BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — His brain was frosted with morphine, his heart petered, but his lungs remembered to breathe. Simple as that. He was dying — there were multiple times when he was dying — but his lungs always kept working, every time. And that’s why he is sitting here in September, many years later, sober, in a hotel bungalow that costs thousands of dollars a night. Instead of being dead at 22 or 27 or 33, like many of his artistic peers who sought solace in drugs, James Taylor, 68, fetches from the coffee table a crinkled printout of his discography: 18 studio albums and about 200 songs spanning 48 years of platinum-certified celebrity.
He stapled together his career because he wanted to see which themes kept dogging his music. He made lists. Keeps them on his iPad.
Man as both thinker and creature.
The danger of organizing your own work is that you start to appraise yourself. He knows that some songs are better than others and that some songs were better written than they were recorded. “Shed a Little Light,” for example. “The Frozen Man.” Those sessions didn’t hack it. He thinks he came close to success with “Gaia” and achieved it with “Never Die Young” and “Enough to Be on Your Way.” There are a few others.
“ ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘Carolina’ — I’m still proud of those songs,” Taylor says, sitting at the bungalow’s glass dining table with a cranberry juice. “ ‘Sweet Baby James’ maybe more, because it’s kind of a Chinese puzzle.”
The lullaby waltz written for his nephew is actually a puzzle?
Taylor pulls a pad of Post-its toward him. “The rhyming scheme,” he says. He takes a black pen and begins writing on the yellow paper.
Pastures to change.
“It’s got some really strong internal rhymes. Let’s see.”
Ten thousand more to go.
“So it had a very strict form. And it was not easy to make it. It was like a mathematical puzzle, or a Sudoku. And I think that to start a song being a lullaby to a little boy and then to take that, in the second verse, and sort of recapitulate it to myself — at my current moment of realizing that my career might be a go, that I actually could write songs, that I was a functioning musician, that I had problems but there was a way forward . . . ”
A small waterfall goes splish beyond the bungalow’s sliding glass door. The white California light pierces the hedgerow, stripes his gray-blue polo shirt, glints on the gold of his wire-frame glasses. He is admiring something he made 46 years ago as if he has just discovered it.
“I just think the song’s got a lot to it.”
Anyone younger than 50 is forgiven for not knowing this: James Taylor was a babe. A 6-foot-3 stalk of corn and sensitivity. Flowing chestnut locks. A demure pornstache. A way of picking the strings of a guitar as if he was fingering the valves of your heart. Put some sky-blue denim on him, lean him against a wooden post, tell him to look straight into the camera and good night, you moonlight ladies.
Taylor’s second album — “Sweet Baby James,” the one with the words “fire” and “rain” on the cover — sold 1.6 million copies in its first year. By March 1971, he was on the cover of Time, illustrated as a Christ-like, post-Woodstock troubadour under the headline “The New Rock: Bittersweet and Low.”
“I find comfort in fatalism and inevitability . . . in things like earthquakes and eclipses of the moon because I have no hand in them,” Taylor, then 22, told Time. “They relieve me of responsibility.”
His medium is the elements — wind, dust, oceans, rainbows — and thus his earliest memory is trying to walk on the crust of the snow, and sinking, outside the Taylor home in Weston, Mass. In the early ’50s, when he was a toddler, the well-to-do Taylors resettled outside Chapel Hill, N.C., on 28 acres of honeysuckle surrounded by sawmills and tobacco barns. Ike and Trudy Taylor, descendants of mariners, had cosmopolitan tastes and a love for the natural world. They raised their four children on Aaron Copland, the Weavers, the Andrews Sisters. Trudy nudged them to invent radio jingles on homemade instruments. Ike, a professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, sang sea chanteys on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, where the Taylors summered.
James Taylor first studied classical cello, which explains his bass-cleffed, self-taught style on the guitar: He thumbs a bass line while picking the melody with his first three fingers. His first concert was Peter, Paul and Mary in Raleigh. At 14 he wrote his first song, and it married the white gospel of North Carolina to the Episcopal hymns at boarding school in Massachusetts. His lyrics, summoning the Vineyard and the Piedmont, predicted a life of searching.
Then one day I left my home, and down the river bound,
Sit back on my raft of reeds, I float past fields and towns.
The Taylor family tree, once esteemed in North Carolina, was lately prone to rot. His grandfather and great-grandfather had drunk themselves to death, and his dad and older brother would follow eventually. When James Taylor was 7, Ike Taylor fled to Antarctica for two years to study frostbite, perhaps also to escape domesticity and the weight of his troubled ancestry.
All of the Taylor children spent stints in mental institutions, and each became a musician. As a suicidal 17-year-old at boarding school in Massachusetts, Taylor checked himself into McLean Hospital, where there were screens on the windows but a solid structure to the day. After graduating from the hospital’s high school, he split for New York to become a professional singer-songwriter. He found heroin in Greenwich Village in 1966.
The Rolling Stones released “Paint It Black” that year, and Taylor, now 18, heard the musical appeal of gloom. But his hard living outpaced his songwriting. He did a lot of drugs. Passed out on park benches. Invited sketchy characters to crash in his apartment. He began flirting with death, but his lungs kept breathing. He called home in 1967 and his father heard the distress in his voice. Ike Taylor went to New York to rescue him, to bring him back to North Carolina for treatment.
After rebounding, Taylor’s next move was to London, where he busked beneath overpasses and petitioned record companies. His New York bandmate Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar connected him to British singer Peter Asher, who worked at Apple Records and played Taylor’s demos for Paul McCartney.
“We should sign him,” McCartney told his fellow Beatles. Taylor came in for the audition of his life: playing “Something in the Way She Moves” for McCartney and George Harrison.
“I was as nervous as a Chihuahua on methamphetamines,” Taylor recalls.
When the Beatles weren’t recording “The White Album,” Taylor used the studio to make his self-titled debut.
Though not a sensation, the album included key calling cards such as “Carolina in My Mind.” Taylor’s music fused the hymnal to the blues, rock-and-roll to country, Robert Frost to Woody Guthrie. His debut got him a record deal stateside with Warner Bros.
“James seemed like the perfect guy for the time,” his friend Kortchmar told Timothy White, who wrote the 2001 Taylor biography “Long Ago and Far Away.”
“As a young man in his early twenties, his aura was of somebody who was sensitive but not feminine, handsome but not too macho. He had that air of Southern gentility but also the New England look of a fisherman or a farmer.”
In 1971, with Janis and Jimi dead, folk rock neutralized acid rock. Taylor released his third album, whose 10th track was aware of its own melancholy: “Why is this song so sad?” With Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon, Taylor made yearning a national pastime.
Mitchell backed Taylor’s vocals on “Long Ago and Far Away,” and Simon did the same on “One Man Parade.” Taylor reciprocated on “A Case of You,” which is probably about him, and “Waited So Long.” Taylor and King duetted at Carnegie Hall, and in response to his “Fire and Rain” — I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend — she wrote “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Taylor dated Mitchell and then, in 1972, married Simon.
“When James walked into a room — any room — he transformed it, charging it up with his radiance,” Simon wrote in her memoir, whose portrayal of Taylor is both bruising and worshipful. Even when she hated him she loved him — “not despite his broken-down spirit, but because of it.”
They had two children. Taylor continued his love affair with heroin. He retreated to monkish solitude to compose in notebooks, using one page to write and the opposite to edit, composing line by line, draft after draft, until the notebook was half full and the song was precise. He didn’t always practice the same care with his family.
Simon wrote “Fair Weather Father” in 1976, when daughter Sally was 2. Taylor, not one to suppress a musical confession, sang backup on his own indictment.
He kept using. His lungs kept breathing. His greatest hits came out in ’76 and went platinum. In ’79 Taylor drank himself into a depression in Montserrat. He had his father’s lust for escape, and touring was his Antarctica. The title of his 11th album, in 1981, was “Dad Loves His Work.” Simon filed for divorce, and, the next year, Taylor’s friend John Belushi overdosed at the Chateau Marmont. Taylor sang “That Lonesome Road” at his burial on the Vineyard.
The song is as elemental as any of his songs. The silver moon. The trees. The heart. A plaintive melody. Easy listening, to James Taylor, never meant easy living.
Belushi’s death rattled Taylor in a way that nearly dying never did. His friend Michael Brecker, the jazz musician, took him to his first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. His second wife, Kathryn, whom he had married in 1985, gripped his hand through detox and withdrawal. Taylor has been sober ever since but retains the shame and regrets of his habit. They are artistic inspirations and reminders of fallibility in a world that adores him.
In this Beverly Hills bungalow, he is gracious but makes little eye contact. He is serene even as he fidgets. He is master and journeyman, penitent and shaman, depending on the moment. Taylor says luck is the primary reason he’ll be sitting next to the president at the Kennedy Center instead of a lying in a heap of bones on Martha’s Vineyard. That’s not to say he doesn’t sense a higher power.
“Music suggests an order to the universe that sort of — ”
Taylor stutters for 10 seconds, searching for the verb, thinking of the science of rhyme, the algebra of harmony, the way his songs tell stories and stir nameless feelings.
“ — precedes human consciousness. It’s true to the physical laws of the universe as well as an emotional set of values. And for that reason it does lift you out of the prison of the self.”
James Taylor is no longer trapped there. He is now in multiple halls of fame, has figured out the work-life balance and has even released a Christmas album. He travels with a nail kit, to keep his digits in picking shape, and is routinely performing. Taylor Swift, an admirer and namesake, has brought him onstage at her concerts. He keeps his iPhone ready to record, because lyrics and melodies still come to him out of the blue. His twin 15-year-old boys, with third wife Kim, are completing their first semester at Taylor’s alma mater, not so very far from their home in the Berkshires, where he also has a studio converted from a barn.
The wanderlust is now more of a wanderhobby. The first song on Taylor’s 2015 album, “Before This World,” abandons the pursuit of motion and wipes away the gloom.
The way ahead is clear.
My heart is free from fear.
I plant a flag right here.
Much of Taylor’s best music burns on alienation, on loneliness, yet he’s now dogged by contentment. He appreciates that his bittersweetness has, over the years, become a balm.
“People come to me all the time and say, ‘This is the soundtrack of my life,’ ” Taylor says. “What we do with popular culture is we’re building our mythology, our own personal mythology. A soundtrack. We will subscribe to a number of celebrities or actors or movies or songs that really represent us. And then you can sort of channel that a little bit, when you need it in your own life.”
Taylor then refers to his most famous song as if it’s a socket wrench, or a broom.
“I think ‘Fire and Rain’ has been useful to a few people.”
The next evening, a Tuesday in September, Taylor plays a benefit concert at a midsize venue in downtown Los Angeles.
“He’s been the gold standard for what a singer-songwriter should be,” says Vince Gill, introducing Taylor.
Greeted by a standing ovation, Taylor has a hitch in his step and a quaver in his voice. He has always been an old soul, and now his body has caught up. Five musicians, including the Eagles’ Joe Walsh, take turns playing their own songs, and ornamenting each other’s with a guitar lick or vocal harmony. Taylor thumbs a whispering bass line for nearly every one of them, an involuntary courtesy from a man who thinks of every note as an amen, a pulse, a breath.
Taylor credits Carole King after playing “You’ve Got a Friend.” After “You Can Close Your Eyes,” Gill says: “That’s one of the best damn songs in American history.”
The evening closes as it should, with the lullaby. The first verse to a child. The second to himself. The third to the thing that helps him to sleep, that saved his life, that provides a solution to the puzzle of James Taylor.
“Singing works just fine for me.”
And good night, you moonlight ladies.
The 39th Kennedy Center Honors ceremony will be held Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. in the Opera House. The taped presentation will be broadcast Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. on CBS.