Perfect Sound Forever


Photo by Ambrose Blaine. Courtesy of Train Wreck Records

On His Latest Album, the Writer of "Wild Thing" Considers All Living Things
By Kurt Wildermuth

Explore Chip Taylor's videos on YouTube, read the user comments, and you find countless variations on one sentiment: To know him is to love him. "I've just discovered this man's music," a person will note, "and I can't believe I've lived without it this long."

But while the commenters may be responding to songs from the 1990s or 2000s, Taylor is in his eighties and has been making music since the late 1950s (give or take a decade). Some of the man's music has sold millions, been heard by generations, and entered pop-cultural DNA. Countless people love music he has had a hand in, and among them may be many or even most of these YouTube commenters; new recruits to Taylor's fan base have previously had his music in their heads, in their lives, without even knowing it. In fact, checking out his body of work can be like checking in on an old friend.

Checking In

Chip Taylor wrote the infectious "I Can't Let Go." You may know this pop-rock confection from Evie Sands's 1965 original, The Hollies' 1966 recording, or Linda Rondstadt's 1980 version. Hear it in any form, and you'll most likely want to hear it again immediately. Let's hear it: "Well, I try, and I try / But I can't say goodbye"! Taylor also wrote "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," which you may know from Janis Joplin's scorching 1969 recording. If you're familiar with Joplin's music, it probably won't take much effort for you to recall her wailing the word "try." You may not even think of the song as having been written. It just seems to have risen spontaneously out of Joplin or out of the earth and up through her. It feels like a force of nature, a living thing.

Taylor also wrote "Angel of the Morning." You may know it from the 1968 #1 hit by Merrillee Rush or from the 1981 #4 hit by Juice Newton. You may know it from versions by Olivia Newton-John, Kim Carnes, Nina Simone, Evie Sands, or Taylor himself. If you know it, chances are good that without even trying you can summon up the chorus: "Just call me angel of the morning / Angel / Just touch my cheek before you leave, baby."

Most notably, Taylor wrote a little thing called "Wild Thing." You may not know it from the original, 1965 version, by the obscure rock band The Wild Ones. You may not know the versions by The Kingsmen, Manfred Mann, The Ventures, The Standells, X, or some band of outsiders currently rehearsing it in a garage. There's also something truly different and lovely: Sister Carol's reggae-pop version on the soundtrack of the 1986 movie Something Wild. But back in 1966, The Troggs unleashed the (so far) definitive version, which stomps along with the perfect combination of sweetness, lust, and edge. To some ears that track will always be welcome, because "Wild thing / you make my heart sing" and the rest of it are so damn much fun to hear, sing, and stomp along with.

Having written "Wild Thing" is like having written "Happy Birthday." How many times in your life have you heard either one? How hard is it for you to conjure it up? Say what you will about "Wild Thing," its few elements, its elemental appeal. Look at it on the page, and it doesn't add up to much. We say songs are written, but Taylor writes performance pieces, which come alive when set in motion. In that sense, they become living things.

Consider that Jimi Hendrix, one of the towering figures not just of our time but for ages to come, liked "Wild Thing" enough to perform it live and release a live version. Hendrix no doubt cherished the opportunity the lyrics gave him to say "groovy," but beyond that, the bare-bones construction gave him just enough structure to fire his guitar pyrotechnics from. Plus, like his own "Foxy Lady," the song enabled him to celebrate a physical passion that extends into the spiritual, existential, cosmic: "You make everything . . . groovy" never sounds like a celebration of what's surrounding the speaker's senses. It refers to everything.

The thing about that song is that it gives you just enough: just enough words to convey the situation, or a situation, and let you enter in and either inhabit or build out the story, plus just enough power and crunch to totally rock. Play that song on an acoustic guitar, slowly and bluesily as Taylor has been known to do, even into his eighties, and it still captivates and conveys the singer's passion for this wild thing.

In a YouTube performance promoting his charming, highly recommended 2020 recording Dad & the Monkey, Taylor notes that he wrote "Wild Thing" by request, and it took him all of twenty minutes to bang out. Other songwriters might have thrown it away as not much of anything, or they might have embellished it. He knew--instinctively, it seems--when enough was enough. He left it that, and the result has been catching ears and lodging in memories ever since.

The thing, or a thing, about Chip Taylor is that he hasn't turned his back on or grown sick of "Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning," or his other early gems. For as long as people pay attention to pop-rock of the twentieth century, they'll be hearing, humming, and thinking about those songs. Royalties from them have most likely been paying the songwriter's bills for decades, and he's grateful.

Photo by Jackson David. Design by Elin Olsson. Courtesy of Train Wreck Records

Those things--the ability to know when enough is enough, when a song's written sufficiently and ready to be realized in performance, and attention to the past--run through Taylor's latest recording, The Cradle of All Living Things. Decades of making music, and even more decades of living, culminate in a trove of twenty-eight short songs.

If you know nothing about Chip Taylor, not even that he wrote classics, these new songs stand alone. If you know bits of his history, you can add entertainment value by connecting dots, treating details like puzzle pieces. Some of Taylor's songs come across as autobiographical. Others seem more complicated. Their starting points and significances may be for him and those closest to him to know.

Telling the Chip Taylor Story

Taylor was born James Wesley Voight, brother of the geologist Barry and the actor Jon (and eventually, yes, he became the uncle of Angelina Jolie). He grew up in Yonkers, a small city just north of New York City. As fledgling performer Wes Voight, he put out a few rockabilly singles in 1958-59, including the delightful "I'm Ready to Go Steady." As Chip Taylor, he put out a few pop singles in 1961-62. (Longtime fans refer to 1960 as "the missing year," i.e. the one in which he morphed from Voight to Taylor. I'm only kidding, though it's easy to picture him as Clark Kent turning into Superman.)

As an up-and-coming songwriter hawking his wares in NYC and associated with the Brill Building, Taylor placed songs with Gene Pitney, Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, and Aretha Franklin. By the '70s, having made a name for himself in the pop-rock world, this city boy parlayed his love of country music into recording pop-folk-country-rock albums under his own name, becoming a compatriot of legends such as Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Goodman, and John Prine.

In the '80s, Taylor left the music business and became a professional gambler. By the latter '90s, he had returned to writing and recording, covering his best-known songs on the 1996 collection Hit Man. He then started his own label, the ongoing Train Wreck Records.

For the past two decades, he has been on a streak. Whereas some performers enter into a semiretirement of low-key self-releases, Taylor has experienced resurgences thanks to that ever-present ability to make memorable, catchy music. His 2012 song "Fuck All the Perfect People," also known as "F**k All the Perfect People" and "Screw All the Perfect People," was used on the Netflix TV series Sex Education in 2019, went viral, and was covered by the English ska-pop-rock band The Specials in 2021.

Getting Back to The Cradle

The Cradle of All Living Things mines the rich vein of Taylor's recent work. As always, he uses simple materials to get to the heart of the matter. The materials then move from the performer's heart to the receptive listener's heart. However, heads are involved. The transmission process remains mysterious, really. It doesn't always work perfectly.

Anyway, the hell with all the perfect songwriting machines, the generators of things guaranteed to reach their target audiences and bring in tons of money. Perfection has its place in everything, and it's an admirable goal. But in art, it comes second, at least second, to reaching the heart.

Do I believe that? I think I do. Reaching the heart comes first, then reaching the head, then achieving perfection. And beauty? Beauty happens somewhere between the heart and head and may involve perfection.

To reach any of those points, the thing must be built. The Cradle of All Living Things is built on human life's most basic elements: heartbeat and breath. You don't hear them, exactly. You feel them pulsing, as fundamental to the songs as the strums of Taylor's acoustic guitar. Each song rises from his close-miked guitar and voice. Those elements would be enough, in that they capture what this man sounded like at this time. But added to them are the always careful additions of his collaborators. You could have the result playing in the background and enjoy the feel of it, but the details beg for attentive listening.

Somehow, despite the musicians' light touches, the results never become precious. Maybe it's because of their light touches. Taylor works with people who get him, plus get the songs and perform in service of their expression. On The Cradle of All Living Things, Taylor's longtime associate John Platania plays guitars and dobro. Goran Grini coproduces with Taylor and plays acoustic and electric keyboards, harmonica, bass, and more. Magnus Olson plays some drums, percussion, and vibraphone. Tony Mercadante plays bass on one track.

Despite its professionalism, the recording invites us into crevices of the music-making process. Taylor sings with the kind of ragged yet right "lion in winter" voice we know from Billie Holiday, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan. At points his voice breaks. He counts off at the start of some songs. In "Oh It Feels Kinda Different," he either includes "oh fuck" and "oh shit" in the lyrics because these phrases stand for screwing up, or he injects them spontaneously after actually screwing up while singing. Such aesthetic choices seem deliberately, intriguingly unclear.

Among those choices are which bits of his experience become starting points for songs. Taylor clearly delights in transforming the stuff of life--phrases, events, ephemera. It is tempting to say he lives for making songs out of what comes his way, but the songs say otherwise, that the life matters more than the art: "you're every song I sing," he declares to a loved one in this collection's "Closing Time."

In rendering material, he generally delivers just the right amounts of sensitive, sweet poetic, ornery. As when he declared "Wild Thing" finished, not a sketch but a song, Taylor knows where to draw the line, and he seems unlikely to step over that line for any reward.

Maybe, way back when, a combination of obsessiveness and self-knowledge led to his being a minimalist. In other words, know your limits or risk going too far. One consistent quality of Taylor's work throughout the decades is not going too far. In the pursuit of something understatedly spiritual, how little can you say and play and have it still be music?

Considering the Title . . . and More

At first glance, the title The Cradle of All Living Things might seem grandiose. Has Taylor's writing spilled over into the purple, or has his self-presentation overheated? But then, what does the phrase mean? Is the cradle itself a thing, a place, a state of mind, an action, or what?

The song of that title never spells out Taylor's take. A lesser songwriter would have felt the need to elaborate on the metaphor, but Taylor draws you in and gives you the freedom to complete the work. In that way, you make it partly your own.

Add to the open-endedness of the title these lines: "you save the world / when your alarm clock rings." What does that mean? Save it in what sense? This idea isn't just interesting to contemplate; it's inspiring. It's just poetic enough. It hits the heart by way of the head. It's beautiful.

And Taylor knew it. These lines struck him as worthy of being called out on a kind of dedication page within the elegantly designed gatefold CD cover, featuring a grainy photo of hands. The dedication itself could be to a person or to God.

The rest of the title track avoids pseudo-profundity by focusing on the details of life. Taylor has explored a song genre called little prayers, and this song becomes a prayer for everyday people: "bless the children. . forced to work in the fields / and bless the mothers. . who invent every meal / and the fathers. . who trade in all their dreams." (This unique use of double ellipses is Taylor's own.)

The music evokes the cast-iron folk ballads of yesteryear, its unembellished melody not dated but timeless. It swings gently. A piano solo enlivens the somber proceedings.

And that previous paragraph pretty much lays out the sonic groundwork of The Cradle of All Living Things. The tempos tend to be glacial, picking up slightly for the country-inflected numbers. Don't expect Taylor to suddenly speed up, rock out, or become a motormouth. Don't expect to do aerobics to these songs, but don't expect to do yoga either. Do expect to hang on, to enjoy the way each of the four "sides" progresses, and to savor the variations as the songs reveal themselves.

Under the surface rest a series of moods. Every piece of music asks you to enter, exit, or both in a particular mood. The entrance mood for this collection is quiet, open to seeing possibility in a very little something. The exit mood is thoughtful calm with a bit of uplift. Fans of the more downbeat yet transcendent Americana or alt-country artists, such as The Walkabouts and Gillian Welch, will feel right at home.

Had Taylor's contemporary Joan Baez not retired--and ended her recording career with the magnificently autumnal Whistle Down the Wind (2018), which showcases her newly deepened voice--she could have performed many or most of these songs. They don't reach out and grab you, they more sneak up on you and suck you in, but they could yield revelatory covers.

Reading Autobiographically . . . Or Not

Listeners to Taylor's duets over the years with Carrie Rodriguez, Kendel Carson, and Lucinda Williams know how well his voice pairs with a woman's. On "The Cradle of All Living Things," Taylor is joined by the Norwegian singer Hege Brynildsen. Sounding like a sibling of the classic Canadian-American folk-pop duo Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Brynildsen helps Taylor connect traditions across continents.

Two songs later, Brynildsen reappears on "True Love," a charmingly low-key dialogue in which she questions Taylor about how true love works. When asked how he knows, Taylor replies, "well I've been around, around and around / with my true love." That "around and around" implies volumes. Experience yields knowledge, but the process can be complicated. Life gets messy, and routes seldom prove straightforward. Love can take you places you never expected--around in a pleasant dance, around and around until you're dizzy or more.

In "reading" a song such as "True Love," we naturally assume that the "I" is Taylor and that the good and bad experiences suggested are his own. If we know that Taylor is married to a woman, Joan, whom he has known since their early teens, we might assume that she is the true love. Or a true love.

Of course, we might be wrong. How much of any song, by anyone, is fiction only the songwriter can say. While Taylor peppers his lyrics and performances with autobiographical details, he always leaves room for the audience to work with what he provides. He doesn't spell everything out. He is, after all, the writer of the one song, of all the songs in history, that delivers the biggest bang for its few bucks.

Do I believe that? I think I do.

Taylor has written songs that include Joan's name. Her name doesn't appear in this collection, but perhaps she is the loved one addressed in this collection's "How Come That Always Happens" ("deep in life's forest. . is the beat of your heart"), "It Is Written" ("in the book of love in my heart"), "So Selfishly Loved" ("I am more beautiful with you"), "I Don't Know Much" ("I can touch my love for you"), "Someone to Live For" ("he calls his number. . she picks up the phone"), and the aforementioned "Closing Time" ("you're every song I sing").

Trickier cases are "Only a Song," which refers to "this hurt I feel from losing you"; "I Don't Know Which Song I'll Sing Tonight," which finds the singer abandoned by his loved one; and "The Good and the Bad," where the singer acknowledges "this good thing that we have had" but warns his loved one about the potential bad things. He has acted unfortunately before and, being imperfect, may do so again.

It seems odd that at this stage in their lives he'd be losing Joan, unloved by her, or warning her. So who knows. Maybe they're old songs. Maybe they're fiction. Maybe he's projecting into situations. In any case, it seems a safe bet that bad things will happen, as they happen to all living things.

If you know another detail in Taylor's biography--a pretty big one, it seems--you see what I did in that last sentence. Taylor's stint as a professional gambler led to a gambling addiction. While that problem may be part of his past, it remains on his mind.

For example, "The Good and the Bad" refers to "cards on the table," "last hand," and "cash[ing] in our chips at the door." "Even Money" presents life as "a gamble" where you turn over cards and find out what "you've been dealt." You play those cards as best you can, "respect them all," and recognize that some of them are "wild."

Indeed, "in the cradle of all living things," some "things" are "wild." In these songs, did Taylor use the words "things" and "wild" on purpose, or are they just built into his way of thinking and thus his songwriting kit? Wild things run fast was Joni Mitchell's take, on her 1982 album of that title. Taylor sees wild things as unknowable, variable, captivating, and fragile.

Looking Outward

The Cradle of All Living Things considers how life works, can work, or doesn't work. Where Taylor doesn't seem to be looking at his own life and loves, he addresses other people. For example, "Talking Outside Yourself" applies this unique turn of phrase to someone who is avoiding the personal, substituting some conversational topic for an emotional connection.

In the moody, mysterious "Sofia," Taylor repeatedly issues a series of "oh's" that start as moans and end as an acknowledgment. But of what, exactly? Sofia is "lightning beyond the rain," but her situation remains abstract: "didn't you blast that door right down." Unless Taylor fills us in on Sofia, no amount of listening will get to the bottom of this song. By contrast, "Give Her Away Jonny" couldn't be more concrete, as the singer offers advice with "no compensation needed. . or wanted / or accepted."

"That's What I Like About the Sky" employs a kind of surrealism. The verses, about "my friend Kate," and the chorus, about things one sees in the sky, seem unconnected, like the verses and choruses in "Fuck All the Perfect People" but more so. What's it all about, Chip?

In a spoken introduction, Taylor explains that "Anthony" concerns the celebrity chef, writer, world traveler, and TV host Anthony Bourdain, who committed suicide in 2018. The song focuses on how the man's good qualities failed to prevent his bad end. How is it that one talented person with a melancholy or even depressive streak dies too soon, whereas another lives long enough to ponder the mess of things?

Summing Up

Maybe halfway between the autobiographical and the outward-looking lie songs that sum up experience. "On Reflection" typifies this batch, with the singer asking "you," probably himself, if you'd "like to take back things you have done." The answer isn't to regret the past but to improve yourself in the present: "keep the bar high keep your feet dry and step / the way a proud man steps."

"Twenty Years Ago" finds the singer looking back at himself, then projecting ahead to when a younger woman is remembering him: "did he speak the truth. . well just maybe."

Taylor similarly plays with time in the allegorical "Animals on the Beach." At the start, in what the lyric booklet identifies as a "prologue," Taylor provides a date, a place, a time--basically the present, presumably where the inspiration struck. He then describes a scenario involving animals and humans. Then, in what the lyric booklet identifies as a "setting," Taylor jumps decades into the future and revises the scenario. By the end, the animals on the beach have revealed things about human animals. At this point in his life, Taylor could have settled into writing any one song over and over, but I know of no song quite like "Animals on the Beach," which could be a mashup of the philosopher Plato and the science-fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin.

The politically minded LeGuin surely would have appreciated "Planetary Scheme of Things," which contemplates a universal order based on giving love to those in need. The singer pledges allegiance to "the resistance / to keeping humans on the floor."

Similarly, "One More Dream to Go" advocates putting "one foot after another" both to cheer oneself up and to offer help to someone, anyone, in need. "Do You Feel OK" depicts one person offering sympathy to another. "Wounded Bird" compares helping another to nursing an animal.

The elegant finale, "Why Didn't I Think of That Before," finds wisdom in turning away from oneself and toward others, "do[ing] some little thing for somebody else." Taylor puts a fresh spin on this homily through timing: the singer, near the end of life, wonders what took him so long to realize what matters.

Signing Off

Throughout The Cradle of All Living Things, Taylor sounds like an octogenarian taking stock. He also comes across as a vibrant artist whose materials just happen to be age, time, memory, experience, wisdom, love, popular-music structures, and lived-in licks.

The lived-in feeling is key. During that Dad & the Monkey YouTube performance from 2020, Taylor expressed satisfaction with his then-current batch of songs, saying they felt lived-in. How must he feel about this latest batch. Only two years have passed, but the world is now coming to terms with so many life-or-death matters: global warming, fascistic so-called populism, criminal war, famine, repressive and murderous religious fanaticism, and the effects of a global pandemic, including the death of Taylor's friend John Prine, who survived cancer and then was felled by Covid-19.

Such events seem to rumble below the surface of these songs. The cradle of all living things is, in one sense, the world. And each song on The Cradle of All Living Things is a little world. Those worlds add up to a bigger world--indeed, a world view--and the whole connects in direct, indirect, and sly ways to the even bigger world, which we like to call the real world. The connection extends from one person, in his particular place in space and time, to whoever cares enough to listen. The danger would be that the particulars of his place don't generalize, but mostly these do. When they don't, when the details risk meaning more to Taylor than to listeners, then beautiful melodies, finely crafted accompaniment, and unguarded delivery carry the songs.

Do I believe that? I do.

Case in point here is "Lost Pictures." The genesis of this song appears to be Taylor's receipt of an old photo. That it seems to be of someone we don't know--someone we can identify by going outside the recording, doing a web search, watching a video--could be a problem, as when a song becomes dated because of a topical reference. But when the chorus of "Lost Pictures" celebrates

special memories
of someone. . who made you someone
better than you were

--Taylor delivers these lines with dry-eyed conviction. We enter the situation at his invitation, drawing on our own experiences but also reliving his experience through the special evocative power of music.

Photo by Ambrose Blaine. Courtesy of Train Wreck Records

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