Break Shot: My First 21 Years
It seems Audible (Amazon) is battling against Spotify and every other podcast platform – so they’re introducing original content that isn’t just 39 hours of a book being read by a BBC-grade thespian. There are now scripted fiction podcast and documentary podcast series’ exclusive to Audible and some short-form memoirs – think of them as being the Kindle Single in Audiobook form.
James Taylor’s mini memoir is one such new initiative – it’s part audiobook, part podcast – it’s basically like your standard 90-minute interview/chat podcast, except Taylor is interviewing himself. There’s also snippets of background music – he plays original score live alongside his reading of his story and there are songs; new in-the-moment versions of material (often the slightly lesser known ones) from Taylor’s catalogue.
This is the story of his childhood; he’s clear early on that he’ll speak about his parents and his one sibling that died (of alcoholism related illness in the early 1990s) but his three surviving siblings should be given the right to own and tell their stories. Besides, he’s already cashed in over the years by writing the family into some of his songs. He’s also very clear on that.
The candid nature of this is beautiful – and compelling. How’s this for a scene-setter of a line:
“You could make a case that most of the songs I’ve written have been a way of trying to work out just what happened to us”. And then, “It’s like that movie Groundhog Day: I am assigned to keep going through it over and over until I figure it out.”
It’s like Stephen King’s narrator in his Stand By Me story…
You want to find out what was so bad – and what was driving the emotional baggage. And you do. Taylor’s story is known. He’s been written about. He’s written about himself in songs – he’s popped up in or inspired material by Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon too. But there’s nothing like hearing it in his own words. And he has a way with a line too that extends beyond the songwriting.
“You can construct a usable father out of relatively little material,” he says. “But a mother has to be there.” Taylor’s mum was there. And she had to be. His dad – a doctor – wasn’t there for long. And when he returned from a two-year job treating sea explorers in the Antarctic he was a broken man – attempting to reconstruct himself or forget about himself entirely (and anyone near him) through alcohol. This was the dividing line for the family as Taylor tells us.
James is a depressed teen. He and two of his siblings are placed in psychiatric care. He points out that, heartbreakingly, his father – a physician – has no real thoughts on the matter. No advice. No interest. His dad’s mother had died in his childbirth and when he is asked along to one of James’ sessions the therapist asks him why he had five children if he no longer loves his wife. Taylor Senior deadpans that he kept hoping she’d die giving birth.
As gloomy as the home life is for James – and then the drift into drugs and more psychiatric care (he returns as a way of kicking his habit) – there’s great music in his life. And the way he writes and speaks about it is marvelous. He takes you along to the jam sessions and the discovery of surf-guitar bands and the co-ed dances in the halls. He lets you in on his long relationship with “Kootch” – Danny Kortchmar – guitarist in The City (with Carole King) and early bands that featured Taylor (The Flying Machine); guitarist across Taylor’s solo albums too.
And then we get to the remarkable story of Taylor’s solo signing to Apple – making his self-titled debut album with George Harrison borrowing the title from Something In The Way She Moves to write his own classic song; Paul McCartney plays bass on half of Taylor’s record. Taylor and Lennon are chummy – and Lennon, desperate for drugs, nearly ODs as a result of James giving him the motherlode of a methadone hit. He has an even better, more chilling story that he flashes forward to, Mark David Chapman recognizes and stops Taylor in the street the night before he murders Lennon.
Jesus, fuck, it’s just so brilliant to hear and feel and ‘read’. You’re there listening. You feel as though you are there in the story – an observer, eavesdropper, but more than that, a fireside companion for a story that is only being shared with you. For you.
Yes – fingers are crossed that there’ll be another part, another ‘episode’ – but if this remains a standalone it’s compelling and worthwhile. I can’t wait to start it again. There’s something in the way Taylor writes.
He takes us just up to his success. Second album, Sweet Baby James, is named for his nephew – the first of a new generation in his family; he writes the lullaby before meeting the child, overwhelmed with the news that the new kid is named for him.
He writes Fire and Rain due to altogether sadder news. A friend, the “Suzanne” from the song’s opening, had committed suicide, the opening lines are penned as Taylor tries to process it. He keeps that and the glimmer of the tune with him for a while before completing it. Or as he says, making you rush back to the early albums, making you hope he’ll write – and read – to you and for you again, and soon:
“I would carry that song with me for the next year or so. Then that song would carry me for the rest of my life”.