James Taylor was on the cover of "Time" and from there it was downhill. Each album thereafter less lauded and less commercially successful. Although it had the hit "Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight", "One Man Dog" was unjustly ignored. The second side is the closest anyone’s gotten to the "Abbey Road" suite since.
But with the failure of "One Man Dog", JT switched teams. He traded in Peter Asher for David Spinozza. The sound was jazzier, peopled by New York players, and despite the audible presence of Paul McCartney on backup vocals, "Walking Man" sank. We shrugged. This was not uncommon. Phenoms burn bright and then fade away. We were not prepared for "Gorilla".
Warner Brothers broke out the home team, staff producers Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman. And they crafted an album unlike any made by James before. It was upbeat, breezy, it was a smash.
You might know it for the Motown remake "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)". Unnecessary in my book, it heralded in umpteen white soul remakes by JT, whereas he built his reputation on heartfelt originals. We knew him through his songs. But after that…
I’m going to start with my present favorite. Which was probably the last track I got into on "Gorilla", "Angry Blues".
It’s all about Lowell George. His work is so subtle, at first you almost miss it. From the guitar heroes to the melisma divas, standing out is what we so often get, but Lowell George was all about support. Yes, that’s Lowell’s slide guitar in the intro. Coming in at about second five, it doesn’t dominate, it adds flavor. As does Lowell’s background vocal… Lowell doubles JT, you can barely hear him, but he adds a richness, a humanity that makes you tingle. "Angry Blues" is a sleeper, check it out.
But my absolute favorite is "Lighthouse". With background vocals by David Crosby and Graham Nash it’s like one of the killers off their duo albums, but better. They’re pure support, but they’re unmissable. Their harmonies make you feel warm all over.
Yet, this is not just a ditty about a lighthouse. It’s really about relationships. Or the lack thereof.
I’m a lonely lighthouse
Not a ship out in the night
Watching the sea
She’s come half-way ’round the world
To see the light
And to stay away from me
There is a shipwreck lying at my feet
Some weary refugee from the rolling deep
Ah, could you lose it all and fall for me
He’s stationary, unmovable. He wants to connect so bad, but he can’t reach out, you’ve got to come to him. But are you afraid?
We’re full of self-doubt, we stand on ceremony. It’s so easy for some to mix and flow, but the rest of us are left with our unfulfilled desires.
Well if you feel lost and lonely
And don’t know where to go
And you hear this song on the radio
Or even if you’re feeling healthy and strong
You might like to sing along
We’ll take all comers. Anybody who’s intrigued by what we’re radiating.
But then comes the kicker, the lines I quote constantly:
But just because I might be standing here
That don’t mean I won’t be wrong this time
You could follow me and lose your mind
Every day people tell me I’m wrong and I quote "Lighthouse". "Just because I might be standing here, that don’t mean I won’t be wrong this time." I’m doing my best, but I make mistakes. Believe in yourself, not me.
Then again, if you crash into me it could be the best thing that ever happens to you.
"I Was A Fool To Care" is a big production number with strings. It’s the song you sing after they’re gone and the heartbreak is fading, when you’re no longer depressed, but you still miss them. You’re not ready to have fun without them, you want them to come back. You’re showing your naked self. And "I Was A Fool To Care" contains one of JT’s most famous lines:
I wish I was an old man and love was through with me
After a few failed relationships, we all feel this way.
But then he continues:
I wish I was a baby on my mama’s knee
I wish I was a freight train moving down the line
Just keeping track of time
Without all these memories
Whew! A freight train doesn’t have to think, doesn’t have to make choices, it just goes on down the track. Ditto with a baby. But adults get themselves into nooks and crannies that are almost impossible to escape from. You can’t climb the walls, you’ve got to back out, you’ve got to start over, and all the time the memories are haunting you.
A traditional number, this is so intimate and wistful… Used to be we were searching, now everybody has the answers and tells you so. We used to be along for the ride with people just a little less clueless than ourselves, who were reporting back from the front, imparting useful information. "Wandering" works both when you need to be soothed and when you’re mildly inspired.
"You Make It Easy"
This sneaks up on you, like "Angry Blues". The more you listen, the more you like it.
I’m not a fan of the woodwind intro, but then "Love Songs" becomes positively jaunty, it’s a completely different number.
My favorite lines are:
I reckon I must be just an old softy
‘Cause I still believe in love
Yes, it reminds me of that old traveling ice cream truck, but the ancient verbiage illustrates that nothing really changes and we can still be saved by love.
This is a great mood change after the opening track. It feels good, but it’s a minor cut.
In my eyes, this is a complete throwaway.
Talk about an opening track! "Mexico" is irresistible! Maybe that’s why "Gorilla" took off out of the gate, you heard this on the radio and you had to own it.
The acoustic guitar intro makes you want to pick up your Martin or Gibson and play along, it just sounds so right, so full of life, so unlike the electronic beats of Top Forty today. And then Russ Kunkel hits a drum about twenty seconds in, right after James starts to sing, and the track is off like a shot, like the happiest roller coaster you’ve ever been on. And the sweetness added by Crosby and Nash in the background…
I love "Mexico".
When I first heard it I’d never been, in less than a week I was there for the first time.
This closer reminds me of "Buckets Of Rain", the closer on "Blood On The Tracks". I played both of these albums incessantly as I slept on the couch in my sister’s apartment during the summer of ’75. Both tracks are minimal and heartfelt. I implored my sister to buy "Blood On The Tracks", but she bought "Gorilla" all by herself, before I showed up with a roof rack full of skis in the June heat. "Gorilla" was the soundtrack to her graduate school graduation, it felt so right…it still does.