Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: The lyrics of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain" chronicle his reaction to the death of his girlfriend in a plane crash.
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2000]
Origins: Gentle, plaintive, and compelling, "Fire and Rain" was the hit that launched the career of James Taylor, one of the 1970's premier singer-songwriters. The song's mournful lyrics of loss and redemption were enigmatic to many, and some listeners tried to make sense of the words by reading literal meaning into them:
Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.Taylor's audience collectively developed an autobiographical story line for his "Fire and Rain" lyrics: Suzanne, the girl who was now "gone," had been Taylor's girlfriend. They were frequently separated as he traveled on tour, but they kept in close touch, spending "hours of time
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.
I walked out this mornin', and I wrote down this song;
I just can't remember who to send it to.
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.
Won't you look down upon me Jesus?
You gotta help me make a stand.
You just got to see me through another day.
My body's achin', and my time is at hand.
I won't make it any other way.
Been walkin' my mind to an easy time,
My back turned towards the sun.
Lord knows when the cold wind blows,
it'll turn your head around.
Well there's hours of time on the telephone line
to talk about things to come:
Sweet dreams and flying machines
in pieces on the ground.
Although James Taylor's song is indeed autobiographical, it doesn't match the heart-wrenching story line of popular legend. By the time "Fire and Rain" established Taylor as an international pop star at the tender age of
"Fire and Rain" has three verses. The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend. The second verse is about my arrival in this country with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to doThe "Suzanne" mentioned in the lyrics to "Fire and Rain" wasn't Taylor's girlfriend or fiancée, but merely an acquaintance (Suzanne Schnerr) whom he had met while he was a teenager in New York in
A few years later, after Taylor had decamped to London and was finishing up his debut album for the Beatles' Apple Records label, he found out that Suzanne had committed suicide several months earlier, and his friends had withheld the news from him so as not to let it distract him and derail his career:
[Suzanne] committed suicide sometime later while I was over in London. At the time I was living with Margaret [Corey], and Richard [Corey] was around a lot, and so was JoelBy the time Taylor left London for the United States at the end of 1968, he was battling a heroin addiction for which he was hospitalized in Manhattan shortly after his return; he then committed himself to Austen Riggs, a private psychiatric facility in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It was during his Manhattan hospital stay that he formed the song's second verse, with its pleas to Jesus to "look down upon" him and help him "make a stand" against the ravages of drug addiction.
Earlier, during his senior year of high school, Taylor had entered McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where he spent several months being treated for depression. After leaving that facility he traveled to New York and hooked up with childhood friend Danny Kortchmar, where they formed the aforementioned group The Flying Machine, a venture that ended badly for Taylor both professionally and personally:
The nadir of the nadir for The Flying Machine was a booking in the Bahamas at a failing nightspot called the Jokers Wild Club in Freeport; after three weeks of bad food and no pay, the group used their return tickets to flee. They disbanded once their flight landed in New York.The third and fourth verses of "Fire and Rain," finished off during Taylor's months at Austen Riggs, muster his feelings about his life in and around his hospital stays, as he struggled with depression, strove against heroin addiction, and experienced the disappointment of a bad ending in his fledgling musical career. Thus the allusion in the song's final line about "sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" is not merely an indirect reference to shattered ambitions and ruined lives, but a sly direct reference to a previous professional failure.
Sadder still was Taylor's horrifying descent, just before The Flying Machine had hit career turbulence and begun to lose altitude, into full-blown heroin addiction.
Although James Taylor's eponymous debut album was not a commercial success, he sufficiently overcame the personal issues with which he had been grappling to leave Apple Records, sign with Warner Bros., and record an album (Sweet Baby James) that — propelled by the success of its second single, "Fire and Rain" — reached a lofty #3 position on the Billboard charts in 1970.
Last updated: 6 August 2006
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