James Taylor, patrician tall and still gawkily awkward, is restlessly stalking a hotel hallway. He looks like Stanley in Africa, bent slightly forward at the waist, clothed in tan khakis and a loose shirt that belongs on a man 50 pounds heavier. Under a spiffy straw hat, his hair is thinning at the top, flowing at the back and sides in casual compensation.
Taylor is handsome in an offhand way: His eyes are bright, his stare direct; he doesn't smile too often, and while he sometimes seems to drift into private thought, he's cordial. His features have hardened; he's no longer Sweet Baby James, just James at 34.
Even at rest in his suite on the day before the first concert of his summer tour here at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Taylor seems to be emotionally pacing inside the cage of celebrity that has trapped him since his star shot up in 1969. What went up so quickly has come back down slow and hard in a litany of paradoxes--drug addiction and redemption; love and celebrity marriage to Carly Simon--and a painful divorce that came through yesterday; childhood emotional difficultiesthat resurface in his role as a father; frequent crises in professional confidence; the spotlight death of close friend John Belushi.
All this has been played out most publicly, as if his life were an open diary. Taylor has begun to look for a way out. "I seem to need more and more privacy," he says softly, weighing his thoughts, parceling them out in carefully arranged sentences. "I think what I'm going to have to do is just claim areas of time that are my own, that I can have for private and personal matters. It's difficult to get that, it tends to be eaten up by social, family, professional and political things." He pauses, as he frequently will, to put a cap on his thought. "I'm going to go through my book for next year and just reclaim big hunks of time."
His 10-year marriage to singer Carly Simon officially ended yesterday, but the divorce was just a formality. They had been one of pop's true celebrity couples, easily on a glamor par with Mick and Bianca, but really more akin to the volatile Dick and Liz or George and Tammy fiascoes, with clashes and reconciliations as frequent as high and low tides. Even beyond their careers, James and Carly were "just different people. She and I had different ideas about what it is to be a public figure."
Those differences were like night and day: She was private, a homebody, responsible; he was maddeningly public, loved working and being on the road, enjoyed his drinking and carousing. The tensions were played out in private and in public; on record verse came to verse as their different reactions to familial responsibility surfaced, she singing "Fairweather Father," he replying with "Family Man"; he tried to explain why "Dad Loves His Work." It was give and take until the giving gave out. The prophetic lines from "Her Town, Too" were realized: "She gets the house and garden/He gets the boys in the band/Some of them his friends/Some of them her friends/Some of them understand."
"Carly and I were separated more than a year ago," Taylor says quietly. "I have no regrets about my time with Carly and we have two lovely children Sarah is 7, Ben is 4 . In the earlier periods it was tough, not so much for the kids, but for myself anyway, sort of fearing that I was doing them damage or upsetting them. But as long as you're there for them and tell them what you're feeling and anticipate what their real fears will be, they demonstrate to you that they're okay. And I see more of them now than I have in the past five years. I feel I'm in a position to be a better father to them by myself."
There have been, Taylor is quick to admit, other periods of encroaching maturity, but "in the past I haven't been as conscious of what I was doing and why I was doing it and what the effects of what I was doing were. I think I'm getting better at that. The problem is perceived fear--and I won't go into what I think I've been afraid of and why and on what level--but the answers are pretty much cliche's: I want to be in the present, I want to be aware of why I'm doing things and how I'm reacting."
Sometimes it's easy to forget that Taylor is still a young man, one who obviously found fame and fortune before he was mature enough to handle either. Sometimes, though, it's been easy to remember: the lack of control, the dissolution, the drinking, the drugs, the frequent flights from responsibility. The events of the last year, though, may have finally broken the cycle of defenses. "I feel I'm on the edge of seeing myself in a new way," Taylor insists. "I feel as though I'm capable of being an adult now. I mean that only in the most positive ways--in terms of being responsible for what I do, and having as much control as I can handle over my life."
If the unexpected traumas of marriage and parenthood implanted seeds of responsibility, John Belushi's death may have cemented it. They were friends and neighbors on Martha's Vineyard, their expensive homes and fast-lane lives a tangible reward and symbol of a shared sudden success. It wasn't something that was talked about openly, Taylor recalls, more "unspoken and tacit eye contact agreement that this is the way it is and isn't it difficult or wild or whatever." When Taylor talks about Belushi, he looks down to the ground, his hands pull at his trouser legs, his lanky torso curls with an emotional tension.
"What happened to John is very important on a number of different levels," he says very deliberately. "It's important in terms of what your personal role is and what the public perceives you to be . . . and whether or not you can stand to live that. And it has to do with how much you can take responsibility for. John was the kind of person who wanted to take responsibility for everything and everybody, he wanted to make everything all right for everybody. He had an immense burden of other people's well-being on his shoulders. It was an impossible burden for him."
It was a burden that Taylor himself carried for many years; he simply didn't stumble as badly. "I did get more attention from the press than was necessary. Publicity and celebrity is something that some people handle better than others, and I handle it particularly poorly. It confuses me. There's a real cycle to it: When they discover you, you're the best thing since canned tomatoes; then when you don't turn out to be the savior of the Western World, they write about what a disappointment you are."
In 1970, Taylor had been on the cover of Time ("the kiss of death, something to be survived"). He has since become, in his own words, "an entertainer mostly. I'm not a kinetic or political artist." His once-introspective songwriting is moving in a new direction. "I'd been writing about things I may already have written about since a lot of the stuff is autobiographical. So it was getting a little more difficult." Release came when he was asked to contribute songs to the musical version of Studs Terkel's "Working." With the emotional investment replaced by an intellectual one, Taylor came up with three of his better songs, "Millworker," "Brother Trucker" and "Sugar Trade."
He also wrote songs for the films "Brubaker" and "Times Square" (neither was used) and a PBS Playhouse project, "Private Contentment," that starred his current companion, actress Kathryn Walker ("Neighbors," "Slapshot," Abigail Adams in "The Adams Chronicles"). "Maybe it's just being able to exercise a talent of mine in a more open way, not always having to direct it inward."
There will always be a place, he feels, for his kind of music. "People still like to listen to this stuff. It doesn't bother me to perform the songs that people want me to perform. I don't feel like I'm restricted by the type of person I publicly am perceived as. It's not an uncomfortable suit to climb into. The public perception of James Taylor, as much of one as there is, is pretty close to what I am." With one change after the sadness of the last year: "I don't know if I'm any stronger, but I'm less afraid."