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.