A biography that confirms both the best and the worst that fans have heard about the archetypal 1970s singer/songwriter.
Ribowsky (Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul, 2015, etc.) offers little new in this overwritten, underreported biography of James Taylor (b. 1948), which mainly draws from what others have written about him and from detailed analyses of his albums by the author. Assessing a mostly forgotten album from 35 years ago, the author writes, “while the album was easy listening comfort food, its creator was his usual mess,” an assessment that pretty much summarizes the biography’s perspective on his subject. Though Taylor remained addicted to heroin even through his troubled marriage to Carly Simon—“two broken people waiting for a merciful end” to their union—the addiction was less a disease than a symptom of a troubled soul. Privileged and self-centered, he sang of himself as a sensitive soul yet he treated women in particular as disposable, and it was not until his final marriage that he seemed committed to any sort of monogamy. The author depicts him as some sort of sex addict as well, with Oedipal undertones, in the sort of psychobiography that would benefit from the support of primary sources. Yet the firsthand interviewing seems minimal and inconsequential in a book that leans heavily on Rolling Stone interviews, previous books on Taylor, and Carly Simon’s recent autobiography. Ribowsky does a better job of putting Taylor’s achievements in the context of the soft-rock Los Angeles of the 1970s and recognizing their durability, though his claim that “Taylor is the nearest thing to rock royalty in America” is the kind of hyperbole one writes to justify a biography with little new in it.
Just another in the onslaught of rock bios and memoirs—a disappointing follow-up to the author’s excellent Dreams to Remember.