James Taylor: In the presence

'I just wanted to see what genius looks like'

James Taylor
The author's first James Taylor album

I remember this story about an impersonal professor who, atypically this time, holds on to one test paper after sending all the rest back graded.

When the student who has been skipped over comes up to ask if anything is wrong, the professor replies, “No, nothing at all is wrong. I just wanted to see what genius looks like.”

I was just in that sort of presence on Monday night, and had dreamt of it for a long, long time. Until that night, James Taylor had been a disembodied presence, a voice on vinyl, then on audio tape, then on digital compact disc or stick, then on YouTube.

I got my first James Taylor album, Mud Slide Slim, on vinyl. It was actually his third album; the first was James Taylor and the Original Flying Machines, which I never got to possess; the second was Sweet Baby James, which I acquired, covetously, after my sumptuous introduction to him. Mud Slide Slim included his iconic, self-composed Fire and Rain and Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend, which she had him record. She herself sang it on an album of her own, Tapestry, released in the same year as Mud Slide Slim, 1971, but I had heard it first from James Taylor and did not acquire my own copy of Tapestry until probably a couple of years later.

In person, James Taylor still looked indistinct from my remote seat in the 15,000-seater Arena. A big screen hung from the rafters on each side of the stage showing simultaneous close-ups made up for it. But for me, being in his presence felt fulfilling enough.

James Taylor’s distinctive voice and vocalizing; his signature guitar chording and playing; the subtly economical accompaniment from a band with his two old collaborators, Steve Gadd on drums and Jimmy Johnson on electric bass, stars in their own right; the backup voices that knew their celestial places in the arrangements, among them James’s wife, Kim, who joined in certain songs—they all combined to further reassure everyone in the packed house they were watching a James Taylor ensemble in its every authentic living component.

James Taylor

In the concert, the author (third from right) with his son Paolo Santos (second from right) beside partner Nina, and the author’s daughters, Ayis, with husband Darv, on the far left, and Tracy (third from left)

I don’t know how I could have missed him when he came in 1994, the first and only other time, and performed at the Folk Arts Theater. My son, Paolo, was there—he was 19, James was 46, I was 48. This time, 30 years later, Paolo made sure I didn’t miss James—he bought me a ticket.

It was Paolo’s James Taylor devotion that made him chuck a safe office job and begin risking it himself, singing for a living

Doubtless it was Paolo’s James Taylor devotion that made him chuck a safe office job and begin risking it himself, singing for a living, to his own guitar accompaniment; he has not done badly himself. Of course, James Taylor is dominant in his playlists.

I know enough James Taylor songs myself, but hadn’t dared sung any of them except in my mind or under my breath. Well, not until that night: I was one of the thousands of voices coming together, singing along with him. By his own pronouncement, we were “the best audience,” surely not only for being a proper crowd, rapt just listening, but also, once signaled to join in, for being such spirited singers-along, not to mention for being in tune and on the beat—I guess we just have it in us.

I myself have always had at least two guitars — a classical and an electric parlor — waiting on stands near my desk at home, not for any pretensions. They’re there ready to do their part as collaborators in my living as an opinion writer. When a paragraph won’t go on my keyboard I go to my guitar, and in no time the paragraph gets going again.

Sometimes, on the side, I do dare deploy my own unschooled, and likely not always appropriate, chords to accompany myself as I give certain songs a go. But even in those performances for a home audience of one—myself, sometimes joined by my wife in the spirit of “for better or for worse”—none of those songs is a James Taylor. Simply, I feel rather unworthy.

But my already thin repertoire was shaved down further when James Taylor brought out American Standard, in 2020. He adapted selections from that genre to his folkish, bluesy, soft-rock inimitable style, refreshing them. As it happens, standards are a comfort genre I consider fair game for self-mining. Two songs—Moon River and The Nearness of You—having been consecrated in that album, I had to retire them from my repertoire.

But I’m just a happy self-sacrificing devotee, and that night, I felt sealed and moved to sing along with James Taylor in uninhibited celebration of a lifetime chance at seeing what genius looks like.

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