James Taylor – Fire and Rain

This song is one that never gets old to me. I’ve heard it many times but James sounds so desperate and sincere in the lyrics. I covered this song today because I just watched James in a movie called Two-Lane Blacktop last night. Good movie if you get a chance…it is a counterculture car movie.

This was the song that took Taylor from little-known singer to the 70s singer-songwriter star. His first label deal was with Apple Records.  His first album for the label James Taylor produced some known Taylor songs like “Carolina in My Mind” and “Something In The Way She Moves,” but it sold poorly due to a combination of Taylor’s heroin addiction (he had to seek treatment and couldn’t promote the album) and Apple’s downward spiral.

Taylor was dropped from Apple and picked up by Warner Bros. Records, where he released his second album, Sweet Baby James. This was the second song released from the album. Fire and Rain peaked at #3 in the Billboard 100 in 1970.

James talked about the inspiration of the song: “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend…that would be Suzanne. 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 do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs (psychiatric treatment facility) which lasted about five months.”

 

From Songfacts

This song is about the high and low points of Taylor’s life. He was only 20 when he wrote it in 1968, but was battling depression and drug addiction.

The stark lyrics about Taylor’s depression stand out on Sweet Baby James, which contains mostly lighter, uplifting songs. Taylor was surprised that such a deeply personal song would appeal to listeners, as he didn’t think people were interested in his life.

The line, “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground” is a reference to a band Taylor was in called The Flying Machine, which he formed with Danny Kortchmar in 1966. The band recorded some songs and released one single, but split up without issuing an album. Taylor went to England, where his demo got the attention of Beatles associate Peter Asher, who arranged an audition with Paul McCartney and George Harrison. They liked what they heard, and signed Taylor to their label, Apple Records. By 1971, Taylor was on a new label and “Fire and Rain” was a hit. The enterprising (some would say exploitative) folks at the label that controlled The Flying Machine’s recordings suddenly became interested in the band, and cobbled together an album from those recordings which they released in 1971 as James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.

The lyrics, “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you” have been the subject of a great deal of speculation, with rumors that Suzanne was Taylor’s girlfriend who died in a place crash. In a 1971 interview with Petticoat, Taylor explained: “It concerned a girl called Susanne I knew who they put into an isolation cell and she couldn’t take it and committed suicide.”

Her name was Susie Schnerr, and Taylor also explained that it was months before he found out about her death, as his friends withheld the news so it wouldn’t distract Taylor from his burgeoning music career.

In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview, Taylor added: “I always felt rather bad about the line, ‘The plans they made put an end to you,’ because ‘they’ only meant ‘ye gods,’ or basically ‘the Fates.’ I never knew her folks but I always wondered whether her folks would hear that and wonder whether it was about them.”

This was one of the first big singer-songwriter hits of the early ’70s. Before this, most hits were either written by one person and performed by another, or written and performed by a group like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Artists like Carly Simon, Billy Joel and Elton John followed the trend of writing and performing their own songs.

In his interview with Petticoat Taylor said that he stole the chord sequence from something his brother Alexander wrote. Alexander, who was the oldest of the four Taylor siblings, was also a musician. He died in 1993.

Sweet Baby James was produced by Peter Asher, who was looking for a stripped-down sound to showcase Taylor’s songs. That sound was established on this track when he called in the musicians Danny Kortchmar (guitar), Russ Kunkel (drums) and Carole King (piano) to rehearse the song in his living room. Kunkel was a rock drummer, but Asher asked him to play with brushes during the rehearsal so as not to disturb the neighbors. When he played with brushes instead of sticks, it brought out a new dimension in the song and established the sound they were looking for. Kunkel and Kortchmar became part of Taylor’s touring band and went on to play on classic ’70s albums by Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Carole King, who soon established herself as a solo artist.

A session musician named Bobby West played the upright bowed bass on this track, which is sometimes mistaken for a viola or cello. In a Songfacts interview with Peter Asher, he told the story: “We didn’t have a bass on the track and it was James’ idea to try bowed upright bass to create the drone of the bottom note. So, we asked the studio for a player because I was not familiar with most of the LA musicians. I’d put together a little rhythm section already, which was Carole King, who I’d got to know and loved her piano playing, and a drummer called Russ Kunkel, who I had found. But at that point, we had not found the perfect bass player, so we used different bass players on different songs. 

And, on that one, James’ idea was to use a bowed upright bass, so we asked around and they recommended this guy called Bobby West. Bobby ‘Wild Wild’ West, we discovered he was known, which clinched it for us. We thought that was such a cool name. So, we hired him and put the bass on and then I doubled the bass to give it that weird, slightly flangey effect, playing the exact same notes. And, those are the only strings on that whole album, I think.”

The Isley Brothers recorded this on their album Givin’ It Back, which contained all cover songs.

When Taylor performed this in 2015 on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he and Colbert had some fun, with Taylor explaining that he was still working on it. “I wrote that song in 1970, and I just hadn’t seen that much back then – mostly fire and rain, so that’s why I keep saying it over and over again in the song,” he said. 

Taylor then explained that he had never seen a calzone at the time, but if he had, he would have definitely added it to the lyric. Taylor and Colbert then performed an updated version of the song with new lyrics. A sample:

“I’ve seen man buns, Myspace and the Baha Men, but I never thought I’d see a new Star Wars again”

“I’ve seen grandmas reading 50 Shades of Grey”

“Quidditch teams and skinny jeans cutting blood off from my thighs”

Taylor guest starred in The Simpsons episode “Deep Space Homer” where he performs for a space shuttle that Homer is aboard from NASA’s mission control. He plays this, but after singing the line “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground,” he gasps, due to the irony of that line relating to the mission, and sings it with the revised lyrics: “Sweet dreams and flying machines flying safely through the air.” 

Fire and Rain

Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Susanne the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning 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’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Oh, 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

Been walking 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

Oh, 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, baby, one more time again, now

Thought I’d see you one more time again
There’s just a few things coming my way this time around, now
Thought I’d see you, thought I’d see you fire and rain, now

Author: badfinger20

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

18 thoughts on “James Taylor – Fire and Rain”

      1. Judd Hirsh was excellent in it as was all the cast. River’s a legend. I couldn’t believe when I found this movie DVD dirt cheap here in Colombia. I’m going to have to watch the movie again and give it a ‘Fridays-finest’ slot. It’s been a productive conversation Bad. Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Max, Two Lane Blacktop is one of my favorite movies!!!!!! I love that minimalist style and James and Dennis are just right for it. IIRC it’s in B&W yes? That little drifter wench they pick up was irritating though, at least to me. I enjoyed this post and learning more about the background of the song and how it was produced. I love that opening guitar intro and everything else about the song.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like that movie also! No it’s in color at least the version I saw…lol yea Laurie Bird played her and she was annoying I agree!…she had a sad end though in real life.
      I was telling Jim I learned a lot from researching this one. Brilliant song to have that many influences into one.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was just reading in imdb that one of the cars in the movie was the one Harrison Ford drove in American Graffiti. Also one of the cars was the one that crashed in American Graffiti! I did also see that Laurie Bird committed suicide? Now I feel bad I dissed her.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You dissed a character not her. Yea she was with Art Garfunkel at the time in 79. He said he still isn’t really over it.
        That is cool that it has that connection with American Graffiti…I think one of those cars is green in this movie.
        This one and Vanishing Point are great movies made around the same time.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. No he was with her and has been married for 30+ years…
        Yes the white car….and it was connected in Death Proof.
        I saw the black Nova in person…or one of them. I have a picture of it somewhere.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I listened to his Greatest Hits- the one that came out in the mid-70’s- I know he had a few more after that but by that time most of what I want to hear- is on that GH..

        Liked by 1 person

    1. This song is just so…I can’t explain it really but…real. It’s a little different than his other 70s output.
      Who were your parents fans of Dave? You probably have told me before. My parents were Elvis, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard…and my dad loved the Ink Spots and Little Richard.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, my Mom loved the Beatles, which was cool. One of my first memories was of seeing the cover of Sgt Pepper and listening to it as she played it on one of those big 1960s console stereos. blew little me away. she liked a lot of easy listening stuff too, like John Denver and pre-disco Bee Gees. Later on, she came to like some of “my” music like split Enz and late-era Roxy Music.
        My dad was more eclectic. I know when I was real little he liked a lot of old school country – Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, all those. I remember he really liked Abba early on in their career too. But he liked bagpipe music – go figure, I have no idea why – and also seemed to appreciate opera. Poor guy. My mom made fun of him for listening to cornball country which she associated with stupid hicks, then accused him of being pretentious if he put on a classical station…
        I do remember, always seemed to be music on though when I was little – AM radio mostly I guess – Glen Campbell, James Taylor, Carole King, last year or two Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel. Some odd early-70s songs hit a chord in me and I don’t even know why other than to think, must ‘ve been on a lot in kitchen when I was young.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks…it’s interesting to know what music people grew up with. What the parents liked…is what was played until we got older.. Your mom sounds really cool…my folks I think were older and from the 50s generation…the sixties passed them by…they never talked about the counterculture.
        Your dad’s taste was great! He sounds like he appreciated a wide range…I can see where that would make him a target though lol.
        Loretta Lynn…glad you brought her up…she was big also in my house.

        My moms favorite song ever was Bridge Over Troubled Water…by Elvis or Simon and Garfunkel. Everytime I hear that song I think of her.

        Like

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