Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Mr./Ms.: Hey Mister, That's Me Up On The Jukebox

James Taylor: Hey Mister, That's Me up on the Jukebox

If you’ve been reading my work on this site since 2011 (!), you might notice that I often discuss why various artists aren’t as famous as I (or others) think they should be. That isn’t the problem this time, since our featured song was written and performed by James Taylor, who was, and still is, pretty famous. 

Today, we’re looking at a song written from the perspective of someone who achieved fame, and is maybe not all that happy about it. 

Taylor’s path to stardom is pretty well known. Born into a prosperous family, he was a sensitive musical child who eventually struggled with both mental illness and drug abuse. After his first “real” band, the Flying Machine, which also included his longtime friend and future collaborator Danny Kortchmar, failed to take off (sorry—I’m guessing that I’m not the first person to make that joke), he moved to England. Through Kortchmar, Taylor connected with Peter Asher, who at the time was running A&R for Apple Records, and Asher played Taylor’s demo for McCartney and Harrison, who loved it. Taylor was the first non-British act signed to Apple Records. 

Taylor’s self-titled debut, despite positive reviews, and a fine single, “Carolina On My Mind,” failed to sell well, in part because Taylor couldn’t promote the album because he was again in rehab. Upon his release, Taylor was unable to maintain the momentum from enthusiastic crowds at live shows, including the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, because he broke his hands and feet in a motorcycle accident. 

Signing with Warner Bros. Records, Taylor moved to California and recorded his next album with a big assist from Carole King (and Asher and Kortchmar). That album, Sweet Baby James, was justifiably a smash hit, garnering both critical and popular acclaim. This led to high profile concerts, benefit shows, TV appearances, and Time magazine’s declaration that he was the “face of new rock.” Let’s take a brief digression here to remind our readers who were not alive in 1971 that this was not at all as strange at the time as it sounds today. 

As often happens, the followup to the big hit album pales in comparison. That’s not to say that Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon was a bad album—it just wasn’t Sweet Baby James. Despite that, the album did spawn Taylor’s only Billboard No. 1 hit, a cover of King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” featuring Joni Mitchell on background vocals, as well as Kortchmar and the crack rhythm section of Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel. 

Also on Mud Slide Slim is “Hey Mister, That's Me up on the Jukebox,” in which the singer, presumably Taylor, is pointing out to the titular Mister that it is, in fact, he who is singing the sad song on the jukebox. On the one hand, there has to be some pride in that, but there’s also a little shock, and some sadness about the fact that: 

I have wasted too much time just to sing you this sad song
And I've done been this lonesome picker a little too long

Taylor has said that the song “is basically a way of dealing with the shock of being a private person going public.” When asked if he found it jarring, Taylor responded: 

Yeah. I found it - you know, of course, it's exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be successful. And I wanted to get people to hear my music. I wanted my music to make a difference to people. But at the same time, you know, making yourself the product, it's very distracting. 

Coincidentally, not long before starting to write this, I got to see my daughter experience a small amount of similar weirdness, although without the corresponding ambivalence (or, so far, massive commercial success). I may have mentioned before that she’s a standup comedian in Barcelona, and for a few months has been appearing semi-regularly on a TV show there, The Weekly Mag, designed to help locals practice their English. I stumbled across her IMDB page, listing her one credit, and she was shocked when I sent it to her. No, it’s not the same as what JT went through, but it is a cute story, and it allows me to make this piece a little more personal than just a discussion of the early career of James Taylor. 

Anyway, despite decades of fame, Taylor has always seemed to have a certain ambivalence about his place in the public spotlight consistent with “Hey Mister’s” lyrics, even as he has continued to record and perform, be a political and environmental activist, have a high profile marriage and divorce from Carly Simon, and a second marriage to actress Kathryn Walker (and another divorce). However, he seems to have settled into a quieter third marriage, to Kim Smedvig (who my wife, a huge Taylor fan, would point out is a Smithie), a comfortable recording and performing (pre-COVID) career, and maybe, finally, happiness.