Break Shot: Sweet Dreams & Flying Machines

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My public career as a singer/musician was mercifully short. I worked at Shakey’s Pizza in high school after the Longview newspaper fired me in 1971 from my part-time photographer job, for wearing a “Sissy Farenthold for Governor” T-shirt to a press conference for her rival — and eventual winner — Dolph Briscoe. The follies of youth. I would have fired me as well.

Shakey’s was an early adopter of the karaoke movement before it was even called that. The lyrics to standbys such as By The Sea were projected on a screen, while a player piano plinked the tune. Occasionally, members of the Axberg family, who owned the franchise, would perform. They were excellent musicians.

Once, I was allowed to play a couple of songs on a slow pizza night. I was absurdly nervous and clearly out of my depth. But I played and sang James Taylor’s Country Road and Fire and Rain to a sparse and largely indifferent group of patrons, intent on chowing down on their anchovy pizzas. I never developed a taste for anchovy pizza. That was my final performance on stage with a musical instrument. The world was safe from my mangled covers of Taylor’s song. I still pick up the guitar in the corner of my study occasionally and play, albeit badly. When I play, any of the dogs or cats lounging nearby invariably leave.


            That memory surfaced while listening to James Taylor’s new audio memoir, Break Shot, on a recent birthday celebration road trip with my Beautiful Mystery Companion. (Her birthday, not mine.) She downloaded the Audible app on my phone. The first book is free, so listening to Taylor for 90 minutes without shelling out money was an added treat. I haven’t decided whether to subscribe to Audible. My previous attempts to listen to audiobooks have not been successful. My mind tends to wander, and suddenly I realize several minutes have passed without me hearing a word being spoken. Similar attempts to read books on my iPad have had the same result, with a few exceptions. As much as I love technology, I prefer to hold books in my hands and turn the pages.

Break Shot: My First 21 Years turned out to be a notable exception. Taylor recounts his early life of privilege and familial mayhem, time spent in mental institutions, getting hooked on heroin, watching his upper middle-class family explode like billiard balls flying in all directions when struck by the cue ball — the break shot. He manages to rebuild his life and gains worldwide renown with the release of Sweet Baby James, 50 years ago. He was 21.

Taylor intersperses his memorable account, told dispassionately in his distinctive voice, with snatches of songs that have become American classics. His best songs were gleaned from his life experiences, and Taylor explains the origins of such classics as Carolina In My Mind. The 90-minute audio memoir flew by, ending with a soulful version of Fire and Rain, a song in part about a friend who committed suicide by leaping in front of the Lexington Avenue subway in New York City. Break Shot is only available in audio. It is one of the rare examples of a memoir that would not be as memorable in print. Taylor’s voice and music are vital to this fine work.


            In July 2015, we were seated one evening on the right field side of Boston’s Fenway Park. For once, we weren’t here to see the Red Sox play. Instead we were attending James Taylor’s first concert in Fenway. The longtime Massachusetts resident was accompanied by the incomparable Bonnie Raitt. Taylor had just released his first album in 14 years. It contained a song dedicated to the end of the long World Series drought for the Red Sox, who won the title in 2004 for the first time in 86 years. Angels of Fenway is a bit corny, but not if you’re a diehard Red Sox fan who waited a lifetime for this moment – and who has a passel of kin who didn’t live to see it happen. That includes me and my mother’s side of the family.

James Taylor turns 72 in March. More than a half-century after recording Sweet Baby James, he’s back touring with Jackson Browne and others. If the stars align, we’ll catch him somewhere this year. If not, we can always listen to Break Shot again, or Sweet Baby James.


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