For most of us who grew up in the 70s, James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” was one of those songs that became like a puzzle to figure out. The lyrics were ambiguous, and we had no real way to uncover their meaning other than to think about them, and talk about them, and draw our own conclusions. Taylor’s mention of “Susanne” in the first stanza led many of us to believe that she must have been a love interest of his. The later reference to “sweet dreams and flying machines” prompted the thought that she must have died in a plane crash. Any time a song contains lyrics that are not quite clear, especially if it seems to be related to tragic things, it becomes even more haunting and we listen to it endlessly trying to learn more each time. In interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine, VH1 Storytellers, and NPR, that are widely referenced in online articles about the song, Taylor explains that it was actually written in three parts, at three different times. The opening part of the song was about his friend Susie Schnerr who he’d met in New York in 1966-67 when he was just a teenager performing with his band called The Flying Machine. She later committed suicide when Taylor was in London finishing up a debut album for Apple records. His friends kept the news from him so as not to derail his success. The second part of the song references his arrival in London in the midst of a full blown heroin addiction, and his need to finally “make a stand” against his drug use which had been escalating for years. The third and fourth verses of the song were written in Austen Riggs, a private psychiatric facility in Stockbridge Massachusetts, where Taylor had committed himself in the hopes of finally overcoming his addiction and depression. The line “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground” refers back to both the failure of his first band specifically, and, more generally, to what he thought was the demise of his fledgling music career. By 1970, however, Taylor left Apple records and signed with Warner Brothers, with whom he released the album Sweet Baby James, which eventually reached the #3 position on the Billboard charts. Its second single was the wildly successful “Fire and Rain,” much to Taylor’s surprise, because he found it odd that such a deeply personal song would capture people’s interest. Oh but James, those are the songs we love the best!
I think what moves us so much about “Fire and Rain” is very similar to what touches our hearts so deeply in the movie Brooklyn that I wrote about this past Monday. When we listened to this song when we were young we were often in the midst of our own heartaches, of one sort or another, and its mournfulness helped express those for us. We didn’t realize at that point that life is a series of juxtapositions, captured so elegantly and succinctly in the song’s title, that help us to understand that we cannot know or appreciate true happiness and that sense of arriving home, without having gone through deep sorrow and real struggle. We gain this understanding as we grow older and navigate the highs and lows that life sends our way. The universality of the song is found in the lines “I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end / I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.” We’ve all been in both these places, and this particular song articulates for us the realization that we cannot arrive in one without having experienced the other. Interestingly enough, Carole King played piano on “Fire and Rain” and went on to write the song “You’ve Got a Friend” for James Taylor, which he would later perform. She wanted him to know that he would always have a friend in her.
Today’s cocktails are two simple Martinis, both made with Plymouth gin and Dolin Dry vermouth. For the first, which is meant to represent Fire, I added Giffard Pamplemouse liqueur for its color and two dashes of Hella Smoked Chili bitters for their heat. For the Rain cocktail, I used Giffard Blue Curaçao and DRAM Citrus Medica bitters to bring out a bit more citrus flavor. I presented them as shots in the photo just for the effect, but you can certainly drink them this way if you’d like. Otherwise, they will work just as nicely as Martinis, with the measurements bumped up if you have larger glasses. In either case, make sure they are served very, very cold. Cheers everyone. Happy Monday!
Add the ingredients for each cocktail into a mixing glass and stir with ice until very cold. Serve in a Martini glass or as a shot. Adjust measurements as necessary to fill your glass. Garnish with a grapefruit peel for Fire, and an orange peel for Rain. Enjoy!