|For a Song
As far as I know, events in James Taylors personal life that led to his writing the decades-long favorite "Fire and Rain," as widely reported after the song became a hit single, have never been contradicted. A friend of Taylors in the mental hospital where they both spent time committed suicide upon learning that administrators planned to transfer her to another facility. Regardless of whether the singers friends name was in fact Suzanne, as Taylors pronunciation indicates, Susan as the printed lyrics have it, or something else, the song necessarily fictionalizes the experience, selecting very few details from countless available ones and giving them artistic form rather than the form in which real events occur.
Nor can we locate a songs meanings in the events that inspired its writing: The song possesses song meanings; events possess event meanings. Art is art; life is life. Knowing of the suicide might lead us to limit our understanding of "Fire and Rain" to thoughts we might have about whether someone was wrong or right to plan the transfer, whether some people are wrongly committed to mental hospitals in the first place -- the sort of thing that isnt addressed in the song. The song doesnt even name specific planners in order to rake them over the coals personally -- "the plans they made put an end to" the deceased.
Apart from the first two lines and the last line of the refrain after each verse, the song is about the singer, not the deceased; nor is it named for her. So we can hardly claim the song is "about his friend who committed suicide." Then what is it about? A few patterns provide clues, and some striking details fill in the blanks while giving the song some of its richness, uniqueness, and originality.
Time is all Ive got
Ten of the songs 16 lines (counting the refrain once) contain words or phrases referring to parcels of time -- "yesterday morning," "this morning" "sunny days," "lonely times," "always," "another day," "my time," "an easy time," "when the cold wind blows," and "hours of time." The singer appears to experience different periods in his life poignantly as very good or very bad. This is consistent with Taylors well-known personal struggle with manic depression.
But just as the song is not specifically about the friends suicide, its meanings are not limited to the experience of manic depression. Instead, the words connect personal experience with aspects of the human condition through emotional and spiritual imagery rooted in weather metaphors going back to scripture and beyond.
The singer appears to have learned to take life one day at a time in a struggle for contentment. "Yesterday morning" is when he learned his friend was "gone." "This morning" is when he "wrote down this song," ostensibly to help him deal with the loss and the injustice that caused it. In the refrain, "lonely times when I could not find a friend" are the antithesis of "sunny days that I thought would never end" -- all the more disappointing for not taking one day at a time but instead thinking good times are permanent, as in thinking he would "always" see his friend again. The singer struggles with loss and its reliable purveyors, impermanence and mortality.
We see this again as he looks to the future. "Walking my mind to an easy time back turned toward the sun" suggests he can avoid disillusionment by rejecting the bright side of things, because "the cold wind" will suddenly "turn your head around." But he apparently takes hope from knowing there are "hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come" -- a connection to the world outside of the facility he lives in and the loneliness and loss that inspired the song. Immediately after that, "sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground" tells us it is the sad past that necessitates thinking of a better future.
The Flying Machine was a band Taylor played in, but that interesting line alludes to more than the bands breakup. "Flying machines" refers to failed experimental aircraft prior to successful ones and to the early ones that worked. The dream of flight had afflicted and inspired humankind for millennia before materials, technology, and knowledge made fulfilling it possible. It represents both failed and fulfilled dreams. Thus, the line contains both the singers shattering sudden recognition that he will not see his friend again and the understanding that better times could arrive the next day or in the foreseeable future -- and that all dreams can fly or crash. Always thinking hed see "Suzanne" again was a dream like others.
Fire and rain are fundamental to primordial human experience. No wonder they figure heavily in literature, scripture, art and imagination, taking on different meanings, always powerful, in different contexts. In this songs refrain, where they appear together in a short list of things the singer has "seen," they most obviously signify disaster and that which puts an end to it: fires that rage and rains that quench them, the death of a friend and an easy time. Also, though, this friend is gone due to "plans they made." So fire and flood as retribution come to mind. "Fire and rain" is perhaps one item in the list -- together -- followed by another, "sunny days that I thought would never end," because thinking theyll get theirs or their wrongdoing is its own punishment (theyll have to live with the death on their consciences) makes it easier to bear seeing the heartless bureaucrats get away with something like murder.
A final detail
The last line of verse 1 is curious: "I just cant remember who to send it to," referring to the song the singer has just written -- in response to his friends death, according to the songs internal logic. Why would he send the song to someone, and if theres someone he should send it to, why would he forget who?
Maybe the person he first would have thought to share the song with was the friend who has just died, whom hed always thought he would see again, and hes having trouble remembering shes read or heard her last song. The singer tells us hes seen lonely times when he could not find a friend. Maybe with the present loss, he feels he has no one with whom to share his deepest thoughts. Maybe its an oblique reference to difficulties with the recording industry, a logical recipient of his songs since he had put out an LP on the Apple label before Warner Brothers put out Sweet Baby James, which included "Fire and Rain." There could even have been a procedure set up by administrators for screening residents outgoing mail, and the singer might not have wanted those he blamed for his friends death to see that he blamed them and had put it in writing.
Whatever combination of meanings one chooses, the line is consistent with the isolation, sensitivity, and intense mental life the song captures. These traits distinguished James Taylor, and "Fire and Rain" became a hit single and the LP that bore it into the living rooms of baby boomers and their parents reached top-five chart status and remained a bestseller for two years. When I attended a James Taylor concert at The Spectrum, Philadelphias giant arena, in 1972, he introduced "Fire and Rain" as "the song that got me out of The Main Point" -- a well-known Philadelphia-area coffeehouse that seated a few hundred people and helped launch and bolster careers of many fine folksingers and singer-songwriters.
There is always something ineffable about a great song and its capacity to speak to people over time. Its universal symbolism and spiritual desperation, simple but unique melody, bopping tom-tom backup, Taylors plaintive singing, North Carolina twang and blues phrasing, and roots in the human experience of grief and loss cant hurt, but they dont completely explain the power of "Fire and Rain." Even if some of these 1400 words help, theyre no substitute for a 16-line gem by an artist who, in blue denim shirt and long black hair, appeared pale and sullen on an album cover almost 40 years ago, touched the hearts of millions, and continues to move audiences with his early masterpieces today.
...David J. Cantor
Copyright © 2006 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved