You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face
And show the world all the love in your heart
Then people gonna treat you better
You're gonna find, yes you will
That you're beautiful as you feel.
- "Beautiful" by Carole King
I'm told they placed my crib right next to the stereo, the stereo my dad played non-stop. He had a $2,000 Marantz amplifier. It was half wood and half chrome and it looked like something handcrafted by the offspring of a Norwegian violin maker and a Japanese rocket scientist. It looked like it had an important job to do, and it did. In the summer of 1971, I was two. I know what music my dad was listening to then because whenever I hear it now, my soul inexplicably and undeniably swells. The Carpenters. James Taylor. Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Paul Simon. Carole King. Later I discovered the ones he'd left out – Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. My dad now explains, "Neil Young was always too whiny, and I gave up on Joni Mitchell when she went jazz." But his loss has been my gain. I've enjoyed discovering Neil and Joni myself, sensing all the while that I was actually re-discovering them in some vague primordial sense.
Is the music I grew up with great, or do I just think it's great because I grew up with it? Had my dad listened to Tom Jones and Nancy Sinatra, would I be nostalgically pining over their work now? I think not because Tom and Nancy suck, whereas the music I grew up with rocks! OK, now that I've objectively settled that issue, let's head on back home...
The City Of Angels
Oh but California
California I'm coming home
I'm going to see the folks I dig
I'll even kiss a Sunset pig
California I'm coming home.
- "California" by Joni Mitchell
While I was soiling my diapers in Lafayette, Louisiana, a singer/songwriter scene was raging in Los Angeles, the likes of which has not been seen since. Here's a list of just a few albums recorded in L.A. between 1970 and 1972:
Sweet Baby James – James Taylor
One Man Dog – James Taylor
Ladies of the Canyon – Joni Mitchell
After the Gold Rush – Neil Young
Harvest – Neil Young
Deja Vu – Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Linda Ronstadt – Linda Ronstadt
Eagles – The Eagles
Saturate Before Using – Jackson Browne
The list goes on. The above artists all knew each other, and they were constantly collaborating. Three albums from this scene particularly stand out as a loosely related trilogy of sorts: Carole King's Tapestry, Joni Mitchell's Blue, and James Taylor's Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. All three share similar musicians, similar confessional tones, and a similar release date – spring, 1971.
Los Angeles (more accurately Laurel Canyon) was the happening scene, but Joni Mitchell came there from Canada, Carole King came from Brooklyn, and James Taylor came from Boston. All three artists are excellent tune writers and intimate performers. Carole's lyrics are the weakest of the three, and they're still pretty good. All three artists sing about love, but that's no surprise. Carole King's love is mature and hopeful; Joni Mitchell's love is young and sad; and James Taylor's love is timeless and romantic. The rare thing is, you can hear their souls in their music. Few singer/songwriters write and perform this transparently anymore. Maybe David Wilcox. Who else? That Beck, he's a real hoot. Who else?
For Tapestry, James loans Carole his drummer and his electric guitarist. Joni is her own band, with a little help from James and his drummer. Follow me closely as I make some more connections – James plays guitar on Carole's "You've Got a Friend." Joni sings on James' version of Carole's "You've Got a Friend." Carole wrote "You've Got a Friend" for Tapestry, but it was James' version that became popular. Joni's song "Carey" is supposedly about James. Carole plays piano on James' "Love Has Brought Me Around," and Joni sings on it. Although Joni and Carole don't sing on each other's albums, they do record in the same studio. And that's all I have to say about all that.
Carole King – Tapestry
Snow is cold, rain is wet
Chills my soul right to the marrow
I won't be happy till I see you alone again
Till I'm home again and feeling right
- "Home Again" by Carole King
Carole King was a renowned songwriter well before she ever made it as a performer. I guarantee you know at least five of her songs. Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," the Shirelle's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," the Monkee's "Pleasant Valley Sunday," James Taylor's "You've Got a Friend," the Shiffon's "One Fine Day (You're Gonna Want me for Your Girl)," and Little Eva's classic roller rink hit, "The Locomotion." Insane, no? The same woman who wrote "You just call out my name/ And you know wherever I am" also wrote "I know you're gonna like it if you give it a chance now/ Come on baby, do the locomotion." That's not to mention the songs Carole popularized herself on Tapestry – "I Feel the Earth Move," "So Far Away," and "It's Too Late (baby, now it's too late)."
Most of Carole's early songs were collaborative efforts where she wrote the tunes and someone else wrote the lyrics. But on Tapestry, six of the lyrics are Carole's own, and they're the most confessional of the lot. No longer having to craft made-to-order tunes and free to write her own words, the songs on Tapestry are more complex musically and less bubblegum lyrically. Even so, Mrs. King still seems incapable of writing an un-catchy tune. Years of pop music are hard to shake (witness Sting's awkward forays into jazz as proof).
The production on Tapestry is cool because it is so thin and sloppy. Carole drives all the songs with her own piano playing, and there are no real instrumental arrangements. All the musicians (bassist, drummer, the occasional soloist) are so good, they just jam along. Carole does not have a dynamite voice, but it is pleasant – full of empathy and joy. She sings like a woman who has finally been released to vocally interpret her own songs. Carole's performance of "A Natural Woman" is less like a performance and more like a personal celebration. It's just her voice, her piano, and her husband's bass guitar. As Carole pours out her heart, we finally get to glimpse the woman behind the curtain of the song. And since I'm not much for Aretha's soul vocal wizardry, I much prefer Carole's simple version. OK, I more than prefer it. It freaking rocks. I wish I were a woman, so I could belt it out with all the stanky oomph it demands.
Other standouts include "I Feel the Earth Move," which is as funky as a Brooklyn honky is likely to get this side of the Beastie Boys. "So Far Away" has a melancholy jazz feel to it, artfully folked-out by J.T.'s acoustic picking. "It's Too Late" is actually a tasty funk/jazz/lounge amalgam. If it reappeared anew on the scene today, it would be lauded as the best single the ultra-lounge French retro movement has yet produced. As it is, you occasionally hear it as Muzak in the frozen foods section. We've come a long way, baby.
Lyrically, I love Carole's "Beautiful." It articulates the realistic optimism that makes Tapestry such an underdog favorite. And finally, the doo-woppy ballad, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," recently inspired an impromptu slow dance with my wife in the kitchen, complete with Wedding Singer-style hand placement, so you've got to love that! There is no better tune writer than Carole King, period. Her only real peer is Paul McCartney, and that's saying something.
Joni Mitchell – Blue
I want to be strong, I want to laugh along
I want to belong to the living
Alive, alive, I want to get up and jive
I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive
- "All I Want" by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is the best lyricist of this trio. She's also the best vocalist and a proficient guitarist and pianist. Blue's songs are alternately guitar-based and piano-based. Consequently, the album is a jerky ride tempo-wise. The guitar songs are upbeat and jazzy; the piano songs are plaintive and less rhythmic. But in terms of theme and mood, Blue is singularly consistent. Song by song, it's not Joni's best album, but as a whole it may be.
Most of these songs are about hippy love. "We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true./ My old man/ Keeping away my lonesome blues." There's hippy love in the infatuation stage: "I want to knit you a sweater/ I want to write you a love letter/ I want to make you feel better/ I want to make you feel free." There's hippy love in the addiction stage: "Oh you're in my blood like holy wine/ You taste so bitter and so sweet/ Oh I could drink a case of you, darling/ And I would still be on my feet." And there's hippy love gone bad: "Richard got married to a figure skater,/ and he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator/ and he drinks at home now most nights with the T.V. on." But hippy love is still human love, and I've felt all this stuff before. This album is a lot like high school love – it starts off promisingly intoxicating, and it ends real sad. So sorry. I'm crying right now listening to it.
Blue is not sad in a hokey, bittersweet melancholy I-kind-of-want-to-cry-some way. Its sadness is the product of hope quenched, of emptiness. A blue Meg Ryan even quotes from this album in You've Got Mail, "It's coming on Christmas/ They're cutting down trees/ They're putting up reindeer/ And singing songs of joy and peace/ Oh I wish I had a river/ I could skate away on." Blue has its optimistic moments, but they don't prevail. So what's the value of an album like this? Well, the high points are truly wonderful, and they feel true while they last. And the low points are honest in a way that lets you know you're not alone.
Everything about Blue aims to connect. The arrangements are sparse and muted, enhancing the album's mood with minimum distraction. Joni's voice is strong and flighty as always, foreshadowing her later jazz stylings. The tunes are beautiful and unusual, structured like folk songs but with surprising jazz twists in their melodies. Ultimately, however, this album is not a collection of pop hits. It's not even about music, really. Blue is a message from Joni Mitchell's soul to mine, across states, across time.
"I remember that time you told me, you said,/ 'Love is touching souls.'/ Surely you touched mine/ 'Cause part of you pours out of me/ In these lines from time to time." B.B. King and Blind Lemon Jefferson elude me. None of that so-called blues music has ever made me blue. These songs...these are my blues.
James Taylor – Mud Slide Slim And The Blue Horizon
Hey mister that's me up on the jukebox
I'm the one that's singing this sad song
Well I'll cry every time that you slip in one more dime
And let the boy sing the sad one one more time.
- "Hey Mister That's Me Up On the Jukebox" by James Taylor
James Taylor has so many great albums that this one often gets overlooked. Mud Slide Slim is not J.T.'s best, but it would be almost anyone else's best. Of our three 1971 albums, Mud Slide Slim is the least transparent, the least focussed thematically, and the most produced. Unlike James's later radio-friendly ballad projects (Gorilla, In The Pocket, JT), Mud Slide Slim is still very bluesy ("Machine Gun Kelley," "Hey Mister, That's Me Up On the Jukebox") and folksy ("Long Ago and Far Away," "You Can Close Your Eyes"). On "Riding on a Railroad," James even ventures a bit of country bluegrass, complete with banjo. And the title track is a middle-of-the-road funk number with Carole King driving the backbeat piano. Russ Kunkel's rock-steady drumming thankfully provides a consistent backbone to these otherwise eclectic styles.
Mud Slide Slim is so much a part of my blood, I can't objectively evaluate it. These songs surely must be required listening for everyone west of the Congo. James Taylor's early songs are to me what I imagine "Tam O'Shanter" and "Comin' Through the Rye" must be to Irish folks.
Unlike Carole and Joni, James fronts a crafted persona. He's the balladeer, the storyteller. But I've so come to know and love his persona, I don't really care how much of it is actually him.
There are some quirky gems on Mud Slide Slim that I miss from JT's current live sets – the stream of consciousness interlude, "Soldiers;" and the rambler anthem, "Highway Song." James's "You've Got A Friend," with its mellow calypso rhythm, is much better than Carole's own version. "Long Ago and Far Away" is James at his timeless lullaby best. The album's best song, however, is the enchanting ballad, "You Can Close Your Eyes." I remember singing it to my eight-month-old Caroline deep in the mountains of western North Carolina, along the upper banks of Slickrock Creek, with the moon on the rise behind us and the fireflies dancing on the water:
Well the sun is surely sinking down
But the moon is slowly rising
So this old world must still be spinning round
And I still love you
So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, It's alright
I don't know no love songs
And I can't sing the blues anymore
But I can sing this song
And you can sing this song when I'm gone
It won't be long before another day
We gonna have a good time
And no one's gonna take that time away
You can stay as long as you like.
So close your eyes...
And now I'm crying again. I'm full of love for my daughter and my wife, and I'm thankful for this life God has given me. And I'm telling you more than you probably want to hear. But I don't care. I love music because it puts us in touch with important and profound things, things we sometimes don't want to face, but things that we're forced to face when they invade our souls through music.
I'm thankful that my dad started me off right, there at our home in Lafayette, with the tubes of the Marantz amplifier dutifully glowing blue into the night; and so I pass the music on. Sometimes life is sad, but I'm going home for good soon enough, and it's gonna be alright. Until then, L.A. in the spring of 1971 ain't bad.
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