Behind The Song: James Taylor, “Fire and Rain”

James Taylor arrived in a time when pop music was shifting. A particular brand of singer-songwriter, along with the likes of Carole King and Joni Mitchell, had emerged. Taylor fit the bill, too, offering up his own smooth, evocative tenor and way of songwriting that pierced right to the heart. His first major hit, 1970’s “Fire and Rain,” from his second album, Sweet Baby James, cemented him early on as a pillar of talent, a beacon that would soon completely upend the establishment.

“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone / Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you,” he sings. His words are introspective, sorrowful, and somehow urgent. “I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song / I just can’t remember who to send it to.”

That opening verse, depicting the tragic suicide of dear friend Suzanne Schnerr, certainly set the heart-rending tone. Having met in New York in the late ‘60s, they “used to hang out together and we used to get high together; I think she came from Long Island,” Taylor is quoted in 2001’s “James Taylor: Long Ago And Far Away,” a biography written by former Billboard Magazine editor-in-chief Timothy White. “She was a kid, like all of us.”

When Taylor was recording his debut album, 1968’s self-titled, for the Beatles’ Apple Records in London, Schnerr took her own life, but Taylor wouldn’t know about it until much later. “At the time I was living with friends, and all three of them were really close to Susie. But Richard and Joel and Margaret were excited for me having this record deal and making this album,” he says, “and when Susie killed herself they decided not to tell me about it until later because they didn’t want to shake me up. I didn’t find out until some six months after it happened.”

“Fire and Rain,” containing a sweeping, orchestral undercurrent, came to him pretty quickly. It was a song that “relieved a lot of sort of tension,” as he tells it in an interview with NPR back in 2000. “There [were] things that I needed to get rid of or at least get out of me or get in front of me or at least have some other relationship than feeling them internally, either by telling somebody else or by just putting them out in a form in front of me so that I could say, `There they are,’ you know, externalizing it somehow. And that part was hard, having the feelings that needed to be expressed in that way. But it was actually a relief, like a laugh or a sigh.”

Where the first verse deals with suicide, the second verse turns inward, depicting his struggle with addiction. “Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus / You’ve got to help me make a stand / You’ve just got to see me through another day,” he weeps, attempting to glue the pieces back together. “My body’s aching and my time is at hand / And I won’t make it any other way.”

Upon returning from London, he was “surprised that I’d picked up a habit. So I was physically very uncomfortable and having a rough time,” he shares with NPR.

Then, on the third verse, he makes reference to various mental hospital stays, including McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, bouts of heavy depression, and a former band named The Flying Machine, which resulted in a sour end and severe personal and professional implications. The darkness seemed never-ending.

He laments:

Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around

Well, 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

“Fire and Rain,” which he estimated in 2000 that he had performed thousands of times in his career, stands as among his crowning achievements. While the emotional punch has certainly flattened for him, he remains awe-struck when his audience remains so deeply connected to his words.

The song ultimately rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.