Erica Goss: Madness, Fire and Rain
One winter day when I was nine years old, the dulcet tones of an acoustic guitar came through the two-inch speaker of my green plastic transistor radio, accompanied by a man’s gentle, melancholy voice:
Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.
James Taylor’s voice sounded completely different from the other male singers I heard on the radio. He didn’t snarl like Mick Jagger; he wasn’t trying to soften a Liverpool accent like Paul McCartney or fake a Louisiana drawl like John Fogarty. He sounded a little like my Southern grandparents, especially when he lingered over the word “gone” – the way he sang it, it almost rhymed with “bone.” He seemed young and old at the same time, world-weary enough to write the chorus:
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.
As far as I could tell, it was not a love song; it was not about seducing a woman or leaving her, or longing for someone who didn’t reciprocate. It lacked Bob Dylan’s bite and Robert Plant’s banshee wail. It was not political. It was quiet and mysterious. I never tired of hearing it.
I started fifth grade that year, 1970, in the Southern California desert town of San Bernardino. After hours of sitting in a sweltering classroom with thirty-five other heat-stunned kids, I raced home for the comfort of the swamp cooler and my radio. In between songs by The Jackson Five, Three Dog Night, Chicago and Roberta Flack, “Fire and Rain” still played regularly on the radio, months after its debut.
In 1970, music – and my life – developed a harder edge. The concert at Altamont Speedway ended the hippie era, the Beatles broke up, and my parents’ arguments woke me at night. I carried my little transistor around, waiting for “Fire and Rain,” waiting for the disc jockey’s rapid-fire patter through the beginning guitar chords to end so I could finally hear Taylor’s voice: “Just yesterday morning…”
Although I didn’t understand the lyrics – who was Suzanne, and how could plans put an end to her? – the song filled me with an odd, not unpleasant heartache. As an anxious pre-teen watching my family fall apart, I recognized the desperation in the lines
Won’t you look down upon me Jesus?
You gotta help me make a stand.
You just got to see me through another day.
My body’s achin’, and my time is at hand.
I won’t make it any other way.
I grasped the last-resort nature of these words, of asking Jesus for help because no one else was left to listen, of trying to endure something so painful that Taylor couldn’t name it directly.
A year later, just after I’d started sixth grade, my parents separated. My mother packed up our household and drove us two thousand miles east, setting into motion two years of instability during which we moved seven times. I never saw the house where I’d first heard James Taylor’s melancholy baritone again.
A video of Taylor playing “Fire and Rain” from a 1970 concert shows him sitting alone on a dark stage, hunched over his guitar. Not once does he look at the audience in front of him, nor does a smile cross his young, serious face. He keeps his eyes closed during most of the song, until the end, when he sings the line “but I always thought I’d see you again.” He lifts his head then, opens his pale blue eyes, and looks up.
As an adult, I read that “Fire and Rain” was about three crises in Taylor’s life: the suicide of his childhood friend Suzanne, his drug addiction, and his time spent in a psychiatric hospital. The song that had helped me carve out a little bit of sanity in my family crisis was about, at least in part, insanity.
When my son was twenty-two, the same age as James Taylor in the concert video, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Driving home, exhausted and afraid after leaving him in the psychiatric ward for the first of five times, I heard “Fire and Rain” playing on my car’s radio. I’d taken comfort in the song since I was nine years old, but now it seemed like a warning. Those gentle chords and soothing vocals had disguised, at least from me, the message that nothing in life is what it seems, and that things can change in a moment: Suzanne, lost to suicide, my family, broken by divorce, or my son, struggling in the grip of mental illness. No wonder Taylor kept his eyes closed.
In the summer of 2016, my son lay on his bed, consumed with hallucinations and tortured with emotions that swung from euphoria to depression. The ten pills he took every day seemed to have no affect on his illness. When I returned from taking him to the hospital or seeing him during visiting hours, I often heard “Fire and Rain,” either piped in through the elevator, while driving in my car, or playing over the speakers in a store or restaurant. The song no longer comforted me. I began to fear turning on the radio.
Once, when my son and I were in the car together, “Fire and Rain” started playing. We stopped talking and I started singing along with James Taylor. When he sang, “Won’t you look down upon me Jesus,” I glanced over at my son. His blue eyes stared straight ahead. I remembered that Taylor was once a young man, struggling with his own mental illness. “We’ll get through this. You will get better,” I said. My son stayed silent, looking out of the car window.
How ridiculous my words must have sounded, barely disguising my own despair: you will get better. As if I could order his illness to behave itself. You will get better because I can’t bear this thing that’s happening to you. You will get better because I’m at the end of my rope. You will get better because I’m running out of lies to tell myself.
In spite of hospitalizations, psychiatrists, therapists, and medications that increased in number and strength, my son’s illness seemed only to get worse. When he was at his sickest, I would often sit in his room while he tried to describe what was going on in his brain. Sometimes he was lucid. Other times, our conversations baffled me.
I tried to stay positive, reminding myself that after years of struggling with mental illness and drug addiction, James Taylor eventually conquered both and emerged healthy, clean and sober.
During my son’s last hospital visit, a doctor convinced him to enroll in an out-patient therapy program. Ever so slowly, he began to heal. He reached out to people he’d lost touch with. A visual artist, his drawings and paintings looked less frightening. His best friend got married, and my son was in the wedding party.
Every morning he went to the out-patient program, returning in the late afternoon, and every day, he seemed a little more like the son I’d known before his diagnosis. I attended the program on Family Day. We sat in a circle and shared stories of despair and recovery, of the difficulty of negotiating the world, of unexpected kindnesses. I felt myself open up in that room. For the first time in years, I felt hope.
In the middle of 2017, I realized I hadn’t heard “Fire and Rain” for months. Searching the Internet, I found a 2010 video of James Taylor singing his famous song. His voice was still strong, his eyes still blue, his long brown hair now short and gray. He smiled at the audience, comfortable, engaged, and obviously enjoying himself.
I finally understand that “Fire and Rain” is a love song: a love song to life, to living, somehow, in this broken world where so many suffer. I’ve come full circle with the song, from comfort to grief and back again. When I hear it now, I allow it to open those wounds, the ones that never fully heal, the ones that still need attention.
I know that sometime in the near future, when I’m listening to the radio while driving to the grocery store or to meet a friend for coffee, “Fire and Rain” will start playing.
Erica Goss won the 2019 Zocalo Poetry Prize. Her collection, Night Court, won the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. Recent publications include Spillway, A-Minor, Collateral, Slant, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Rise Up Review. She is the founder of Girls’ Voices Matter, a filmmaking workshop for teen girls. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA, from 2013-2016. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she teaches, writes and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones. Please visit her at www.ericagoss.com.
James Taylor in 1970:
James Taylor in 2010: