpest moments. Taylor’s skills as a guitarist—the crisp-air, pulled-string fingerpicking style that would become his trademark—announced themselves on a version of the traditional ballad “Greensleeves”; typical singersongwriters normally couldn’t play with such jazz-influenced syncopation.

At the same time, anyone who scoured the lyric sheet also noticed a songwriter grappling with multiple issues. “Something’s Wrong” hinted at his aimless life, while “Knocking ’Round the Zoo,” which dated back to the Flying Machine days, detailed Taylor’s stay at McLean. (“There’s bars on the windows and they’re counting up the spoons,” he sang, if somewhat drolly.) The songs mentioned pain and sadness and, far less convincingly, sunshine and solace. James Taylor was the sound of a man grappling with something—and Asher’s production couldn’t seem to figure it out either. Sometimes, as on “Something in the Way She Moves,” Asher was savvy enough to know Taylor’s voice and guitar would suffice. Other songs were unnecessarily gussied up with bassoons, harpsichords, string sections, and horns. In the way the arrangements worked hard to liven up the songs, Asher’s production, which was designed to draw attention to his act, was a study in denial.

The album’s launch was less than auspicious. In America, Capitol mounted a billboard of the album cover on Sunset Boulevard, but the record, released there in February 1969, didn’t even make the charts. In the U.K., it sold only eight thousand copies. As quickly as it began, Taylor’s career was in danger of running off the rails. Taylor was frustrated that Apple seemed to ignore the album, just as it did with too many other Apple releases that didn’t have the word “Beatle” on the cover. When Taylor went to London in the summer of 1969 to begin recording a follow-up, no one at the label was organized enough to book studio time. Asher too was frustrated: Although he’d been given enormous freedom to sign up new talent, Apple didn’t seem to know how to promote most of it.

Taylor himself wasn’t completely satisfied with the record. “It took months to make, and it was catch-as-catch-can,” he said. “It seems so half-baked, like I didn’t have enough focus to bring the songs home the way I wanted them to be.” The reason for the fuzziness was again chemical. In London, Taylor’s addiction returned; he was able to buy heroin from legal junkies who were registered users with London’s maintenance treatment program. As a result, Taylor found himself unraveling once more. “Again, I found people to hang out with who were also getting in trouble and had bad habits,” he recalled, “and I ended up with another habit and sorta crashed and burned.” In the summer, he flew back to the States, wearing a velvet suit he’d worn to the premiere of the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine the previous summer. (He was such a part of the Apple family that company tailors had made the suit especially for him.) Suspicious of his looks, airport officials strip-searched him, which didn’t relieve his fragile state of mind.

For Asher, Apple changed dramatically after the arrival of Allen Klein, and he resigned soon after Taylor’s album was out. He briefly landed a job at MGM Records in New York, but when the head of the label was fired, various employees, including Asher, were let go. No matter. Asher already had a new idea: He wanted to manage Taylor and produce his next album for a new record company. When Asher decided to talk to Taylor about his plan, he found himself heading for the Austin Riggs Center, a psychiatric hospital in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Taylor had committed himself once more, this time to a different hospital.

Asher flew to Boston and planned to drive to Austin Riggs. There was only one problem: Asher didn’t have a credit card to pay for a rental car. He told the car rental employees he was visiting a local client on business, and the company said it would approve the rental if a nearby resident would vouch for him. Asher did the only thing he could—he called Taylor at Austin Riggs. “He was probably on Thorazine or something,” Asher recalled. “He was no doubt brought to the phone by a whitecoated attendant.” Though addled, Taylor backed up Asher’s story, and Asher was able to rent a car. As Asher had already discovered, Taylor was neither a typical client nor a standard potential pop star.

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After he’d checked out of Austin Riggs, Taylor, at Asher’s instigation, began performing. It was already apparent to those around him that playing in front of crowds fulfilled something in him, what his brother Livingston would describe as “a deep personal need to connect to an audience, to speak with them and to tell them he loves them and hear from them that they love him.” He was well received during his afternoon set at the Newport Folk Festival, where he later met Warner’s Joe Smith. At other showcases, he played so softly that audiences talked through his set or thought he was merely the opening act. Whatever the situation, Taylor went along with few complaints. “Perhaps because of McLean, I got used to not having any expectations about what would happen—or even that I would have a future,” he recalled. “I went in the loosest sort of way from one situation to another, without any strategy.”

Asher, though, adhered to his original idea. He already knew about Warner Brothers and its sister label Reprise; any label home to singersongwriters like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot, and hyped with Stan Cornyn’s hip ad copy, felt like a good fit for Taylor. Asher called Smith, and over breakfast at the Hyatt House hotel in Los Angeles in October 1969, the two talked business. Their goals were mutual; Taylor wanted out of Apple, and Smith, who wanted in on Taylor’s career, offered a modest $20,000 advance and a recording budget of the same amount for the first album. (Stock options in Warner Brothers were also on the table.) The Grateful Dead had received a slightly bigger advance from the label—$25,000—but Asher was nonetheless happy. As an added incentive, Asher made Smith agree to indemnify him and Taylor, since Asher suspected Apple might sue Taylor if he left his contract a year early. Smith agreed (the other Beatles eventually went along with McCartney’s request to release Taylor from his Apple obligations), and they had a deal.

After Taylor arrived in Los Angeles that December, his motorcycle injuries healed, he moved in with Asher and Betsy at their spacious, Spanish-style rental at 956 Longwood Avenue, on the corner of Olympic Boulevard. The location wasn’t ideal for a sensitive artist—public buses loudly rumbled by on Olympic, shaking parts of the house—but the spacious living room, complete with sun pouring through the windows, was a perfect rehearsal space. Asher began assembling a band to back Taylor. Kortchmar, who’d already moved to Los Angeles, was called in, along with Carole King, who’d met Taylor during his Flying Machine days in New York four years earlier. To her, he was “the tall one with the guitar,” but otherwise she hadn’t remembered that much about him.

King herself was starting over. After writing a string of hits with her husband, Gerry Goffin—“Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, “The Loco-Motion” for Little Eva, “One Fine Day” for the Chiffons, “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters, and so many other songs that defined pop radio in the first half of the ’60s—King had separated from Goffin and relocated with their two children to Laurel Canyon in 1967. She and Taylor became reacquainted when Taylor visited L.A. to promote the Apple album early in 1969, and he ended up jamming with her, Kootch, and Joel O’Brien, who’d formed a band called the City. Taylor was so self-effacing that King was pleasantly surprised by the quality of his guitar work; for a folkie type, he played so dexterously and intricately that his guitar sounded like a bell. Asher had overheard Taylor and King playing guitar and piano together and thought King would make an ideal accompanist for Taylor’s second album.

At a recording session for former Kingston Trio member John Stewart, Asher had heard Kunkel, who’d logged time in a local band, Things to Come. Asher now had a skeletal band, all of whom gathered in Asher’s living room to practice in early December. The room was so devoid of furniture, the acoustics so loud, and Taylor’s approach so muted that Kunkel, who was accustomed to playing rock and roll, resorted to brushes instead of sticks for his drum kit. He didn’t want to overpower the tall, quiet guy at the center. “Everyone had to walk on eggshells in order to get the dynamics to work,” Kortchmar recalled. “James was a very quiet singer.”

During the making of James Taylor, Asher had noticed Taylor disappearing into the lavatory for long stretches and looking tired. At the time, he wasn’t aware of Taylor’s drug history. Asher knew all about it now, but he noticed Taylor was far more focused. With Taylor’s passel of new songs—including one called “Sunny Skies,” written, ironically, at Austin Riggs—the musicians, augmented by several different bass players, shifted to Sunset Sound. Starting December 8, they methodically began working their way through the material.

From the start, Kunkel saw Taylor as more than just another sulky folkie: “James could go from completely sober to completely silly in the snap of a finger,” he recalled. So it was at the sessions. Taylor’s sense of humor emerged when he and Kortchmar sat down at the end of one night and, with just their two guitars, knocked out a blues parody, “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip on Me.” During the Flying Machine days in the Village, Taylor had heard one too many pretentious white blues bands and wrote “Steamroller” to mock them. Again, he and Kortchmar laid it down in one night, Taylor singing intentionally exaggerated metaphors to the accompaniment of their two electric guitars. (A rhythm section and horns were added later.) Both the schedule and the funds were so tight that when Taylor showed up with a head cold, they had no choice but to record the song anyway; his congestion could be heard in the final take.

Taylor had begun writing another new song, “Fire and Rain,” in London, under less than pleasant circumstances. During the making of James Taylor, a friend from McLean and the Manhattan druggy period, Susan Schnerr, had intentionally overdosed on pills. “We had never been that tight, but I really liked her,” Taylor recalled. Afraid of upsetting him or distracting him from his work, friends like O’Brien kept the news from Taylor for months. When he finally heard, Taylor was shaken and started sketching out the first verse in his London apartment. “It just found its way into the first verse of the song,” he recalled. “It was easy to write.” The second verse, which came later, detailed his heroin problems and methadone treatment and was written in a New York psychiatric ward he’d checked into just before committing full-time to Austin Riggs. The third verse, with its references to “sweet dreams and Flying Machines in pieces on the ground,” detailed his breakdown just before and after his short-lived band.

Taylor had written overcast songs before, but “Fire and Rain” took that intensity to a new, almost frighteningly stark level—and, ironically, was greeted by his friends as a potential breakthrough. “When I played it for Joel O’Brien, he said, ‘You know, that could be a very commercial, big song for you,’” Taylor recalled. “Peter thought that, too.” In Los Angeles in January 1969, Taylor, Kortchmar, and bass player Charles Larkey, King’s boyfriend and new collaborator, put an early version of the song on tape, but it didn’t feel right. Back in Los Angeles almost a year later, they tried again and cut it, efficiently, on December 9. Initially Kunkel played his part with drumsticks, until Asher, recalling their rehearsals, suggested the softer, swishier sound of brushes. The revised rhythm became a signature part of the arrangement, an emotional sputter and touch of drama at the end of each chorus. Meanwhile, King added spare piano chords, as if tiptoeing around Taylor’s melancholy.

At the end of the third day, Taylor told Asher that was it. Even though they’d only recorded nine songs, he didn’t have any more. “Well, we should really finish this and deliver it and get it down and get the money,” Asher told him. The two came up with an idea to combine three half-finished songs into a brand-new one. Everyone returned to Sunset Sound on December 17 and quickly cut “Suite for 20G,” named in honor of the amount of money they’d receive once they handed in the completed album. “Twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money back then,” Kunkel recalled. “It meant Peter could buy some furniture.” Adding up the costs of studio time and musicians, Asher realized they’d spent $7,600 recording the entire album. He was so green he felt he’d be in trouble with Smith for not spending enough of the label’s money.

Taylor was pleased with the results but unsure of where the record might take him. “We were just making another record,” Taylor recalled. “We were better at it. Peter was a better producer. We had a more focused idea and the players on it were good. We were in Los Angeles in a professional recording studio doing professional work. It’s always good to make an album quickly and in a concise way, because it makes it have a cohesion and makes it hang together in a natural way. But I had no idea if it was any good or not.”

Everyone, including Taylor, agreed on one thing: The cover was striking. Four days before the “Suite for 20G” session, Henry Diltz—an affable thirty-one-year-old photographer and folk musician who’d taken the photo used for the iconic cover of Crosby, Stills & Nash—had arrived at Asher’s Longwood Avenue home. Sitting on the living-room floor beneath a large window, his back against the wall and his legs spread out before him, Taylor sat quietly, picking out the notes of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah” on guitar. He, Diltz, and Asher then drove out to an isolated farm off Bonham Boulevard in the Lake Hollywood section and veered down a dirt road, finally arriving at a hippie commune in the woods. Given how unvarnished Taylor’s music was, the sheds and barns in sight felt like the right setting.

Diltz snapped away as Taylor, in a blue denim work shirt, walked around the property. At one point, he leaned against a post and stared straight ahead. Frowning beneath a King Arthur shag and a stoic, Gary Cooper-as-folksinger gaze, he suddenly looked like a star. “Hold that a minute,” Diltz said, grabbing his color camera to snap off a few frames. Diltz hadn’t intended the color shots to be for more than a slide show for friends, but after developing the shot, he saw its potential.

After a few hours, Diltz stopped clicking and went off on a more glamorous assignment: hanging out with Jim Morrison to examine the skid-row photos Diltz had taken for the cover of the upcoming Doors album, Morrison Hotel. Morrison, along with the likes of David Crosby and Stephen Stills, was the sort of charismatic pop star Diltz was accustomed to shooting. Taylor had talent, but he wasn’t part of any particular scene; if anything, he seemed like an apolitical loner. To Diltz, he was just another guy with a guitar, one of many coming up around then.

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To John Fischbach, Taylor was simply a stoner buddy. A few years older than Taylor, Fischbach had, like many of his friends, left the East Coast for the West, in his case by way of Colorado. A record producer and engineer, he was in the midst of setting up a studio in town and lived with his girlfriend, Stephanie Magrino, in Laurel Canyon, the tightly—incestuously—knit musical community in the hills. Through Magrino, who’d befriended King, Fischbach met Taylor.

His new acquaintance’s predilection for hard drugs wasn’t a secret. “For God’s sake, everybody was high,” Fischbach recalled. “He was just one of us.” On those occasions when Taylor dropped by Fischbach’s home, the two would ingest whatever substances were available, grab fistfuls of rocks, jam them in their pockets, and jump in the pool. After sinking to the bottom, they’d sit on the floor for as long as their lungs would allow. Neither knew why they did it; they just did. At that point in their lives, there wasn’t much else to do, anyway.

The Fischbach-Magrino home was one of many where Taylor crashed in the early months of 1970 as he awaited the release of his just-finished record. Essentially homeless, Taylor would alternate between Asher’s home, a couch in Kortchmar’s house on Hollywood Boulevard, and the habitat of any friend who’d have him. The situation was loose and carefree, especially when it came to relationships. On Martha’s Vineyard, Kortchmar had noticed Taylor’s effect on girls, and Chapel Hill lore had it that when Taylor was in high school, he and one girl had sex in the nearby woods in a poison ivy patch. Both wound up in the hospital, Taylor showing a friend the somewhat embarrassing place where he’d made contact with the plant.

In Chapel Hill, Taylor had been dubbed “lady-killer” by friends, and the same nickname could have also applied in Los Angeles. Although Taylor had a girlfriend he’d met in London—Margaret Corey, daughter of comic Professor Irwin Corey—plenty of other women in his new community, including Magrino, had crushes on him. “It was from a time when nothing much was expected of me,” Taylor recalled. “So I didn’t have the expectations, the burden of expectations, of coming up with something that was going to be commercially successful. It was a relatively free and easy time. I had a sort of group, a family in Los Angeles, that I was managed by, living with, loving with. And making music with. And that was a nice thing.” Taylor had a new home and community, both fairly insular and disconnected from any turmoil outside Los Angeles. Vietnam was not a concern: Given his earlier stay at McLean, the Selective Service deemed him unacceptable for the army.

On the other side of the country, in Martha’s Vineyard, Taylor’s younger brother Livingston, a developing singer-songwriter about to sign a record contract of his own, played an early copy of his brother’s LP for acquaintances. “I could see they thought it was nice, but they didn’t know how good it was,” Livingston recalled. “And I looked at them and said, ‘No, you don’t understand. This is a truly great record and it’s going to be enormously popular.’” To the friends, the idea still seemed fairly preposterous.

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