Photo: JAMES TAYLOR. PHOTO BY HENRY DILTZ
24 July 2021 | PAUL ZOLLO | American Songwriter | Additional information supplied by Clipper Media
A miracle song for so many reasons, “Fire and Rain” impacted the arc of popular songwriting powerfully and introduced us to an American artist of remarkable depth. Although this came from his second album, Sweet Baby James, it was the first most Americans had heard; his debut album on Apple, although great, was never launched properly in America, as Apple, the Beatles’ label, began to dissolve.
This album, also produced as was the first by his friend and manager Peter Asher, was the one that brought him into our lives. And not unlike John Prine’s debut album, which included his greatest miracle songs, “Hello In There,” James also emerged with an immediate masterpiece. “Fire and Rain.” And although it’s slow tempo and acoustic tenderness broke all the rules about what could become a radio hit, it became a big hit, and ushered in the post-Beatles pop music phenomenon of the singer-songwriter. Other members of that club included Carole King, of course, as well as Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Harry Chapin, Jackson Browne and others.
Although “Fire and Rain” is often called “confessional,” it’s really more confirmational – of our shared humanity. It’s not as if the song confesses some dark secret. The essential confession is that the singer is human, and struggling with one of the hardest of all human hardships: the death of a loved one. Writing this song, as he explained in the lyric, was a direct response. He wrote this song, he sings, without knowing why: “I just can’t remember who to send it to…”
He’s called the song “almost confessional,” in that he was sharing his most private, personal feelings, and the challenge of navigating grief, so young and alone. He was only able to write it then, he said, because he really didn’t intend anyone else to hear it. Anyone except Suzanne, to whom the song is initially addressed. It would be impossible, he said, for him to write a song like this now, because he knows people are listening. Millions of people.
Still, he’s long been both lauded and lambasted for being the great and/or the worst of all the confessional songwriters. But even his most personal songs are not confessional ever in a cloying, confessional way. He’s always done it in a way that springs not from a bleeding heart as much as from an empathetic soul. The very declaration “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” echoes biblical verse, and the song resounds with a measure of mythical grace much more so than any kind of self-pity.
Even the direct allusion to Flying Machine, the dissolved band of his youth, doesn’t speak of narcissism as much as it does a kind of wistful resignation: “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”
There’s really no other songwriter whose work touches the places his does. There’s an authenticity there, a human connection that’s undeniable. It’s there in the earthy resonance of his voice, the gentle focus of his guitar playing, the ripe and soulful splendor of his melodies, and in the lucid dynamism of his lyrics.
His songs have long provided a sense of tranquility in the midst of turbulence, an unflustered alternative to the fleeting frenzy of modern times. And though his work has long impacted the very culture from which it springs, he’s always existed outside of the marketplace, outside of any desire to bend to the whims of fashion, and for this reason his work remains timeless.
It’s the music which delivers those words which lifts the whole song into another realm; that place where the miracle songs. the timeless ones, exist – the ones called standards – the songs so singularly powerful and beautiful that they belong to the ages. This melody somehow captures that exact hybrid of youth, loss and yearning, and is deepened by his beautifully soulful singing.
Dubbed “folk-rock,” it’s really folk-soul: bright acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, Carole King on the keys beautifully matching his guitar part, and Russ Kunkel’s dynamic yet delicate drum fills, echoing classic Motown tracks. But it’s all about his voice, singing with the soulful purity and truth of Sam Cooke.
He started writing it in London, finished it in a mental hospital in Massachusetts, and recorded it in Hollywood at Sunset Sound . It was not only a classic song, it was also a major hit which transformed him forever. From his London life in a dark “succession of basements,” he emerged to become a beloved and venerated artist, as deeply ingrained into the fabric of American culture as Stephen Foster or Robert Frost.
In James’ own words from our 2007 interview for American Songwriter, here’s the story behind “Fire and Rain.”
JAMES TAYLOR: “Fire and Rain” came very fast. You’d almost say it all happened all at the same time. I started it in London, in the middle of recording my debut album for Apple Records.
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.
I had known Suzanne the year before I started writing the song. I wrote the first verse and chorus and played it for my drummer Joel O’Brien 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.”
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.
[The song] is very personal, confrontational and candid. It’s really a kind of blues 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, physically exhausted, undernourished and addicted.
And then the third one is, I think, hopeful. It’s 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 out into the world and reengaging.
We recorded it at Sunset Sound [in Hollywood]. I was living at Peter [Asher]’s house on Olympic, down in the flats. Carole [King] 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 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.