In November, on the night before my fourth (and mercifully final) surgery for this recurrence, I got an email that James Taylor tickets had gone on sale that day for a concert in early February. Feeling the shortness of time generally these days, we rushed to buy the tickets. And, since I was feeling cancerous and sorry for myself, we splashed out and bought the good seats. Really really good seats.
We had buyers remorse, almost instantly. The tickets plus the plane tickets to Auckland and lodging would make for an insanely expensive 48 hours. And we were already paying for all the medical trips to Auckland as well as four surgeries and the lost work while I’m in radiotherapy. Michael picked up the phone to call TicketMaster and tell them there had been a mistake. But one thing cancer does—perhaps better than anything else—is let you know that you are mortal and that your days are numbered and that living them fully is of paramount importance. I asked Michael to hang up the phone, we found a cool and cheap Airbnb, bought the tickets with frequent flyer miles, and were ready to go.
And now we’re here. On the evening of the concert I dressed in a comfy and beautiful little black dress (from Ana Ono, a breast cancer designer I love). The saran wrap-like bandage I wear to protect the radiotherapy site looked odd with the plunging neckline, but Michael said it wasn’t so noticeable (not true but kind) so out we went. We walked through a glittering summer’s evening to the Arena, where a crowd of people from maybe 20-80 were milling about, drinking champagne in the slanting evening light.
The last time we saw James Taylor was in about 2005, in a concert way out in Northern Virginia. We had tickets so far away that we could barely see that there were figures on the stage, much less that James Taylor was one of them. We listened to him sing as we watched him on the giant telescreen and I wondered whether it would have been better to just have watched the PBS special about the tour.
Not last night. Last night we headed inside the hall, and walked and walked and walked and walked to the front of the arena. Row 4 in the center. The best seats I’ve ever had for anything. We were practically in his lap. And then he came onto the stage at the stroke of 8, doffing his cap and thanking us for having him in New Zealand. A charming man from the moments he walked on until his final finale, JT’s practically-Kiwi modesty and warmth created deep resonance in the crowd from the beginning. And while he’s pushing 70 now, his fingers were as nimble as on his earliest records, and his voice as sweet and varied. His first song, Wandering, began as a solo with JT and his guitar on an empty stage, and then built to reveal the 10 musicians who would make up the band.
In some concerts, the in-between song parts are as good as the songs themselves. This was one of those. First his tiny foray into politics. “Well, I better get this over with. Sorry about the president, folks. Just have to hope for the best…but it hasn’t been working to well so far.”
And there were the little quips that made us all laugh. When he introduced a song from his new album he’d apologize. “I’m going to have to play a few songs from the new album, but I’ll play them so fast that you’ll hardly notice. They sound just like my old songs, though, so it’ll all be ok.”
The best, though, were the stories about the songs. There was the suite of stories about Copperline and Carolina on my Mind, which he wrote in 1968 while he was in London. He had a chance to audition in front of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr: “You know how sometimes your life just opens up and you can see it through a doorway on the other side? That was one of those moments for me….I’m nervous now in front of you. But that night, I was like a Chihuahua on methamphetamines. I was wound so tight.”
He talked about watching Carole King sing “You’ve got a friend,” for the first time, the day after she wrote the song. “It was maybe the third time it had been played through from the beginning. Ever. And after I heard her I ran to get my guitar so that I could play that song, it was so good.” He paused with a twinkle in his eye. “Of course I didn’t know then I’d be playing that song every night for the rest of my life.” The crowd laughed. “Still, you could do worse, could do much worse than this.”
Before Intermission he got silly. He explained that after the next song there would be intermission and he wasn’t sure why because we would all just look at our phones and he would go and stand by the curtain and wait for the 20 minutes to be over. But in fact what he did was stand by the curtain for a very few minutes and then come out and sit on one of the big speakers by the stage and take pictures and shake hands and sign whatever people wanted signed. When Michael noticed him there, surrounded by a little crowd, we went over and stood too. I wove my way to the front of the little pack where first I was two people away from him and then one and then he had his arm around me and was taking his picture with me! The woman before me said to him, “You are the soundtrack to my whole life,” and by the time I got up to him I was shaking and speechless. He’s just a person, right? But he has, unknowingly, been so important to me.
Which is why I cried my way through a surprising number of songs. His opening Wandering unfolded into one of my favourite songs of all time, and one of the anthems to my cancer as he sang, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” Right away I was in tears. He carried on:
The secret of love
Is in opening up your heart.
It’s okay to feel afraid,
But don’t let that stand in your way.
‘Cause anyone knows
That love is the only road.
And since we’re only here for a while,
Might as well show some style.
His poignant “Shed a little light” with its tribute to Martin Luther King has always moved me, but there was something very very topical about his plea for us to remember that:
“There are ties between us,
All men and women living on the Earth.
Ties of hope and love,
Sister and brotherhood,
That we are bound together
In our desire to see the world
Become a place in which our children
Can grow free and strong.”
In this day of Trumphorror, these words were never more resonant.
And when he sang Sweet Baby James, my mind went to the thousands of times I heard that song. In the stairwells of the dorm in Geneseo New York where my dad used to play the guitar and sing. When I was a teenager feeling confused about what my pastures might come. And, most poignantly, the lullaby I used to sing to my “Sweet Aidan James” when he was an infant in my arms in the years before he would come to loom over me.
So last night, cancer brought me many unexpected gifts. It brought me the lavish splurge on tickets to get us close to a giant. It brought me courage to nudge into a crowd and get my photo taken with the giant. And it brought me extra sensors on my heart to receive the songs right into my core. James Taylor writes about love and loss and life and death. And he has been teaching me about those things since I was born as my parents played me his records and we sang along. The joys of love, the beauty of the landscape, the anguish of loss—all of these are the palette that JT paints with, and they are the colours of the cancer patient. In truth, they are the colours of all of us humans.
Now the thing about time
Is that time isn’t really real.
It’s just your point of view,
How does it feel for you?
Einstein said he
Could never understand it all.
Planets spinning through space,
The smile upon your face,
Welcome to the human race.
Some kind of lovely ride.
I’ll be sliding down,
I’ll be gliding down.
Try not to try too hard,
It’s just a lovely ride.
Today Michael and I celebrate the 29th anniversary of our first day. Thanks, Michael, for the lovely ride.
9 thoughts on “JT and me”
I cried my way through this one Jennifer. I love James Taylor’s songs and was thinking of you both at the concert earlier today in Cork (possibly while you were there). I hope the music continues to flow through you. xx
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Well, Jennifer, this one made me cry along with you. This is not unusual (as I think you know), but I felt the need to share that here this time. Burning calories, shedding toxins, and celebrating the fact that there’s so much worth crying about–for joy and for sorrow and for all of it wrapped up together. Thanks for sharing and provoking those tears. 🙂
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What a beautiful post Jennifer. I too cried with you. We had tickets to his Napier concert this weekend but we had to sell them as we could no longer go. You painted such an amazing picture of your experience that I felt like I was there too. Many memories came up, some from earlier in my life, some from my cancer experience, some from my more recent life or death experience. And thoughts of my beautiful sister-in-law who has been just recently diagnosed with lung cancer and is very, very unwell. You have a wonderful way of telling a story and evoking emotions from deep within. I love you Jennifer. You are an inspiring woman who teaches through your own incredibly sad, and amazingly good experiences. ❤️
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Hi dearest Jennifer – I adored this story about you and JT, and am sooooo glad you bought the very, very good tickets, and that you & Michael lined up like groupies to get pics. This is just the sort of encouraging story we all need right now in the era of Trumpism.
Congratulations too on being nearly half-way through your radio, and on your & Micheal’s 29th wedding anniversary.
Joy and pain seem to be always interwoven – as Mary Oliver says:
“We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have,
these two Housed as they are in the same body”
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Very lovely post and about one of my long-time musical heroes.
I love how cancer makes us brave and has other gifts to offer. You capture that well, too.
James Taylor has been a giant in my music pantheon since the late 60’s, always weaving in and out, front to back and front again, of the music most figural for me. Songs that speak of endurance and looking deeper; of connection and peace that passes understanding. It amazes me that he has been with me in this way for nearly 50 years. I don’t know if that makes me feel old or ageless. Wait! Both, of course. Both. And, that is probably how James himself would put it.
Closing with a wistful and peaceful sigh,
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As I read your blog, I was remembering the first time I saw JT…I was 17 years old, and my best friend, Diana, and I told our parents we were going camping overnight and instead we drove 300 miles from where we lived, in Jackson, WY, to Salt Lake City to see our hero. We cried our way through the concert then found what we thought was a safe enough place to sleep overnight in our car (no money,) went to a hotel in the morning to clean up, went to church (I kid you not) and drove the 300 miles home. We have never regretted that. While I would call that experience stupidity while I call yours bravery, I submit that James Taylor probably factors directly or indirectly into many people’s life-changing moments. You and JT were both in the presence of each other’s greatness on the night you describe here.
I am thinking of you as you move toward the end of what is, hopefully, your last cancer treatment in a very very long life full of brave and stunning moments!
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How funny–I’ve heard the story of that trip of course (the church part cracks me up–I guess you were piling on sins that needed forgiveness) but I had forgotten it was JT. Love that he is the soundtrack for both of our lives 🙂
Beautiful !! I am a 21 yr cancer survivor and when I first got it my husband said what is on your bucket list ?? I said to see Jt 100 times !! I am at number 70 when he comes to wrigley girls in Chicago. Since I am now 61. We try to ho several times a year so I can get the “fix healing” as it is do ports t to get his words through your veins and your soul. He is my best medicine and cures any blues that I may have . He had been in my life since 1969 and had been part of every important life event. I walked down the aisle to Jt twice , gave birth to my children heating your smilin face, played all six cassettes to all six cds in my car until
They wore out and now have nine and a half continuous hours of Jt on my iPad and I phone so Jt gets listened to everyday. Everywhere and every hour. In between sales calls and always in the car I need Jt running
through my bloodstream. He is always with me and keeps me cancer free as we know I have 31 times to still see Jt.
He once asked me what go we go when we hit 100?? I said that we start all
Over again as it is good for both of us!! Jt smiled and gave me a hug.
So never worry about going h ad he brings good karma to your life and gives you a sense of peace.
I never regret any trip to see him as he is the healer and he helps with any pain. He is my higher power and one of my favorite men to spend time with.
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Thank you for your beautiful words. I’m a life-long JT fan and you describe my experiences so perfectly. Struggling with an uncertain future from age 28 has wrecked me at times, but his music has been with me through all of it. I’m so glad that you decided to go and I wish you the very best. 🎵💕
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