PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
December 4, 2007

The Joy of Being Liv

by Jim Newsom

“I’ll be there when they’re holding up their hearts
And kicking up their heels and howling at the moon
I’ll be there when they finally figure out that
Love writes the sweetest tunes.”
--Livingston Taylor
“There I’ll Be”

There are few sad lyrics lurking in the pages of the Livingston Taylor songbook. Infectious joy and sunshiny optimism permeate his music.

“I have a lot of joy in my music,” he acknowledged when we spoke a couple of days before Thanksgiving. “Sometimes I’ll say on stage that I dreamed that I could play the guitar, and I woke up and I can. Wow! How cool is this!

“It astounds me because I love music, and I love the fact that it can come out of me. And although I’m not that enthusiastic necessarily about listening to myself on recordings, I love listening to myself as I’m playing, as I’m singing.”

Taylor, who performs Saturday night at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, is a pleasure to hear. Longtime fans have been listening to him since his first single, “Carolina Day,” from his self-titled debut album, cracked radio playlists back in 1971.

That record came out in the midst of a burst of family activity after big brother James Taylor abruptly changed the face of popular music with his album Sweet Baby James and signature hit, “Fire and Rain.” While Sister Kate placed their sister squarely in a Carole King mode and oldest brother Alex came across as the family bluesman on Dinnertime, Liv’s voice and songwriting seemed to flow out of the same mold as his most famous sibling.

“I started playing guitar when I was around twelve or thirteen,” he said. “Much of what I know about the guitar was taught to me by my brother James. He was my first teacher.

“My parents were very musical; my mother was a trained singer who was never able to have a career as that. But she was very receptive to us having a career as that. I think a lot of parents are sort of patronizing to a creative endeavor—‘what will you do for a real job?’ The idea that you could make a living as a creator is so compelling…I see that as the absolute apex of the human experience.”

He was “discovered” while performing around the Boston area by a writer and producer who would later become well known as The Boss’s boss:

“I was working with a guy named Jon Landau, who we now know as Bruce Springsteen’s producer and manager. He and I had a mutual friend who introduced me to him. I played him a few songs and he said, ‘I want to produce you!’

“When I met Jon, he was a kid writing for a paper called Crawdaddy, and he was going down to Macon, Georgia, to do an article on Otis Redding for a new publication called Rolling Stone. And that’s how I got to Capricorn [the record label started by Redding’s manager Phil Walden], with Jon Landau.”

Liv’s music has evolved over the years to encompass a rich array of influences. His latest album, There You Are Again, is a melodic mix of folk, jazz, pop, soft rock and gospel soul.

“I love different sources of music,” he said. “I love good R&B, good blues, good folk music—to hear Woody Guthrie play or Pete Seeger. My real musical core, however, is pop music and Broadway. I listened to a lot of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe—these were real staples around my house. When I was young and my music was forming up, I was listening to a lot of Bacharach and David. I listened to Dionne Warwick records endlessly for those wonderful pop sensibilities that they brought in in the sixties. I liked the Rolling Stones and Elvis, but wasn’t a big fan; I wasn’t a big early Beatles fan. Of course, Sgt. Pepper blew the lid off everything. Then you drift into that Holland-Dozier-Holland songbook, Motown, Marvin Gaye and those sensibilities.”

Besides recording, performing and composing, Liv Taylor is in his eighteenth year of teaching at Berklee College of Music. Because of this connection with music’s future, he has given a great deal of thought to the state of the industry.

“When I stand at the head of a class,” he explained, “my responsibility to my students is: how am I going to get them money so they can continue to create their music. I tell them that they’ve got to keep their expenses in line, that they’ve got to be entrepreneurial, that new ways of controlling income other than charging for the creative process will happen.

“But the greatest nightmare that we currently face is the concept of a free internet. It’s not free if you’re buying a gallon of gasoline; Mobil/Exxon’s product is not subject to digitization and transfer. Neither is Wal-Mart. Who’s getting killed are those creators whose product can be digitized.

“I’ll ask my students, ‘What percentage of the music on your iPod comes from the era of the ‘gatekeeper,’ when the record company heads were supposedly keeping good music down?’ The answers that they give me are stunning—they say fifty, sixty, seventy percent of their music comes from that era.

“If you’ll remember when we were in the ‘70s, if somebody asked us how old was the music in our collection, we’d go, ‘it’s fifteen minutes old!’ Everyday was a dumptruck of new music pouring over us. We didn’t need American Idol because the machine was so effective at bringing us new talent all the time. The infrastructure didn’t come to us and say, ‘Would you please decide what’s good because we can’t find it or decide on it.’

American Idol is an abdication of the creative responsibilities of the corporate infrastructure, both recording and radio.”

Livingston Taylor will never be accused of artistic abdication. With a catalog of timeless recordings built up over 37 years, his music stands up quite well on its own merits. Still, I had to ask the obvious about being James Taylor’s younger brother.

“The question is,” he replied, “who is more fortunate in his career? It appears the answer is James because he is more well-known and makes more money. But I gotta tell you, I am not so sure and I would also say that James is not so sure. It’s something that we discuss at great length.

“I am honored to be his brother. I live in his shadow because he is that good. I’m a huge James Taylor fan.”

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.