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The improbable life of James Taylor

Legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor will perform Saturday night at the Spokane Arena. (Associated Press / File)
Legendary singer-songwriter James Taylor will perform Saturday night at the Spokane Arena. (Associated Press / File)
Chicago Tribune

As musical icons go, James Taylor is massive. His gentle singer-songwriter melodies continue to roll out and help him draw stadium-size audiences whenever he tours. His latest studio album, “Before This World,” released last year, was his first to go No. 1 since his 1970 breakthrough, “Sweet Baby James.”

But Taylor says the very notion that he is alive at the age of 68, let alone enjoying a still-thriving career, didn’t seem probable or even possible when he was a teenager struggling with drugs, mental illness and the cruel whimsy of the music business.

“I didn’t really have any options” besides trying to make it in music, says Taylor, who spent his childhood between Massachusetts and North Carolina while his father, an educator and naval officer, was often away from home. Taylor tells his story in a calm, measured voice, without histrionics or self-pity. He sounds like a guy with all the time in the world, in no particular rush to end the conversation, much like the guy who turned “You’ve Got a Friend,” a song by his friend Carole King, into an anthem of assurance.

“I dropped out of high school and spent my college education money staying at a psychiatric hospital,” he says of a time when he tumbled into depression and eventually drug addiction. “ ‘I’m only living for the end of the week,’ as (his 1991 song) ‘Copperline’ says. I didn’t think beyond that. My folks were educated people, and they had expectations. I assumed it meant finishing school, finding a career, probably an academic one. But my family fell apart (through divorce), and I fell apart. It was mysterious to me why. I had no expectations of what would happen to me.”

For Taylor, the music-as-lifeline narrative wasn’t just a cliche. He became adept at guitar finger-picking and writing songs, and the twin obsessions of listening to music and playing it anchored his otherwise wayward life. He grew up on a steady diet of show tunes, jazz, folk, blues and light classical music in his parents’ home, but his tastes were most profoundly shaped by a book of church hymns and Ray Charles.

“Hymns and carols, they are just basically a foundational education, they are what a lot of Western music is based on,” he says. “I grew up in a very nonreligious household, and it wasn’t till I went away to school and got exposed to this stuff that I learned all of these hymns. They were an education for me – the harmonies, the chord structures, the way they progressed it. It’s basically Western Music 101. I learned to play them on the guitar, out of boredom, but they basically gave me a foundation for music.”

His brother introduced him to soul music in the late ’50s. “I remembered the first time he played me Ray Charles’ ‘Yes Indeed!’ and it was like someone altered the world,” he says. “It turned on the light.”

The teenaged Taylor developed his chops in bands like the Flying Machine, with future guitar mainstay Danny Kortchmar, but all his early musical ventures imploded. The break-up of the latter band was referenced in one of his most famous songs, “Fire and Rain”: “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”

With his career going nowhere in America, Taylor flew to England to start over, even though he was virtually penniless and had no realistic prospects for gigs or recordings. But his demo tape found its way to Peter Asher, a talent scout at the Beatles’ Apple label, and Asher eventually became his manager and strongest advocate.

The Beatles themselves took note, and Paul McCartney and George Harrison played on the autobiographical “Carolina in My Mind” on Taylor’s self-titled debut album.

“I had been making music for five years – I wasn’t an overnight success,” Taylor says when asked if he felt fortunate to get the Beatles’ attention. “I had five years of stepping up to the plate before the Beatles picked up on me.”

“James Taylor” wasn’t a commercial hit, but “it got me noticed and helped me get another record deal,” says the singer, who has mixed feelings about his brief run at Apple. “The Beatles had this great idea for a record label and an organization that would be by and for artists. I’m sure it was hemorrhaging money. (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein had died, and into the vacuum stepped Allen Klein, who was just a pirate. Peter (Asher) said he wanted to do an audit (of Taylor’s record sales) and Allen Klein said, ‘Oh, no, you’re not. No one looks at my books.’ He basically was daring us to take him to court. He said, ‘Get lost,’ and we did. He wasn’t interested in anyone on the label – Mary Hopkin, Jackie Lomax, Billy Preston – he was only interested in the Beatles and making money.”

Taylor’s next album, “Sweet Baby James,” ushered in a decade that included a dozen top-40 hits and a 12 million-selling anthology. But the singer’s commercial success and marriage to Carly Simon were complicated by drug abuse, which he describes now as an ultimately doomed attempt to self-medicate. He finally overcame his addiction to methadone by adopting an intense exercise regimen in the ’80s.

Drug use by rock and pop artists is often associated with hedonism rather than an addiction or medical condition. Media coverage of Prince’s fatal overdose on painkillers is a recent example of how such nuances get quashed in sensationalism and stereotyping. Taylor points to recent studies that show the death rate from drug overdoses jumped to an average of 15 per 100,000 in 2014 from 9 per 100,000 in 2003. The drug-overdose deaths are driven largely by addiction to prescription painkillers and heroin.

“It was never a social thing, a party thing, with me,” Taylor says. “It was a little bit more depressing, and it becomes the center of a very narrow life. It’s not only rock stars. Take a look at the figures for ODs in the last 10 years – look at the trend, these are not illegal drugs manufactured by the French Connection. Corporations are making billions of bucks off this. It’s not just partying rock stars. This kind of desperation, this affliction, it’s an epidemic. The idea that it’s all about rock stars who have no moral fiber and party themselves to death couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

That Taylor survived and carried on is a story that continues to mystify and humble him. “Somehow I haven’t died,” he sings on “Today Today Today,” the first song on his latest album. “I thought I found the answer to a problem” with drugs, he says. “Fortunately, I figured out how wrong I was before it was too late.”

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