Ben Taylor has decided to face the music
05:00 AM, Jun 23, 2013
After years of avoiding it, the son of music superstars James Taylor and Carly Simon embraced fate and stepped into the spotlight. Hear him at 7 and 9 p.m. Friday, June 28, at the Little. Tickets are $20 cash at the door or free with a club pass.
For the first three years of his life, Ben Taylor’s parents watched and worried over their son, who was seriously and mysteriously ill.
“My temperature was a 102-degree average; no one could figure out what it was, until I’d developed enough language to articulate what I was feeling,” he says. “The doctors finally figured out it was a bad kidney I was born with. My earliest memories are of those episodes in the hospital. That’s when I learned that life wasn’t all demanding things from your parents and getting everything you wanted. There were painful things your parents couldn’t stop you from experiencing.”
No, the pain wasn’t over for Taylor, even after that bad kidney was removed. He was an unmotivated student, shuttled from one expensive private school in Manhattan to the next in the hope that some as-yet-unseen spark might light a flame in this fallow field. Perhaps the martial arts: He studied kung fu, which in some respects only enabled the abuse of his teenage testosterone, and failed to be of any use against “a very small Chinese woman who gave me the worst beating of my life.”
His parents, Taylor says, “had pretty much given up hope that I would turn into anything but a spoiled ass-kicker.”
A kid can go to China in search of the answers. Taylor was 15 when he did so. Ultimately, the answer proved to be waiting for him at home, as the son of two singer-songwriters. Taylor, after much soul searching, is now one as well. At 36, he’s six albums into a life’s calling that he tried so hard not to hear. And you have to be pretty damn hard of hearing when your parents are James Taylor and Carly Simon.
Ben Taylor plays the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival Friday, with two shows at the Little Theatre. In answer to your first question, he does sound a bit like “my Old Man,” as the kid calls him several times. Warm pop rock. But Ben Taylor does not come off like the product of acclaimed pop singers who expected to inherit equal acclaim.
“I avoided this like the plague,” he says. “I was smart enough to realize my parents had set an example of success that was way unrealistic.”
Considering Taylor’s description of himself as a teenager, it’s hard to figure out if he was just too smart for the room or too dumb to take advantage of the break he’d been handed at birth.
He calls himself “unmotivated by social gain or the admiration of my peers.”
“I had no understanding of knowledge to be retained. When I was actually forced to participate in a conventional school, I mostly thought it was a joke, that it was absurd to focus on what was going on in that classroom,” he says. “There were 15, 10 years of intelligent conversations between me and my parents about why I was the wrong type of participant for a scholastic endeavor of this sort. I told them I was slowing down the rest of class, the school process was slowing me down, let me do something that I love. Not sit on the couch all afternoon smoking weed.”
He kind of thought he loved kung fu. Perhaps his life’s calling could be as a kung fu teacher. And maybe that would have worked, seeing as how Taylor had explored both ends of it, the martial arts and the philosophy of conflict avoidance. “I’m not a violent person at all,” he insists. “The worst I’ve ever felt is when I hit someone in the face.” Yet, he concedes, “adolescent boys, when they learn how to fight, it’s always something in the mind. You’re always looking for it. And when you’re out looking for confrontation, you will always find it.”
The fact that it was “a very small Chinese woman who gave me the worst beating of my life” Taylor calls it “a lovers’ quarrel” did not cool his passion for China. He was only 15 and done with school as far as he was concerned when he asked for permission to go there. “They had tried everything else,” Taylor says of his parents. Permission granted.
He spent 6 ½ months touring China and has returned several times since, touring monasteries, learning “experientially. I was learning about things as I needed them. Some things seemed moot, some seemed crucial. What was most important was, I had chosen this course of action for myself.”
Yet, into his early 20s, there was still no course of action. “I was leading river tours down the Grand Canyon, working on an organic farm in New Mexico,” he says. “Nothing that would prepare me for the stage.” But at least he was emerging from his unmotivated malaise. And he had started writing songs.
Whatever you make of Taylor at age 15, there’s no denying that today he sounds like a smart guy. Not only does he use words and phrases like “prefrontal cortex,” he uses them correctly: It’s the portion of the brain that connects thoughts and actions to your decisions and goals. Even his conversational enunciation is precise.
“I’ve always had a strange way with words; I’ve always thought of myself as a phrasing expert,” he says. “Understanding how the words land, the timing, the intervals of timing between one word and the next.”
And he seems to be listening, at least now. The title track of his latest album, Listening, is about just that, Taylor says. “I wanted to become a better listener. It was like writing an instruction manual for me on how to be a better listener.”
And on the first page? “Sensitivity,” Taylor says. “Ignoring your own narcissism.”
You would think that would be a priority for singer-songwriters. James Taylor? C’mon, he feels your pain, right?
“I think it’s an issue with all performers,” Ben Taylor says. “We like listening to ourselves talk.
“I wouldn’t say they’re bad listeners,” he says of his parents. “But they’re definitely better at being listened to than listening. They’re extraordinarily intelligent, judgmental, insightful. That doesn’t make you a good listener.”
Yet, when it comes time to set pencil to notepad, the songwriter hears only his voice.
“I can’t write honestly from anywhere else,” Taylor says. “When I was first learning, I was seeing my world, and sometimes a bit of it would reveal itself as a song waiting to be written.
“Writing songs is a really delicate thing. It doesn’t finish itself just because you record and release it. Usually I regret it when I don’t play it for a year onstage, and have already committed it, bronzed it, perpetualized it.”
A song from Listening, “Worlds Are Made of Paper,” is evidence. “The song had not finished identifying itself,” Taylor says. “But we were too greedy, too eager to be putting it on this album. That song needed to change.”
This is a lesson he could never learn from his parents, whom Taylor is still close to, despite their divorce when he was 11. Simon has recorded with her son; she sings on “Worlds Are Made of Paper.” And Ben Taylor called and apologetically asked to put off this interview for an hour because the wind had just died down in Martha’s Vinyard and he and “my Old Man” wanted to take advantage of it to go paddleboarding. But James Taylor and Carly Simon were too deep into the machinery of creating hits to allow a song to percolate for too long. “As far as they’re concerned, they have no right to take any of their massive hits back,” Taylor says. He draws out the word maaassive just a bit. His own songwriting experience, Taylor concedes, in no way equates with that of his parents. They’re trapped by their success.
“He wrote a song, ‘That’s Why I’m Here,’ ” Ben Taylor says of his father. “It kind of acknowledges people pay good money to hear ‘Fire and Rain’ over and over again. Yet he’s grateful for the fact he gets to play it.”
Ben Taylor may be charting a different course. He doesn’t have his father’s “Fire and Rain” or his mother’s “You’re So Vain.” Instead, he hints at Friday’s show as “boldly going where no folk musician has gone before.”
But he also concedes that it’s a course that was initially charted in the first three years of his life. When he was a very sick little boy.
“Through adversity, that character gets built,” Taylor says. “It gave me the sense that I had to protect myself. It prepared me for all forms of confrontation. It defined the character that I am now. It enabled me to dispatch my energy from incentives of fear, the fight or flight syndrome that takes over, which is not useful when you attempt to connect with the power that you have.”
And when he finally became a paid singer-songwriter, seeking the approval of an audience, those lessons were needed, “given how traumatized I was by the experience.”
“I was in my 20s, with a batch of new songs, and rather than going through the process of singer-songwriter, and playing to an empty room, I had Spike Lee and the U.S. Olympic ski team and 300 people in the room,” he says. “It traumatized me bad. It’s buried in my prefrontal cortex. Every time I prepare to go onstage, there is an echo of that inside my head.”