To James Taylor, Heroin was Bigger than the Beatles
How could such pretty music come out of a person with such an ugly hole in his soul?
By Mark Ribowsky
Editor’s note: In this excerpt from a new James Taylor biography, we join the singer-songwriter in London in 1968 at age 20, where he is recording his debut album for the Beatles’ Apple Records, under the supervision of producer/A&R executive Peter Asher. Issues with substance abuse and reckless behavior are haunting the promising young artist.
This turn was probably inevitable, given Taylor’s seemingly fatal inability to exercise some willpower. Taylor would confess, “I was addicted all the time I was recording the album on Apple. I was stoned for most of the sessions.” And: “I’d shoot speedballs of smack and meth, all pure stuff over there. But pure stuff is just pure poison. Peter didn’t know I was on junk. I guess he just thought I was really sleepy or something.”
The contrast between all that sensitive singing and writing simply didn’t add up; how could such pretty music come out of a person with such a large, ugly hole in his soul? The latter was a fissure Taylor would need decades of introspection and professional help to close. Until then, it was as if he needed to creep up on death, to see how close he could get; to sleep with as many women as he could, giving and taking phony vows of love, to temporarily fill that cavity; to move from place to place like a gypsy moth.
“I used to get crazy on this drug,” he once said, relating episodes when he was flirting with acid, “jumping great gaps between the roofs and swinging on fire escapes.” One time, he unwittingly left a plate of matches burning in the flat where he was staying, then went out and “walked along a ledge, stories and stories up, and jumped into a tree in a park along Baker Street,” then jumped in a car and “blasted around the West End doing about 80 — just screaming.” When he got back, the plate had exploded and sent pieces flying, leaving a hole in the ceiling. “I later thought of that as being pretty irresponsible,” he recalled, though for him irresponsibility was not reason enough to take responsibility. And he was damn lucky too. Striking a guy in the street with his car sent Taylor “into some heavy freaker right there.” But the bobbies busted the victim, whom they had been chasing for three blocks.
Taylor indeed faced little legal consequence. The drug scene in England was far less given to psychodrama and hysteria than in the United States. While pot was illegal — McCartney could vouch for that — the harder stuff was not technically illegal at the time; rather, cocaine, morphine, and heroin addicts were registered by the government and made eligible for methadone treatment, which could be just as addicting and destructive. Taylor felt much less pressure using smack. But he was pushing his luck. Asher, who preferred to see things from the sunny side of the street, came to see that Taylor “was still dealing with some personal and addiction issues during the making of the record.” Still, Asher, pleading ignorance, not avoidance, adds, “I was far too naive to recognize the symptoms for what they were,” and Taylor happily took advantage of his credulous nature. And so things moved ahead, slowly but surely, and in the end it was nothing if not mesmerizing, all the evidence needed to justify his line in “Rainy Day Man” that “You can’t hide the truth with a happy song.”
The album was completed in October. The cover featured a photo taken by Richard Imrie of Taylor reclining in front of a rock wall in a London park, his bony frame clad in a baggy gray suit Taylor bought from a London secondhand store for the shoot—suspenders, and a psychedelic tie, a dying amber leaf stuffed into his lapel, and a dead brown leaf on his thigh. His eyes are cold, glaring under a mop of unruly hair. The back cover had the lower half of his frame, down to his scruffy brown boots.
What Asher wanted it to say was unclear — it seemed to be that the era of flower children and psychedelic optimism was as ill-fitting to the new era as the suit and as moribund as those leaves — but it suited his exigency to present Taylor as dark and a little disturbed underneath his engaging, but dark-hearted, folk-rock brand — the Apple scruff, as it were.
Taylor was breathing rarefied air indeed, sharing studio space with the Beatles, boating around Gibraltar, getting high as a kite in swinging London town. To be young and a favored Yank in England, he understated, was an “exciting time… The whole thing was like a swirl. I stayed at a lot of different places, I lived with a number of different women, writing a lot of songs and forming and breaking off and exchanging volatile romantic attachments.” And: “It was like a door had opened up, and I’d been given the key.” In fact, the least exciting thing about London for Taylor was the Beatles, who struck him out of the studio as rather pedestrian.
“The Beatles were a phenomenon,” he would say, “but they were also ordinary blokes like anyone else. I was lucky enough to see that side.” The contrast with his scabrous experiences in New York was vivid. As it happened, Taylor’s “exciting” time in London coincided with what seemed like a clusterfuck back home. That spring, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered, and when the smoke and confusion cleared, Richard Nixon, the lowest sort of political animal Taylor could conceive of, would have the key to the Oval Office. There was no end in sight to that wretched war in the jungles.
Bouts of homesickness aside, he began to wonder if he should stay permanently in England, where he was finding satisfaction. At one point he slagged the country he had left, saying, “I learned a lot about America there. I learned America has no culture, except that which exists in terms of there being no culture. The philosophy of no philosophy, y’know?” He went on:
“That’s the difference between the United States and England. Age. Tradition. People in England aren’t uptight about long hair because there’s still the pub, tea time and the Queen. There are those constants. They’re not afraid. They don’t feel threatened. But in the United States everything is changing. There aren’t the constants. People are afraid… There’s no responsibility with power in [the United States.] Because power is money and money is available to everyone — even to those who are not responsible, or worse, totally irresponsible.”
Of course, this was a prime cut of Taylor hypocrisy. But being a burgeoning rock star meant never having to explain personal inconsistencies, only strike a good pose and a good message. The album seemed to prove it. But, again, he would be the only thing that could have thrown his train off the rails.
Taylor’s heroin habit was fast growing out of control, threatening himself and all that dolce vita, not to mention the album Apple was banking so much on. Even in the studio now, a place held sacred by rockers as a no-go zone for their drug habits, he needed to shoot up. The credulous Asher recalls him “disappearing into the bathroom for long periods” during the Apple sessions — not that he demanded to know if he was shooting up in there.
It had become too much for Taylor as well. Friends again became scarce, now avoiding him. Girlfriend Margaret Corey, humiliated by Taylor’s constant trolling for other women, had gone back to America. Again he wasted down to a scrawny skeleton, always feeling sick, passing out for long periods of time, the “excitement” now nothing but counting the minutes till the next time he could pump a needle in his arm. He entered a treatment program and was prescribed visepdone, a form of methadone, the synthetic opiate that mimics the effects of — and is as addictive as — heroin, but for a longer period of time, thus decreasing the urge and frequency of use, and in theory, lessening dependency. It was a good theory, but it failed him. He would say a few years later:
“What the junkie is looking for when he picks up his syringe or goes out to cop is something that will be the same every time and completely supersede all other goings-on. And smack does that. It’s the circumstances around it that kill you. Heroin maintenance has worked well in England. But, it’s like being dead. It knocks out your sensitivities at the same time that it gets rid of the suppressed emotion that you can’t stand anymore. I was incapable of writing on heroin. I imagine even methadone does that to me, to an extent, except that after a while the presence of methadone disappears. You can’t feel it.”
These would continue to be his conundrums — needing heroin to create but unable to write until he was clear-headed — for some time to come. Soon after, with Taylor still in dreadful shape and his yearlong visitor’s visa due to expire, he and Asher caught a flight to America. James had told his mother he felt sick and needed rest in a controlled setting. Ike, who didn’t know how close he was to having to rescue his son again, made arrangements for him to check into a hospital in New York.
After they landed, Asher dropped him off there in a cab. James told his parents nothing about heroin, and they didn’t ask. It was his intention to go cold turkey and fight his way through withdrawal while doing what always could relieve — or sometimes stoke — pain: writing songs. Being laid up in a hospital bed, however, was a debilitating drag, with bad food and nowhere to wander about. Soon he was on the move again, to another of those rich-folks manor-house-style infirmaries on rolling acres with leafy woods.
With places like this, only the name and location seem to change. Now it was the Austen Riggs Center, deep in the recesses of the Berkshire Mountains. It was named for its founder, a doctor influenced by an alternative branch of psychiatry known as the “mental hygiene movement,” a belief that disordered humans had to be kept under constant surveillance and control, mainly with occupational therapy like weaving, carpentry, painting, games, and so on. Opened in 1919, it earned a reputation as what a medical journal called “a fully integrated conceptual system of ego psychology” that eschewed lobotomies and electroshock methods for round-the-clock therapy sessions. Drugs were administered — it was called “medication dispensing” — to “lessen distress, improve the patient’s behavior and increase his accessibility to psychotherapy.” Almost as if in a rest home, patients paid a fortune to spend months or years sorting out their lives, free to come and go at will.
Though Riggs was only tangentially a drug rehab hospital, drug abuse was a behavior that fit into the mental disorders that needed to be reprogrammed. It sounded good to Taylor, and his mother Trudy came up and drove him there herself. When word got back to England, no one seemed surprised Taylor had wound up where he was. Producer Richard Hewson many years later said he had found Taylor “an easygoing guy, but he was really out of it at the time. Quite weird, actually. He went to a mental hospital shortly after that.”
For a time it occurred to Apple that leaking his drug problem to the press might be a PR tool, heightening the dark side of Taylor’s pretty folk rock. But it was ultimately decided this would not be the best image for Apple or the Beatles, considering all the tiptoeing and labored denials they had to make about, for example, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” not actually being about LSD. After all that, the first act they signed was… a junkie? What if he turned up dead in that bathroom, needle in his arm, the way Lenny Bruce had been found?
Asher was highly offended by the notion of exploiting Taylor’s woes. But Apple had a most unusual situation on its hands: it had an album it highly valued but by a troubled artist nowhere near England or near ready to go on tour promoting his work. And, already, there was some regret that they had erred in their fascination with him.
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Top Image: James Taylor, May 1969 | Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images