What You Look Like You’re Doing

I was procrastinating the other morning, poking through old files, when I came across a piece I wrote in 2005 after seeing James Taylor play at Summerfest in Milwaukee. I wrote it with the intention of trying to sell it to somebody, but I couldn’t even finish it to my satisfaction. Reading it now, however, it feels finished enough, so I’m putting it up here. And because I am a gasbag, it’ll take four installments to get it in.

***

It’s not what you look like
When you’re doing what you’re doing
It’s what you’re doing when you’re doing
What you look like you’re doing

–Charles Wright, “Express Yourself”

I was born in 1960, but I consider myself a baby boomer. I have more in common with those born in the late 40s and 50s than I do with those born later on in the 1960s. The experiences a kid had during those years are going to shape him in a particular way, and so there’s no need to apologize for it. In my case, what shaped me more than anything else was my obsession with radio and records. Lots of people share that obsession—at least the record part—and continue to live with it into their dotage. Nothing wrong with that, either; no need to apologize.

One thing about baby boomers is that we’re clannish. We like hanging out with our own kind. We can talk to each other. We get the references. I even said as much the other night, as The Mrs. and I walked up the ramp with another boomer couple, part of the crowd on the way to our seats at the James Taylor concert. “These are our people.”

James Taylor. He is, in some ways, the Platonic ideal of boomer adulthood: perceptive, honest, reliable, persistent, never taking himself too seriously—yet still able to rock and roll. He may have strolled the world with a guitar on his shoulder as a young man (and took a lot of drugs, and had some emotional problems, and a broken marriage), but he knew when it was time to grow up and become a solid and respectable member of society. When we look at Taylor, then, we boomers see ourselves. He embodies our ups and downs (and the poetic inspirations within them), and our triumphant march into respectable middle age.

We arrive at our seats in time to watch the arena fill up. Four girls who look to be teenagers take the seats next to me, and just for a moment I am tempted to ask what they’re doing there. The other people around us are more typical—fortyish guys with neatly trimmed beards, polo shirts, and baseball caps, fortyish women showing some skin in tank tops and short skirts (for it is an outdoor concert on a July night, after all). There are white-haired couples past 60. “Couples” is an operative word here, for it’s pretty clear that this is a date night for lots of the people who are there.

The lights go down, the crowd whoops, and James Taylor strolls out from the wings, stage right, wearing a blue shirt. He is neither more or less elaborately dressed than his audience. The ovation gets louder. He salutes it, takes a bow in response, picks up his guitar, sits down on a stool, and begins to play “Secret o’ Life” from his 1981 album Dad Loves His Work: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” He brings out the full band, and an impressive band it is, featuring Steve Gadd on drums and Lou Marini on sax. They play “Summer’s Here,” also from Dad Loves His Work, and “Your Smiling Face,” and by this time, the entire crowd is completely into it.

Well, not the entire crowd. I notice that compared to the rest of the band, Taylor seems to be poorly miked, but it doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else. As the first set continues, however, something bigger than the poor sound starts bothering me: Why does this concert feel so strange? And what is that feeling, precisely?

(There’s your cliffhanger. Tune in for Part 2 on Monday.)

One response

  1. An essay about James Taylor that begins with a quote from Charles Wright?
    This promises to be interesting.

    I wouldn’t have known this if Wiki hadn’t told me, but I’m told that “Secret O’ Life” is from the “JT” album, not “Dad Loves His Work.”

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