Well-Known Stranger

Because I was very young, and because rudimentary ideas about possession come with the psychological territory of childhood, I believed his voice existed for me. James Taylor sang “Mexico” because a lemon pound cake was cooling in the kitchen. James Taylor sang “Sweet Potato Pie” because the sun was rising over the swing set in our back yard. James Taylor sang “Never Die Young” because I was fastened into the passenger seat of our old station wagon. Then, I did not consider the fact of his voice beyond my own earshot, just as I did not consider the fact of you beyond me.

You liked to say how similar we were. My eyes were yours: light, expressive, and dependent on corrective lenses. We shared quick tempers and a fondness for books and animals. Our skin turned equal shades of pink on the nights we spent running around the community soccer field, you as coach to a team of fourteen six-year-old girls. You encouraged other likenesses, teaching me to love what you loved, James Taylor among these things; and because I applied to you the superlatives that most children believe about their fathers, I was an eager student.

Earlier than I can remember, his music became a surrogate for you. It stood in when you were away and, sometimes, when you arrived home raising your own voice to a pitch that could compete with a slamming door. He was reliable when your moods were not. His songs were gentle when your temper flared. He filled the car with “Carolina in My Mind” that summer Saturday when traffic backed up on Highway 17 and you were pissed enough to pull over, get out, and walk farther along the road’s shoulder than I could see. Mom played the Greatest Hits (1976) until you returned, nearly an hour later, apologetic and carrying a watermelon you had purchased at a roadside produce stand. The music eased my worry while you were out of my sight sweating on the highway. It reminded me that you smiled or turned up the volume or said something complimentary when you heard these same songs on the radio. It assured me that your irritation would dissipate, that you had not left us for good.

Perhaps none of this is surprising. It is unoriginal to grow up in North Carolina listening to James Taylor. It is unoriginal, too, to interpret his introspective, self-referential style as personally relevant, to feel as if the longing in his lyrics reflects your own. This is notably the hallmark of Taylor’s music and the precise reason Lester Bangs wanted to murder him back in 1971. (Bangs, in his essay “James Taylor Marked for Death,” called Taylor’s music “I-Rock.”) I suppose you might also say that I was born into my affection, that it is the likely conclusion of the narrow musical library you cultivated and shared with me.

Your taste, as I remember it in my youth, had generally arrested during your teenage years, which is to say that the louvered mahogany cabinet in our family den was stocked with 1960s Motown artists—Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Chi-Lites, the Four Tops—and an assortment of 1970s singer-songwriters. When you listened to James Taylor, you usually reached for the long-haired version, the blue-eyed heroin addict. His picture, illustrated in pen and ink on a 1971 cover of Time Magazine, had prompted Carly Simon to whisper to her sister, “I’m gonna marry that man.” He’d told Rolling Stone, “Shucks, folks, all I really want is a horse and a wagon and on weekends we’ll drive to town.” His songs were like him: humble, bittersweet, sometimes wistful in their appeal for “deep greens and blues” and simpler times that never existed.

You liked this early stuff, though you have never been a sucker for the myth of simpler times. You recall the history of your two children as a chronology of problems you needed to solve: Me at age four, sick with the flu and throwing up on your freshly made bed. Hal at age five, wearing my pink snow boots and climbing so high up the neighbors’ elm that they called the fire department. Me at age seven, jumping down the laundry chute because I couldn’t think for myself. Hal at age ten, breaking his arm because he was reckless on the skating rink. Me, flossing my teeth incorrectly, setting the table incorrectly, writing emails incorrectly. Hal, lying about the alligator he saw in the ocean. You might recall, that alligator was real. It made the local news.

Nostalgia is not your burden. And yet, am I wrong to think that those Taylor songs carried you somewhere you considered idyllic? If not to fonder memories, then to daydreams? If not to a more perfect version of the family you were building, then to a place where you could envision something entirely different? You were nineteen and James Taylor was twenty when he released his first record. Fifty-one two years ago, you were young enough to entertain your idealism. In 1968—the year of the Tet Offensive and Walter Cronkite’s declaration that Vietnam was a stalemate; the year LBJ realized that losing Cronkite meant losing Middle America; the year Ray killed King and Sirhan killed Kennedy; the year three men circled the moon ten times in the span of twenty hours—you were young enough to imagine how you might become significant in a world that, as you’ve said, seemed to hang by a thread. Maybe the music you enjoyed then sealed the rush of your own potential. Maybe it has, ever since, reminded you not of sweeter, more perfect days but of some alternative existence.

Of course, it is also possible that you were ambivalent about the 1968 album, with its up-tempo version of “Carolina in My Mind,” like I am. If I recall the contents of that mahogany cabinet correctly, your collection began with Sweet Baby James (1970), Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon (1971), and One Man Dog (1972), the one even Lester Bangs called “a very nice record.” Taylor’s voice, on his eponymous ’68 album, lacks the strength and certainty it exudes in his later records, which is why I prefer the ’76 re-release of the song that has become the unofficial anthem of our home state. He recorded the first cut of “Carolina in My Mind” with Apple Records at Trident Studios in London, where, during the same weeks of 1968, the Beatles were completing the White Album. Taylor has said that he wrote the song as a response to the homesickness he felt among his idols, the “holy host of others” who were working out the tracks they had written at a Transcendental Meditation seminar in Rishikesh, India. In that early version of the song, instrumentals overpower Taylor’s lyrics, which he sings at a pace that shaves twenty seconds from the runtime with which you and I are most familiar. The background vocals sound like the Beatles because they are the Beatles. Both Paul McCartney and George Harrison played on the track, though Harrison is uncredited.

You never cared much about the Beatles.

You might say that James Taylor became James Taylor once he stepped out from the shadow of his idols.

You might say that our relationship became difficult once I stopped idolizing you.

At thirteen or fourteen, I was recalcitrant and brave enough to call you mean. Your fury had been capricious for as long as I had known you. Your anger scarred the walls and floors of our home, not our bodies; and yet it kept my mind and muscles alert. I practiced intuiting your moods, retreating from or engaging you based on the tone of your greetings or the depth of your sighs. I learned not to prepare snacks when you were in the house; the probability that you would discover me disrupting a clean kitchen was too high. Most often, I approached you in the morning because Mom taught me that you were kindest while drinking your coffee. But, at thirteen or fourteen, my efforts to avoid irritating you began to feel exhausting. Whatever spurred our first argument must not have been very important because I have no recollection of it. I only remember saying that you were mean. You responded by calling me a lot of things in your loudest voice. I reacted to your rage like a teenager. I cried. I ran into my bedroom and slammed the door, which made you even madder. Everything about the incident was silly and forgettable, except for your expression. I recognized, on your reddened face, something like pain. This was the first time I understood my power to wound you.

It was around this time, too, that I began to consider your volatility as something detached from your character. Mom fostered this idea. She helped me spin stories about you that both of us believed. In my adolescence and through my early-twenties, I reasoned that your hotheadedness was a personality flaw, a glitch in your temperament and not your integrity. You were loyal and generous and hardworking. You took your family on vacations, and you paid the bills on time. You gave us more than we needed, so we forgave your lapses. We forgave the time you hurled the television down the staircase when it wouldn’t turn on. We forgave your tendency to break golf clubs or toss them into ponds when you played poorly. We excused your anger when Hal, then seven, plugged his shower drain to pool the water into a bath, which overflowed and ran through the chandelier in the front hall. You hollered your way upstairs, opened the shower door and slammed it so hard that the glass shattered over his naked body. That was an accident. You were very sorry, and each of us forgave you.

I tolerated your impatience and mercurial nature. I refrained from counting your drinks or the number of times you poured one for the road. I didn’t mind that you spent my college graduation in a bar, because I knew that sitting on a metal bleacher of a football stadium in the mid-May heat would have put you in a terrible mood. I was disappointed and yet somewhat relieved when you yelled “fuck me dead” and stormed out of Thanksgiving. You were never good at family gatherings, and your absence meant the rest of us could breathe. I stopped idolizing you when I realized what lay beneath the weaknesses of your disposition. I stopped idolizing you when I was twenty-seven and you drove to Savannah to tell me you would do anything in the world to fix the family you broke. I was wrong to believe you.

While your secrets were still your secrets, James Taylor recorded October Road (2002). While your secrets were still your secrets, James Taylor recorded the live album One Man Band (2007). While your secrets were still your secrets, James Taylor returned to the Troubadour to record live with Carole King (2010). I wonder now if you kept listening like I did. Through these years you were quietly separating yourself from your family, occupying an identity apart from the version of you I had shaped in my mind. So, I wonder: Did you cast off the music we shared, too? Did you hear James Taylor and think of those evenings we spent driving? On those nights, you would arrive home from work and let the car idle in the driveway while you collected me. I would sit on your lap and stretch my arms wide to grip the wheel. You would pretend to let me steer as we followed the empty streets of our neighborhood, James Taylor’s the only voice among us. When you moved out, why did you leave your records behind?

I would feel strange asking you these things. I would be afraid to hear you say that none of this music matters to you anymore. In your new home in your new town with your new family, you listen to records on a high-tech sound system. You installed speakers on your patio. When I visited, I sat beside your swimming pool and listened to Prince sing “Sexy MF” while we both got drunk. It would hurt to become certain of what I think I know: that you could take or leave James Taylor; that his voice doesn’t make you think of me the way it has always made me think of you; that you’re into Prince now.

I told you when I saw James Taylor perform live, in 2014. I sat in the eighth row because someone else bought the tickets. I told you about his set list and that he took a break to sign autographs for a group of kids. I did not tell you that I joined that group of kids and got an autograph of my own. I did not tell you that I cried when he played “Copperline,” the song that references Morgan Creek and a dog named Hercules and the ingredients used to distill malt whiskey. He released it in 1991, the year we got our first family dog and decided, after a long debate at the dinner table, to name her Eleanor. More than any of his others—more than “Carolina in My Mind”—it is a song about growing up in North Carolina. He wrote it with the author Reynolds Price, and it evokes to me things that you may or may not remember: Picnics at the spring in Chapel Hill and how you joked that my grandmother only ever served ham. My ear pressed against your chest, listening to the click of your heartbeat, which is the sound of the mitral valve defect we share. You, tying my hair in knots when Mom was out of town and I asked for a ponytail. You, painting my body white with sunscreen, baiting my fishing hook because I was afraid to hurt the worms, driving ten hours to tell me you loved me when I was homesick at summer camp, diagraming my soccer strategies on a yellow legal pad.

It is difficult to shake this kind of sentimentality when I listen to James Taylor. Even now—maybe exactly now—his repertoire allows me to recall you with the grace of a selective memory. This is the point of cushioning my idea of you with “Copperline” and “Sweet Baby James” and “Something in the Way She Moves” and “October Road” and “Carolina in My Mind,” of playing these songs over and over against my recollection of your discontent. I use them to imagine that you were happy when I was young. But maybe the truth is only that I was young.  

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