Fire and Rain

James Taylor wrote and sang ‘Fire and Rain’, which is a song about having a hard-time, a blues song not in a tradition blues form.  This song is about the high and low points of Taylor’s life, where he tells the blow-by-blow truth about how he felt.  This song is very personal, and confrontational.  ‘Fire and Rain’ was Taylor’s first hit and this song changed everything for him in 1971.  Taylor says that he was at the right place and the right time, as this song elevated him to a pop star at the age of 22 when it became a hit. Taylor stated that he wrote this song three different times throughout 1968.  His writing began while he was auditioning in London for The Beatles’ Apple Records.  Then wrote more of it while he stayed in a Manhattan Hospital.  He finished it when he was at the Austin Riggs Center, where he was staying for drug rehabilitation.

During his senior year of high school, James Taylor entered the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, where he spent several months being treated for depression. After leaving that facility he traveled to New York in 1966 and hooked up with his childhood friend Danny Kortchmar, where they formed the group The Flying Machine.  Taylor and Kortchmar recorded some songs and released one single, but they split up without issuing an album and this venture ended badly for Taylor both professionally and personally, but this also may have been a blessing, as this caused Taylor to begin his solo career.  In 1968, Taylor was battling depression and drug addiction.  Taylor was in London when he made a demo that got the attention of Beatles associate Peter Asher, who arranged an audition with Paul McCartney and George Harrison.  They liked what they heard from his audition for The Beatles’ Apple Records, so they signed Taylor to the Apple Records label.

The first verse was a reaction to the tragic death of his friend, who was merely just an acquaintance that he had met while he was in Greenwich Village and he had only known her for a year before he started writing this song.  Taylor said that he used to hang out with Susanna and they would get high together and he thinks that she came from Long Island.  Susanne Schnerr was a friend of Flying Machine drummer Joel ‘Bishop’ O’Brien and Taylor did not find out about her death till months later, as his friends withheld the news so it wouldn’t distract Taylor from his escalating music career.  Susie was put into an isolation cell and she couldn’t take it and committed suicide.

Taylor wrote that first verse while in London within a week and a half after O’Brien finally told him about Susanna one late night.  While Taylor was over in London, he was living with Margaret Corey, and Richard Corey and Joel O’Brien was around a lot.  All three of them were really close to Susanne, but because his friends were excited for him to have this record deal with Apple Records, when Susie killed herself they decided not to tell him about it until later.  He didn’t find out until some six months after it happened and that is where the line, “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.  Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you” came into the song.  The line that he wrote in this song, “just can’t remember who to send it to” had to do with the fact he’d signed a contract with a new publishing company, Blackwood Music, and he didn’t know who he was supposed to send his stuff to.

The second verse is about his arrival back in the USA with a monkey on his back, and there Jesus is an expression of his desperation in trying to get through the time when his body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it while he was checked into a Manhattan mental hospital battling a heroin addiction.  Taylor made pleas to Jesus to “look down upon” him and help him “make a stand” against the ravages of drug addiction.  This really portrays how much of a hold the addiction had on him, especially when he belts out, “I won’t make it any other way.”

The third verse of this song was written during his recuperation in Austin Riggs Center, a private psychiatric facility and drug rehab in Stockbridge, Massachusetts which lasted for about five months.  His mother took him to Austen Riggs where he was able to muster his feelings about his life in and around his hospital stays, as he struggled with depression, strove against heroin addiction, and experienced the disappointment of a bad ending in his fledgling musical career.  Thus the allusion in the song’s final line about “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground” is not merely an indirect reference to shattered ambitions and ruined lives, but a sly direct reference to a previous professional failure.  The last line in this song refers to the Flying Machine band and his earlier attempts at finding success as a writer.

Taylor played ‘Fire and Rain’ for his drummer Joel O’Brien, while he was in London, and he said, “Oh, man, that’s going to be an important song for you.”  They recorded it at Sunset Sound in Hollywood on the album Sweet Baby James in just two weeks.  Bill Lazarus was the staff engineer for this recording and James was living at Peter Asher’s house.  Peter didn’t do much arranging as a producer, but sometimes Danny Kortchmar or Carole King would suggest certain things.  Carole came over to Peter’s house and they went through a lot of these songs together, and he played it for her at Peter’s piano.  Taylor gave them the chords and he played his arrangement of it, then they found things to play that would work with it.  Taylor never write out whole arrangements.  Russell Kunkel played drums, Carole King played piano, Bobby West played stand-up bass, while Taylor was in a booth, playing guitar and singing.  Taylor said that Carole has this energy about how she plays and he thought that they shared a common language being on the same page musically.  He said that she was so good at getting the feel of what he was doing.

This song may be depressing for many people, as it is about suicide, and being sick and strung out.  Taylor is trying to get back on his feet, while he was physically exhausted, undernourished and addicted.  Taylor talks about remembering his life, thinking back to his band The Flying Machine.  It comes off like a postcard from the loony bin, but it is hopeful, as Taylor is looking at going back out into the world and reengaging.

Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,
I just can’t remember who to send it to.
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
but I always thought that I’d see you again.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus,
You’ve got to help me make a stand.
You’ve just got to see me through another day.
My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.
Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
but I always thought that I’d see you again.

Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun.
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.
Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
but I always thought that I’d see you baby, one more time again, now.
Thought I’d see you one more time again.
There’s just a few things coming my way this time around, now.
Thought I’d see you, thought I’d see you, fire and rain, now.

Written for 11/5/17 Helen Vahdati’s This Thing Called Life One Word At A Time Song Lyric Sunday where the theme is fire.

9 thoughts on “Fire and Rain

    1. Really! This is not my favorite James Taylor song as I like ‘Country Road’ and ‘Carolina on My Mind’ and ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ which he recorded for the Beatles much better. Taylor is a very sensitive singer-songwriter a five-time Grammy Award winner, and he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. His first No. 1 hit was “You’ve Got a Friend”, a recording of Carole King’s classic song. Taylor also collaborated with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in the recording of a cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’,

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  1. James Taylor got me through some dark times. I played many of his songs on repeat. This one was always hard to listen to because it is so sad, but I appreciate the background you provided. It honestly makes it even harder to listen to, but it is beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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