Saturday, September 10, 2011

Enjoying the Passage of Time

Music has been a bigger part of my life than I tend to let on here. I grew up listening to the radio with my family; I've performed in several choirs over the years; I've attended a few concerts; I have well over 11,000 songs saved to my computer, and more on CDs that I never bothered to rip. I listen to music in the car, at work, and at home when I write. Music has had a bigger impact on my life than almost anything I've ever discussed here.

Not once in the history of this blog have I written anything about my favorite artist.

I've never met the man, and about all I know about him is that he struggled with drug addictions, that he has a bunch of musical children and relatives, and that he was once married to singer Carly Simon. I know very little else about him, other than that he has been a part of my life ever since I was born.

You might have guessed by now that I'm talking about James Taylor. My parents used to sing me to sleep with his songs when I was a baby, and it's no coincidence that "Sweet Baby James" has always held a special significance for me and for my mother. No matter how my musical tastes have changed over the years, James Taylor has been one of the few artists to remain a constant. I even sound like him when I sing sometimes, or so it sounds to me.

I enjoy JT's songs for the same kinds of reasons I enjoy anyone else's songs, but his music resonates with me in a way no one else's does. There's the connection my mother and I share with his music, not just from her singing me to sleep so long ago, but from singing those same songs together as I got older, with or without JT himself backing us up.

There is a comfort in listening to the music you grew up with, and it's that much more meaningful when it reminds you of the person or people you've shared it with. I've listened to James Taylor with a lot of people, but I have particularly strong memories of sharing his music with my mother, as well as with my fiancée and a few of my friends from middle/high school.

JT's lyrics also deal with issues I can relate to, with the kind of optimistic or reflective twists that keep even the most serious topics from being unbearably heavy. Addiction is one such issue; I've never been a drug addict (I don't even drink coffee!) but I understand what it's like to struggle with being too attached to things. I'm on a lifelong journey to sort out the details of what I believe about life, the universe, and everything; JT's songs explore both the search for belief and the life lessons learned. He's also a clever songwriter with a subtle sense of humor, and I appreciate the fresh perspective he brings to his topics (something I strive to do in my own writing).

I could go on, but I think it's sufficient at this point to say that I am a fan. Not a raving, merchandise-hungry, know-it-all fan, but someone who enjoys the melodies and has a personal investment in his music.

As my high school graduation present, my father got me tickets to see James Taylor live in concert.

The world stopped for a moment.

I wasn't the only one with a ticket, though; there were enough tickets to round up a small group, which ultimately consisted of a few friends from high school. And, of course, we were not leaving for a James Taylor concert without my mother. We were all riding in her van, for one thing. Naw, y'see, even though I was going with a group of friends, at the heart of it, this was a concert for me and Mom. Sharing it with friends just made it better.

Funny things stand out in your memory, and amidst the nervous excitement (I was finding it difficult to completely suppress the fanboy within me), I remember one thing very clearly: McDonald's. We stopped in at McDonald's for a bite to eat, and it was the first time I had seen them offer their McGriddles breakfast sandwiches, with the maple syrup-infused biscuit bun things. I will forever associate McGriddles with going to see James Taylor, which is perhaps why getting breakfast on road trips is more appealing to me nowadays.

Of course, I recall other things very clearly: the outdoor arena's hillside seating with the sea of people on folding chairs and beach towels; the big screens where we watched much of the distant performance; the pure joy of being able to see my favorite musician live in concert, and to share that with my friends and family.

Even though the stage was a fair piece down the hill from where we were sitting, I still had a pretty good view of James Taylor--the man who might never realize how much he's helped to shape my life through his music. It was charming and a little amusing to see this unassuming guy in his 50's, pretty firmly planted in front of the microphone, grooving in place to the music he and his band were playing, performing with every ounce of the skill and personal investment you hear on the recordings. There might not have been laser light shows and guitars smashed on the stage, but there didn't have to be. We were there for the music, and the company, and the little bit of dialogue between songs, and we were not disappointed.

Except when they got to the end of the show and had not played "Sweet Baby James." The one song, of all the songs, to not play.

JT and his band shuffled off. The roar of applause was enough to bring JT back onstage, alone with his guitar, for one last song. If memory serves, he played "Fire and Rain." Classic. Great way to end the show. And had it ended there, I still would have been highly satisfied at a great show. But it didn't end there. We got an honest-to-goodness encore.

An encore that concluded with "Sweet Baby James."

It's hard to describe what a perfect moment in life feels like. Absolutely everything was right with the world, and there was no world beyond my mother and myself on the hillside and the man on the stage below. This last song was an encore especially for us. Moments like that go a long way in sorting out what you believe about life, the universe, and everything.

Now, whenever I have a McGriddle, I have a little flashback. The chance to see my favorite music artist. The amazing performance. The people I got to share it with. That perfect moment in life.

That's one heck of a graduation gift, and I am exceedingly grateful for it.

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