Suite For 20 G

Spotify: https://spoti.fi/3PZXBTF

YouTube: https://bit.ly/3SonL4g

1

But I’m listening on Qobuz.

That’s what I’ve been doing since Monday, all day, just listening, scouring the virtual stacks to see what is in Hi-Res. There’s no rhyme or reason what oldies are in Hi-Res or not. Some catalogues have been completely upgraded, others have not. And in truth, the regular CD quality stuff sounds pretty good, but the Hi-Res stuff…there’s not an adjective in the dictionary!

You see this is what we used to do. Sit in front of the stereo and do nothing else but listen. That was more than enough. We parted the scrim of the speakers and got inside the music where we could not be reached. And if it was too loud for others, we put on the headphones. You see if you paid attention, there were certain things in the record that you could not catch on a casual listen, but if you knew the cut and had a good enough stereo, there would be so much to be found. Like “I’m very cold” at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” on “Magical Mystery Tour.” It wasn’t until nearly two years later that it was claimed that Paul McCartney was dead and this buried snippet confirmed it, saying “I buried Paul.”

Not that we told everybody about these discoveries. They were private, just for us, not casual fans. We were the ones who blew up the concert industry, because we had to see these acts. It was the next step, it was a communal experience. There were seats, the music was respected, if you stood at all it was only for the encores. And it wasn’t about who you went with, but just you and the act and the music, a transcendent connection. The record was preparation for the ultimate live experience. All this comes back as I listen to Hi-Res on Qobuz.

The first James Taylor album was gifted to me by my sister for my 17th birthday, she said it was big at B.U. That same week I bought “Sweet Baby James,” which had only come out in February, but I always preferred the Apple debut, whose production hasn’t aged well, but was magic back then.

It all started with “Carolina in My Mind.” At least on the second side. The original version is different from the now famous slowed-down take which has replaced it in the public consciousness, the one that’s included in the first “Greatest Hits” album. It’s sunny and upbeat. Like James is remembering a sunny day and good times. Whereas the slowed-down version is reflective. Like he’s looking back, over years and distance, it’s a memory, but the original is palpably now.

“Carolina In My Mind” was my favorite at first, I played it every day when I woke up, that’s what I used to do in high school, it was a ritual, it demonstrated that there was a world for me, even if the one I was actually living in didn’t understand me.

My second favorite was the original “Something in the Way She Moves,” which is also much faster, as if he’s in the throes of the feelings as opposed to thinking back. From when James was a nobody as opposed to an international star when he recut it.

My third favorite was the traditional “Circle Round the Sun,” I’m a fool for the slow majesty of cuts like this, I’m conducting a virtual orchestra in my brain, totally in the moment, believing there’s a world, girls, who understand me, can see inside to who I really am.

“Sweet Baby James” has a completely different feel.

2

There was a time when almost nobody knew of James Taylor. When he was in the marketplace but only the cognoscenti were aware of him. Ubiquity came in the fall of 1970, when “Fire and Rain” dominated the airwaves. Whereas before this the song stuck out for me because of the mention of “Jesus,” when this was very rare.

The first song on “Sweet Baby James” that I loved so much was on the first side, “Country Road.”

Funny how I live in the city today, actually a giant suburb, that’s what L.A. is, but my heart is still in the country. Then again, the country is no longer so removed, what with Amazon and the internet. You used to be off the grid. Where people went in the seventies, licking their wounds from the sixties.

There’s a rhythm in “Country Road,” an emphasis, and then it amps up. It’s got more edge than “Fire and Rain.” James is exhorting, he’s not restrained whatsoever, he can feel it on a country road. Which he keeps traveling down…”walk on down, walk on down, walk on down, walk on down, walk on down a country road.” I learned to play this on the guitar, back when that was something we all did, before everybody used online tools to make beats. And we’d get together and trade songs and sing, it was part of experience, like singing around the piano before the age of recorded music, back in 1970 music was not portable.

And in truth I love “Sweet Baby James” because of this verse:

“Now the first of December was covered with snow

So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston

Though the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frostin’

With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go”

I know all of it. The first of December, when winter really starts to begin. And the Mass Pike, which had a unique toll system, you got a card when you got on and paid at a man in a booth when you got off, whereas on the Connecticut Turnpike they had toll booths along the way. And if you had exact change, you threw it in the bucket.

As for the Berkshires… They’re hills, except for Mt. Greylock, but they’re higher than those in northwest Connecticut. The Berkshires are far from New York City, you can’t commute from there, it’s its own state of mind, even though cultured New Yorkers park there in the summer.

As for the slog of the highway, it’s a metaphor for life. Then sometimes you reach the distant destination and are flummoxed as to where to go next.

Beyond these three tracks I’ve got to single out “Anywhere Like Heaven” in the middle of the second side.

And I went to see James Taylor twice in a matter of weeks, just days after my birthday in Boston and then in Port Chester. But one song James never played was “Suite for 20 G.” What was that about?

3

It was actually two songs. A suite. But why these two? And why was it 20 G?

I didn’t learn the story until I became friends with Peter Asher, who produced the album. Truth is they wanted to finish the album to get the twenty grand due on delivery, but they were a song short, so they combined these two and thus, “Suite for 20 G.”

Not that anybody talks about it.

The track starts to gain power after the initial “chorus” about “Mary Jane.”

“I’ve been trying hard to find a way to let you know

That we can make it shine most all the time

This time ’round I’m searching down to where I used to go

And it’s been on my mind to make it shine”

This is just a bit more intimate, to the heart. The lyrics are relatively unencumbered by the instrumentation. In the lingo of the era, this is when the song starts to get “heavy.” And I’m listening to the cut on Qobuz today and suddenly I hear Carole King. Subtly, but clearly!

I mean I’ve always heard the female backup vocal. And if you’d asked me who I thought it was, I’d have said Carole, but in Hi-Res her vocal sound, the timbre, stands out. And she’s not belting, she’s just dipping her toe in the background, it’s so magical.

But the standout part of the track, which features Carole too, is the link, the segue between the two songs.

“You can say I wanna be free

I can say some day I will be”

And then there’s an instrumental interlude employing the melody of what came before and then…

There’s a repeat.

“You can say I wanna be free

I can say some day I will be”

And then the track changes completely, it’s a different song with horns, and it’s good, but not as good as that segue, that’s the key to the track. It resonates with sweetness in a way nobody does today.

There is meaning. That’s what we wanted to be, free. Back before the right co-opted that word. But we were talking about a different kind of free, we mostly wanted to be free in the mind. To explore, to be our best selves. We were reaching for something, we weren’t quite sure what it was, but that didn’t mean we stopped our yearning, our journey.

But wait, there’s more!

4

Now actually I heard this first on Amazon Music Ultra HD.

I didn’t realize James was doubling his vocal. But it’s clear as day when you do critical listening in Hi-Res. You can’t miss it, there’s a James in each channel. On the car speaker, on a mediocre music reproduction system, it sounds like just one James. But with critical listening in Hi-Res, which I can do with Qobuz, my DragonFly Cobalt and Genelec speakers, not only can I hear it, I gain insight into the recording process, I can see the studio. That’s what we wanted to know, how the acts recorded this music, the thought process, the tricks.

The truth is tracks are built in the studio. It sounds like one big amalgamated unit on the radio, but you start from scratch, with the songs, production ideas. You experiment, you risk, you keep some things and lose others. Sometimes a detour will deliver a full blown change.

And in truth there are tricks. And people are constantly coming up with new ones. Doubling is new, then it’s de rigueur. The envelope was constantly being pushed back in this era, tape machines had more tracks, there was outboard gear, you got new sounds, and they enhanced the records.

I’ve been trying to find a way to let you know that we can make it shine most all the time. That the magic is still there. Listening to these cuts this way makes me realize many more of them will survive than I thought. It’s because of not only the talent, but the effort. Nobody was just going through the motions, everybody was on their own hejira, searching for excellence. The acts didn’t sound the same, and that’s one of the things we liked about the scene.

And the music was enough, the penumbra was just that. There weren’t even t-shirts for a long time. The acts were artists. They didn’t want to do anything to compromise their artistry, their vision. They hewed to their own tuning fork. They were unconstrained. And to be a fan and to be able to go on the ride…it was better than anything at Disneyland, or social media. Because these tracks contained the essence of humanity, and truth and direction, if you paid attention there was so much there!

But the business stopped respecting the music. And then the audience did the same. Music is the accompaniment, not the essence. Musicians became brands. And I’m not saying that you can’t do it just as well employing the new tools, but the players don’t. Money comes first, everybody complains, when in truth only a select few every made big bucks in the music business, and most people couldn’t record at all.

And there have been all these shows documenting the process. But they never illustrate it accurately. It starts with a beginning off the radar, years of woodshedding, working with different players, honing your material. And then if you’re lucky you gain notice. The industry is just the patina, laid atop what the artist comes into the studio with.

But you need engineers and producers to put it all together and levitate it. But old school producers are rare, those who didn’t work the board, but produced with their minds, on what they heard. Because the artists fear being told what to do, and an engineer can do both for less money.

But something is lost in the process.

Listen to all the James Taylor records, different producers created different records. Just when it looked like JT was lost, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman resuscitated him, to the point where he was as big as ever, if not bigger.

But this is all to say when I hear Carole King singing in “Suite for 20 G” I not only feel connected to what once was, I connect to myself.

And when “Suite for 20 G” is opened up I can join in, mentally, I may not be able to impact the process, but I’m definitely a fly on the wall, exposed to the inner workings. I’m free! WHAT MORE COULD YOU ASK FOR?

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