A classic song, and perhaps a bit of an obvious choice, but no less powerful for that, and while the viewer may know the piece by heart I imagine few have seen this performance, recorded for the BBC In Concert series way back in 1970, when James was barely 22 years old. The emotional heft and beauty of the song seem only to be enhanced when it’s just the very bashful singer and his guitar, with no other accompaniment.
At this point Taylor was still a very troubled young man, who roughly a year earlier had committed himself to a psychiatric hospital, almost wholly crippled by depression and heroin addiction. Fire and Rain is about his time there, his struggles with addiction, and the shattering suicide of his dear friend Suzanne Schnerr. At the time this was filmed, though, things were starting to look up for young James, who’d caught a lucky break by way of the Beatles, in one of those “it must have been meant to be” sort of stories that give what’s usually false hope to so many struggling artists. Just a couple of years prior, the group had launched Apple Records, and put out a sort of global all points bulletin to musicians everywhere: Send us your demos. If you’re good, you’re signed, and we’ll worry about the logistics of getting a proper studio record made and issued. The utopian dream at Apple came to its predictable crashing end soon enough, but not before Taylor’s demo made it into the hands of Peter Asher, a pop singer, Apple A&R man, and brother to actress Jane Asher, girlfriend to one Paul McCartney.
McCartney, of course, immediately thought Taylor was wonderful, and James was signed, and recorded the eponymous album in 1968 that included another classic, Carolina in My Mind, featuring a much more upbeat pop arrangement than the more familiar version he issued later (sadly, his contemporary live performance of that song, recorded at the same 1970 concert, has been stricken from YouTube for copyright reasons, or I’d surely attach it too). His debut also contained the lovely Something in the Way She Moves, from which George Harrison pilfered the opening line (let’s call it an “homage”) for his own greatest composition. It was an auspicious beginning, and while James wasn’t quite out of the woods – he couldn’t tour to promote the album owing to his psychiatric hospitalization – it wasn’t long before he’d set off in a better direction, and by 1969 he’d signed a new deal with Warner Records and started down the path to becoming the highly successful and perennially popular performer we know today, selling over a hundred million records along the way. Fire and Rain was a huge hit from a huge album, 1970’s Sweet Baby James, and from that point Taylor never looked back.
He didn’t learn of Suzanne’s death until six months after it happened. His friends, worried over his state of mind, and hoping not to burst the positive bubble expanding around him as he recorded his first album, thought it best to shelter him from the terrible news. “She was just a kid, like all of us”, he said later, and every ounce of his regret and sorrow upon finally finding out is squeezed into that one unforgettable line, Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you. It might be the most heartbreaking lyric in all of popular music.