James Taylor: Through Fire And Rain

Songwriter Writes About His Life, Personal Struggles

The songs that James Taylor recorded three decades ago are nearly as popular today as they were when he wrote them. His first collection still sells nearly a half a million copies a year, 20 years after it came out. Fans still flock to seem him on the concert circuit. His records continue to sell millions of copies each year. Last week he released "October Road," his first new CD in five years.

Taylor - a man who has taken some notorious risks with his life - never takes risks with his music. Charlie Rose reports.

At his concerts, the songs - and the singer - are both old favorites. His audiences like it that way. Even his new songs sound a lot like the old ones. And he offers no apologies.

Some ask if he has actually been as experimental as he might have been. Has James Taylor played it safe?

The recording artist does not deny he has played it safe. "I've taken no more risk than I absolutely had to. I'm not changing the world. I don't have anything to prove," he says.

"Sometimes I worry about repeating myself and doing the same thing over and over and over again."

And there is this: He writes and performs intensely personal songs - about himself - that millions of people buy.

"I sort of am myself for a living," he says. In a sense his life and his work are one.

He's now working on songs for his next album, due out in the spring. He writes isolated at one of his three homes in Massachusetts.

He collaborates with a special piece of equipment - a recording studio that fits on a tabletop. "You could definitely record an album on this. This is two or three times more sophisticated than what I made my first two albums on," he says.

When he writes, his music comes first, then the lyrics. He shows off his current lyric book with working titles. "I tend to write out the first iteration of a lyric here and then go over here and make variations on it, on the page opposite," he explains.

Creating songs is a process that he says he can't explain. "They sort of come through me," Taylor says. "I wait for them to - to show up."

He can do things that help them show up, though, like playing the guitar, Taylor explains. "So, my guitar technique...is central to it," he says. "I don't read music. I don't write it. So I - I sit down. And - and basically, wander around on the guitar, until something starts to present itself."

His writing habits began early but not easily. Taylor started writing songs during a stay at a psychiatric hospital, McLean, outside Boston. His parents committed him there when he was just 17, after he was diagnosed as suicidal.

"It was a - a rough passage for me," he recalls. "My family was kind enough and smart enough to - to sort of put me in...a nut house, for - for a while," he says. "It allowed me to think of myself as - as different and to realize that I had to find my own way. You know? And ths basically sort of gave me time out and protection - real protection."

It saved his life, he believes. After graduating from high school at McLean, he set out for New York City to play in a rock 'n' and roll band. Only 18, he became hooked on heroin within a year. His father had to come get him. "He didn't have an awful lot to do with - with me as I was growing up," Taylor recalls. "We didn't communicate a whole lot and he was sort of distant."

"He heard it somehow in my voice when I called him up, you know. And he just said, you know, 'Stay right there.'" Taylor adds. "'What's your address? And just hold on, I'll be right up there.' And within 24 hours, he had rented a car and driven up. He knew that it was important...that he come and bail me out."

Taylor reveals that he overdosed maybe five times. "I really should have been dead at least three times."

Out of those experiences came some of Taylor's most powerful songs. After a second stay in an institution, he cut his second solo album, Sweet Baby James. The first single, Fire and Rain, was about the suicide of a friend and his own struggles.

Fire and Rain launched his career and landed him on the cover of Time magazine.

"It was just like winning the lottery," he says. "It was the cliffhanger that turned out well at the last second."

In the midst of his success, he married another singer-songwriter, Carly Simon. The match was one of those pairings that America loved.

"Yeah, it's probably foolish to expect relationships to go on forever and to say that because something only lasts 10 years, it's a failure," he says.

"I don't know whether to blame that for the erosion of the relationship. I mean, I wasn't in great shape myself. I probably was not a very good companion," reflects Taylor.

Taylor and Simon divorced after 10 years and two children. He finally kicked his drug habit in 1983, and two years later, married actress Kathryn Walker. That marriage also ended after 10 years but his newfound sobriety never quit.

"Well, when I cleaned up some 17 odd years ago, I felt terrible inside my own skin for about six months," Taylor says. "And the only thing that gave me any real relief was - was strenuous physical activity. It made me feel good for a while. Maybe it's endorphins, or whatever. I sort of swapped addictions and got into...physical exercise."

Today he at least appears to be a poster boy for the 12-step road to recovery.

"When you say I - I seem like a, you know, a - a sort of solid, rock-solid image of sanity, you know, it doesn't feel that way to me, especially when I wake up at, you know, 5 o'clock in the morning, you know, you know, anxious," Taylor reveals.

He describes his anxiety: "It doesn't seem to - to matter what it is."

"(Itseems to be, yeah, free-floating anxiety that'll attach to anything," Taylor explains."The difference, essentially, is that I know that it doesn't last forever."

This spring, he plans to marry his third wife, Kim Smedvig, a writer and executive for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He first met her at Tanglewood, a short drive from his home in the Berkshires. They had their first date five years ago.

"I drove down to pick him up and there he was standing at a pay phone at this little convenience store, cutting quite a dashing figure," Smedvig recalls. "Needless to say, that was it."

This fall, Smedvig pressed Taylor into service to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Symphony Hall in Boston. The Boys Choir of Harlem helped him out.

He is a man who has had an easier time singing about his life than living it. And Taylor has found plenty to sing about.

When he looks at himself, what does he see?

"I define myself as an addict in recovery, as a father, as a husband and a mate and...a partner, as a member of a band who plays music, a performing artist and a songwriter" - as well as a happy and grateful citizen, he says.