An old James Taylor song popped into my head this morning. I discovered it in the early 90s, when I really got into James Taylor’s music. It was on his 1985 album, That’s Why I’m Here. The song is called “Mona”, and if you don’t see the crude little drawing of the pig that appears on the album’s cover art, you might not realize this song isn’t about homicide. If you’re used to James Taylor’s gentle lyrics and soothing vocals, you might really be taken by surprise by this quirky song. It really goes against James’s usual comforting, consoling sounds and messages of solace.
“Mona”, of course, is not a person, but a pig. The story goes that James was gifted a pet pig who got too big to keep, and too “damned old” to eat. So James was forced to present her with a “twelve gauge surprise”. Or, at least that’s how the song goes. I don’t know if he actually did kill the pig, or if she even existed. For all I know, “Mona” is a metaphor for life’s problems. It’s just kind of a goofy song that was in my head this morning, reminding me of the twisted, dark, and ultimately, oddly funny things that come up in life.
I believe the album, That’s Why I’m Here, had a dedication to Bill W. in it, as well. Bill W., for your edification, is Bill Wilson, the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s no secret that James Taylor was a notorious drug addict back in the day. He got sober when he was 36 years old, which was around the time he was making That’s Why I’m Here. I’m sure he needed some comic relief when he made this album, since much of it consists of heartfelt songs about serious subjects and soothing covers. This was about the time James really started to turn into an adult contemporary artist, rather than a folkie. His sound, and his life, were changing.
Anyway, I was thinking of “Mona” this morning. I don’t think it was necessarily because Bill and I just had to put Zane to sleep, either, because our feelings for Zane are much greater than the glib mood James displays as he sings this silly eulogy to Mona, the pig. It probably has more to do with another recurrent situation that has been plaguing us lately, and what we plan to do to finally address it.
I think about James contemplating what to do about that expensive, nuisance pig in his life. It probably troubled him for awhile, but then he resolved to take decisive action. He did the deed, and though he regrets having to do it and will miss Mona’s company, he’s ultimately okay with his choice and realizes that life will go on. The shock and awe will pass, and things will go back to normal. In fact, things will be better than before, because that pest, Mona, will be a funny, fond memory instead of a greedy burden. Maybe Mona really was a pig… but I kind of wonder if maybe she was a symbol of his drug and alcohol addiction, too. Hey, I earned a degree in English. I might as well use it somewhere, right?
James Taylor was inspired to write the song, “That’s Why I’m Here” after the death of his friend, comedian John Belushi, in 1982. Belushi, also a famous drug addict, had once told Taylor that he was worried about him because of his uncontrolled drug use. But Taylor didn’t die of an overdose; Belushi did. That seemed to be the wake up call James needed to get his shit together. Besides being a serious drug abuser back in the day, James also suffered from depression. He’d spent time in a psychiatric hospital– even graduated high school when he was a patient at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was probably an even bigger challenge for him than it was for most to take on his appetite for substances. However, although it was tough and no doubt, unpleasant, James resolved to take action and do better.
Now, almost 35 years later, James still loves his life’s vocation. We had the privilege of seeing him perform in Dublin last summer, along with Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon. It was a six hour show that left me Charley horses, due to the extremely cramped seating. But man, what a show… and what an inspiration. He’s on his third marriage, but it’s lasted seventeen years and produced two sons who are almost grown up. I think his wife, Kim, is the love of his life, and I can see how much he loves his work every time I watch him perform live. His face is an expression of sheer joy. That’s the kind of life everyone should aspire to have– doing what brings joy, satisfaction, and perhaps, material gain.
I know James Taylor’s journey to sobriety wasn’t necessarily comfortable. He had to do the work to move beyond his drug addiction and mature into the man he was destined to be. He had to slay a “pesky pig” who was draining his time and resources. So he pulled out his “twelve gauge surprise”, bravely pushed aside his doubts, manned up, did the work, and moved on to a better life. Is it a perfect life? No… no one has a perfect life. James Taylor is a flawed being, like we all are. He’s made mistakes, and his life isn’t flawless just because he quit drinking and drugging. But it’s no doubt better than it was. And that’s because James got brave, took a stand, and changed his way of living for the better. He finally addressed and overcame a problem that was holding him back, hitting him over and over again.
Overcoming addiction didn’t mean that James Taylor didn’t have other challenges. He lost his 46 year old brother, Alex, in 1993. Alex died of a massive heart attack after having consumed an entire fifth of vodka in one sitting. The day Alex died was James’s 45th birthday. I’ll bet James wanted to drink that day… or use drugs, or do something to ease the pain of losing his big brother, who was reportedly every bit as musically talented as James is. But he pushed through it and kept making amazing music, despite still running into stumbling blocks that might have stopped or even killed a different man.
In 1997, James released his incredibly healing album, Hourglass, which happened to come out just as I was finishing my Peace Corps service in Armenia. I was profoundly depressed at the time and wouldn’t get help for another year. But when I listen to that album, which I’ve read James had made after seriously contemplating retirement, I always feel comforted. It’s a work borne out of tragedies… his brother’s death, his father’s death, and, perhaps, the death of his second marriage to Kathryn Walker. And yet, some of the music on that album is just nourishment for my soul. It’s helped me get through some very hard times.
Hourglass also reminds me of France, since that’s where I bought my copy. I was in Tours, with my older sister. I’d been on vacation for a month after my Peace Corps service… scared of the future, exhausted, walking on eggshells, and still very depressed and anxious. The music store where I bought Hourglass didn’t sell cassettes, but I only had a cassette player. CD players were still rare and extremely expensive in Armenia when I was there, and although I’d owned one for years in the States, I didn’t have one in Armenia. I carried an old school Walkman with me everywhere in Armenia, and bought tons of bootleg cassettes there, some of which were of amazing albums from the 70s I hadn’t yet been exposed to in our land of plenty. Now, I wonder how long it would have taken me to be exposed to that music if I had never gone to Armenia, where there are amazing musicians and artists, but not all of the modern conveniences we enjoy in America and western Europe.
I remember being very distressed that I couldn’t listen to Taylor’s latest back then, due to my inferior technology. I had heard some of Hourglass on VOA Europe, and knew I would like it. Alas, it had to wait until I was home… and that was probably when I needed to listen to it the most. 1997-1999 were very, very hard years for me. I might not have survived them, had I not been brave enough to seek help and do some hard work. In that case, the “twelve gauge surprise” was psychotherapy and antidepressants, which changed my life irrevocably for the better. It wasn’t easy. It cost time and money and required me to talk about some very difficult things with professionals. But ultimately, I prevailed, and life is, mostly, better. At least I don’t contemplate suicide nearly as often as I used to.
I don’t own a twelve gauge shotgun. If I did, I doubt I would use it to dispatch a pesky pig who has gotten too old, fat, and burdensome for me. That’s not really my way. I save such drastic, final solutions for when a situation is truly a lost cause. I also prefer much cleaner, more humane methods of slaying the Monas who get too damned big and old to care for. But still, the idea of the “twelve gauge surprise” in the old song, “Mona”, really speaks to me today.
So… to all the Monas in my life, enjoy being dirty, greedy, noisy, and stinky while you still can. I’ve got a figurative “twelve gauge surprise” waiting for you.