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