Photo by Simone Lipscomb
Her mother was a fat clown in a little dog act
She used to hit Jean until Jean hit her back
Stole a little red guitar and some gasoline
She won’t do no better without me
I’m carnival Jim, she’s just Jean
She’s as cold as Minnesota but she can’t cook or clean
She can play a little guitar and you ought to hear her sing
“Carnival Jim and Jean”
Eric Taylor stands tall under his black beret on the Frog Pond stage in Silverhill, Alabama playing his guitar and telling stories of late-night horseback rides with Townes Van Zandt and lessons about women learned from Tennessee Williams. Memories are preludes of songs about the carnival life hustle of Jim and Jean or the strength of a woman who can close her Maybelline eyes and say goodbye. Taylor takes his time as stories unwind in stream-of-consciousness that ex-wife Nanci Griffith once compared to William Faulkner, then he circles back to where he began.
The voice of the man who survived heroin addiction, four marriages, a triple bypass, and many bottles of whiskey, gets deeper, richer, and more dramatic with age. It is the same voice with or without the guitar and it is often interrupted by pauses that give his listener time to squirm or to draw wrong conclusions. Taylor is a part of the Texas songwriters circle that includes the Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Griffith and the late Van Zandt, and Lovett recorded several of his songs.
“I had no idea that anything like this would happen to me, I never plan or prepare for anything,” Taylor says. “The difficulty of interviewing me is I will tell you the truth. Sometimes that can be a problem. I know who I am and I probably would not invite myself into my own house.”
Taylor lives a life that could fill many songs but most of his lyrics are not autobiographical or cathartic. He grew up in McDonough, Georgia, and his first guitar was a used Silvertone from Sears that he bought from a friend for $2.50. The tuning pick was broken so he used pliers to tune. “The Silvertone was a bad guitar, but I loved it and could play it right away,” Taylor says. “I sat on the toilet and played in the bathroom most of the time because it sounded better than anywhere else. I played it until my fingers bled.”
That Silvertone led to playing in a soul band and forced his early independence. “I played in a rhythm-and-blues band called The House David and the Four Counts. We were a white band with four black singers, but in the ‘60s in Georgia, that was not something people thought you should do,” says Taylor. “My parents forced me to make a choice so I moved into a boarding house and worked to put myself through high school. I worked at The Colonial Store before and after school, and on Saturdays and Sundays I worked 12 hours a day at MJ Upchurch service station pumping gas and breaking down tires and making $100 a week. A friend’s father sold his ‘51 Chevrolet to me for $100. I had it for six years and called it the ‘Jungle Cruiser.’
“It was good for me to get away from home but it was very difficult and I was alone and criticized,” he says. My brother found me at Hubbard’s Barbershop and beat me with a pool stick and put a gun to my head threatening to kill me, but I kept doing it because I walked the line for black folks and civil rights.
Playing in bands such as The Nomads, The Sonics, and The Sonics Six were his escape. “I hated high school and couldn’t live out who I was,” says Taylor. “People didn’t like that I was a reader, a writer, and an actor. They called me an arrogant intellectual. They also didn’t like that I was a friend with the first black student in our high school. High school was one of the worst experiences I ever had except for my girlfriend who was the first woman I ever fell in love with, but I screwed it up. I absolutely made a mess of it and I continued to do that in relationships for the rest of my life.”
After graduation, Taylor briefly attended a few classes with friends at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “I realized it was a Catholic school and I didn’t like them and they didn’t like me,” he says. “I went to Texas as soon as I could. When I was a child, my father broke everything in my face and I had family in Texas who took me in. I always wanted to get back to Texas. I finally did and I have been there for 40 years.”
Photo by Simone Lipscomb
Other stories say he sold his guitar for money to move to California, and on the way he stopped and spent the night in Houston, got a job washing dishes, and never left. The timing was lucky for Taylor because Guy Clark, Van Zandt, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Carolyn Hester were playing in Houston with the literate lines, and careful imagery that echoes through the music of Texas songwriters. Taylor started out as a storyteller then put music behind it. “Most of my songs come from prose and short stories that I take apart and edit,” he says. “My first song was called ‘Trip of the Golden Calf.’ I grew up in a very biblical, Baptist family so my first song was rebellion against religion.”
Southern writers, including Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee are some of the most influential people in Taylor’s life. He was also influenced by legendary songwriters and many of them are friends. “My whole life has been a string of lucky meetings and all of them influenced me,” he says.”They have been an incredible part of my life.
“Patty Griffin is the best songwriter in America. She looks like a little mouse, but she is incredible,” he says. “I love Townes as much as anyone can love him and he was one of the great songwriters, but there is only so far you can go with him. He never told you the true story. My attitude in writing is tell the true story. However, he wrote ‘My legs know how to love someone’ in ‘Highway Kind.’ That is a great line and it is more of a love song than anything I’ve ever heard. It is my legs that will make it happen. It is not my telling, it is my touching. Writing should be touching you that way. It is the interaction of poetry.”
Taylor met Tennessee Williams through his friend and television talk show host Dick Cavett. Taylor learned from Williams’ appreciation of women and how to write about them. “Tennessee would say, ‘My mother, my mother was a delicate survivor of the elements of life.’” Taylor repeats the line in the deep, raspy voice of good friend and inspiration Carson McCullers.
“ ‘Adios’ is about the strength of women. Women are much stronger than men– they are able to move along and be alone. Men fear being alone. I fear being alone. I’ve been married four times, but how do you know if you are in love or not? I have not been very successful. I’ve always feared being alone and I write from that fear. I write about what I think about because it is the only thing I know.”
“I’ve been thinking about moving on. I don’t know, just some place. These Maybelline eyes will soon be gone and I’ll close them tight and forget your face.”
Taylor is most comfortable on stage standing behind the music stand that holds his black binder of songs. “When I am on stage, I know where I am,” he says. “It is where I know what I am doing. I like it when a song makes someone shift in his or her seat. If I see them move, then I know I have made a connection and invited them into my life. I hope my music makes people uncomfortable and makes them laugh and makes them think. I want people to be entertained. I am much more like a carny that juggles words and tries to put them in the right place than an artist. Artist is a threadbare, worn term. I would much rather be a carny.”
Taylor’s songs are often described as dark and despairing, but he doesn’t see them that way.
“I love to love people but I don’t know if that is clear in my writing,” he says. “I see the beauty in people but I can’t write a love song about a beautiful woman because writing about that is superficial. Every love song I’ve ever written is stupid because loving a woman is immediate and attempting to write a love song cheapens it. Love is the graciousness of meeting a person, touching another person, and putting your finger on her warm face. I could never write a love song about that.”
Taylor says the concept of people’s eyes also makes a writer because the eyes show human understanding. “If someone looks at you like they are seeing you, it makes them interesting,” he says. “There are a lot of beautiful things about women but the way they look at you with their eyes is what you write about. If you fall in love with someone you fall in love with her eyes. Eyes are the entrance of humanity. Eyes first, lips second. That could be my first mistake.
“There is a difference in the feeling between love and lust and writing is the same way,” he says. “You know when you are blowing smoke up someone’s ass or really kissing them. Writing is very physical. It is about seeing someone’s eyes, or touching their lips, their face, their belly, or the top of their head. It has to touch you in a way that makes a difference. It’s like touching someone’s lips or their belly.”
For Taylor, performing and songwriting is about loving the listener and his job is to write the next best line that he can. “A performance should be like someone kissing your closed eyes,” he says. “I learned from Leonard Cohen that if you write a song about a woman you should know about that woman. If you don’t write like you love someone, then you aren’t writing. If songwriters don’t get that, then they are writing pop songs.”
Heard about the rivers in those Texas towns
Careful of the current and the cottonmouth
Well it’s a bad muddy water with a poison tooth
But I never heard a word about you
Out on the highway and the San Anton
Careful of the café with a jukebox moan
There’s a crazy little fat man in a corner booth
And he never said a word about you.
There ought to be a bolt of lightning, ought to be a sign from God
Ought to be some kind of warning with who you are
Ought to be two hawks flying sign of the diamond back
The cry of the black train hollering something’s on this track.
Beautiful danger wears two faces best
Likes the beaded lizard of the West
Hemingway’s shotgun finally told the truth
But it never said a word about you.
Photos by Simone Lipscomb and Beth Childs0