SECTION EIGHT

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COLUMN EIGHTY-SIX, MARCH 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

RETROPOP SCENE
EMERGING STAR ECLIPSES
AN ECLIPSE OF THE SUN


JAMES TAYLOR AT GRANTS TOMB IN 2002

Those people spilling off the curb into Greenwich Villageís MacDougal Street at noon on a winterís Saturday in 1970 werenít there to watch the eclipse.  Not until May 1, 2079, will New York be able to see the moon darken the sun again.

But those people standing in MacDougal Street had come to witness an event that they obviously considered of greater magnitude.  Who wants to look at an eclipse when you can witness an emerging star? James Taylor was making his only appearance of the year at the Gaslight, and those people were waiting to buy tickets.

Who is James Taylor, this young, thin giant with long, dark hair and a wispy beard who walks through the crowds that come to adore him with a half-smile on his lips and distant visions in his eyes like a Jesus in an era when we already have too many---and at the same time one too few?

Ask him about himself and he will give you only the barest outlines of a life that was lived for the most part in hurt. You donít talk to Sweet Baby James.  You listen to his music.  He tells about himself in the slow, measured phrasing of someone who doesn't want to be misunderstood.  His voice is clear crystal.  Whatever secrets James Taylor has about himself, he thinks his music is big enough to hide behind.  James Taylor steps upon the stage ready to challenge the gods. He is on his way to the firmament.

Four years ago, he was one of those kid musicians among the hundreds of groups hustling through the Village for any ear that would listen to their own particular cries of prophecy in the wilderness. He belonged to the Flying Machine, a band that is now, as he sings, with sweet dreams in pieces on the ground.  When the Flying Machine crashed, so did James.

A couple of years later, he turned up in London and recorded an album for Peter Asher at Apple Records.  The album was distributed in the U.S. by Capitol but, as Peter says, "I got the feeling Capitol never listened to it."

James Taylorís new album, Sweet Baby James, is on Warner Brothers and, only a few weeks after its release, he is drawing the kind of crowds you saw standing on the street outside the Gaslight. On that Saturday night alone, the club had to turn away 2,000 people.

"I can feel it happening," James says.  "I'm starting to feel good about it."

The songs that James sings are his own, born out of the torture that twice sent him into mental institutions.  His lyrics are, of course, private, personal and mysterious, but, at 21, James speaks for his generation with the kind of cool authority that seems destined to elect him one of the spokesmen of his time.

The son of the dean of the University of North Carolina Medical School, he was born in Boston and raised in Chapel Hill. He was 17 and in boarding school the first time he committed himself.

"I was suicidal," he says.  "It was the only place I could go."

He committed himself a second time after recording his first album.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," he explains.

What are the secrets hiding behind his music?  Listen to this song he wrote after coming back from England to find a girl he knew had killed herself:

Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to
I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again. . .

You watch him singing on the stage of the Gaslight, sounding exactly as he sounds on his album, and you feel his confidence elbowing you.  It's already a little too close in the room and you wonder if you like being crowded by his presence. Condensation from a water pipe collects on the ceiling and begins to drip on him.

"My guitar is gently weeping," he says.  He sings a Coke commercial and everyone laughs.

ďLord knows you got to take enough time to think these days," he says.

Before he begins to sing again, he tells the audience:

"If you feel like singing along, don't."

Is James Taylor going to be the next public phenomenon?  It's a little early in the cycle for such an event, but that's the league in which James clearly wants to be batting.  ##

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