James Taylor, “You’ve got a Friend.”
Certain kinds of music, different for each person, reaches us at mystic levels difficult to accurately and completely describe.
Unlike subjects such as mathematics or physics, music is subjective and touches deeply profound spiritual levels in our inner beings which cannot be weighed or analyzed by scientific methods. Certain music is in the realm of the divine, the spiritual, that which speaks and ministers to the soul.
James Taylor is a music legend who may or may not be familiar to many people today, but for music lovers who were fortunate to have lived through the 1970’s when a certain “sound” and style of music swept the USA and Europe, Taylor was a guru and inspiration.
Music occupies an interesting segment of my life. When I was younger, in my teens, twenties, and a portion of my thirties, music was a major part of my weekly or even daily aspect of my life. Though I still listen to music, its importance is not what is once was and the time spent on listening to music is nothing like before.
Like most people, I go through phases when things become important for a stretch of time, then I lose interest and go onto another topic of interest. This has been a constant and regular pattern in my life.
Revisiting and listening to some of the songs when I was much younger, in my teens, is a phase I will pass through. What brings this on might be a snippet of a song I heard somewhere, or a song suggested to me by some random Youtube algorithm while searching for something else, etc. Or, a friend will email me a song they just listened to and wanted to share it with me.
In this same vein, the old familiar song, “You’ve got a friend” by James Taylor, like some long ago ship from my past, sailed back into the harbor of my life. Here it is (and to fully appreciate the beauty of this song, please listen with some quality headphones or ear buds):
This song, written by Carole King, was recorded by Taylor in 1971. I was eleven years old, and though I don’t exactly remember when or where I was when I first heard it, my memory seems to place it when I was living in Crystal Lake, Illinois, with my sister Mary. We were living with our dad at this point.
Again, if memory serves me correctly, this was a song that was loved by Mary, and hearing it again after many years brings back very powerful and meaningful feelings.
For example, the acoustic guitar that plays in the first nine seconds immediately before Taylor begins to sing evokes powerful feelings that I’m unable to fully explain. They trigger some memory of familiarity and comfort that penetrates deep into my soul that is almost beyond explanation.
At approximately ten to twelve seconds into the song as Taylor begins to sing the opening stanza, drums, bass, and another instrument join in. The rhythm, timing, and volume of these instruments are seemingly perfect: slow, smooth, easy, not jarring and not missing a beat…perfection.
Taylor’s voice is unique as well, adding to the power of the song. How can I describe it? A bit nasally, perhaps? Higher pitched than most male voices, maybe? Whatever the unique characteristics are that set his voice apart from most other artists, it imparts something unique, special and meaningful to this song.
At approximately 2:26, Taylor’s voice is joined by some female harmony, adding another dimension of sweetness and innocence. At 3:25, this harmony only reinforces this sense of freshness and innocence, reflecting a time and moment of simplicity of life.
Of course, the lyrics themselves are wonderful, full of meaning, hope, love, friendship and loyalty. Who would not want to have such a friend as depicted in this song? Such a treasure is simply difficult to find, and blessed is the man or woman who can honestly say, “I have such a friend.” Better yet, to be able to say with absolute truth, “I am such a friend.” After all, it is better to give than to receive.
I’ve noticed that the music itself during the 1970’s is also unique. Again, I can’t precisely put a finger on what I mean, but there was a certain “sound” that this era had that, for some reason, seems to be impossible to re-create today.
Maybe it was the vintage microphones they used, or the old sound recording machines they used to record the voice and instruments, or maybe it was the acoustics in the recording studios where these songs were recorded, or the instruments themselves; in other words, a distinct “sound” and “feeling” captured by this era that, in my experience, has never been replicated or perhaps cannot be replicated.
I’ve noticed something else as well: the singers themselves cannot replicate their own voices or “feeling” from those times. James Taylor, now in his seventies, can sing this exact same song now and it is nothing like he sang it in 1971. Something is missing. Is it because he is old now, out of his prime, and, in the same way his body has aged, so has his voice? Can anyone expect Taylor’s voice, a man in his 70’s, to be as rich and strong as it was in his 20’s? Of course not, and perhaps this is the reason…who knows?
I will occasionally search on Youtube for these older songs of my childhood and teen years. It is amazing that Youtube will have songs that were song by various artists from the 1970’s. Many of these artists were in their early twenties, some in their late teens, when they become international stars and recorded some of their greatest and most popular hits.
But when I listen to them now, or from ten or twenty years ago, and they sing the exact songs from when they were in their teens or twenties, the “magic” is gone. Again, something—some necessary ingredients—are missing.
I can’t figure this mystery out. It’s beyond dispute that the same people are singing the same songs, but are they? What has changed…them, the instruments they now use, the microphones, or what?
Here is Taylor singing this same song, but in 2009:
I think it’s a combination of many factors, but maybe the heart of it is this: that special something that our country was blessed with, that age of relative innocence that America was known for, the relative innocence and unsullied nature of the singers themselves, has all been transformed, disappeared, replaced by the hard edge of reality and the jadedness of life itself.
It’s like little children. When they are young, before the age of, say, ten or eleven (definitely before the age of puberty), they are so innocent. A child four, five, six years of age is one of the most precious, fresh, loving, joyful, curious, trusting, and innocent of human beings on the planet. I’ve often thought that looking upon the sleeping face of a one year old child is like metaphorically looking at the very face of God: pure innocence and goodness.
Then, that same child grows up, become a pre-teen, then a teenager. On some levels, this is a horrible transformation, for what this once loving child can unfortunately become is an individual whom the parent may never recognize as the sweet, loving and obedient child he or she once was they rocked in their arms and held close with seemingly inseparable bonds.
It might be possible that a similar situation happens with singers. As their talent brings them world-wide success, fame and fortune begin to work their inevitable process of corrupting, polluting and hardening of their fresh and somewhat innocent mindsets and they begin to lose their unique “presence.”
Maybe they also lose their youthful idealism, and the values they once believed in and expressed through their music and voices is lost to the brutalities and cruelties of this world. If the “eyes are the windows of the soul,” perhaps the voice is a mouthpiece to express what that soul believes in; if the soul becomes jaded and hardened, perhaps the voice might reflect that transformation in some way. Who knows?
Turning an important corner in this discussion, I come to the meat of this post: the meaning of the song itself, in this case, friendship and loyalty which is the most important part of this song and not the mechanics.
Taylor, like many successful musical artists both then and now, struggled with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Such dark times can make one feel separated from the rest of humanity, and Taylor seems to have went through this phase in his troubled life.
There is an interesting portion of a Wikipedia article about this song:
“You’ve Got a Friend” was written by Carole King during the January 1971 recording sessions for her own album Tapestry and James Taylor‘s album Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. King has stated that “the song was as close to pure inspiration as I’ve ever experienced. The song wrote itself. It was written by something outside myself, through me.” According to Taylor, King told him that the song was a response to a line in Taylor’s earlier song “Fire and Rain” that “I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” King’s album was recorded in an overlap with Taylor’s, and King, Danny Kortchmar, and Joni Mitchell perform on both. The song is included on both albums; King said in a 1972 interview that she “didn’t write it with James or anybody really specifically in mind. But when James heard it he really liked it and wanted to record it”.
Whatever is the most accurate recollection of the reason why this song was composed, the facts seem to support the truth that Taylor, by recording it, found the song striking a chord in his own sense of loneliness and the importance of having a friend one can rely on.
I’ve never had a great problem with loneliness, preferring, for the most part and much more as I became older, spending time alone. Being alone is the best way I have found to achieve what I believe are two of my favorite words in the English language: peace and quiet.
The Covid lockdowns only reinforced this aloneness for me; in fact, it gave me an excuse to separate more from society than usual and I found the forced aloneness required by social distancing a welcomed event.
A sentence I read in a book by Alistair Maclean decades ago, when I was a teenager living at home with my mom, sisters and step-dad here in Tucson, has stuck with me my entire life. It was written about a certain character (I’ve forgotten the name of the character and the particular book I read it from): “he was not afraid to be alone.” I believes this describes myself accurately.
Of course, having meaningful and lasting friendships is part of life and having authentic friends to share life experiences with is a true treasure. Unfortunately, as I got older, the harsh reality of life proved to me that a true friend is a rare gift. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a true friend; many acquaintances but no true friends. Perhaps my standards are unnecessarily high…
I often find much insight reading the comments in various Youtube videos; this one is no exception. Here is one comment that struck me:
My dad was in the emergency room before he went to the ICU. I played this song on my phone and put one ear bud in his ear and the other in mine. He had a stroke and could no longer communicate and I held his hand and cried while the song played. My dad showed me this song and it will always be our song.
This comment from “Light in the Heart” moved me nearly to tears; there is so much in this short comment. One, the obvious love she (I’m assuming) has for her dad and what seems to be a strong connection between this daughter and father that clearly extends back decades.
I think of this father, in ICU, perhaps at the tail end of his life and soon to pass to the world beyond, but held in the bond of inseparable love of his daughter as she reaches back to some distant memories, remembering how much her dad loved this song and wishing to reconnect both her and him to that special time in their past when they shared this song and the memory together. And that message to her dad? I’m here for you, dad, I’m that friend to you that James Taylor sang about decades ago. And I’m here for you now, in your time of need when you can no longer speak and may be at death’s door.
That father is a blessed man to have such a daughter in his life…a blessed man, indeed.
In the thread that followed this comment, I read this one:
Musetoit my father died in my arms to this song few days ago…i dont know you but i just felt saying you something..
Another blessed father to have such a loving son or daughter in his life, especially with him at the very end of his journey.
May James Taylor, whose music and this song in particular which has brought untold comfort and meaning in perhaps millions of lives, experience the same love and care from at least one of his children when he also comes to the end of his days.