James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” and the Dawn Laurel Canyon Singer-Songwriters
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
The start of the seventies was an incredible time of powerful songwriting and self-expression. This was epitomized in the talents of a group of singer-songwriters all centered in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. In this particular moment and this particular place, these songwriters inspired each other to write deeply moving songs which have stood the test of time.
One of the first of these songwriters to make their debut, was James Taylor – an artist who had been singled out by the Beatles and Apple Records at the end the sixties for his talents, but through a series of personal setbacks wasn’t able to immediately live up to that promise. However, in 1970, everything changed. Now settled in California, Taylor released his second album Sweet Baby James which included a new landmark single, “Fire and Rain.” This song catapulted his career and kicked off a series of legendary singer-songwriter albums, transforming the industry to recognize the incredible power of honest, and introspective songwriting.
James Taylor was born in Boston in 1948, and was raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His family home was in a more sparsely populated region near the University, with lots of open spaces and natural beauty. Taylor later recalled: “Chapel Hill, the Piedmont, the outlying hills, were tranquil, rural, beautiful, but quiet. Thinking of the red soil, caused by local copper mining, plus the seasons, the way things smelled down there, I feel as though my experience of coming of age there was more a matter of landscape and climate than people.” The tranquility of this setting is reflected in much of Taylor’s songwriting, which showcases an incredible ability to set the scene with his harmonic content, melodies and lyric writing, in spite of fairly tumultuous experiences in his young adult life.
While Taylor’s childhood was largely one of comfort and peace, the end of the sixties brought many trials for James Taylor. Although he had the good fortune and talent to be picked up by the Beatles for their new record label, Apple, he was also trying to break a heroin habit he had developed while gigging and looking for his big break in New York in 1966. As Taylor told The New York Times in 1981, “I learned a lot about music and too much about drugs.” The release of his eponymous first album (1968 UK; 1969 US) brought him favorable critical reviews; notably, Jon Landau called it “the coolest breath of fresh air I’ve inhaled in a good long while.” However, Taylor’s struggles with addiction rendered him unable to promote the album. Instead, he spent the album’s release recovering in an addiction center in Massachusetts. Later in 1969, Taylor broke both hands and both feet in a motorcycle accident, forcing him to take even more time away from performing. Despite all of this turmoil, Taylor was able to sign a record deal with Warner Bros. in October of 1969. Like many of his generation, Taylor moved to California to restart his career. His second album, Sweet Baby James, was recorded at Sunset Sound in December of 1969.
The first single from Taylor’s second album was its title track, “Sweet Baby James” – a folk lullaby equating the lonely life of a touring musician to that of a cowboy on the open road. Although it remains one of his most well known pieces today, it was not an immediate hit and did not chart. However, the album’s second single, “Fire and Rain” launched Taylor’s career and realized the potential that so many of his early supporters saw in his music and songwriting.
The opening of “Fire and Rain” is poignant and painfully truthful. The song was penned, in part, after Taylor learned of the tragic death of a close friend from his time in New York – Suzanne “Susie” Schnerr. The event had occurred while Taylor was away in London, recording for Apple records, but his friends hadn’t told him the news until several months later. Taylor explained that he began the song while he was in London, after learning the news: “My friend Suzanne had committed suicide a couple of months before my friends let me know. They didn’t know how the news would hit me and kept it from me 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.” And certainly, the connection to his real life experience comes out quite clearly in the opening lyrics:
“Just yesterday mornin’, they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can’t remember who to send it to.”
The opening verse is accompanied only by Taylor’s own signature guitar playing, alongside his close friend Carole King on the piano. The effect of such deeply personal lyrics with such an intimate musical setting truly brings out the heartbreaking honesty in his words. The chorus brings in the whole band, and lays out a litany of tiny truths, as he grappled with the reality of the hardest one…moving through life without ever seeing his friend again:
“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again”
The poetry of this chorus almost mirrors the type of mental psychology exercise that an individual might do to ground himself in reality. “I can see this. I can hear that. I can taste, touch or smell all of these specific things. This is real.” In a very similar way, Taylor lists all of these specific things that he knows as truth and that make sense to him “fire”…. “rain” …. “lonely times” without a friend, before finishing the chorus with a new reality that he had not envisioned before. There’s also a spiritual-like reverence to the way he lists these truths, which is brought out in the parallel wording of “I’ve seen.”
While the first verse and the chorus reference the loss of his friend, the other verses of the song were written later, when he was back in the US and in a treatment center, attempting to recover from his recurrent struggles with addiction. The vulnerability of the lyrics in the second verse built upon the tone set in the first verse, but this time with an internal reflection on his own struggles with depression. Taylor explained that the second verse was about: “coming back to the United States sick and strung out, physically exhausted, undernourished and addicted.” The short instrumental interlude, especially in the drums, leading into the second verse builds a sense of urgency that matches the pleading tension of the verse.
Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus?
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way
The third verse is introspective and self-reflective, looking back into the journey that has brought him to this moment. He has stated in several interviews a connection to his experiences at Austin Riggs mental hospital in Stockbridge, and a conscious effort to face the future despite the broken dreams and heartbreak along the way.
Been walking my mind to an easy time
My back turned towards the sun
Lord knows, when the cold wind blows
It’ll turn your head around
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line
To talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground
The last line, “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces in the ground” references his old band, before he became a solo artist. In a 2007 interview with American Songwriter, Taylor explained that the third verse is “…hopeful. It is much more general, about remembering one’s life, thinking back to my band The Flying Machine. Like a postcard from the loony bin before going back into the world and reengaging.”
The structure of the song is very straightforward – three verses, alternating with a chorus each time. There’s no bridge or break section. In this simple structure, most of the emotional pull comes from the way Taylor sings or very subtle instrumental choices. There’s a slight and limited build in the drums as they enter before the second verse, and again at the end of the last chorus. In that last chorus, Taylor elongates the final “But I always thought that I’d see you again” to say “but I always thought that I’d see you baby…one more time again” before the drums seem to build, but instead of building into a bridge or new material, the song meanders into a coda section of repeated improvisatory lines, and ultimately fades to end the song
The simplicity of the song allows for Taylor’s performance and the performances of his incredible musicians on the track to move the song along through their expression. We can hear it in Taylor’s guitar playing and his singing. As well as through the perfectly placed drums by Russ Kunkle. Kunkle’s use of brushes throughout the song are part of why it works so well. Bobby West plays a double bass on the track rather than an electric bass. Carole King plays piano on the track.
The song was cut live at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, and the whole Sweet Baby James album was produced by Peter Asher who also produced Taylor’s first album and would produce his second, Mudslide Slim and the Blue Horizon soon after. Taylor reflected on the experience with American Songwriter: “We recorded it at Sunset Sound. I was living at Peter’s house on Olympic, down in the flats. Carole came over, and I played it for her then. I taught her the song at Peter Asher’s piano. She has this energy about how she plays. 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. We cut it live. I was in a booth, playing [guitar] and singing. Carole on piano. Russell Kunkel on drums, a remarkably versatile and powerful drummer. I hadn’t heard anybody play like that. His tom fills, playing with brushes but lively, with passion.
And Bobby West was on upright bass, just nailing down the bass part. He bowed the last verse, which built a lot of tension, that arco bass.”
“Fire and Rain” was released as a single in August of 1970, six months after the release of the Sweet Baby James album earlier that year. The song hit number three on the Billboard Hot 100, and number two in Canada, finally bringing Taylor the popularity and success that his early supporters had envisioned from his talents.
The song and the album kicked off a particularly powerful moment for the singer-singer songwriters, especially those centered in the Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles in the early seventies. This moment would include Taylor’s next hit album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, as well as the mega hit albums of Carole King’s Tapestry and Joni Mitchell’s Blue – all released in 1971. When speaking of those three albums, these artists often talk about how it felt like they were working on one big album together. There was an incredible sense of community built between the musicians living and working in Los Angeles at the dawn of the seventies.
The Los Angeles music scene in the late sixties and early seventies was an amal-
gamation of influences – some homegrown, some transplanted. In addition to the city’s native labels (Capitol, Warner Bros., A&M), Los Angeles became the West Coast hub for several major East Coast labels (Elektra, Motown, and Aldon Music) which set up shop in the city by the end of the decade. The city also found itself in the midst of a massive influx of artists, many of whom flocked to the then rural hippie enclaves of Laurel Canyon, Silverlake, and Topanga. In 2012, Joni Mitchell explained the atmosphere of Los Angeles in the late sixties, saying: “Like Paris was to the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists, L.A. was the hotbed of all musical activity. The greatest musicians in the world either live here or pass through here regularly. I think that a lot of beautiful music came from it, and a lot of beautiful times came through that mutual understanding.”
Artists of the time, as well as listeners and historians often refer to this moment as centered in Laurel Canyon, because so many of these musicians lived in that particular neighborhood. However, the term often encompasses a much wider geographical space. Los Angeles was, even then, a sprawling urban landscape, but as James Taylor explained in 2007: “Los Angeles feels like a big spread out place. But people put together a city—they assemble a city—and they connect the dots with their automobile. It felt small to me…It was a small, tight-knit community.” And that tight-knit community was made of an eclectic scene of musicians from Frank Zappa, the Doors, and Alice Cooper to folk-rock pioneers like the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield, and then of course, the supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. In this hot-bed of musical activity, collaboration and inspiration, solo singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King charted a new way of writing music which was personal, and introspective and even captured something of that live-music experience, within the recorded medium.
Some of this can be attributed to the ways these musicians interacted with one another.
James Taylor, was a solo artist, but he was performing, recording and generally spending time with the same groups of musicians who were also putting together some of the other biggest albums of this time. So when these musicians enter the studio together, they have a rapport and a connection that allows them to play seamlessly together, and even record live. The result is that many of these singer-songwriter albums, like Sweet Baby James, capture the intimacy of the small, personal performance spaces in which they were forged, not the least of these being The Troubadour on Santa Monica Blvd in Los Angeles. In an interview with musicologist Christa Anne Bentley, James Taylor’s sister Kate Taylor encapsulated the feeling the the Troubadour brought these musicians: “It was this very intimate and comfortable place where you could see a lot of the same folks there every night, a lot of friends…It always seemed like it was crowded, and everyone always seemed excited…We were all very sociable and excitable, and we would talk about gigs, songs, records, and the news of the day.”
In recording Sweet Baby James, Taylor moved away from the more orchestrated arrangements of his debut album. Prior to recording the Sweet Baby James album, Taylor told Rolling Stone magazine in 1969: “There’s a larger and larger translation process that takes place between my making music and its coming out on a record. I hope my next album will be simpler. It has to be, because the music is simple and a big production job just buries all my intentions”
Producer Peter Asher likewise had come to the same conclusion as they left Apple to come West to California…“I started to think that I overdid that process ever so slightly, and realized that I just needed to pay even more attention to James and his writing, and his singing, and his playing, and be a bit less of an avid producer. Sometimes wanting to make your mark as a producer, wanting to make the record neat, can detract from the songs.”
We see this effect on “Fire And Rain” – a simply written song in which the arrangement brings out the intimacy of the words. The songwriting and more “live” approach to the production of the song perfectly balance each other to bring out that personal-connection which we associate with singer-songwriters. It’s a very intimate way of hearing and experiencing music. When we hear James Taylor sing “I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song, I just can’t remember who to send it to,” we don’t hear a rock-star singing to a stadium of thousands of listeners, we hear a human who is singing to his closest friends, or even just to himself. In 1972, rock journalist Joel Vance wrote in the New York Times, the importance of the personal connection with singer-songwriters: “James Taylor singing “Fire and Rain,” Joni Mitchell singing “Both Sides Now,”…or Cat Stevens singing “Morning Has Broken” produce the same effect on the audience: the singer is singing to me in a personal way; the singer knows my life and I know his; the singer knows the times I live in; I wanna hug him/her till he/she squeaks.”
Finally, it is striking that this new mode of writing songs and producing albums came at this particular moment in this particular place, by a generation of songwriters who had experienced the accelerating intensity of the late sixties. They were there as the Beatles and the Beach Boys experimented in the studio, and they had certainly seen the effects of the psychedelic movement at the end of the decade. Truly, the sixties had brought so much social, cultural and technological change, much of which was, at first, filled with unbridled idealism and hope for what that change could bring. But at the start of the seventies, much of that idealism had faded. The assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. took a toll on this generation’s optimism. And the escalation of military involvement in the Vietnam War affected so many young people. And the singer-songwriter movement was a way for this generation to look inward and find meaning through their own personal experiences and to share and connect with one another through these shared emotions.
“Fire and Rain” is an incredible song that captured so much of this historical moment and has had a lasting impact on music, including making the cut for several Songs of the Century such as those compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Recording Industry Association of America. It is one of Taylor’s most beloved songs and an incredible example of songwriting that balances lyric and musical experience in an powerfully honest and introspective way.