I’ve got no idea what this song is about. Oh, I could apply my collegiate interpretive skills and come up with some stuff, tell you what certain phrases mean, but really it’s as impressionistic to me as a late nineteenth century French painting with as much obfuscation as a Picasso.
Most people think “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon” is James Taylor’s second album. And for most purposes, it was. The first available so briefly on Apple Records before it disappeared. But I always preferred the original take of “Carolina In My Mind” and I love the segues and come on, “Circle ‘Round The Sun,” even back then it reminded me of the majesty of life, the power of interpersonal relationships.
But “Sweet Baby James” was simpler. Like an art restorer had scrubbed away the accoutrements and only the essence was left. And who could predict it would be such a gigantic hit. You see at that point, singer-songwriters did not dominate the hit parade. And it wasn’t like JT worked with rappers on the side, wrote hits for pop acts, he was just doing his own thing by his lonesome and it clicked.
Not that they didn’t know they had something special.
And the most special song on that second album for me was “Country Road,” do you know even Al Kooper did a cover? Al could always pick the tracks.
But “Country Road,” it took numerous plays for the title track to sink in, even though the references to the Berkshires puts “Sweet Baby James” over the top for me now. Yet the first cut that resonated was the one before the closer on side one, “Country Road.” I guess I just like those songs that could never be a hit, that were never shooting for that, those that pick you up and take you somewhere, grab your hand, get you to stand up and walk into the wilderness, kinda like “Take Me To The Pilot” off of Elton John’s first (really second!) album, “Your Song” was the hit, but I loved the romp that came thereafter. Eventually I got into “The King Must Die” and “Sixty Years On,” but what made me an Elton John fan was “Take Me To The Pilot,” I used to live to drop the needle on that in my dorm room, it just shot lightning through my body, made me feel powerful, like the guy on this disc and me were on the same page, I was always looking to belong, I was always looking for my tribe.
Walk on down
Walk on down
Walk on down
This was back when we saved our money for stereos and guitars. We adjusted the speed of the turntable to the LP and then we figured out the chords, “Country Road” was one of the songs I could play and sing, I had a big yellow legal pad of the songs I’d figured out, my own personal fake book.
And then came “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.”
Am I the only person who loves “Love Has Brought Me Around”? No one ever mentions it, but I got it from the very first play and did not love “You’ve Got A Friend,” although I did cotton to Carole King’s iteration, with her banging her hands on the piano like she meant it.
Now this was back when you had to buy an album to hear it. Before they decided to sell LPs by making it a value proposition, of multiple hit singles. No, you were a fan and you laid down your money, broke the shrinkwrap and found out what you got.
Now one of my favorite JT songs is on the second side of “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.” That cut is “You Can Close Your Eyes,” which is billed a a lullaby, a tale from an oldster to a young ‘un, but that’s not how I ever saw it, I saw it as the words of someone world-weary, a traveler who’s stopping by just this night and is worn down and exasperated but after a few drinks and a few smokes reveals the bond that you shared and always will. Isn’t it great when an old friend connects? You used to see each other every day, now it’s much rarer than that, but the connection is palpable, it’s what you live for, it’s what makes life worth living.
And then there’s the next cut, “Machine Gun Kelly,” with its spoken intro and studio talk and hypnotic groove, we read about this one in advance, in “Rolling Stone,” the burgeoning music press, and unlike the Eagles’ “Desperado” soon to come it was less a hearkening back to what once was than a modern tale with a criminal moniker. Listening is like being in the first grade, maybe second, remember singing in rounds? Remembering singing at all?
I’d ask you if you remembered laughter, but this was after the misfire of “Led Zeppelin III,” ZOSO was yet to come.
And when I bought the CD, which was one of my initial digital purchases, I used to program three tracks ad infinitum, and the third was “Riding On The Railroad.” Travel used to be the American Pastime, getting in your car with the journey being more important than the destination, before flight was de rigueur and you could be anywhere in a matter of hours, go to a football game out of state on a whim. Now no one ever moves, but they fly all kinds of places. Used to be we didn’t fly hardly at all, it was too expensive, but moving was something we did on a regular basis. Ask a baby boomer how many apartments he’s lived in. We went away to college and never thought about returning home, we led peripatetic lives and lord only knows how we ended up where we did. No, that’s wrong, I ended up in California because of the music, because of the Beach Boys.
Now there are other good tracks on “Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon,” most especially the second side opener “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox,” and “Places In My Past” and “Long Ago And Far Away,” but the one going through my brain at the kitchen table was “Mud Slide Slim.”
Snippets were floating through my mind…
I’ve been letting the time go by
Letting the time go by
Have I? And what does this mean anyway? Should he speed up or slow down? I wonder this all the time. Do I stop and smell the roses or buckle down?
‘Cause there’s nothing like
The sound of sweet soul music
To change a young lady’s mind
That’s what they were, young ladies. I remember my dad insisting the letters I sent to girls being addressed MISS! All our music had boys and girls, men and women, we were all looking for a relationship, we had our long hair and bell bottoms, our look, we were just waiting for someone to open their heart to us, in the meantime all we had were these records.
I’m gonna cash in my hand and
Pick up on a piece of land
And build myself a cabin back in the woods
This was during the Back To The Land movement. After the tumult of the sixties, the failures of the Movement, people wanted to check out, leave the metropolis, bake their own bread and experience nature. Just imagine, with no internet!
Mud Slide, I’m depending upon you
Mister Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon
Who am I depending upon? The older I get the more I realize you can only depend upon yourself. I’ve met too many famous people to believe they’re vessels for our hopes and dreams, they’re flawed just like you and me. But once or maybe twice, or if truly talented even thrice, they channeled genius, and their works still survive. It’s funny, no one wants to watch the movies of yore, never mind the TV shows, but the music, we’re still listening.
And when I listen I feel whole.
I’ve been in a spot where I can’t eat, I can’t sleep and then when my brain started singing “Mud Slide Slim” I realized that was my escape, my ticket out, to put on the record and…