Story Behind The Song: “Fire & Rain” by James Taylor


James Taylor

“Fire and Rain”

 

"Sweet Baby James," the famous cover by Henry Diltz.

“Sweet Baby James,” the famous cover by Henry Diltz.


As told to Paul Zollo

 

My friend Suzanne, from New York, had committed suicide a couple of months before my friends let me know. I was in the middle of recording my (debut album for Apple Records) in London, and they didn’t know how the news would hit me, and kept it from me for a couple of months until we were well into mixing that album. Then they told me about it, so that’s why the song starts with that first verse. I started it in London.

I had known Suzanne the year before I started writing the song. When I finished making the Apple album, I was institutionalized at Austen Riggs in Massachusetts. I wrote the second two verses there. They put me in a little room and I wrote a lot of songs there. It was very productive. I was getting my strength back, I was getting my nervous system back. Writing a lot of stuff.

“Fire and Rain” came very fast. You’d almost say it all happened all at the same time.

I played it for Joel O’Brien, who was my drummer at the time, in London. I had a small basement room. I lived in a succession of basement rooms. This one was fairly spacious. Silver foil on the wall. He said, “Oh, man, that’s going to be an important song for you.”

[The song] is very personal, confrontational. And candid. It really a kind of blues. Not a 12-bar blues, but it has the same intent, in that it’s getting out something hard. It details three different episodes of hard times. The first one learning of Suzanne’s death, the second one coming back to the United States sick and strung out, trying to get back on my feet, physically exhausted, undernourished and addicted. And then the third one is much more general, not as specific as the first few verses. It talks about remembering one’s life, thinking back to my band The Flying Machine. Like a postcard from the loony bin. The third verse, I think, is hopeful. It is looking at going back out into the world and reengaging.

[The ending] was not written. It was the ad lib that happened at the end of that take. It was so much of a piece, that I kept it.

On that song, I capo [the guitar] on the third fret. The song is in C, but I play it in A. [The intro] is identifiable and easy. And back in the day it seemed sufficient.

We recorded it at Sunset Sound [in Hollywood]. That album [Sweet Baby James] was recorded in two weeks. For a cost of about $8000. On two-inch 16-track tape. Bill Lazarus was the staff engineer who recorded us. I was living at Peter [Asher]’s house on Olympic, down in the flats. We’d just go to work every day, and push our way through the material. It was, at that point, just about getting the songs down.

Carole came over to Peter’s house and we went through a lot of these songs together, and I played it for her then. At Peter’s piano. I taught her the song.

Different producers have different tasks with different artists. Peter didn’t do much arranging as a producer for me, because at that point I was very selfish to keep that to myself as much as possible. Sometimes Danny Kortchmar or Carole would suggest things. But really the way these songs were recorded is that I have a community of musicians I work with. I give them the chords and play them my arrangement of it, then they find things that play that work with it. I never write out whole arrangements.

Russell Kunkel played drums, Carole King played piano, Bobby West played stand-up bass. I was in a booth, playing [guitar] and singing.

Russ Kunkel is a remarkably versatile and powerful drummer. I hadn’t heard anybody play like that. He really invented a lot of stuff. His tom fills, playing that song on brushes but as lively as he played it, and with as much passion. Bobby was just nailing down the bass, and he bowed the last verse, which built a lot of tension, that arco bass. Looking back on it, it was a very nice session.

Carole has this energy about how she plays. She plays very energetically. She’s a lively player. She and I share a common language. We were definitely on the same page musically. She is so good at getting the feel of what I was doing.

“Fire and Rain” was my first hit. That really changed everything for me in 1971, when that came out and I started working behind that album. I was at the right place and the right time.. It’s a wonderful experience to create something , particularly as personal and self-expressive, that takes off, and that resonates with people over a number of years. It is deeply gratifying. And validating and confirming what I say. And I love to play it. I love playing it for people. And almost always, when I play that song , I get back to the place, to the feeling I had when I wrote it. That’s rare, after playing something maybe 1500 times.

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On Henry Diltz & Sweet Baby James

Henry Diltz & Sweet Baby James.

Inside an Icon 

By PAUL ZOLLO

"Sweet Baby James," the famous cover by Henry Diltz.

There comes a time in your teenage years when image is everything. You’re searching for someone to emulate – you’re looking for a hero. Your parents aren’t heroic anymore – quite the contrary —  so you’re spending a lot of time alone in your bedroom. When I was a teenager, in the early 70s, there was no computer in the bedroom, no cell phone, no Internet, no TV, no video games. What you had were your records. LPs. And those LPs came with big pictures on the cover, pictures you could scrutinize and obsess over for hours, while reading the lyrics and absorbing the music.

And then there was JT. James Taylor. Sweet Baby James. And there was the blue-green hue of that iconic portrait taken by Henry Diltz. And inside the album, the lyrics were printed on a big double-spread, on the back of which was another beautiful portrait taken by Mr. Diltz. A portrait, like the cover shot, that showed James gazing gently at the photographer, not in some cold studio, but outside, in the natural splendor of nature, as natural as his earthy, captivating voice.

At that time, the image of James, to me, was everything. He was a hero, and that picture captured all his shining heroic greatness. He was the essence of cool; cooler than any big brother, cooler than the coolest teacher or pro athlete. He was, like they said about Clark Gable in his day, the kind of man women swoon over, and men want to be. Not only was he tall and movie-star handsome, but he had a voice like the earth itself, a voice resplendent in its resonance. And he wrote songs that sounded like heaven. Songs of sadness – like “Fire and Rain,” songs of that natural splendor, like “Blossom” and “Anywhere Like Heaven,” songs that rocked with the blues, like “Steamroller Blues,” and songs that told mythic cowboy tales, like “Sweet Baby James.” To be a kid in the suburbs of Chicago and hear him sing about a “young cowboy who lives on the plains,” and whose “horse and cattle are his only companions,” was more beautiful and thrilling and soul-nourishing that anything we had before; it was more thrilling than “Twilight Zone,” than Ed Sullivan,  than baseball, than the Marx Brothers, than Superman, Batman and the Green Lantern all combined.

And it was all represented by those photos, taken by a guy whose name I knew well from all those years of scrutinizing album covers. Henry Diltz. The name to me became as mythic as the music it accompanied. A name I saw on the LPs of so many of the great heroes of that time. But this one – Sweet Baby James – will always resound in my life, because it intersected with my soul at that exact moment – that incredibly impressionable moment of awakening youth – when the whole world is just starting to unfold in all its beautiful, romantic and mysterious glory. It was a world in which, instead of becoming a businessman like most of our fathers, one could become a man like JT. A man who strode like Lincoln with a guitar. A man who hung out and romanced genuine goddesses, like Joni Mitchell and Carole King.

Like so many people my age, I took that middle-spread Diltzian portrait of JT out of the album, and taped it up in my bedroom. Over my desk. So I could look into his eyes every day – in the morning when I got up, in the long after-school afternoon when I would make that happy leap directly into the heart of his music, and in the night, when I’d go to sleep. I’d look into those eyes that were smiling – a confident, knowing smile –smiling precisely because they were looking into the lens of Henry Diltz. There was Henry, behind the photo, behind his camera, this magical and mysterious man of the famous name and even more famous photos, whose own face was always hidden, never revealed, only reflected in the beamish repose of those he photographed.

This photo was cropped perfectly, so that all the emphasis of was on the face itself – that face of ambition, of preternatural wisdom – that face of romance, of possibility, of promise. It was all captured by the gifted Mr. Diltz, whose own face I imagined – way back then, many decades ago now – to be even older than it is now. I reasoned that anyone taking photos of that caliber, and hanging out with all these artists – these artists from California of all fantastic places, the exotic Golden State – these artists who painted our very lives with their powerfully intimate voices and songs and guitars – anyone who could do all that had to have been doing it a long time to reach this plateau of greatness.

I assumed, wrongly, that Henry was an old guy. I figured he must be a very seasoned pro who had been around the music world for decades so as to be granted access to my heroes. For some reason I pictured him then not unlike the way he looks now – an old hippie. Not a young one, but still with a sparkle in his eyes and a pony-tail.

But little did I know at the time that Henry was actually one of their peers. A musician himself. A denizen of that same Laurel Canyon from which so much of this special magic emanated. But, as I later discovered, it was because Henry himself possessed that very magic – he played music, he hung with goddesses, he laughed and partied alongside JT and Cros and all the coolest of the cool heroes – that he and he alone could translate that magic at this unique juncture in human history, at this farthest western edge of the continent, and he could embody in his photographs this unique, unprecedented fusion of Americana with poetry, myth, folk music, rock and roll, art, literature, drugs, electricity, budding awareness, blossoming enlightenment, audacious aspiration, rebellion, revolution, book smarts, street wisdom, spirituality, real romance, sexual fire, beauty, and euphoria,  and he could do it in a way that was elegant, imbued with grace, and as timeless as those songs are timeless.

I also assumed, wrongly, that the photo was taken in James’ native Massachusetts. I never thought about this aspect much, it’s just something I figured neatly into the equation. It was a bit of a revelation when, years later, Henry told me he actually shot it in Burbank! Over at what is now the Oakwood Apartments, where Zevon and others came to sometimes reside. Back then it was a farm with an old weathered barn that Henry loved to use for shoots.

Henry Diltz, in his visual expedition into the heart of the music,  preserved for all of us the magical genius of that time, the inspirational glory that was expressed in those classic songs, in the words and music of James Taylor and the rest. And though JT himself, and all of us, have aged, the music is untouched by time, the spirit perseveres, and those great photos by Henry Diltz remain; their power is undiminished by the crass commercialism of modern times. Those great photos remain great because it was a great time, and great artists were connected directly to the electric bloodstream of the people, and their music was our music, and their visionary hopes for a better world were our hopes, and their romance was our romance. And one man captured it all. And it turns out, remarkably, that he’s one of the sweetest humans ever. His name is Henry Diltz.