Biographies & Memoirs



A Feeling I Can’t Hide


When it came time to name the album, Peter Asher thought the answer was obvious: Sweet Baby James. Asher felt it was the perfect title, clever and attention getting. Taylor wasn’t taken with the idea; after all, he pointed out, the song with that title was about his older brother Alex’s son. He didn’t want anyone to think he was referring to himself. But a deadline loomed for the record’s early-March release, and besides, Warners head Joe Smith thought the title track could be Taylor’s first hit. Sweet Baby James it would be.

As potential hits went, “Sweet Baby James” hardly fit the bill when it arrived as a 45-rpm single in late February. An idly strummed waltz, it loped rather than bolted; Carole King’s piano and Russ Kunkel’s drums clomped along agreeably, and the pedal steel guitar of Red Rhodes, the player of choice for L.A. acts like the Byrds and the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, gently curlicued around Taylor’s voice. To Warners executive Stan Cornyn, the music wasn’t all that different from crooners of a previous generation—it just sported longer hair. “If someone who you could say was today’s version of Steve and Eydie and Vic Damone—that good voice you liked to hear, that your mother would not say ‘Turn that down’—James was certainly there,” Cornyn recalled.

From the plaintive sound of Taylor’s voice to the crisp, woodsy crackle of his fingerpicked guitar, Sweet Baby James was undeniably old-fashioned—pre- rather than post-hippie. The songs referenced country roads, the Berkshires, and highways. A version of Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susannah,” a song the Taylor family had tackled together back in the Carolinas, evoked the traditional folk songs Taylor had grown up with, as did his own “Lo and Behold,” whose chorus, a choir of overdubbed Taylors, harked back to work-song spirituals. “Anywhere Like Heaven” was Bakersfield country music after a long drought. Even Taylor’s phrasing—like “dough-gies” for “doggies” on “Sweet Baby James”—felt more Midwestern than southern Californian.

Asher and Taylor knew they’d overplayed their hand on his first album, which was too ornate and fussy. The comparatively uncomplicated arrangements worked out in Asher’s living room for Sweet Baby James were intended to ensure that Taylor would now be the focus. Sweet Baby Jamesshared several things in common with its predecessor. Each contained songs that focused mostly on voice and guitar, each had infusions of brass and horns, and each alluded to inner pain. But if James Taylor was the musical equivalent of a British tea parlor, its follow-up was an unvarnished log cabin. “Sunny Skies” was nudged along by arm-in-arm acoustic guitars and a temperate drum tap. “Fire and Rain” was a masterpiece of production accents, from the dramatic tumble of Kunkel’s drums before the final verse to the use of a cello (played by another session man, Bobby West) instead of an electric bass to underscore the melancholy on the song. Asher only let loose as a producer on the album’s last track, “Suite for 20G,” which piled on horns, Kunkel’s toughest beat on the record, and Kortchmar’s sputtering electric leads.

Much like the man at the center of it, Sweet Baby James could be droll and loose, as if the quasi-redneck Carolina kid in Taylor’s upbringing would peek out from time to time. “Oh Baby, Don’t You Loose Your Lip on Me” mocked misogynistic white blues, even if some in Taylor’s inner circle thought there was a hint of truth to its machismo. (Kortchmar, who tossed off the song in the studio one night with Taylor between takes, considered it such a throwaway that he was surprised to find it on the finished album.) “Steamroller” was a brassier, hammier update of “The Blues Are Just a Bad Dream” from the debut album.

In the year and a half since the making of James Taylor, rock and roll had gone through another of its seismic shifts. By early 1970, the music’s unplugged kick—instigated in part by Dylan’s John Wesley Harding and some of the Beatles’ White Album, both from 1968—no longer seemed like merely one of its periodic makeovers. Everyone wanted in, the more denim jackets the better. Thanks to acts like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, acoustic guitar sales were surging for the first time since the mid’60s folk boom. “Many groups are completely abandoning amplification,” Billboardnoted in January, quoting instrument store owners who were grappling with boxes of unsold electric guitars and amplifiers. Egged on by their friend Crosby, even the Grateful Dead were trying their hand at rustic melodies and harmonies, recording (in just nine costefficient days) an album that would eventually be called Workingman’s Dead. The movement was a perfect musical-cultural storm, rooted partly in the “back to the land” scene that begat books like the Whole Earth Catalog and in the rock and roll fans now pushing thirty and wanting less aggressive soundtracks for their lives.

Still, even Workingman’s Dead and Dylan’s 1969 Nashville Skyline, a proudly corny celebration of Music Row bonhomie, connoted a communal experience between the musicians and their fans. Sweet Baby James was the awkward loner in the corner. “Lately, I’ve been lonesome/It seems my dreams have frozen,” Taylor sang in “Blossom,” King’s piano following his voice and guitar like a companion walking alongside a friend down a country lane. Even when Taylor sang of the open road, he never sounded like someone who’d be particularly happy there. In its quietly determined way, Sweet Baby James made disconnection sound like a natural, comforting state of mind. Taylor allowed himself a rare “whoo!” during “Country Road,” but only as the song faded out.

The reviews were largely kind: “Taylor seems to have found the ideal musical vehicle to say what he has to say,” nodded Rolling Stone. Few, other than the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau (who gave itaCplus), were put off. Yet the album’s restrained nature led to an equally low-key response. In the same issue that noted Bridge Over Troubled Water was the top-selling album in the country, Billboard called Sweet Baby James “the finest folk effort of the year and should bring his ever-widening audience to chart proportions.” That the album was relegated to a tiny review—not a prominent one like those accorded to releases that week by the Doors, Joan Baez, and Van Morrison—implied it was destined to be a cult item, “a must for folk-blues buffs,” as the review declared. A week later, Sweet Baby James debuted on the Billboard album chart at number 90 and only inched up a few spots in the weeks ahead.

Before the album was even for sale, Taylor began gearing up for his first tour to promote it, warming up with six nights at the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Heavy on cozy ambience and music-business types, the club was an entry point for new acts and a place for established names to be seen and hang out. Taylor’s shows attracted a few pop names, including Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas, thereby confirming Taylor’s status within his community. Whether or not it translated beyond the Canyon wasn’t anyone’s leading concern. “We were living in our own world,” John Fischbach recalled. “We were having our own Woodstock every day.”


Beyond Laurel Canyon, the country felt like it was exploding, often literally. Despite a rash of nonviolent protests that included the October Moratorium in Washington, the pro-peace movement’s growing frustration over Vietnam was turning into a depression. That depression was turning into anger and desperation, and the desperation was turning to destruction.

The exact number of bombs set off by a variety of radical offshoots depended on the source. CBS News placed the nationwide tally between January 1969 and the spring of 1970 at 4,330, about twenty a week in California alone. The U.S. Treasury estimated forty a week. In Manhattan, between August and October 1969, explosive devices had gone off in three buildings on Wall Street and in Macy’s, followed by bombs at the Chase Manhattan Bank, the RCA Building, and General Motors in November. A letter sent by the bombers to UPI stated their motives: The enemy was the “giant corporations . . . Spiro Agnew may be a household word, but it [the public] has rarely seen men like David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan, James Roche of General Motors and Michael Haider of Standard Oil, who run the system behind the scenes.” Eventually implicated were employees of the Rat, an underground newspaper, and a man Time described as a “health faddist.” In February 1970, the detonations in the New York area continued—at a GE center in Queens and outside the home of State Supreme Court justice John Murtagh, who presided at a pretrial hearing involving Black Panthers accused of trying to blow up public spaces.

Obtaining the materials to make a bomb was, one network news report said, “ridiculously simple.” Dynamite came from anywhere, swiped from construction sites or military bases or, in some cases, purchased over the counter. (Where did those seven thousand dynamite blasting caps swiped from a Maryland plant in March go, exactly?) The laws for selling dynamite varied from state to state. In Oregon, all anyone needed was a name, address, and license-plate number. Other states required a blasting permit, making the process more difficult. “The underground promises more bombings,” said one CBS reporter, “and it is clear that existing controls are totally inadequate to stop them.” Working on the script for his second film, Bananas, that spring—it would begin filming in May—Woody Allen acknowledged the prosaic ordinariness of the explosions. When his character asks out a New York leftie played by Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser, she replies, “Call me Saturday . . . I maybe bombing an office building, but I’ll know later.”

In New York City, the relative ease with which explosives could be obtained and detonated by anyone determined or crazy enough to do it was slammed home at noon on Friday, March 6. One moment, 18 West 11th Street was a ten-room brownstone that dated back to the 1840s. The next moment it was a roof and a stairwell, a massive, gaping, flamespewing hole in between. After neighbors and nearby drivers heard a massive explosion, the roof collapsed, along with all four floors; the twofoot-thick walls were scarred with holes that ascended twenty feet. The first to scurry from the building were rats, along with a few cats, followed by two girls—one nude, another just wearing a T-shirt—who were discovered by rescue workers and led to a building across the street. Dustin Hoffman, who lived next door, at 16 West 11th, joined the gawkers on the street. Clutching a Tiffany lamp and several paintings he’d taken with him, he noticed that his desk, which shared a wall with number 18, had fallen through the wall and into the burning rubble.

When police and firemen began sifting through the wreckage of the explosion, they found the body of one man beneath the debris, followed by an even grislier discovery. A large power shovel cleaning debris out of the basement scooped up a body with two missing hands, one leg, and a mangled head, nails jutting out of the torso’s flesh. At first, the fire department assumed a gas leak caused the blast, but when an intact gas furnace was unearthed in the basement rubble on Monday morning, suspicions that bombs were involved were confirmed. The dead turned out to be three members of the radical group the Weathermen. One of them, Terry Robbins, had accidentally set off the bombs as he was assembling them. (The other dead were Theodore Gold and Diana Oughton, while Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson, whose father owned the building, escaped, at least for a while; they were the two young women seen fleeing.) Along with body parts, police discovered sixty sticks of unexploded dynamite, caps to set them off, primitive nail bombs, and a map of the tunnels beneath Columbia University, one of the Weathermen’s intended targets.

Both the city and the country barely had time to digest what had happened when, five days later, explosions detonated in three office buildings in midtown Manhattan, in roughly the same area—42nd Street between Lexington and Third; Park Avenue and 55th; and Third Avenue at 46th. The targets were Mobil, IBM, and General Telephone and Electronics, respectively. In each case, no one was hurt; police had been tipped to the pending explosions and their precise times by an anonymous caller a half hour before. Streets were strewn with glass, elevators were deluged with water, and the buildings sustained structural damage. Over the next two days, six hundred bomb threats were called in to the city. On March 15, the Times reported, with no sense of sarcasm, that “the number of bomb threats in the city declined sharply for the first time since Thursday.” An anonymous caller to the New York Police Department credited the Mobil, IBM, and General Telephone bombings to a previously unknown group called the Revolutionary Force 9.

Before the brownstone explosion, the Weathermen were something of underground culture heroes; they weren’t succeeding at much, but they knew how to get publicity. The accidental bombing—along with their intended targets—cast a pall over the group that never dissipated. No one expected Richard Nixon to be supportive, and he wasn’t. On March 12, a report called “Subject: Revolutionary Violence” was dropped onto his desk; when asked to reach out to the disgruntled younger generation, he shot back, “Forget them.” But Abbie Hoffman, who had once championed the Weathermen, even helping some members escape the clutches of the law, was having his doubts. Realizing that killing innocent civilians wouldn’t help the cause, he later wrote that the 11th Street incident was “the great tragedy of the underground’s development,” although he admitted it was “a blessing in disguise” in the way it obliterated dangerous tendencies in the group. Reading about the explosion in a Washington newspaper the next day, Moratorium co-organizer David Hawk was disgusted and thanked God no innocent bystanders had been killed.

After seeing photos of the destroyed building on the front page of the Times the following day, Susan Braudy, a young writer and Bryn Mawr and Yale graduate who’d attended school with Boudin and Oughton, went to see the site for herself. The block was engulfed in smoke, water, and plainclothes cops. “I just thought, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” she remembered. Maybe her generation wasn’t going to bring about the change they hoped. Maybe all the political sloganeering amounted to nothing. Confused and upset, she began rethinking everything positive she’d presumed about the group and other radical organizations.

A month later, Braudy saw Boudin running down a street, bare-legged and wearing a winter coat. The sight seemed to make as much sense as anything else at that moment.


Early in the afternoon of March 7, the day after the brownstone explosion, a line began forming outside 116 MacDougal Street, eight blocks south of 11th Street and on the other side of Washington Square Park. The crowd was preparing for the first of James Taylor’s three nights at the Village Gaslight, a tiny space crammed in the midst of the Village’s club strip.

The Greenwich Village folk music scene wasn’t as bustling as it had been in the early to mid ’60s, when Simon and Garfunkel and Stephen Stills—not to mention Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and so many others—had worked on their craft on cramped coffeehouse stages. Dylan had just relocated back to the Village after several years in Woodstock, but he and his peers had long since moved on to bigger, more prestigious venues, and folk music itself, especially the political type, no longer had the cultural impact it once had. Of the coffeehouses and clubs that had survived, the Village Gaslight held all of 130 people wedged behind its angled wooden tables; the stage was next to the kitchen. To compensate for the lack of a liquor license, the bartenders would add a bit of rum flavoring to the soda.

Taylor’s first tour to promote Sweet Baby James had nothing approaching a budget. From town to town, Taylor traveled with just his guitar and his mother’s small canvas suitcase for whatever clothes he wanted to bring along. Asher sensed Taylor would be able to attract more than one hundred people to a New York show; surely some must have remembered the Flying Machine, who’d played at the nearby Night Owl just a few years before. But Asher was savvy enough to realize that an overpacked house was far better for buzz than a half-filled one, so he’d booked Taylor into the Gaslight for three nights. On opening night, hundreds began lining up in the frigid temperatures, even for the late show, which started at 2 A.M. Someone glimpsed Dylan in the crowd.

Asher knew good publicity when he saw it. Grabbing a few dimes, he ran to a pay phone up the street and called local newspaper and TV outlets to tell them about the long line extending from 116 MacDougal all the way down to Bleecker. Afterward the New York Post reported that the Gaslight had turned away two thousand people. The club’s owners had no idea where that figure came from, but it sounded impressive.

Ambling onto the compact Gaslight stage and taking a seat on a wooden chair, Taylor could have been mistaken for a roadie rather than the headlining act. He began singing, his gaze downward, eyes sometimes closed, his long, slightly greasy brown hair occasionally obscuring what few expressions he had. He seemed pained and didn’t work hard to hide it. “Lord knows you got to take enough time to think these days,” he told the crowd. Then he added, “If you feel like singing along . . . don’t.”

Yet Taylor also knew how to charm the Gaslight crowd. At moments, he made mild fun of rock star convention. Toward the end of the set he would do “Steamroller,” picking out a few rough-hewn notes on the guitar and deadpanning, “Pick it, Big Jim.” (Asher had suggested Taylor actually stand up while performing that song, for an added bit of showmanship, but Taylor declined.) When water from a steam pipe on the ceiling began to drip on him, he joked, “My guitar is gently weeping.” “He was painfully shy onstage, but he knew how to make his painful shyness work for him,” recalled Danny Kortchmar. “Every woman in the audience was in love with him. It wasn’t a premeditated thing. Even when he was sitting in a chair, people would lean forward to hear what he had to say. It worked like a champ.”

“I can feel it happening,” Taylor told New York Post writer Al Aronowitz before the show. “I’m starting to feel good about it.” Taylor’s feeling was borne out in the post-show press. “Is James Taylor going to be the next public phenomenon?” wrote the widely read Aronowitz. Cashbox, the music trade magazine, noted, “They can smell a legend going to happen—the crowd, the ‘knowing’ crowd, had really gotten James Taylor’s scent.” Coming only a few days after the brownstone explosion, Taylor’s stint at the club, his nonthreatening songs rolling out effortlessly, must have felt especially consoling.


Murmurs in Greenwich Village weren’t yet translating to record sales. As the spring deepened, Sweet Baby James remained under the radar. In the April 25 issue of Billboard, it zipped up to number 25, then dropped and kept falling, until it remained stuck in the lower echelons of the top 100. At one humiliating point, it was one notch below the soundtrack to Paint Your Wagon, a hokey film adaptation of a ’50s Broadway musical—everything Taylor’s music, much less rock and roll, was supposed to have abolished. Right then, the radio was teeming with music that whooped and soared, like the Jackson Five’s “The Love You Save” or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Woodstock,” or ripped and roared, like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend” and John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” Next to them, “Sweet Baby James,” a modest shrug, failed to chart.

The campus circuit was another, more welcoming matter. By the spring of 1970, more kids in their late teens and early twenties were attending colleges and universities than ever—over seven million, a 30 percent increase from 1965. Young, confused, and disillusioned, they began responding, albeit slowly, to Sweet Baby James. At a record store at the Madison branch of the University of Wisconsin, the album went top 10, just behind juggernauts like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Déjà vu. Realizing the importance of this market, Asher began booking Taylor into a string of college dates, including Harvard on April 21 and Cornell on May 2.

The turnouts varied: After the Cornell show, sponsored by Volkswagen, one of the students who organized it cracked, “It’s probably the only thing Volkswagen ever lost money on.” The accommodations varied as well. To save money, Taylor would often crash in student dorms. But his May 29 performance at a high-school theater—the Berkeley Community Theatre, part of Berkeley High School just north of San Francisco—demonstrated how he was beginning to connect with an audience of his own. Judging from their warm response, the hundreds gathered were clearly already familiar with “Fire and Rain” and “Country Road” from the new album, and “Carolina in My Mind” from the first. They chortled, as they always did, when he rolled out the self-deprecating “Big Jim” line in “Steamroller.” “My my my,” he ad-libbed that night during that song, “I don’t know nothin’ but the blues.” The line was half joke and half branding act.

Even the outside material Taylor picked for his set built on his apolitical, lonely-guy persona. In Berkeley, he sang a muted version of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free,” about a pop star who sees a street musician and pines for those early, pre-pressure days. His younger brother Livingston’s plainspoken, lilting “In My Reply” was a parable of people corrupted by their lust for power and money. In the hands of the Drifters eight years before, Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Up on the Roof” was a wondrous and jubilant exaltation of city life; Taylor transformed it into a doleful lament. Later in the show, with a modest, “Hello, Carole,” he even introduced King, who was joining him at select shows as his piano player. (Just before hitting the road, Taylor played guitar and harmonized on King’s first album as a solo artist, Writer, cut that spring.) Whether he sang his songs or others’, Taylor was becoming an entry point for a new generation of songwriters eager to analyze their mental states in song; community and politics were far from the agenda.

During interviews he began doing to promote the album, Taylor seemed uncomfortable discussing his stays at McLean and Austin Riggs. But neither did he completely run from that part of his past. In a press release that accompanied Sweet Baby James, he wrote, “In the fall of 1965 I entered a state of what must have been intense adolescence . . . and spent nine months of voluntary commitment at McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Massachusetts.” At early club shows, he would turn his stay there into a quizzical in-joke: “McLean, that’s a mental hospital,” he told one audience. “Okay, anybody here from McLean? Let’s hear it for McLean.” Eager to discuss money matters, Taylor called Warners head Joe Smith one day. Taylor was distraught, and Smith said he should go to Smith’s house and wait for him. There, Taylor and Smith’s wife sat waiting for Smith to come home, Taylor barely saying a word for nearly a half hour. “My wife can make a conversation with a wall, but he sat there and said nothing,” Smith recalled. “She finally called me and said, ‘Get home!’”

The sense that Taylor had been damaged by drugs or mental instability only added to his mystique. When a reporter interviewed college students about Taylor’s appeal, one answered, astutely, “The fact that he was in a mental hospital colors people emotionally before they even hear the songs. They all feel sorry for him. The girls, especially.” By then, even Taylor understood that playing up his flaws wasn’t such a bad idea. “I feel fine just to know you’re around,” he began plucking and crooning at Berkeley. At first it sounded like a love song, but soon the crowd started realizing what was happening. Wait, what is this song? Then Taylor hit the chorus: “Things go better with Coke,” he sang, and the audience whooped at both the not-very-veiled drug reference and Taylor semi-mocking a corporate ad jingle.

Yeah!” yelled a man in the crowd, with evident approval.


Whether he wanted it to or not, Taylor’s life was growing more complicated by the day. He was still attached in some way to Margaret Corey, but he was also spending time in the Laurel Canyon cottage of Toni Stern, a native Californian and friend of King’s. Stern joined him during the East Coast leg of his tour, even meeting his family in Boston. Stern brought along her dog, who often ate his way through the wooden storage racks in the airplanes.

Driving along the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, Monte Hellman looked up at one of the ubiquitous, towering billboards advertising new albums and was instantly drawn to the face on it. Hellman had never heard of James Taylor before, but the handsome face looking down at him was all that the director needed to see. At twenty-eight, the frizzy-haired Hellman was already a veteran of Roger Corman productions (Beast from Haunted Cave) and surrealistic westerns starring Jack Nicholson (Ride in the Whirlwind, The Shooting). He was considering directing a script for Two-Lane Blacktop, about two car-racing hustlers making their way across the country, and the man on the billboard had the perfect face for the role of the unnamed Driver.

When Asher received a call from Hellman’s casting director that Hellman was interested in his client, he was torn. Asher heard Hellman was a reputable, up-and-coming director, but Taylor had never acted, and Asher, despite a background that included working as a child actor in London, knew little about dealing with the film business. Asher reached out to Mike Medavoy, an agent who represented the new breed of antiestablishment directors, including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and John Milius. By coincidence, Hellman was also one of Medavoy’s clients. Before long, Taylor was taking a meeting with Hellman in the director’s Los Angeles office. Hellman sensed Taylor was “up for the adventure” of making a film. Hellman wanted realism, not slick actors, and Medavoy was also sold on Taylor. “James had an amazing presence,” said Medavoy. “It was the presence of a guy people wanted to hug. Very likable and warm. That’s rare.”

By then, Hellman had already hired novelist Rudy Wurlitzer to rewrite scriptwriter Will Corry’s screenplay. Wurlitzer, who’d published the cult novel Nog, rewrote the part of the Driver. Although he had no inkling Taylor was up for the part, Wurlitzer sketched out a character who could have passed for him. The working script described the Driver as “age 23 . . . his face is lean and angular. There is a perplexed and detached look in his eyes. His movements are graceful and yet tense, nervous.” Without meaning to, Wurlitzer had carved out Taylor’s next career move.

In early April, Hellman shot Taylor’s screen test on a sunny day at a house in Los Angeles. Taylor had shown up with a mustache, which Hellman had him shave off as part of the test. Alternately staring down the camera or looking away as if too shy to respond, Taylor—in a V-neck T-shirt, his hair in a shag cut like that on Sweet Baby James—exuded a blend of irritation and amusement. More than one person, including the cautious Wurlitzer, thought he was stoned on one substance or other. “It was very awkward,” Wurlitzer remembered. “He was very uncomfortable. It was very disorienting. Drugs will do that to you. You go in and out of various levels of focus.”

Hellman tried to warm Taylor up, asking him about Martha’s Vineyard and how many people lived there in the winter and summer. As if barely tolerating the questions being thrown at him, Taylor curtly replied he liked his place on the Vineyard because the nearest neighbor was “a quarter mile away.”

At one point, Hellman mentioned the Beatles, wondering whether “Helter Skelter” was a parody of hard rock or the real thing.

Taylor managed a shrug. “The Beatles aren’t, anymore.”

“I just heard that,” Hellman replied.

“Unfortunately,” Taylor said, with a typically understated combination of sadness and irritation.

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