[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

August 2006



Fire and Rain*

Just yesterday morning they let me know you
   were gone
Susan the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this
   song
I just can’t remember who to send it to

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never
   end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a
   friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again

Won’t you look down upon me Jesus you got
   to help me make a stand
You just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way

Refrain.

Been walkin’ my mind to an easy time, my
   back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it can
   turn your head around
There’s hours of time on the telephone line to
   talk about things to come
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces
   on the ground

Refrain.


*The lyrics provided here are a composite of the way James Taylor sings "Fire and Rain" on the 1970 Sweet Baby James album and the lyrics printed in the liner notes accompanying the Warner Brothers CD #1843-2. Discrepancies between the two are few and inconsequential.

Loss and Hope One Day at a Time: James Taylor’s "Fire and Rain"

As far as I know, events in James Taylor’s 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 Taylor’s 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 singer’s friend’s name was in fact Suzanne, as Taylor’s 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 song’s 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 isn’t addressed in the song. The song doesn’t 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 I’ve got…

Ten of the song’s 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 Taylor’s well-known personal struggle with manic depression.

But just as the song is not specifically about the friend’s 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.

…Except dreams

The Flying Machine was a band Taylor played in, but that interesting line alludes to more than the band’s 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 singer’s 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 he’d 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 song’s 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 they’ll get theirs or their wrongdoing is its own punishment (they’ll 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 can’t remember who to send it to," referring to the song the singer has just written -- in response to his friend’s death, according to the song’s internal logic. Why would he send the song to someone, and if there’s 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 he’d always thought he would see again, and he’s having trouble remembering she’s read or heard her last song. The singer tells us he’s 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 it’s 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 friend’s death to see that he blamed them and had put it in writing.

Singer-songwriter supreme

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, Philadelphia’s 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, Taylor’s plaintive singing, North Carolina twang and blues phrasing, and roots in the human experience of grief and loss can’t hurt, but they don’t completely explain the power of "Fire and Rain." Even if some of these 1400 words help, they’re 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
davidc@soundstage.com

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