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Wasted Years?

April 5, 2020 (909 words)

Last month’s directive to stay home and shelter in place to help combat the spread of the coronavirus has finally forced me to check out the world of YouTube videos. (Entering the field so late preserves my reputation for always being at least ten years behind the curve on any innovation, a perennial source of amusement to my immediate family.)

My first forays in this “new” medium have been with music videos of favorite musicians playing favorite songs. I’ve learned you can just about always find an audio-only version of the original studio recording, if that’s what you are looking for.

Or that original album cut maybe also accompanied by a now-dated and somewhat cheesy music video. (Which betrays the fact that much of my favorite music was recorded some time ago.)

But what’s even better are the live performances of those songs. And in most cases there are a number of different renditions available for viewing, from different concert settings, and frequently featuring different arrangements. I’m partial to those live performances where things aren’t so amplified, where you can actually hear all the instruments being played.

One that stands out for me is the updated concert YouTube video of the Pete Townshend (b.1945) song “Pure and Easy.” I liked the tune well enough when it came out on his debut solo album of 1972, “Who Came First.” He was reported to have played all the instruments, including drums.

But the live version of this song from a November 27, 2013 concert performance is a real gem. It’s filled out, fully realized. What a great, great song. And the old man singing and leading the small orchestra on his acoustic guitar is in fine form, too.

Another example of this “better with age” concept is the James Taylor song “Mexico.” I loved the original when it was released on his “Gorilla” album in 1975. But the arrangement featured in a March 2013 concert given at the Beacon Theater in New York City is even more inspired.

In addition to the wealth of performance videos, I’m also finding myself drawn to the various interviews with musicians that are readily available. Some are a bit dated, but many of them are fairly recent.


James Taylor talks about his eighteen year addiction…


And speaking of James Taylor (b.1948), he has a handful of semi-current interviews on YouTube. Like many of his contemporaries in the folk-rock genre, the now much older musician is thoughtful and articulate, eloquent even.

He is particularly forthright about his eighteen year addiction to heroin, and what a dead-end such an addition is for anyone caught up in it.

At the start of one of these videos, Oprah Winfrey’s “Master Class,” our famous media-mogul host intones: “James Taylor lost eighteen years of his life to his addiction.” Mr. Taylor is in close-up throughout, and speaks directly into the camera.

He talks to us about many things, including how creativity requires solitude. His songs get their start, he tells us, with at least three days of alone time, which is needed “to push the ideas around.”

Also as part of the Oprah presentation, he again covers the topic of his addition, and this time shares what it took for him to finally shake his habit. He regained his body and his nervous system only through physical exertion. “You have to go to boot camp,” he calmly reports in his good-natured manner.

The story of admonition and redemption rings true. But there is also a truth that is not quite getting acknowledged, even if no one is guilty of outright glossing over it either.

Nobody hides the fact that James Taylor’s eighteen years of addiction ended in 1983. But neither is anyone drawing attention to how this coincided with the most musically productive period of his life.

This too easily allows the average viewer to assemble their own time line, so to speak, where the dreaded eighteen years of his heroin addiction took place after the height of his fame in the 1970s.

As if the fall off in his public profile was the result of his addiction, an addiction that we are inclined to assume robbed him of his ability to write songs, or function as a working musician.

Of course as we listen to the 70 year-old Taylor we are thankful a favorite artist has come out the other side in one piece. We are all glad he was able to get clean.

There is every reason to believe him when he tells us he would not still be alive and performing his music today if he hadn’t. (Another of my favorite musicians from this era, Lowell George, who was just as prolific as James Taylor in the 1970s, did not get clean, and did not survive.)

The only thing I have a problem with is the arc of the story we may be assembling for ourselves.

Before we get swept up and carried away in the somber, sentimental tale that these were “wasted years,” I suggest we pause to reflect on just how much of Taylor’s best music was composed during this same eighteen year stretch.

This is not meant as an advertisement for opioids, by any means. Only to say some artistic types clearly have something to show for their past addictions.

While it is always beneficial for anyone who may have indulged in the past to “Return to Earth,” not everyone’s “Lost Weekend” is the same.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
April 5, 2020

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