There were various rock singers I wanted to be in 1973. High among these was James Taylor, a bloke whose melodies I always found irresistible. 1973 I remember as a time after the Oz Trial and before Skunk when there was still a lot of relatively harmless mind-altering fun to be had: an innocent age when the police turned a blind eye to joints at rock concerts.
People talk about ‘The Sixties’, but the decade of my memory spans from 1963-73. It began with The Beatles Hard Day’s Night and ended with David Bowie as Aladdin Sane. But in the summer of 1973, James Taylor was at or near the top of the tree – followed closely by Lou Reed, who the previous November had released the mould-breaking album Transformer. Just to remind those brains as addled as mine – and educate those unfortunate enough to have missed it – this album contained Vicious, Walk on the Wild Side and A Perfect Day – all in one package!
Bowie was heavily influenced by Lou Reed. That summer, Bowie Freaks with tricolore hair were all the rage. So when myself and some mates got word that Reed and Taylor would be performing at the open-air Crystal Palace venue – and Angie Bowie would make a personal appearance – it seemed like every Christmas and Birthday rolled into one.
It was a sultry Autumn day, and the relationship between ‘The Pigs’* and the music-lovers had never been better. All day, pushers with bags full of grass wandered about offering their wares to everyone (including the Met Officers, who took it in good part) at prices that today would sound like the silliest loss-leader of all time. Our group was pretty-well stocked: speaking for myself, I hadn’t felt my feet for several hours by the time Lou Reed came on, wearing bizarre death-mask makeup and backed by a half-jazzy combo. The crossover between pop and jazz was just beginning, led as always by the great originator Joni Mitchell and the LA Express. Reed’s was a great set – Waiting for the Man had most of the audience on its feet after the first few bars -and it was followed by a blur of others (I doubt if any Blur members had even been born) until at last, James Taylor sauntered on, all shoulder-length hair and droopy Wild West moustache.
Today, Taylor is almost completely bald and entirely clean-shaven. But as he walked across the old Crystal Palace bandstand stage nearly forty years ago – dressed in soft denim and sporting his trademark braces a decade before Wall Street – Mr Taylor was in command of his audience before he’d sung a note. I have not enjoyed a rock concert more since then (with the possible exception of Jerry Lee Lewis at the Rainbow in 1981) and before this marks me down as ineluctably sad, you should proceed to the following paragraphs.
Taylor took us through the best of Mud Slide Slim – a seminal album back then – and played Sweet Baby James for his first encore. By now it was after six pm, and dark thunderclouds were creeping across the sky. When you’re gently stoned, dark clouds are enough to make one go “Wow!” and talk drivel about contrasts, colours and their meaning in the passage of universal time. But quite inadvertently, James Taylor was to add to the experience.
He walked off to shouts of “More! More! More!”, and of course this was all part of the Show. But by the time he reappeared, a few spots of rain were falling, and there were bright flashes of lightning followed by the muffled rumbling of thunder in the distance. James Taylor chose this moment to break out into Fire and Rain.
It was the best of times. Under the cover of the Crystal Palace bandstand, the lyrics belted out – “I seen fire, I seen rain” – as large droplets of rain turned into a drenching shower accompanied by nature’s son et lumiere.
Next to me sat an American (he had revealed himself to me earlier as a draft dodger) watching the spectacle with a saucer-eyed awestruck expression. And then he looked at his joint and said in a loud voice, “Christ man, this is f**king terrific sh*t”.
I was twenty-five at the time, and although – as I fell backwards laughing uncontrollably – it seemed like that age would last forever, it was probably the beginning of the end of my youth. I had already met my first wife, and the thought of marriage had begun to germinate in my head. After 1973, I gradually moved away from dopey rock concerts and towards wine-fuelled dinner parties. Doing this felt at the time like a major leap forward towards being properly grown up. Looking back now, I’m not so sure.
*Police officers were referred to by we weekend Hippies as The Pigs. Compared to the Met today, these gentlemen were the very essence of polite law and order.
Apologies to veteran Sloggers who may have seen this account in amongst other anthologies.