The Good, the Bad and the Noodly

Two music writers sound off on the legacy of James Taylor

James Taylor
James Taylor

Sweet Baby James

If storied careers are your bag, you’re already a James Taylor fan.

When the single “Fire and Rain” dropped in 1970, it is possible that nobody understood what the Boston-born singer-songwriter and multi-platinum artist was alluding to. After all, a human who writes his first song at 14 is a natural chaser of stories, and Taylor’s tale — through depression, self-help, institutions and modesty — is one for the ages.

Of course, that introspective, noodling classic begat a sensation, but does anyone know the real James Taylor? Can we ever truly admit to ourselves that heartbreak, loss, peril and denial belong in this world alongside success? Have we seen fire? Have we seen rain? More importantly, have we ever stopped to consider the meaning?

In the year 2000, Taylor was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the year 2016, he is blessing Eugene with his presence. If you bleed red blood, this is not a show you’ll want to miss. — Andy Valentine

How Sweet It Isn’t

I’m sure you spent many lovely evenings, reclined on the hood of your Dodge Dart, smoking joints and listening to James Taylor, wondering what 1980 was going to look like. You go ahead and cherish those memories. You go right ahead.

I’m not here to stand in judgment of those who have sentimental attachments to James Taylor. I’m sure I have sentimental attachments to bad things, too. I just can’t think of any right now.

All this being said, James Taylor is perfectly pleasant, and I suppose he deserves some credit for longevity and having an impact on those who find him meaningful.

It’s just that in the ’70s era of safe, tapioca pudding-voiced singer-songwriters, James Taylor is the puddin’-est. He bleaches out all of ’60s-era folk and country-rock’s danger and excitement.

Like a sexless marriage or a shopping mall, the ’70s gave us punk rock, but they also gave us James Taylor. Give me Cat Stevens. Give me Paul Simon. Hell, in a pinch give me Gordon Lightfoot or John Denver.

But halt, you say. This is just another hipster poo-pooing an artist from before his time.

“With a slight shift in the breeze,” you exclaim, “Taylor’s sound could return to vogue like Townes Van Zandt or Kris Kristofferson, and this bespectacled phony will clutch onto his vinyl copy of Mud Slide Slim and The Blue Horizon like it’s gold. ”

On the contrary! Most mainstream music I hear these days (that bothers with a guitar) sounds just like James Taylor: Jason Mraz, Cody Simpson and Mat Kearney, to name a few. Taylor’s sound never went out of style; it became the style for a lot of dopey guys with guitars, and it never went away. Tune into NPR at any point, and you’ll hear a long succession of James Taylor sound-a-likes.

Led Zeppelin has many moments of beastly greatness and maybe James Taylor does, too. But Led Zeppelin also inspired Winger. And yes, I do hold Zep personally responsible for that. So listen up, James: Jack Johnson is your fault, and I’m not letting you off the hook so easily. — William Kennedy