Bill is away this week, so I’ve busied myself by watching movies, reading, and, as of yesterday, listening to my very first audiobook courtesy of Audible. Two of the works have really stuck with me, because they involve rock stars with “daddy issues”. The stars in question? Elton John and James Taylor– both claim they had fathers who were absent in some way. Both are major rock stars dating from the 1970s.
On Sunday night, I finally watched Rocketman, a movie musical loosely based on Elton John’s life. Yesterday, I listened to James Taylor’s brand new audiobook, Break Shot, which is his version of the story of the first 21 years of his life. “Break shot” refers to the first shot in a game of billiards, the one that breaks the balls and scatters them in different directions.
I was already somewhat familiar with both stories because I had read lengthy books about both James Taylor and Elton John. In Elton’s case, I read his recent book, Me, which was his autobiography about his life. In James’s case, it was an extremely long winded book by the late Timothy White called James Taylor: Long Ago and Far Away, published in 2003. I remember not enjoying White’s book very much because it was so long and exhaustive, and included a lot about Taylor’s genealogy, which wasn’t something I was interested in at the time. However, years later, I’m kind of glad I read it, because it gave me insight into one of my favorite performers that has stuck with me all these years.
One thing that struck me about both of these men’s stories is that they have a lot in common. Both are extraordinarily talented musicians whose talent became obvious during childhood. Both are recovering addicts; James to alcohol and heroin, and Elton to alcohol, cocaine, sex, and food. Both are now living sober lives. Both have suffered from depression, perhaps even to the point of being suicidal. And both had very difficult relationships with their fathers. While I would never say that one has to have a difficult childhood with an absentee father to become a famous musician, it was an aspect of both of their stories that really stuck out to me. Actually, it seems like they both had difficult relationships with both parents, although in both of their stories, it was their fathers who were painted more as “bad” and unsupportive. James Taylor goes as far as to say that fathers can be “replaced”, but mothers have to be “there”. I can’t say I agree with his comment on that, but maybe it’s a relic from the generation he grew up in.
Rocketman wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I hadn’t read much about it before I sat down to watch it. I guess I thought it would be more like Bohemian Rhapsody, as in, more of a biographical tale about Elton’s life. It was kind of biographical, but it really appeared to be more of a set up for an eventual Broadway show. I enjoyed it, for the most part, although parts of the movie made me groan a bit.
I wouldn’t go to Rocketman to learn about Elton John’s life, although I did think parts of the film were very entertaining. Taron Egerton is very talented and he captured Elton’s essence in his performance on screen. Elton’s book was revelatory enough. He wrote about growing up in working class Pinner. His father was strict and cold to him. Later, when his parents divorced, Elton’s dad apparently left his life. Although they shared a love of music, according to Elton, his dad wasn’t particularly supportive of his son’s talent. Elton’s mother was apparently exploitative and short tempered, even though they mostly stayed in contact until she died. I have already reviewed Elton’s book, so you can read my thoughts on it here. Today, I’m going to focus on Break Shot.
James Taylor’s story is a bit different, in that unlike Elton John, he grew up in an upper class family. James’s father was Dr. Isaac Taylor– otherwise known as Ike– and there was plenty of money. His mother’s name was Gertrude– Trudy– and she was from Massachusetts. Ike moved the family to Chapel Hill, North Carolina when James was about four or five years old. James grew up in North Carolina, because his father was the dean of the medical school at Chapel Hill. Trudy didn’t like living in the South, and James sort of implied that she resented Ike for forcing her to live there, particularly since Ike was often gone. He spent two years in Antarctica with Navy Seabees when James was a young man, and by the time Ike came home, he had become a stranger to his family. Ike also came home with a terrible drinking problem.
Evidently, addiction is a scourge in the Taylor family. James says that drinking and drugs helped him take a break from himself. I was interested in hearing his thoughts on addiction, especially since alcoholism is a scourge in my own family. He made a comment that really surprised me– that addicts see their drug of choice as a “key” of sorts. Eventually the “key” changes and the substance becomes harmful. Ike’s alcoholism was bad enough that he experienced delirium tremens, which meant that his body had become physically hooked on alcohol to the point at which he needed it to be normal. Nevertheless, Ike Taylor was reportedly a very “functional” alcoholic, much like my father was.
James is one of five very musical siblings, although he also has three half-siblings from his father’s second marriage. He doesn’t speak about his other siblings, probably because he’s old enough to be their father and likely has little contact with them. As someone who grew up in a family with no divorce and no “steps” of “halfs”, it’s hard for me to fathom not having any relationship with my siblings. On the other hand, now that I’m a “stepmother” to adult children my husband hasn’t seen since 2004, I guess I understand it more now than I would have twenty years ago.
Trudy Taylor was very “left leaning” in her politics, which is another reason why North Carolina was probably a difficult place for her to live in the 1950s and 60s. Nevertheless, James says that she was a very involved mother, and she busied herself with raising the children and making a beautiful home on Morgan Creek for them. At the beginning of his audiobook, James mentions his siblings and says he won’t talk much about the ones who are still living: Livingston, Kate, and Hugh.
James’s brother, Alex, died on James’s 45th birthday in 1993. Since Alex is no longer living, James feels free to talk about him. According to James, Alex and their mother, Trudy, fought a lot. Alex had embraced being southern, even adopting a southern accent. James says Alex had a southern accent until he died. Alex was, like James, an addict. He was particularly hooked on alcohol, much as their father was. The night before he died, he’d polished off almost an entire of vodka by himself, which his brother, Livingston, said wasn’t a particularly large amount of booze for him. However, although Alex was never as famous as James or even Livingston was, he was regarded as every bit as talented.
Meanwhile, Trudy did all she did to keep the children connected to the North. She’d take them to New York every couple of months and they’d spend summers at Martha’s Vineyard, where James met dear friends who would play major roles in his life. That’s where he met Carly Simon, his first wife and mother of his two oldest children, Ben and Sally, although she only gets a passing mention in Break Shot. James has more to say about his current wife, Kim, whom is apparently the great love of his life who got him back on the path he was destined to be on… back in Boston.
James went to high school at a boarding school in Massachusetts, where he was forced to go to church three times a week. He chose the Episcopalian service, since it was closest to his dorm. It was there that he was first exposed to hymns, since he grew up agnostic. Really, he describes it as agnosticism, but it sounds more like his family was atheist, which was no doubt even weirder for the Taylors in Chapel Hill. Ike was a man of science and had little use for God. The hymns resonated with James and influenced his songwriting, which was a great thing for us. But being in boarding school was depressing for James and he was soon legitimately mentally ill with major depression. He wound up going back to Chapel Hill for his junior year, but he hated being there, too. So in 1965, he started high school at McLean Hospital, a psychiatric facility where the likes of Sylvia Plath and Ray Charles and two of James’s siblings also sought inpatient treatment and finished their high school years. He said that was then he finally stopped feeling so much like he had to live up to expectations of others. Everyone else in his family had wound up being doctors or lawyers, but James and his siblings obviously took after their very creative mother, who had studied voice at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Depression continued to be a problem for James. At one point in the audiobook, James writes about times when Ike was “there” for him. He called home once, out of money and prospects and feeling desperate, and Ike could hear it in his son’s voice that he was feeling desperate. So he drove all the way from North Carolina to Massachusetts to get James and bring him home. That was where the song, “Jump Up Behind Me” came from, on James’s wonderful Hourglass album, which also has a beautiful eulogy to his brother, Alex, “Enough to Be On Your Way”.
Some time later, James was in marriage counseling and the therapist noticed that he seemed to have a lot of “daddy issues”. The therapist recommended that James have his father join one of their sessions. Much to my surprise, James says his dad cooperated, and during their session, Ike apparently talked a lot about how much he disliked his ex wife, Trudy. The therapist asked Ike why, if he hadn’t liked Trudy much, he’d had five children with her. Ike’s response, which James said was supposed to be kind of a sarcastic “fuck you” to the therapist, was something along the lines of “My mother died after giving birth to me, so I figured that was the best way to get rid of my wife.”
I won’t go into the whole story about Ike Taylor’s upbringing because I really think it’s better to listen to the audiobook for that. Suffice to say, I can kind of see where the issues stemmed from in Ike, and how they passed down to the Taylor children. In any case, as I listened to the audiobook, I was a bit shocked by a couple of revelations, at least at first. James clearly had a very complicated relationship with his parents, but especially his father. However, unlike Elton John, James does seem to have a basic level of respect and empathy for the man. It sounds, though, like that empathy was a long time coming, especially since James spent so many years dulling his pain with alcohol and opiates. He says that he’s a different person now, with his wife, Kim, and their twin sons, Rufus and Henry, although it sounded to me like he still aches over his relationship with his dad. He muses that here his father was this high level doctor, much renowned and admired by so many people. And yet, several of his children graduated high school while locked up in a mental hospital.
Having read Carly Simon’s book, Boys in the Trees, in which she wrote of the hurtful way he treated her during their marriage, I can see that there was a time when James was legitimately an asshole. However… I think he came by being an asshole honestly, because as much as he has to say about his father, he also says that he felt pressured and tried very hard to be a “good son” to his mother, especially when she was in a bad mood. It was as if he felt required to be the balance between Trudy and Alex. And he says that he now realizes that children should not be expected to take care of their parents, nor are they responsible for their parents’ problems. He’s definitely right about that.
While I was surprised by some of Taylor’s blunt comments, I also think they kind of made him seem more like a regular person, with foibles like everyone else’s. Throughout my life, I have been comforted by both Elton John and James Taylor as they sang their original, exquisitely crafted songs. I was similarly comforted by Pat Conroy, another famous artist whose work has always spoken to me on many levels… and another person who had some serious “daddy issues” that he parlayed into art. Taylor said that he feels like he’s written the same six or seven songs over and over again throughout his life, meaning that the same themes keep coming up. I can relate, although my work will never reach as many people as his has…
I think Pat Conroy basically wrote the same story repeatedly, too. I still relate on many levels, as do so many other people. So many of us have parental issues that follow us throughout life. It’s just that some people are lucky enough to turn those issues into something that soothes the souls of the masses. Being able to articulate and translate that pain into music, art, dance, drama, or the written and spoken word is a tremendous gift… although, as is the case for so many brilliant artists, that gift comes with a price. It seems that depression, anxiety, and addiction are the scourges that most often plague creative people. Those who are lucky enough find ways to work through the pain. The unlucky ones tend to die young.
Maybe the most surprising comment James had was that for much of his life, he was known as Ike Taylor’s son, James. Eventually, there came a time when Ike Taylor was known as James Taylor’s father. I’m sure that was quite the mindblowing experience for James Taylor, particularly the first time he realized it while sober. I definitely recommend listening to Break Shot, especially if you’re a James Taylor fan. And I liked Rocketman alright, too, although I learned a lot more from Elton John’s autobiography.
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