At 67, James Taylor is amazed to be alive.
He was a train wreck even before he was famous. He was a heroin addict and a psychiatric patient in his teens, and his narcotic dependency fueled the ultimate failure of perhaps America’s favorite celebrity music marriage of the 1970s, Taylor’s to Carly Simon. He finally got sober in his mid-30s, but will never forget his addicted past, “somehow I haven’t died,” he says.
In many ways Taylor still is that former self, the James who almost didn’t make it: the man whose friend and fellow sybarite John Belushi let it be known that he was worried for him, a comment put into sharp relief by Belushi’s own fatal overdose soon afterwards in 1982.
That was the wake-up call Taylor needed. In his 1985 song That’s Why I’m Here, written following Belushi’s death, he sang, ‘John’s gone, found dead, he dies high, he’s brown bread. Later said to have drowned in his bed. After the laughter, the wave of dread, it hits us like a ton of lead.’
“A big part of my story is recovery from addiction,” he says matter-of-factly. “One thing that addiction does is, it freezes you. You don’t develop, you don’t learn the skills by trial and error of having experiences and learning from them, and finding out what it is you want, and how to go about getting it, by relating with other people. You short-circuit all of that stuff and just go for the button that says this feels good over and over again. So you can wake up, as I did, at the age of 36, feeling like you’re still 17. One of the things you learn as you get older is that you’re just the same,” he says, laughing at that absurdity.
One of five children born into a well-to-do Boston family, he learnt cello as a child before switching to guitar, not least as a way to impress girls. But by the time he was applying to colleges, he was falling into depression, and at the age of 17 he checked himself into McLean psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts for 10 months.
After checking himself out of McLean, where he was prescribed the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine, he moved to New York to pursue music but fell into a path of heroin use and self-destruction, remaining addicted for 20 years. “The key for an addict is how much of a relief the addict felt when they first discovered their drug of choice. When that really works for them, watch out for the back end because you’ll hold on till the very – you’ll be the last person to admit that it’s gotta go.”
James moved to England at the age of 19 where he found, to his astonishment, that he was noticed and admired by The Beatles, who made him the first international signing to their Apple record label.
“It was the epitome of the big show-business break,” he says of his first Atlantic crossing. “[My] song Carolina in My Mind says, ‘With a holy host of others standing round me.’ “That’s how I thought of The Beatles. Everybody did, and for them to actually say, ‘Sure, we’ll record you,’ and then to go on to Trident Studios, where they were making the White Album, and be a fly on the wall listening back to all of those songs – it was just an amazing thing.” Paul McCartney played bass on Carolina, and George Harrison sang backing vocals; Taylor and McCartney remain friends to this day.
James met Carly Simon – whose father, Richard, co-founded the publishing house Simon & Schuster, and who had also been toiling for recognition in music for several years – at one of her concerts in 1971, just as her self-titled debut album was catching the industry’s ear. They married the following year and, from a distance, seemed the perfect match: they charted in the American top five together with their 1974 cover of Inez & Charlie Foxx’s Mockingbird, and each mentioned the other by name in love songs. But Taylor continued to take drugs. His addictions – as well as infidelities on both sides – led in 1982 to the break-up of their 10-year marriage (today, Taylor doesn’t keep direct contact with Simon, and doesn’t even refer to her by name, but he speaks fondly of their children, Sally, now 41, and Ben, 38).
At 36 James, “found another way, and I had to, you know. It was – you know, these things tend to run in families. Whether it’s nature or nurture they haven’t really quite figured out, but a little of both is my guess. But it does. It’s a dead end. It’s the same day over and over again and increasingly painful. I watched it take my brother and I watched it really restrict my father’s potential and really – and my particular drug of choice was so illegal and so dangerous that – and also so stultifying, so powerful, that I really – I just needed to have another chapter in my life. At the age of 36 I wasn’t ready to cash it in.”
He notes that only about 15 per cent of recovering heroin addicts fully recover and how humbled he is by his good fortune even though the ’90s continued to be a time of personal trial for Taylor. He lost his brother Alex to alcoholism in 1994 and went through a 2nd divorce in 1996, continuing to face the dysfunctionalities of families, the randomness of life, the frailty of hope, and the pain of being human. But Taylor remains grateful, and by keeping the right attitude, even a random life sometimes still manages to be simply and sincerely uplifting.