“Steve Stills got busted,” James Taylor said, squatting by the side of Highway 101 outside Tucumcari, in northeast New Mexico, as Rolling Stone reporter Michael Goodwin looked on.
“Oh, no,” said a startled Laurie Bird, whose brown shag framed a prematurely wise face. “Was it for cocaine?”
“Well, they found cocaine,” Taylor replied with laconic terseness.
After several postponements, Two-Lane Blacktop, Taylor’s feature-film debut, finally began shooting in and around Los Angeles the first week of August. The delays were rooted in casting and cash. Director Monte Hellman had been intrigued by the idea of recruiting non-actors; during the same time he auditioned Taylor, he also took a meeting with another, even manlier singer-songwriter, a Rhodes scholar named Kris Kristofferson. (Kristofferson and Taylor had both performed afternoon sets at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, and Kristofferson recognized another hunky songwriting talent when he saw one.) Hellman was still considering full-time actors as well, like James Caan, a veteran of TV dramas and roles in Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman movies. In the end, he wanted Sam Shepard, a young East Village playwright with a dash of acting experience on his résumé. But when it looked as if his first son would be born during shooting, Shepard backed out. Hellman settled for his second choice—Taylor—but further delays ensued when the original backers bailed out. Hellman and his producer, Michael Laughlin, scrambled to find a new home for their project—eventually winding up with Universal—but as a result, the filming schedule was delayed once more.
The caravan of cast and crew had just arrived in the Albuquerque area when the Stills news broke. On August 14, local paramedics had raced to a hotel in La Jolla, California, after someone reported the sight of what looked like a sick guest crawling around a hallway. When the fire and police departments showed up, they found the man lying on his bed, seemingly having a seizure and talking incoherently. In the room next door was a naked woman; strewn about the suite were cocaine and barbiturates. Stills was promptly arrested. In the middle of the night, he called management assistant Ron Stone at home. Deciding he didn’t want to drive three hours down to La Jolla—and thinking that perhaps his client would learn a thing or two after a night in jail—Stone decided not to post bail. Stills spent the night in a cell and was bailed out by Stone the next morning on a $2,500 bond. “I took some pills, got blown away, and blew my cool, and it ended up like I was ODing on pills,” Stills recounted later to Circus magazine writer Michael Watts. “ . . . I thought one of the people didn’t have their key to the room and the couple across the hall were standing there and went, ‘Aaargh!’ I don’t remember anything else until the lights went on in the room and it was full of policemen.”
Few were surprised by the news. Drugs were rampant in the music business and within the CSNY camp in particular. From their managers to now former drummer Dallas Taylor, everyone knew it was best to steer clear of David Crosby’s omnipresent pot stash—so potent they would feel debilitated after only a few puffs. The cocaine use that ran rampant during the Déjà vu sessions had become a nearly everyday indulgence, a quick stimulant with seemingly no bad consequences. “Wanna pack your nose?” someone in the band or crew would invariably ask drummer Johnny Barbata just before they walked onstage. Even during those times when he didn’t indulge, Barbata would notice the changes onstage, the tempos speeding up as the high kicked in.
By summer, cocaine use beyond rock and roll had risen dramatically. In January, the government’s two-year-old Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs first reported that the drug was making major headway into the United States: “The kids are beginning to learn that it’s pretty much like speed,” one agent announced. The bureau identified Chile as the largest supplier (the coca leaves themselves originated in Peru and Bolivia) and Miami as the most frequent portal of entry. In one major raid in that city, also in January 1970, agents seized twenty-three pounds of pure cocaine—more than the total amount seized in the entire country only ten years before.
Although confiscations quadrupled by the end of the ’60s, the coke industry’s profit margins soared—the highest-quality grade cost $50 a gram—and the smugglers became more devious. They began sneaking it into the United States by way of bras, belts, specially designed compartments in luggage—or, in one massive shipment from Paraguay in June, wrapping the drug packets like Christmas gifts. Combined with a rise in heroin trafficking (a major bust in June involved a shipment of almost two-thousand pounds from France), the shift was ominous and ugly, the stoner-world equivalent of the difference between Woodstock and Altamont.
Taylor himself wasn’t immune to such indulgences. Playing before almost three thousand people at the Shady Grove Music Fair Theater in Maryland, dressed in a T-shirt and shoeless, he impressed Carl Bernstein, then the Washington Post’s music critic before his stint as a political reporter. In his review, Bernstein praised Taylor’s “remarkable voice, full of grace and tenderness yet retaining just the slightest suggestion of a hard edge.” But like many, Bernstein didn’t know how hard or edgy Taylor was. After his breakdown in 1969, culminating with his stay at Austin Riggs, Taylor appeared to have fought his own recurring struggle with hard drugs to a draw. But by the summer, a combination of professional limbo, dope for the taking, and a family separation had caught up with him. The previous year, his mother, Trudy, had filed for divorce from Isaac. Sweet Baby Jameswas making minor headway on the charts yet remained stuck in neutral. Albums like Let It Be, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Déjà vu loomed above it. In flux and living in an atmosphere that invited experimentation—“People looked at you strangely if you weren’t getting high,” he said—Taylor began using once again.
Looking to move his client into larger venues, Taylor’s manager Peter Asher had taken a gamble by booking Taylor into Carnegie Hall for two shows on June 12; each paid $5,000, Taylor’s highest fees to date. To their surprise, ticket sales were brisk. A few months before, a folk legend of a previous era, Phil Ochs, had played the same austere venue, but with a more audacious idea: donning a gold lamé suit and singing Elvis, Buddy Holly, and country songs along with the protest and social commentary songs he’d written so effortlessly in the ’60s. To Ochs, the revolution would only succeed if the working class and the counterculture melded. For his effort, he was booed. By the end of his second show, Ochs had won over the crowd, but the damage to his audience and psyche had been done.
No such reaction greeted Taylor during the first of his two Carnegie sets. Strolling onstage, blushing at the cheers that greeted him, he sank down into a chair and ambled through his standard set: songs from his two albums interspersed with Goffin-King’s “Up on the Roof,” Joni Mitchell’s “For Free,” and his brother Livingston’s “In My Reply.” “Possibly because these taut times demand it, Taylor has been hailed as a bridge over troubled waters,” wrote a Billboard critic. “He is in a place where young people can go and be soothed, clarified and cradled.”
To celebrate, Margaret Corey, one of the women swirling around Taylor, smuggled hash backstage at the hallowed hall. “It was painful and it was risky,” Taylor recalled of the period. “I risked my life for years on drugs and also threatened other people around me or put them at risk. It just felt like an amazing release, like it solved all kinds of problems for me.”
When the production for Two-Lane Blacktop settled down for a few days in Santa Fe, director Hellman decided on another last-minute touch of realism. He cajoled screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer into taking a small role as a hothead conned into a race by Taylor’s character, the Driver. Wurlitzer and Taylor filmed one scene together, then another in which Wurlitzer’s character and his wife (played by Hellman’s own wife, Jaclyn Hellman) argued in a restaurant. Sitting silently at the bar, glancing over as they argued, was Taylor’s Driver. Afterward, Taylor admitted to Wurlitzer he was wasted—the bartender was serving him actual drinks during the scene.
When Hellman had first broached the idea of hiring Taylor for the role, Wurlitzer was concerned. He too had attended Milton Academy, albeit ten years before Taylor, and had heard stories about Taylor’s personal demons and mental state. Taylor’s lack of acting chops also set off a few alarm bells. But in the context of the movie and a new wave of filmmaking, no one else was particularly concerned. Two-Lane Blacktop would attempt to defy convention at every step. Taylor was hardly the only new or non-actor on the set. Bird, a teenage model with no acting experience, was cast as a runaway called the Girl, and the Beach Boys’ rakishly handsome Dennis Wilson was the Driver’s sidekick, the Mechanic. Balancing them out were professionals like Warren Oates, as a GTO driver who competes with Taylor and Wilson, and Harry Dean Stanton, a craggy-faced character actor twice Taylor’s age.
The plot barely amounted to one: Two unnamed drifters played by Wilson and Taylor make a living conning drivers into car races they inevitably lose, allowing the drifters to make quick cash before moving on to the next town (and victim). They’re committed to no one but themselves. Eventually, they meet a girl, played by Bird, who joins up with them and eventually comes between them. The Driver and Mechanic decide to race GTO (who yearns to be a dashing man’s man but can’t pull it off) to Washington, D.C. The winner of the race will walk away with the other’s car. To ensure his project would truly feel like a road movie, Hellman took the filming to the highway. After shooting in Los Angeles in early August, cast and crew would travel across country, touching down in Santa Fe, Little Rock, Memphis, and other towns before ending in Maryville, North Carolina.
Very intentionally, Two-Lane Blacktop wouldn’t even remotely resemble any of the year’s major hits. It would be miles removed from Airport, a soap opera set in the sky, and Love Story, the maudlin melodrama about a young couple who are getting along fabulously until the beautiful young girl dies of leukemia. Two-Lane Blacktop wouldn’t turn warfare into satire and buffoonery—as Little Big Man, Catch-22, and M*A*S*H had done—nor would it romanticize it, as Patton and the Pearl Harbor epic Tora! Tora! Tora! did. It wasn’t a brazen attempt to tap into Vietnam protests at home, like Getting Straight and its ilk, nor was it an over-the-top portrait of anti-hippie violence, like Joe.
But in the year after Easy Rider, Hollywood was more than willing to fork over production dollars to left-of-center filmmakers who wanted to put their visions onscreen. As long as the kids in the movie houses didn’t mind, the movies needn’t have traditional heroes, storylines, or endings. Flush with his success as Easy Rider’s director and costar, Dennis Hopper was ensconced in Peru, taking vast amounts of drugs while filming The Last Movie, a convoluted movie-within-a-movie.
Universal had ponied up $850,000 for Two-Lane Blacktop, filmed almost simultaneously as Hopper’s film. In a departure from convention that was all his own, Hellman and his movie would focus on stasis: elliptical conversations, antiheroes, and cinematography that dwelled on the desert and open road as much as on dialogue. For Wurlitzer, the film was about the country’s restlessness and what he called “the end of the frontier.” In rewriting the script, he’d changed the itinerary of the race, making it start out West and head east; after all, everyone knew the California dream of the early decade was dead.
The race itself wouldn’t even be completed. The characters would give up midway across the country, as if there was no point to the contest anyway. Instead of a traditional plot resolution, the film would simply stop—the last image would look like a reel of film catching fire. Two-Lane Blacktop would be the ultimate road movie and, with its enigmatic plot and irregular casting and character names, a new kind of film. Despite his initial doubts, Wurlitzer came to realize Taylor was ideal for the role. “James seemed to represent a lost and bewildered innocence,” he recalled, “with no apparent attachments to the past or to a defined cultural imprint.” Whether he wanted to or not, Taylor would embody a newly aimless time.
Despite his alternately deadpan and irritable screen test a few months before, Taylor was thrilled when he’d been offered the role of the Driver. Other than Asher, who had his doubts, most of Taylor’s friends were encouraging. “He’s the next Gary Cooper,” Peter Asher’s girlfriend (and soon-to-be-wife) Betsy gushed to Toni Stern, Taylor’s partner that spring. To Hellman, Taylor was a natural, and the director was bemused by the way Taylor always seemed prepared in the early days of filming.
Between takes, Taylor also began writing new songs. The time had come to prepare for the follow-up to Sweet Baby James, and Taylor had to start from scratch. Sitting in open fields while Hellman set up shots, he’d pull out his guitar and let new melodies and words flow out of him. One of the songs, “Hey Mister, That’s Me up on the Jukebox,” directly addressed the pressure to produce; a reference to “trying to get blood out of a stone” was aimed directly at Asher. (“I was trying to make him finish the songs,” Asher admitted.) “Riding on a Railroad” and “Highway Song,” both inspired by his experience on the traveling set, also tumbled out. The most gorgeous and emotive song to emerge from Taylor’s guitar that summer, though, was “You Can Close Your Eyes,” a lullaby for a visitor to the set.
Taylor had met Joni Mitchell the year before, when he’d opened for her at the Unicorn coffeehouse in Boston in March 1969. “I’m sure Joan was most interested,” recalled then-boyfriend Graham Nash, who accompanied Mitchell to the show and even snapped a photo of her and Taylor meeting for the first time. Taylor and Mitchell then both performed at the Newport Folk Festival the following summer.
At the time, each was romantically entangled to one degree or another, Mitchell with Nash, Taylor with Margaret Corey. But by the summer of 1970, each was available. Mitchell had broken up with Nash, and Taylor’s romance with Stern, who wasn’t taken with life on the road or being considered Taylor’s appendage, had run aground. On July 26, only a few weeks before Two-Lane Blacktop began shooting, Taylor and Mitchell met again, at the Mariposa Folk Festival outside Toronto, and this time, they hooked up.
Although Mitchell had far more experience in the music business and was four and a half years older, she and Taylor looked and felt like peers, and they weren’t afraid to let their mutual attraction be known to everyone. In one of the first signs their affair was serious, Mitchell flew to the Arizona set for the filming. She knit Taylor a green-and-blue sweater, played guitar, and sang in the fields; they shared a motel room, inviting cast and crew for sing-alongs and bottles of wine. Taylor appeared visibly relieved by her presence. As he told Rolling Stone’s Goodwin, “Now I have something to do with my nights.”
“I don’t wanna hear about it,” Taylor, as the Driver, snapped at Oates’ GTO during one scene.
“What do you mean—you don’t wanna hear about it?” Oates’ GTO retorted.
“It’s not my problem,” the Driver said, dismissively.
The irritation in Taylor’s voice wasn’t always scripted. Mitchell eventually had to leave, chronicling her mixed feelings in “This Flight Tonight,” and the movie resumed its own style of cross-country tour. As the filming dragged on for forty-two days into the beginning of fall, Taylor found the process increasingly torturous. The lengthy lags between takes were foreign to him, and he’d grow annoyed when Wilson and Bird hadn’t memorized their lines. (He would also look irked when Bird would periodically start singing.) In order to maintain a sense of spontaneity, Hellman only showed his cast one page of script at a time; as a result, Taylor often felt at sea.
Drugs and moments of craziness helped alleviate the boredom and occasional stress for everyone. Taylor and Oates did mescaline. Hellman wound up having an affair with Bird, despite the presence of his wife on set. Taylor had to endure on-set acting lessons. (“They had workshop classes at the beginning of the day, ‘be a tree’ and that kind of bullshit,” Asher recalled.) Sometimes Taylor would ignore Hellman’s request to return for another take while he continued working on a chord change or a lyric.
On camera, Taylor delivered his lines with a sullen numbness, conveying emotions by way of a haunted stare or the slightest flicker of body language. To express his dissatisfaction, he would do much the same when the cameras were off. After a reporter showed up one day, Hellman convinced Taylor to join him for an interview at a local diner. Wurlitzer did most of the chatting; Taylor mostly stared down at his shoes. At one point, Wurlitzer and the writer became aware of the smell of burning flesh—and both beheld Taylor putting out a cigarette on the back of his hand. The interview was never completed. “People were telling him what to do, and he wasn’t used to that,” Stern recalled. “The side of his experience is that he was the creator. Maybe the way he came across on screen was the way he felt about it.”
Taylor would periodically call Asher from wherever they were filming to complain about the workshops or having to move to a new town almost every day. “James had a hard time,” recalled Wurlitzer. “He was never fully at ease. He was very disoriented and bored and frustrated. But he got through it.” Sometimes, though, just barely. For the film’s climactic race, Taylor sat behind the wheel, not realizing the car was already in reverse. When he pulled the clutch and stepped on the gas, the car jolted backward, almost flattening some of the cast. Everyone, including Taylor, was shaken. “We were lucky,” Hellman said, “that no one was run over.”
“That was a nightmare,” Taylor told Asher when filming wrapped up. “I don’t want to do that again.” Asher agreed that movie stardom was probably not in his client’s future. (“Management error,” Asher conceded.) But no one was too troubled. Nearly six months after the release of Sweet Baby James, the music side of Taylor’s career appeared to be finally catching fire.
The rental car pulled onto the campus of Beaver College, outside Philadelphia. In the driver’s seat was Carole King. Next to her, his head down, nodding off for one reason or another, was Taylor.
The filming for Two-Lane Blacktop completed, Taylor had returned to the road for another string of college gigs. Together with Walter Robinson, an African American bass player who knew him from Martha’s Vineyard, Taylor and King drove to and from campuses around the Northeast and Midwest. King’s first album under her own name—an overly eclectic collection of pop and quasi-psychedelia called Writer, which featured Taylor on guitar—had just been released. But as with Sweet Baby James, sales were initially modest. Whatever money they stood to make would come from the road.
On their drives, Taylor, King, and Robinson were often the only ones in the car; no record company personnel, managers, or security types were around. Sitting in the backseat this weekend was a writer from the prestigious New York Times Magazine—Susan Braudy, who’d known several of the Weather Underground during their college days and had visited the site of the brownstone explosion in March. At the dawn of her career in publishing, Braudy had been contacted by an editor at the magazine who’d summered in Martha’s Vineyard and had heard the positive murmur about Taylor. Although the newspaper hadn’t run a review of Taylor’s Gaslight show six months earlier, the Times Magazine had decided to cover this rising star.
Braudy had firsthand evidence of Taylor’s growing fan base as soon as she arrived on the Beaver campus with King, Taylor, and Robinson. As they strolled across the lawns and into the gymnasium where Taylor’s show would take place, girls began pointing and screaming. (Stern had experienced these episodes herself with Taylor in the spring. Walking into a venue alongside him, she was stopped by one female fan. “Are you with James Taylor?” she asked. When Stern nodded yes, the girl swooned, “You are so lucky.”) Braudy also observed the ways in which Taylor knew how to work his particular brand of unassuming, anti-star charisma. Escorted into a basement that would serve as a de facto dressing room, Taylor found a corner and curled up in a batting cage as everyone watched—a solitary moment that also served to effectively make everyone notice him.
Once the show began, the girls in the gym were indifferent to King, occasionally booing her. They wanted the headliner and no one else. Once Taylor ambled onstage, they relaxed immediately. He told his usual self-deprecating jokes or shaggy-dog stories as if he were a modern counterculture update of Will Rogers. Then he closed his eyes and began singing. Neither Braudy nor the girls in the crowd had heard a voice quite like that, soft and gentle yet masculine and far from effeminate. His phrasing was both casual and folksy but firm and precise. Even when he’d make a reference to the coming apocalypse—telling another college audience it was coming and he was considering buying land in Nova Scotia when it arrived—few were unnerved.
Braudy would glance around the halls and see girls crying as he sang. “We love you, James!” one screamed, prompting Taylor to reply, with equal degrees of modesty and cockiness, “How many are there of you now?” The answer to that question always arrived after the performance. Lining up in front of the dressing room, girls—never boys—would press flowers, notes, or lollipops into Taylor’s hands. Taylor passed some of the gifts on to King; others, like a pair of green gloves, went to Braudy.
During interviews with Braudy in his hotel rooms or at restaurants, Taylor revealed more of himself than he had to other writers by that point. He complained about the making of Two-Lane Blacktop. “I don’t like to fight with people,” he told her. “I like to please people too much, but I didn’t like someone else being in control of my work.” He told her his only enemy was Allen Klein, who was threatening to sue him and Peter Asher for breach of contract. (Asher and Taylor were prepared to countersue for lack of royalty payments on the first album, but Klein never followed through on his threat.) Taylor remained a Beatles fan: In a motel room during the making of Two-Lane Blacktop, he was overheard singing “Mean Mr. Mustard” from Abbey Road.
Although Braudy never saw Taylor get high, she noticed his nose always appeared to be running and he spoke in unusual cadences—very fast before slowing down. To herself, she concluded he was essentially sedated in one way or another. When the topic came up, Taylor denied he was a junkie and even talked about the detrimental effects of hard drugs. “Heroin, it deadens your senses,” he told her during one conversation. “You don’t think. You take all your problems and trade them in for one problem—a whole physical and mental process of deterioration. A lot of creative energy comes out of a very painful place. A lot of artists do their thing as a kind of remedial action. Junk shuts off a lot of that.”
Braudy accepted his explanation. But in one of his motel rooms, she went into the bathroom and noticed a bent spoon and other drug paraphernalia on the floor behind the toilet. Braudy decided not to include it in the subsequent story that ran in the Times Magazine. She wasn’t sure Taylor’s inordinately sensitive fans were prepared to know that much about their newfound hero.