#104: James Taylor, "Sweet Baby James" (1970)

104 Sweet Baby James.jpg

Newport Folk Festival - Fort Adams State Park
July 20, 1969

He couldn’t even see the moon at first. He could see masts and seagulls, lawn chairs, pot smoke. He saw two young girls on a hill by the walls of the fort passing a volleyball back and forth and he was stopped cold, stunned by the ease they had with the game and how long they could control its flight with perfectly placed forearms, simple flicks of the wrist. The longer the ball stayed in flight the calmer he became. Center stage, there was a stool with a pillow and he sat down.

He was twenty-one years old and felt like he’d already cheated his way into something, as much as he’d also been cheated. Seventeen had seemed like a midpoint to life, best-case scenario. He wondered if people would laugh at him, baby-faced and reminiscing about by-gone days. Long-haired, youthful, dashing, up-and-coming recording star crooning lines like, My body’s aching and my time is at hand. But people are sharp. They can hear the honesty in a line of melody cutting right through. Maybe they couldn’t see the spoons and needles but they could certainly hear weariness. You could be fresh and tired and full of promise and one quarter-note from death all at the same time.

His first American solo show had been last week, at the Troubadour. George Harrison had become a friend and then a former friend. Rich kids with drug problems bored him; he bored himself. He had been plucked off the street by the Beatles then tossed back where he came from. He wished he could remember it all better, but he was sure he’d had a great time. For some reason he felt like this night was an end to his career even as it was beginning. He felt famous and unknown and washed up all at the same time. He felt like the launch was less safe than he’d been led to believe—the rockets and thrusters were too powerful and not quite stable enough to be trusted. Ascending in a cloud of smoke would always be a risk.

In Stockbridge, at Austen Riggs, he’d stopped his life. He’d slept on a cot and shaken, forgetting what words meant, just dreaming of pressing a button again and again, one that made things bearable and paused the constant bone-shrinking, tooth-grinding everything. And he’d written some of these. He’d built worlds that were peaceful and mythical, fallen asleep watching the cowboy in front of the fire, holding the women, the bottle of beer. He’d learned to exert some measure of influence on his own visions. Deep greens and blues and all that.

James plugged in and strummed. People didn’t know him, really, but people clapped and stayed standing in the rain. People nodded their heads, people glanced at each other and held the glance.

The old guy in charge came out after fifteen minutes and stopped him in the middle of “Fire and Rain” with a lifted hand. He took the mic away and changed the subject: they had landed.

And goddamnit that would have been thrilling, almost was. But it was over, then. He’d never finish that set of songs, which would hang now in the blackness of space half-born, drifting around his heart and leaking out and skirting the walls of the fort and all of Rhode Island with nowhere to land and rest.

God bless America. Why the music had to stop, though, James never understood. Why would it need to be silent in order for the thousands of them to stare up at the moon together and scan for footprints?

 

Newport Folk Festival - Fort Adams State Park
July 25, 2015

He’s had bad astronaut dreams ever since that one small step. Dimly-remembered, black dreams of men in spacesuits stepping out to make history but slipping and sliding off the surface, drifting off into ether, hoses tangling, mouths opening into toothless Os of terror. The whole world is contained in these chaos dreams. A crack in the paneling, a faulty computer chip. Anything could send things spinning.

He stares into the well of one of the side-stage cameras and knows he can’t control what his face looks like on the huge jumbotron screens. He’ll be worn down and blown up in all his lack of glory. But he starts with “Sweet Baby James” and when he sings the first note, he’s relieved. He sounds like the same person he was at twenty-one, and each note thrums out like a vibrating arrow that shimmies across a plane into the bay and buries itself in the swells, completed.

He remembers feeling cheated at first. So angry, until later reading about how everything had stopped, and nothing was spared. He read the summaries of baseball games. The Cubs and the Phillies lined up along the base lines and prayed. In New York the umpires waved their hands and called off the play. The scoreboard read, “They’re on the moon!” Players stood around scratching themselves and kicking dirt, proud but unsettled.

He thinks about what it would take to bring things to a halt now, what it would take for everyone to look in the same direction for even a second, to pocket their phones and focus on one thing. Something huge, something burning. Something so dangerous nobody could help but recognize it. He wants to flip open a zippo and stick his finger into the flame, hold it there just long enough that something singes and stirs up his guts a bit, that his nerves become alarmed. Is it possible that absolutely everything could be paused? Arguments, sex, the pitcher’s delivery, dying, the song right in the middle of the note, the needle a millimeter from the vein? There are voices inside of him still that scream as he writes and scream as he talks and scream as he drives and only don’t scream as he sings. One small step for me, and one more small step for me, and one night without a highball and one morning without a panic attack on the toilet. One more small song for Warner Brothers, Columbia, Concord without worrying there’s not another one crowding in behind it to take its place.

Nobody yells up from the crowd for anything recent. Nobody is clamoring and wailing to hear Before the World, although it is a number one album this year. They want to hear songs from when he was too young to buy a fifth of whiskey. And that’s easy enough.

But if you sing the same line again, rather than daring to state a new feeling, if you just drop the needle into a groove it knows already and exactly, isn’t that a kind of terror? They want him to finish the set he left hanging there 46 years ago. Pick up where he left off, as if we just won the space race and the Beatles have said goodbye and soon Manson’s people will murder those girls and Ted Kennedy will be just about ready to sail off that bridge.

Here we are, sparks in the darkness, he wrote once.

Somehow I haven’t died, he wrote last year.

He sings “Carolina in My Mind” and the images start to crowd him out of his own head. The moonshine, the dark side, the dogs that bite. Hey, babe, the sky’s on fire, I’m dying ain’t I?

When it’s time to return to the song they interrupted, he glances up at the sky. He tells the crowd the story of 1969. “The moon was hanging right there,” he says, pointing, chuckling, “and somebody was walking on it.” Just yesterday morning, he sings, as if that’s when anything happened.

Why have these images had such a powerful hold on him all these years? He sat glued to the TV set when Challenger launched and felt as though he were inside the crew compartment as it began to break up. He saw out through their eyes, knowing the launch had failed but having enough oxygen and time to think about the fact that the launch had failed. It was a screaming sound, like a rabbit, he was sure of it.

Here he has this beautiful song, though, born of hospitals and heroin, that people still respond to, children sing along to on the lawn. He has managed to gather it up from the ether and begin it again. He still worries he’ll never write another note. Nobody puts much money into space anymore, nobody dreams about those kinds of things these days. He still feels like a fraud who might be interrupted at any moment so that we can all look at something else that’s happening elsewhere.

Jesus Christ, there are two girls. They are standing by the wall of the fort, barefoot and sweaty. They are shifting position, getting low to the ground, and bumping a gleaming white volleyball back and forth. It arcs up, then down, up, then down. But just as he takes a breath to begin the next phrase, the ball reaches the top of its path and sticks. It stops, like a basketball shockingly trapped between rim and backboard. It stops and hangs for a full second longer than is possible. He remembers to keep breathing, then remembers to keep singing. The ball falls down; he strums on and knows what he saw. The moon stays up there somewhere, hidden by too much light.

—Eric Thompson