How do I even begin to share about that night, about that magic, about what it meant to me, about who James Taylor is in the celestial gallery of stars in my heart?
At the very beginning I guess.
I didn’t get much of a musical history education as a kid.
I lived on a farm, and my parents were too busy chasing cattle or children to consider something as insignificant as music.
(That said, they did encourage us to play music – my brother and sister both played clarinet, the world’s unsexiest instrument, and I attempted very hard to learn how to play guitar thanks to my glorious Year 5 teacher Mr Davis, but only really mastered “Wild Thing”. Playing music just never was easy for my brain, not like the easy home of art and writing.)
There were a few stray albums floating around later on – The Lion King soundtrack and The Phantom of the Opera soundtrack.
And like every good child of the 80s and early 90s, I made mixtape recordings of the radio, screechy beginnings and endings and all.
I felt like a scavenger, desperate to find the songs that lived in my heart but hadn’t heard with my ears.
The only glimpses I heard was when my cousin Michael visited and sang old country music songs, or I listened to his dad’s scratchy recordings on tape…. his deep voice visiting from the past, glorious and strong, long before emphysema rendered him a grey ashen shadow on my grandmother’s verandah, spitting up chunks of lung into a yellow ice cream bucket. If ya’ll want to know why I’m so anti-smoking, glimpse into this window of the blonde, curly-haired imp, sitting on her Uncle Trevor’s bed, watching TV with him on his tiny screen for endless, baking hours.
“The only twisted branch… on my good old family tree…”
My Uncle Trevor’s ghostly voice sang from the tapes.
So I’d take his old guitar out to the long grass by the fence behind the vege patch, and I’d try to sing his songs too.
It came easy to him, but it didn’t come easy to me.
When I was 15 I could sense an earthquake was beginning to erupt on our family farm, one that would continue for years and break apart forever the Allan Dynasty. No more Christmases spent with the legion of aunties and uncles and cousins, no more pride in being an Allan, not when Allans turned against other Allans, not when there was greed and hatred and childhood hurts turned into adult warfare. I know your interest is piqued, and oh, the stories I could tell. But now’s not the time, and this is not the place, and they’ve all been eaked out by me in therapy already until the hurt no longer hurt and the shock no longer shocked, and all that is left is: Well, that happened.
Still, I left before the real earthquakes began. Somehow, somewhere, deep inside, I knew I needed to get out. Not because I hated the place – but because I knew I needed more. Get off the farm, get out of that small town, get out of that high school that was so filled with chaos and pain and bullying.
I sent myself to boarding school. I sent away for prospectuses, took scholarship exams, and when I had enough offers, I chose not was the most big or flash. Just the one that felt like the most like me. It was small and homely and filled with naive country kids who’d grown up doing School On The Air. Kids who took the opportunity of Free Dress days not to dress up as “cool” or “hot” as possible… but to wear their Akubra cowboy hats and their Wrangler jeans.
And those country kids? They still remain dear friends to this day, ones I’m so proud of, kids who dreamed big dreams and made them happen: the ABC correspondent who raised 3 kids in Africa, Australia’s expert on the Burma crisis, Canberra’s urban planner, a micro-electronic engineer who designs the software cars run on (and also happens to be the world #2 in beer pong). The pride is real, guys.
I chose the right place. There I had teachers who were kind and brilliant and fascinating who loved what they did. When high school teachers don’t have to spend their days policing for drugs or defending themselves against physical attacks from students or just even spending three quarters of class time getting that one kid just to BEHAVE ALREADY… that one kid who should have been expelled long ago, but hasn’t been… when they don’t have to spend their time doing that, and can just teach? They are a miracle to watch and a joy to experience.
Miss Weeks who would giddily clap her hands and squee when I handed in a writing assignment, telling me she couldn’t wait to read what I’d write. She’d encourage me to write more, be more florally, be more expressive, be even more of myself. Mr Trezona who was so excited about computers and IT and the internet I couldn’t help but catch the contagion, who treated me like a person and told me stories of his life which filled me with wonder and awe. Miss Scott who gave me my first spiritual book – The Celestine Prophecy, who was more dear friend than teacher, and continues to be to this day. Miss Landsberg, who told me stories of her life during the war as we sat together, side by side on a wire framed bench, looking out over the night. The rest of the boarding dorms were filled with ants scurrying and chatting, but between us there was a secret world we could talk our way through each break. She still writes me letters now, at 90. She is one of the bravest women I know. Mr Thompson our Principal, who believed in me and was kind to me even when others didn’t see his kind side, and he protected me from the war that was happening back home. He made me feel listened to, that what I said was worthy of being heard. And Mr Turier, who reigned over the kingdom of the art rooms. He was benevolent and ridiculous and charming and encouraging and incomprehensible and sage and teasing all at once. I don’t ever remember him telling us what to do, instead he mastered the art of holding space for us to be creative while watching us from his glass office, 70s music blaring. He sent me back to the dorm rooms with an armful of “real homework” – books by Krishnamurti, albums by Bob Dylan and Mike Oldfield and James Taylor.
I got lucky, beyond lucky, with that moment in time, with that bunch of country kids and that circle of teachers. They were a miracle and a blessing to me. I wouldn’t be who I am now if I hadn’t leapt. So many seeds were planted then that grew strong in my forest of trees.
Just one of them was James Taylor.
When Turier handed me that CD in that armful of “real homework” he didn’t know he’d given me the songs I’d been hunting for.
The songs that were already inside me, just waiting for my ears to hear them.
James was the bard to my soul, the music I’d been waiting for.
There in that dorm room that night, there wasn’t any shock, just a homecoming.
At last. At last. Here was the music. Here was home.
I inhaled “Fire and Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Carolina In My Mind” and “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” until they became a part of my cells.
I lay on my bed and looked out at the night sky and rested.
And so it continued. I made mix CDs of James and Paul Simon and Fleetwood Mac and a thousand folk singers, with one odd disco version of Bette Midler’s “Beast of Burden”.
When I moved to Canberra, I foraged through the library’s music collection, hungrily feeding my ears all the new sounds I’d never heard before: world music and Willie Nelson’s later music and Janis Joplin and Sarah McLachlan and Xavier Rudd. One gleeful day, I came upon James Taylor’s familiar face, now slightly more weathered. It wasn’t the 70s anymore, but here he was – still making albums! He was still creating music! Still turning up, still creating! My heart swam with joy. I took home Hourglass and October Road, waited breathlessly, worrying, as all fans do, if I’d like “his old stuff better than his new stuff.” I worried that he was going to be rehashing, making shit albums. I didn’t want to break the James spell inside me. But the music came alive, and so did I.
Here was a man who still loved to make music. Who still made new music that was instantly timeless. Who was as brilliant as ever.
“Ananas” and “Line ‘em Up” and “Jump Up Behind Me” and “Another Day.”
When I was 21, I wrote a bucket list of everything I wanted to do in my life.
See James Taylor live in concert.
There were no other musicians or bands on that list. No Paul or Fleetwood Mac.
Time waned and roamed as it does. I became a mother, I lived through the hells of Post Natal Depression and Hyperemesis Gravidarum, I married my one true love by the sea. A friend died suddenly, grandmothers died expectedly but still sadly. People fell in love and married and divorced. We had another baby, we moved around a lot. We lived a whole lot of life. We landed back in Canberra, the city my love and I grew into adults in, the place I’d found those new James Taylor CDs in the library. My face shifted from glowing maiden to a Mama-who-has-seen-some-shit, ya know?
I started using essential oils therapeutically last year. My body a ship on the rocks, constantly coming aground on infection. First just to ward off the rocks. Then as the fevers left, my intuition started to bloom again with them. That intuition which had once been so deep but now was dusty and tired. Maybe I’d left it in a moving box, or maybe it had been dented over and over or maybe I’d convulsively vomited it out during the Time Of The Great Spewing For 9 Months or maybe I just needed another 100 hours of sleep to catch up with my motherhood deficit. Whatever it was, the oils began calling it out again. Lubricating the joints of spirit with lavender and sandalwood, frankincense and white fir.
I began dreaming again, feet adorned in Frankincense. Dreams that were tonic, were prophecy, were awake and full colour.
One night, I dream of James.
He has come to a small gathering, we are by the sea next to a crumbling mansion.
He sits with his guitar and he sings, that familiar voice washing over me, awakening me.
I recline in my wooden deck chair in front of him, my spirit humming.
I keep saying to myself over and over:
“This is the greatest dream of my life. I have front row seats to watch James SING!”
In the morning, I awake, jubilant.
Two days later, there is a knock on the door of my soul, in the form of an ad pop up.
I gasp in shock at the recognition – it’s James’ face.
I go to close it, but remember my dream had come to me for a reason.
I look closer:
He’s doing a concert tour. Surely not in Australia though? He never comes here! Well, even if it IS, he won’t come to Canberra. None of the big American stars do!
Still, I caution myself. The dream. Remember the dream. Look harder.
I click. I look. I stop breathing.
James Taylor has just announced a concert. In Canberra.
By this stage, I am catatonic, clearly. I’m crying and I can’t speak. I’m Kristen Bell sloth-ing.
When Chris asks me what it is, I can only point and squeak and sob some more.
Not just that:
Tickets haven’t even been open yet.
I might just be able to get front row tickets.
I’m at Defcon Level 5 of Freakout.
Two days later, I wait patiently for the clock to click over.
Click. Front row tickets. Buy.
My hands shake and I am palpitating.
My Frankincense-infused dream has come true.
It’s two months between that moment and the next, the buying and the night of the concert.
I try and stay calm… two months is too long for me to be peaking out.
By the last week, I’m starting to freak. So I message my darling Deb for sage advice on how to emotionally process seeing James when I do see him.
- She made me snort out my nose laughing. Most grandmotherly advice in the world: “Just keep yourself nice + don’t make too big a spectacle!” Even now I am chortling about this.
- It was a relief to know somehow that I wouldn’t have to emotionally process seeing JT. That it would just stay as a magical experience, floating about in the ethers of my body. That, I could do.
The night of the concert.
Our friend arrives to babysit and we are dressed up all fancy and in a minute we’re on the highway together, alone, for the very first time in a long time, and the very first time at night since I was in labour with Beth.
We find our way, get our seats.
And my dream and my click-happy finger have scored us the prize seats of the house… the two seats directly in front of the microphone.
We spend our time taking selfies in front of JT’s microphone and guitar and water bottle.
I am at Full Blown Fangirl level.
I make friends with the other front row people. I’m the youngest fan by 20 years.
Chris meanwhile says he’s going to need No Doze to stay awake (he’s more of a KISS glam rock fan).
I keep burying my head in his shoulder, clutching the warm river stone of him, my mountain of calm.
The anticipation is too much.
he just sidles onto stage.
Walks out like he isn’t James Taylor, best-selling musician for the last 5 decades. Like he wasn’t the first person the Beatles signed for their own record label. Like he hasn’t sold over 100 million albums.
Walked out in his cap and his suit and his buttoned up blue shirt.
He took off his cap and bowed long and deep, reverent and grateful.
This mythical figure is a real man. Tall and long limbed, piercing blue eyes. He is at once brand new and deeply familiar to me. He has always reminded me of my dead brother, Clinton who died in a farming accident when I was a teenager. They are born from the same mould, the same archetype of human. He is my brother if he’d only lived fifty more years. Most of all though, he is James.
He walks up to the microphone, no fan fare, no words, no supporting act, no fancy light show.
Just strums his guitar,
opens his mouth
And that’s what he continues to do for the next three hours.
In between, he told us stories.
Stories about creating, about the land he loves, about politics (“It’s easier to break the political system than you think. Trust me, we just did. We’re sorry about that”) and about musical history he was a part of (“When I auditioned as an unknown for Paul McCartney and George Harrison for the Beatles’ record label, I was like a Chihuahua on meth amphetamines. I can’t remember that much about that decade to be honest.”)
He is funny and hesitant, at once shy and at home on stage.
He makes jokes at his own expense, is gloriously self deprecating.
But what’s most apparent most of all?
He can’t keep the smile off his face as he sings.
He closes his eyes and goes into another place.
He can barely contain his gladness.
This is a man who has lived the last 40 years making music.
He joked “I got famous for singing my dear friend Carole King’s ‘You’ve Got A Friend’. When I first heard it, I couldn’t stop myself from running to the guitar to play it myself. I don’t know if I knew then I would be singing that song for people every night for the rest of my life. Still, if I had to choose any song in the world to sing every night for the rest of my life, that is a good one to choose.”
And he does it with gladness, and with joy.
Irrepressible gladness at doing this thing he was put on the planet to do.
And it rose in me a question I keep ruminating over…
What would be the thing that would still make me impossibly glad to do 40 years from now?
What would make me smile like James Taylor still does?
Now here’s the part where I tell you:
Despite my adoration for him as a musician, I always thought he’d be a little of the “You’re So Vain” type that his ex-wife Carly Simon allegedly wrote about him. I expected him to be a little jaded or conceited or narcissistic.
I wasn’t prepared for how humble and gentle his presence was.
That bloke might have had a lot of drugs + crazy times + spent time in a psychiatric hospital… but this clearly was a dude who has done a lot of therapy, gotten over his shit, has the love of a good woman and has become pretty sage in the process. He’s a canary (as Glennon Doyle Melton would call him) who feels so much he’s had to learn how to channel it in healthy ways.
Who he is as a presence is even more beautiful and present and healed than I ever expected.
By intermission I’ve already had the best night of my life hands down.
As he dismisses us for intermission, he jokes he is just going to go stand behind the curtains and wait for us to come back. Instead, a young couple come scurrying up to the front, and ask him to sign a shirt.
James smiles and says “Of course! Delighted to!” and crouches that long frame down to sit on the side of the stage.
I stand, paralysed, a metre from him.
“Go,” Chris murmurs. “Go say hello. There’s about to be a stampede.”
So I stand behind the couple, and feel terrible that I am even asking him of this, when he really should be backstage resting. He turns to me and I go blank and jittery.
“Ummm! Shit! I’m so nervous! I can barely even talk! Thank you for being you in the world. I’m just so grateful. May I please have a selfie with you and get a shirt signed? Totally okay if no!”
“Of course,” he smiled. “I’d love that.”
Then I stepped back and the crowds surged forward. Chris grabbed me by the arm, and I shook like a leaf.
He guided me out of the concert hall so I could stammer and hyperventilate in peace.
“How was that?” he said.
“Best… night… of… my… life.”
My hilarious friends were less than impressed:
And then it was time for round 2.
As we headed back into the concert hall… I was gobsmacked.
The crowd was still surrounding James, who was still sitting on the stage edge, taking photos and shaking hands and signing autographs half an hour later.
He had not taken a break at all… used the intermission solely to thank people for coming.
People were a gush with his generosity.
His band came back from intermission and began to play.
Still, James crouched and signed signatures. People began filing back to their seats, but he stayed and touched and connected with every single person who wanted it. Eventually, his back up singers pulled him back up… and that man who’d just sung his heart out for 90 minutes and then spent another 30 minutes swamped by fans?
Didn’t take a break. Didn’t get any water.
Just stood up.
Played his guitar.
Opened his mouth.
Three hours. Three hours, ya’ll!
The lovely lady beside us told me she’d seen him and Carole King sing live together in Melbourne, and that they kept singing for hours, around and around, totally joyful and in love with the act of singing.
After what I saw, I believe it.
This is a man who loves what he does. Who has an almost superhuman lack of personal needs.
Who plays that long and that hard and that well… and barely breaks a sweat.
Who smiles that whole time because he still can’t quite believe his luck that he gets to sing his songs and people want to listen.
On through the catalogue we journeyed.
I close my eyes, let the music vibrate over me, the song its own sound healing.
The catalogue of my life.
You’ve Got A Friend reminds me of my soul brother Dan, my high school best friend. His love saved me, and mine saved his. When I sent myself to boarding school, he said “I’m not staying here without you” and came with me. I’ve adored him for half my life now. That will only continue.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.
Fire and Rain is the story of every fuckup and loss and sadness and grief. I think: If James Taylor can survive Fire and Rain, I can survive all these things too. And my weary old heart heals some more.
If this man who has been through so much – addiction, heart break, mental illness, fame, and can still be here creating 40 years later, still be lighting up as he does so… I can get through this great mess of life too. I can get through the Fire and still be joyful.
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.
Oh, 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.
Wandering tells me I can forgive myself for being a wanderer, for moving so many times. That maybe just maybe I’m not alone in this.
I’ve been wandering early and late
from New York City to the Golden Gate
and it don’t look like
I’ll ever stop my wandering.
And in my own Z-list internet celebrity-ish life, I more deeply resonated with Fame than ever before – both the strangeness of it, and the sacred blessing of being on purpose.
Fortune and fame’s such a curious game.
Perfect strangers can call you by name.
Pay good money to hear Fire and Rain again and again and again.
Some are like summer coming back every year
Got your baby, got your blanket, got your bucket of beer.
I break into a grin from ear to ear
and suddenly it’s clear
That’s why I’m here.
And this will sound wanky, but it is honest, so that’s enough: That night with JT helped me understand a bit more about this fame thing. It helped me understand why some people feel the way they do when they meet me. My work touches them, so I can feel like both a mythical creature + a dear companion to them. Our creative work is so important and helps all of us feel less alone in the world.
He says he is just a country hippy, and all at once, those words become emblazoned on my heart.
That’s what I am. That’s what I’ve struggled with:
The small town farm girl who is into woo-woo and sacred women’s work.
But there it is:
I can be both.
Why didn’t I think of this before?
Still, now JT has said it, it’s officially a Thing.
I forget, but that night I remembered:
Music is transcendent.
It allows us to be present.
It asks only for our attention.
And it reminds all of us to be creative in the ways that sing to us.
And my husband, who thought he’d need No Doze?
He said it was one of the best concerts he’d ever experienced.
He said the joy and energy and gifts of James and his band of 10+ were contagious and brilliant.
He has converted and now bows down to the James Taylor altar with me.
James reminded me to PLAY.
Every part of that concert felt like play, as though we were invited in to see a band of 11 brilliant, gifted musicians jam together. It was a collaboration, a joyous celebration of music.
They had FUN most of all.
By the end of the night all the backing singers had got us all up and dancing by the stage. I was dancing in front of JT’s mike… it was all verrrry intimate… and I was basically in wild rapture trying not to wet myself. Chris was just behind me, man-guarding my handbag and attempting not to draw attention to himself. #oppositesattract
When it was over, my heart was so full.
All I could do was prayer pose and send waves of love and gratitude to James.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for doing your work in the world. Thank you for sharing your gift. You have touched mine and so many other’s lives because of it.
And that’s the whole point of it, isn’t it?
How can we be more playful?
How can we do work that still makes us grin madly to do in 40 years?
How can we more deeply trust that our work is meant for us and is meant for others as well? That this world needs our light and our song and our dance?
I return to my studio now, my James Taylor pass hanging over my head, a creative amulet.
I couldn’t make the music I heard in my heart as a child.
But that’s okay. James could. And James did.
And that was all that was needed.
So James plays his songs, and I write my words and make my pictures.
And we offer them to the world, in gladness.