Fire and Rain is a song written by James Taylor1 that tells the story of both his reaction to a close friend’s suicide and his own struggles with fame and addiction. It’s a beautiful song in both form and message, so it should be no surprise it’s been covered quite often by performers like Andy Williams, John Denver, Roger Whittaker and Cher. What might be surprising is that one of the earliest versions was recorded by the jazz/rock fusion band Blood, Sweat and Tears.
In the summer of 1970 BS&T was at the height of fame, but their album Blood, Sweat & Tears 3 took a terrible beating by critics for what turned out to be political reasons.2 I didn’t give a rip – I bought the record as soon as I could, which happened to be the same weekend I’d finally got a decent stereo record player – paid for with money I’d earned risking life and limb on pre-OSHA roofing job 75 miles away in Seward. I was so stoked that it took me at most fifteen minutes to get the stereo set up in my attic loft .
Blood. Sweat and Tears 3 was going to be the first record played on it.
I had loved the previous album and the anticipation had me so fumble-fingered that it took me three attempts to get the disc on the spindle. When I finally got the record cued up I sat back with my eyes closed anticipating musical genius, but forty-five seconds into Hi-Dee-Ho I sat back up with a “What the hell?”. I kept listening, mollified by the second track which was an excellent (as expected) Steve Katz tune called The Battle but after enduring Lucretia MacEvil and Lucretia’s Reprise I was seconds away from using the disc for skeet shooting.
In my agitation I almost missed the opening notes to Fire & Rain ( instead of a distinct stop/start, Lucretia’s Reprise slowly morphed into the following track) but as I heard David Clayton-Thomas’s uncharacterically soft opening vocals I became intrigued and started putting the shot-shells back in the box.
Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone.
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song,
I just can’t remember who to send it to.
Rather than his usual brash, bluesy sound Clayton-Thomas’ voice is calm and thoughtful through the first verse. The accompanying piano is also subdued, as you’d expect when dealing with the shock of losing someone close, especially a young person who took a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, you’ve got to help me make a stand.
You’ve just got to see me through another day.
My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.
At the beginning of the second verse the soft piano and languid guitar is replaced by a brass fanfare. It’s confusing; while the lyrics resemble a prayer, the combined effect of lyrics, vocal inflection and instruments do not come across as supplication. I have often been taken to task over my non-traditional mode of prayer, so I can understand that rather insistent tone to the message, but there is also a humanistic hint of the individual steps in the grief cycle: denial, anger, bargaining and so on.
Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun.
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.
Well, there’s hours of time on the telephone line to talk about things to come.
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.
Here my thinking becomes less verbal and much more emotional and I find it difficult to separate myself from the vocalist. Coping with death is never easy and with so many recent deaths among my circle the question of mortality becomes overwhelming. The mental images of the sun and the wind conjure up a personal Jungian archetype that allows me to escape:
… the eighteen-year old David hitchhiking.
It’s a familiar and comfortable vision:
- The welcome ache in my legs from walking
- The wind in my too-long-for-Dad’s-taste hair.
- The warm sunlight taking the edge off the cold wind
- The excitement from the uncertainty – the hint of danger.
- The freedom & endless possibilities – I could end up in Seattle! New York! Ninilchik!
In those pre-Walkman days long walks gave me plenty of opportunity to think and at that pivotal time in my life I would contemplate life just as much as I’d contemplate how I liked Debbie’s brown satin vest & miniskirt outfit. That’s why I still love this song now – not because of the outfit, but because it prompts contemplation.
As the song begins to fade the music changes:
Thought I’d see you one more time again.
There’s just a few things coming my way this time around, now.
Thought I’d see you, thought I’d see you, fire and rain, now.
The brass section repeats the fanfare while the guitar work becomes more improvisational as maracas softly keep time to the music. The combined sounds invoke a bittersweet/wistful mood. Touches like this are what make me prefer this version of the song – the arrangement is flawless, and the music contributes as much to the narrative as the lyrics.
….and those maracas? If you really listen they sound like the tread of a young man’s boots as he walks along the highway.
- It was a double-barreled hit for Mr. Taylor, released in early 1970 as both a Top 40 single and as a track on his Sweet Baby James album…though I didn’t find any of this out until I was in college a year-and-a-half later
- Canadian David Clayton-Thomas was having difficulty obtaining a visa to stay in the country and continue recording/performing with the band. His application was “expedited” on the condition that the band would participate in a state-sponsored goodwill tour behind the Iron Curtain.