I have to say that of all the writers/performers on acoustic guitar out there, James has been the one who's held my interest all these years. He has led an amazing life, to say the least. His catalog of great songs is huge and his style of playing is unique (and very hard to teach accurately, I might add!).
The singer/songwriter scene that emerged in the 1970s has been well documented. It was a natural outgrowth of the folk movement of the 1960s with one important difference: many of the singer/songwriters of the 70s turned inward for most of their inspiration, versus the writers of the earlier decade who based much of their writing on what what happening in the world around them. I know musicians who quickly grew tired of the heart-on-the-sleeve school of songwriting and some of them actually went in another direction, backward into more traditional forms of both American and British Isles music. That is certainly easy to understand. A steady diet of "woe is me" interspersed with an occasional relentlessly sunny song begs a reaction of, oh, get over yourself if you're inclined that way.
James was always a conundrum though. You could tell he wanted in the worst way to be considered a troubadour, the traveling musician walkin' down a country road but I always had a feeling he was conflicted about this. His background was solidly white, upper middle class and it seemed he could not escape that no matter what. Not that being a white kid from a comfortable family is anything to be ashamed of, it was just that the image James tried to portray, gazing into the camera trying to convey a world-weary loneliness, had to break down, sooner or later.
David Crosby, who offers his views of the 70s era a number of times in the show (and is always a fascinating guy - I would LOVE to sit down with him for a couple hours and talk) brings out the point that everything changed with the introduction of hard drugs. Peace, love and flowers are easy to contemplate after sparking up a joint but when heroin and coke entered the scene, depression was inevitable - it's called "coming down." Crosby barely survived those experiences and James wasn't far behind. I had no idea at the time that James spent most of the 70s and into the early 80s as a bonafide junkie. His band mates talked about not knowing on a night to night basis whether James would be able to play at all. James himself is very candid about those years and clearly knows how lucky he was to survive.
Still, he did some of his best writing in those years. I have to wonder what's going through his mind now when he plays songs from that era in his concerts. Perhaps he can remove his own feelings from them now and focus on what those songs mean, or meant to his audience.
Which very well may be the reason James has not only survived, but thrived. In fact, I feel very strongly that his singing and playing are better now than ever. Listening to Carole King talk about their 40-plus year musical and personal relationship you can get an inkling of what James is really like. He is a complex person, hugely talented and endowed with the ability to take an audience to deeper places. This is the mark of a true artist and musical genius.
But in the end, you can see and hear the connection that he and Carole have, and their love and admiration of their long-time back-up band too. This is why, no matter how sappy and transparent it may seem, you know you're witnessing perfect honesty and yes, love, when you hear them play "You've Got A Friend."
Peace & good music,