I just read a biography about one of my favorite singer-songwriters, James Taylor. I was disappointed. Not with Taylor, but with the author Ian Halperin, a self-styled “investigative journalist” who has received some positive attention, and has apparently worked as a musician from time-to-time. Pish. I scooted over to Amazon, where I read other reviews complaining of the poor writing. Mr. Taylor deserves better. The only way he and his colleagues are going to get it right is if they write autobiographies, or cooperate with a reputable biographer.

2.0 out of 5 stars
images Fire and Rain Creates Mud, September 30, 2009

I so very much wanted to like this book. When reading biographies of contemporary persons, I try to remember to take what I find with a grain of salt and be generous of the author’s bias and context. For one, we most often have individuals writing bios who are trained as journalists. Stylistically there is a conflict.  Journalists opine, write tight paragraphs out of necessity, and do not have time or space to develop a narrative.

Biographies require a narrative treatment. It’s a form which needs to retell and recreate conversations and situations. Details are everything. When I see writer X of Such and Thus Magazine authoring a biography, I understand what I am getting myself into. That’s my bias.

My patience is waning.

“Fire and Rain” has some documentation.  There is some worthy content. We learn a few new details. All good. However, I cringe every few pages over grammatical sloppiness. The greater crime is a lack of fact-checking. It causes one to question the author and publisher’s motives. Do we get this thing written, ship product out, and accept the shortcomings for the cash?  Apparently. Don’t publishers employ editors anymore? Mean, picky editors who force accountability and some conformity to basic standards?  Apparently not. Is it too much to ask that information be cited, and some footnotes available?

I’ll offer an example of this miserable lack of fact-checking.

On page 124, the author is discussing the anticipation surrounding Taylor’s follow-up record to his first U.S. release on the Warner label, Sweet Baby James. ( Note that Taylor’s actual first record, James Taylor, was on the Apple label, but the zoo that was Apple and it’s messy demise, kept the record from being well promoted. There was nobody handling A&R at the time.)  Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon made a huge impression. Sophomore albums usually sell fewer units than first releases, and that is an accepted pattern in the record industry. I run into frustration in the following sentence from paragraph three.

“Solo artists like Jackson Browne and Cat Stevens were enjoying much-publicized revivals, so it wasn’t difficult to predict that Taylor’s new album would see massive media exposure.”

Here is the problem.  Although Cat Stephen’s 1971 release, Teaser and the Fire Cat was his fifth album, he had not yet taken off in the United States. The two singles from the first three albums reached chart positions of 118 and 115 (Billboard).  He did much better in the UK. In 1970, Wild World, from his fourth album, Tea For the Tillerman, made 11 on the chart (ibid).  Songs from this record were featured in the Harold & Maude soundtrack. This is a pattern of an artist riding up in a nice arc. Teaser was the evidence of Stevens arrival, certainly not, as the author states, a revival.

As for Jackson Browne, the author is egregiously wrong.  In 1971, Browne released his *first* album, the eponymous Jackson Browne, fondly referred, to his initial chagrin, as Saturate Before Using due to the cover art by Henry Diltz. It was a much anticipated release in the industry from the man who had composed hits for other artists.

Borrow the book from the library or go to BookMooch.com as I did, where folks trade books. But keep the laptop handy because you’ll find yourself wanting to confirm certain details.


4 thoughts on “Largo (yawn)

  1. Thanks for the warning, however I being a regular uneducated consumer, would never have thought to question his verbiage ( see, big word). But you’ve nicely pointed out it’s not only HOW he says it, but WHAT he says that is suspicious. Appreciate the warning.

  2. It seems to me that the estimable and prolific Mr. Taylor released an album on Apple Records, the Beatle’s label before he ever recorded Sweet Baby James, making Mudslide Slim his third, not second release.

    Cat Stevens had a mid-level radio hit called “Matthew and Son” prior to anything like the success he enjoyed following “Teaser”. Perhaps that is the “revival” to which the author refers. And yes, in regard to Mr. Browne, he is just plain wrong, wrong, wrong.

    It astonishes me that so many of the books reflecting our pop culture and its attendant and perceived “heroes” are so poorly written. But moreover, who really cares? Haven’t the omnipresent Press already done their damage? How much more do we need to know?

  3. Hi NB.
    I was doing okay with the thing until the guy made that big oopsy with our boy. J. Cafe friends would expect no less. 🙂
    “Hotel California” (the recent book) is full of prurient material, but at least the author cites and footnotes, and uses first person interviews. “Laurel Canyon” is a fun read, and narrative. You can buy a copy from the front counter of the Canyon Country Store, so I assume the community up there is generally agreeable about the contents.

  4. CD,
    Good point.

    The book mentions the Apple recording (Taylor being the first American signed by the label), but I thought the thing was in the can until after SBJ. It was released before Apple imploded.So much for fact checking! I fix it in my rant.

    I just looked up on BB.

    James Taylor (Apple) was released in ’69 and made 68 in the US.
    Sweet Baby James (Warner) in 1970, at 3
    Mud Slide Slim (Warner) in 1971 at 2

    These are the single releases:
    1970 “Carolina in My Mind” 67 James Taylor
    1971 “Fire and Rain” 3 Sweet Baby James
    1971 “Country Road” 37 Sweet Baby James
    “You’ve Got a Friend”[A] 1 Mud Slide Slim…
    “Long Ago and Far Away” 31 Mud Slide Slim

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