All in the Family

Katie Zdybel grew up on the music of James Taylor and Carly Simon. Their son Ben Taylor discusses how the love of music brings the generations together.

Katie Zdybel
1 September 2006
Katie Zdybel grew up on the music of James Taylor and Carly Simon. Their son Ben Taylor discusses how the love of music brings the generations together.
Photo via flickr

One of the most underestimated responsibilities a parent has is listening to good music while their children are young. My heart bleeds for my friends whose parents were only half-heartedly into music, or worse, not into it at all. It seems to lead to lazy listening and a greater susceptibility to modern pop. I lucked out. Mom and dad had stacks of records—Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles (the later years), Paul Simon, the Beach Boys, The Who. This music had soul. There was something alive in there, and the older I got and the more I could make sense of the lyrics, the more I began to decode a generation of artists expressing how it felt to be alive in their time. My idea of what music could be was formed.

My father’s favorite was James Taylor. Dad owned every JT record and would sing along, matching his soft vocals so well I sometimes believed “Your Smiling Face” was written by my own father for me. Something about Taylor’s honest and understated style still reminds me of the quiet side I saw in my own father, and even now when I listen to James Taylor I remember my younger self’s early observations of my dad—a bright, extroverted, and popular fellow—as a person who could be soft and introspective, who maybe had a lot to think about.

Now, as I am becoming an adult, I have found myself searching for an artist of my own generation who can reach me in the same way James Taylor seemed to speak directly to, or for, my dad. And then I found him. His name is Ben and—because life is synchronistic and full of circles—it happens that he is James Taylor’s son.

When I listened to Ben’s recently released album, Another Run Around the Sun, it was clear to me this person had spent some time thinking about what spirituality meant to him, and I wanted to know what he had come up with.

“I feel like I’m pretty consistently spiritually plugged in,” Ben told me when we first spoke on the phone. “Maybe a better way to look at it is that there are ways in which I disconnect from my spirit—like when I patronize the corporations, when I go shopping for expensive things, and when I grow dependent on politically and ecologically unsustainable luxuries. That’s when I feel myself becoming less and less in touch with my spirit. And that’s just one of the things that human beings go through. But generally speaking I’m actually pretty well tapped in.”

“That’s impressive,” I told him, “because I’m sure it would be a pretty big obstacle for someone of your status as, you know, a celebrity or a—”

“Spoiled brat?” he offered good-naturedly. “Yeah, it is. It’s true.”

As we ended the conversation, we both mentioned that we’d like to talk again, and later I got an e-mail inviting me to visit his house on Martha’s Vineyard to take some photographs for the article. A standard photo shoot turned into a full day with him, his dogs, some of his family, and my two friends who had come along to Massachusetts for the road trip.

To be honest, what made me want to write about Ben in the first place was an inkling that he and I would get along well. I could tell by listening to his music. Because if I was a musician and I could sing and play guitar that well, I would write songs like his. And if I could choose to have anyone else besides my parents to be my parents, I might very well choose Carly Simon and James Taylor. They are the rock star versions of my mom and dad. Getting to meet Ben was just a lucky offshoot of my job; getting to meet his mom was fortuity squared.

I called my mother from the ferry back to the mainland that night on my cell phone. There was already a message from her wanting to know how the photo shoot had gone.

“Carly made us clam chowder and we ate leftover birthday cake from one plate with a bunch of forks while she and Ben read us poetry and there’s a picture of them with the Dalai Lama on their refrigerator,” I told her.

My mom’s shriek of excitement through the phone was audible to my friends and several other passengers on the boat. Mom has been a fan of Carly Simon’s music since before I was born.

“And she played a song for us,” I added, multiplying my mom’s vicarious enjoyment.  “Up in her bedroom.”

Mom laughed heartily at this. “Did you tell her I love her?”

I had thought about it, but it wasn’t like that. What made meeting Ben and his family so cool was how kind they were, and—though it’s not as juicy to report—how normal. Just a mom and a son who enjoy each other’s company and were getting a kick out of the guests who showed up. I should be specific—they are what I consider normal. People who are excited about life and want to read poems over cake to their guests, who are certain what voices their dogs would speak in if they could, who are up in their bedrooms listening to the same bar of music over and over again trying to figure out an elusive chord—this is normal to me. And normal relations between people are warm, open, authentic, and alive.

Late that afternoon on Martha’s Vineyard, we took a break and sat in Ben’s living room with my friends. After insisting that we all try out his new foot massager, and that I take a seat in his most comfortable chair, we got onto the topic of watching groups in public. Ben recounted how he liked to watch people in restaurants and noticed that some families sitting around a table were always trying to make each other laugh. They were joking, they were singing, they were touching one another, looking at each other, teasing and making noise. Whereas certain families, he observed, were often quieter, cooler, more contained.

“Polish people laugh more,” my friend Rachel said she had noticed. This made me smile, thinking of my own boisterous Polish family. We burst into song in the most embarrassing of places and the teasing goes on over years. There is a lot of hand-holding, back-scratching, and cuddling (we even have a Zdybel-word for it: “lop-de-lopping”). So why do people often seem so cool and polite with one another? When did that become the norm? Why aren’t excitement and giddiness and intimacy be the accepted style of social interaction? When we arrived in her kitchen for dinner, Carly answered the door in her bathrobe and it never occurred to my friends and I to be uncomfortable.

“It’s honesty in music that always reads well for people,” Ben said. “Whenever you hear something and you say, wow, that was fantastic, it’s because there’s nothing phony about it. You have to examine the idea of honesty because when you really look at it, it’s about not being distracted from the point, really—by yourself and by anything else, by any ulterior motives.”

“And it’s amazing how effective that honesty is in drawing out an honest reaction from other people,” I said.

“Oh, man,” Ben said, “and when you connect like that, it’s a way of bypassing all of the confusing human eventualities and getting down to connecting with people on a really elemental level. And that’s beautiful.”

Ben has a tremendous amount of respect for his parents, he tells me—and when you first hear Ben you do a doubletake and swear it’s James singing—but it’s also clear that Ben is carving his own musical identity.

“Music is so deep,” Ben said to me. “Over the past couple of years I’ve begun to devote the kind of time, energy, attention, and discipline to music that I’ve spent my whole life doing with other disciplines like martial arts and meditation and qi gong. And—at least from where I’m standing and looking at it—music is just as profound as that kind of stuff. So it feels like I’ve got years and years of research and hard work to spend on music.”

I asked him which part of music he likes the best.

“It’s that moment where I get lost in the telling of the story,” he responded. “It’s like mythology when you get involved in telling it. You become a part of the song and the music—it’s so grounding and calming to be connected to that. Sometimes it happens when I’m on stage, sometimes it happens when I’m writing, and most often it happens when I’m just sitting and practicing.”

I meditate and like to play music myself. I know that it makes no difference whether I’m sitting at the piano or on the cushion when I have a moment of full awareness. Sometimes it comes out as silence, sometimes as song.

“You need to get to that place with a song where you’re not thinking about who’s going to listen to it and what they’re going to think about it,” Ben said. “You need to get to the point where you’re just telling a story that, for whatever reason, strikes you as being important. When you become involved in the song and lose yourself, then I think you’ve got a good chance of establishing a spiritual connection. So it’s a quest. The quest to find the spirit in music is to get past the ego as much as you can.”

“How do you handle that?” I asked him. “How do you deal with the ego?”

“I feel like discipline and diligence go a long way towards it. I feel like if you play every song that you plan to play that night three times the day before you get onstage, then when you do get onstage, your chances are good of not having to worry so much about your lack of confidence or anything else that’s apt to throw you into yourself. You’re more prone to just telling the story, which is what made you want to sing the song in the first place.

“I believe in disciplined hedonism to a certain extent,” Ben said. “I do about a half an hour of meditation and forty-five minutes of qi gong practice every morning. It’s something that I do because I’ll let myself get away with whatever I want to get away with, pretty much. The balance is that I need some sort of intense discipline too.”

Not many people will admit that they meditate or attend church or do whatever they consider the right thing to do, in part so that they can get away with what they suspect may be the less-right things. It’s this kind of honesty that gives Ben’s music, and his presence, a refreshing dimension.

I once heard James Taylor described as a musician who wrote songs that “mirrored a generation’s exhaustion after tumultuous times.” That generation was the young adults of the sixties and seventies and now, as a young adult myself, I can realize that my dad must have been exhausted after living in a hippie commune, serving in Vietnam, and starting a subsistence farm with my mom and their three babies. No wonder James Taylor appealed to him. As a young adult today I crave the same accompaniment to the absurdities that are our tumultuous times. We’re dealing with President Bush, again, we’re dealing with the oil crisis and the ozone and mad cow disease and the AIDS epidemic in this so-called post-9/11 world. We’re a little exhausted too, and it’s nice to be able to listen to some music that isn’t trying to cover it up or distract us or give us all the answers. That’s just thoughtful, insightful, and admittedly human.

“The condition of being alive and human is a little bit like playing along,” Ben told me. “But at the same time I feel like I’m making progress in directions that don’t embarrass me and I think that’s as good as you can hope, you know?”

The day after the photo shoot, I drove from Massachusetts back to my parents’ home in Ontario and arrived weary but happy, close to midnight. Mom and dad had stayed up to wait for me, wanting to hear all about my trip. Sitting in our kitchen that night, telling them about meeting Ben and Carly, I saw the expression of satisfaction on my dad’s face. To me, it meant a lot that I had met someone my age who is really cool and cares about the same things as I do, and meditates and writes great music. But to him, I knew it meant a lot that I had met Ben Taylor, son of James, his favorite musician. Because it meant that we had something very quiet in common. A side of ourselves that only music can talk to; that part that wants to be sung to with honesty and softness. And there is something wonderful about knowing you can hear the same music your dad can, with the same kind of ears, even though you have grown up in different worlds.