Episode 141: FIRE AND RAIN

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

[INTRO]

Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs. And today, James Taylor has seen things, man.

[HGII]

Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I don’t seem to say that anymore, so there you go. Hey, before we move into the trivia, I’d like you to take a listen to this. It’s a really interesting podcast which takes a different approach to pop music:

[KEY OF Q PROMO week 1]

[TRIVIA]

You can check that out using whatever podcast software you’re using right now!

Now, let’s do some trivia, shall we? I think this is another one of those “Either Ye know this one right away or you don’t” kind of questions. The Foo Fighters started out as a solo project for Dave Grohl after Kurt Cobain committed suicide, and they’ve been going strong ever since then. But let’s face it, that’s kind of an unusual name for a band. However, it’s not just a nonsense phrase. So here’s the question: What IS a Foo Fighter?

I will have that answer for ye at the end of the show.

When doing the research for some of these shows, one of the things I bump up against is a lot of weird rumors regarding the meaning behind the songs. And one of the biggest relates to James Taylor’s first big single, “Fire and Rain.” Specifically, the story that the song chronicles his reaction to the death of his girlfriend in a plane crash. So let’s get that out of the way immediately. NO! Well, not really.

Okay, that was a little harsh. Let me roll myself back a little bit. The song was written in three stages, each related to a specific event in his life. So let’s take them a verse at a time.

Taylor was working the local coffeehouses and clubs and so forth in New York City in the late 1960s, and he had a friend by the name of Suzanne Schnerr, whom everyone, it seems, called Susie. Taylor said that they used to hang out together and get high together, but he also said he thinks she came from Long Island, which is not what you say about girlfriend material. But they were good friends and that’s a fact.

In 1968 Taylor landed a contract with Apple Records to record his debut album, which means he was off to London to do some recording. Now, Taylor had three roommates he’d left behind in New York, all of whom were also close to Susie. And it was while he was in London that Suzanne committed suicide. Now, I did see a reference to an interview Taylor did with a British magazine called Petticoat, in which Susie committed suicide because she’d been put into an isolation cell and couldn’t handle it, but unfortunately I couldn’t dig up the primary source, and all the internet-based sources basically point to each other, so I couldn’t really determine if that part is true. At any rate, the roommates all knew about it but they didn’t tell Taylor because they didn’t want to shake him up while he was working on this record. As a result, he didn’t learn the news until he got back to New York, and she’d been dead for about six months.

Now, while that debut album produced a couple of songs that we’d consider classic James Taylor material today, such as “Carolina in My Mind,” the album itself sold rather poorly, for a couple of reasons. The first was that it was released on Apple Records, which was going through a bit of a management implosion at the time, The other problem was that Taylor himself came home with a bit of a monkey on his back, as the expression goes. And that leads us into the second verse.

We get an inward turn on Taylor’s part as he struggles with addiction and looks to his higher power. Taylor told NPR in an interview that it wasn’t until he got back from London that he realized he’d picked up a bad habit, and the withdrawal was making him quite uncomfortable, as it typically does.

The third verse is a reference to the fact that Taylor spent some time in and out of mental hospitals to treat his depression and addiction. Now again, there’s a little bit of discrepancy regarding what hospital is being referred to, in the sense that every source seems to point to a single hospital stay. But the fact is, there were several, all of which contributed to this verse. And the last line of the verse refers to a band he belonged to, called The Flying Machine. Now, this isn’t the same band that did the song “Smile a Little Smile For Me,” but another band with the same name. This band was put together by James Taylor and Danny Kortchmar in 1966. They recorded some songs and actually released a single, but broke up before an album could be assembled. By some accounts the breakup was pretty bad and created more problems for Taylor personally. Around 1971, to capitalize on Taylor’s success, the materials were finally collected into an album and credited to James Taylor and the Original Flying Machine.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I should note that either Taylor and Korchmar managed to patch things up, or whatever went south didn’t involve any acrimony between the two of them, because Kortchmar was called in to work on Taylor’s second album, which wound up being called Sweet Baby James. Peter Asher was hired as the producer, and he was looking for a relatively simple sound which would bring the songs themselves to the forefront and let anything fancy stay out of the way. Also playing on this track was Carole King on the piano and Russ Kunkel on drums. The group rehearsed in Asher’s living room before going to the studio. Now, Kunkel was known as a rock drummer, but because Asher had neighbors, he asked Kunkel to practice using brushes rather than sticks. That turned out to be the secret sauce for the track and gave them the approach they needed.

The final element is something that most people don’t really hear unless they’re listening closely, and even then they think it’s a viola or a cello. But in fact it’s session player Bobby West playing an upright bass with a bow. Peter Asher interviewed once that they didn’t have a bass on the track at all, and Taylor had the idea to use bowed upright bass to create that droning bottom note. Asher didn’t know anyone in LA at that time, so the whole album has different bass players, but it’s West on this track. Asher then doubled the sound to give it an extra, flangey kind of sound. And that, he says, are the only strings on the entire track.

The single was released in August of 1970 and managed to make it to Number Three on the Billboard Hot 100, and it was Top Ten in Australia and Canada as well. It also picked up some additional popularity in 1973 when it appeared on a special collection of hits called Superstars of the 70s, which was issued by Warner Special Products. This was a box set of four LPs which had a wide variety of artists and songs numbering 49 tracks in all, and I have to assume that it’s only because the rights issues are so complicated that it was never reissued as a 2-CD set, because this thing was amazing. If you spot a decent copy in a used record store, leap on it.

[MARCIA HINES]

As far as covers, the song has been covered over 80 times by my count, including Johnny Rivers, Willie Nelson, and R. B. Greaves, but probably the most successful cover from a charting standpoint is this one by Marcia Hines, which was a Top 20 hit in 1975…

Taylor himself has also covered the song in a more humorous context. In a 1994 episode of The Simpsons, Taylor performs the song for astronauts in the space shuttle, but of course he changes the last verse to read “Sweet dreams and flying machines flying safely through the air” after first singing it correctly and then realizing that that might not be a morale booster.

Taylor also re-did the song for a laugh in 2015 on Stephen Colbert’s late night show. The basis of the re-write is that when he was younger, he hadn’t seen much, which is why he just sings “fire and rain” over and over again.:

[F&R updated]

[BUMPER 1]

And now it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two I told you a little about Dave Grohl’s post-Nirvana band The Foo Fighters and asked you what a Foo Fighter is, anyway?

[LEARN TO FLY instrumental]

As it turns out, the phrase isn’t just something that Grohl made up. The term goes back to World War Two, specifically the 415th Night Fighter Squadron, which operated in the Mediterranean and northwestern Europe between 1943 and 1947. They used the phrase to refer to any kind of unidentified flying object. At the time, such objects were automatically assumed to be some kind of secret weapon operated by the enemy. The word “Foo” comes from a 1930s comic strip called Smokey Stover, which was syndicated by the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Smokey’s catchphrase was “where there’s foo there’s fire.” It’s generally agreed that a radar operator from the 415th  named Donald Meiers, who came from Chicago, was the guy who coined the term during a mission debriefing. Since nobody had a better name for identifying such unidentified stuff, the name “foo fighters” stuck. There’s a sample Smokey Stover strip at the website. It’s got a lot of odd puns in the background, which makes it extra fun to read, and I may have to toddle over to Amazon to check out some of the collections.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we do something extra-special and have ourselves a chat with a musician who’s toured with some big names. Anthony Robustelli is my guest for Episode 142.

Thanks for listening, I’ll talk to you next time.