Did you ever keep count of how many times you had heard a song? Listening to BBC Radio 1 in teenage years (and what else was there to listen to if you lived in rural England?), it was possible to hear a song maybe twenty or thirty times in a week. The station seemed to have a playlist that ensured huge exposure for some records whilst other, frequently better, recordings might find airtime among the more esoteric late night offerings or in the weekend programmes where presenters seemed more at liberty to play music they respected.
Driving the car through flurries of snow on a February evening, the sound of James Taylor lent the journey a mellowness it would otherwise have lacked. The track was ‘Fire and rain’; how many times had I heard it? It was really hard to say. It was hardly the stuff of mid-70s playlists, too mellow, too mature, too serious for Top of the Pops on a Thursday night.
It must have been played sufficiently to become familiar, to rest easily in the subconscious, like an old settee which comfortingly shapes itself around you, but if it was so familiar why did it take forty years to think about Taylor’s lyrics, to ask about Suzanne and the pain that Taylor expresses.
The lines are deeply personal. Suzanne is an old friend who committed suicide whilst Taylor is out of the country; his pain is endured through problems of addiction and depression; fire and rain refer to the electric shock treatment and the showers to which he was subjected; the crashed flying machine, his band that failed. It is in the repeated refrain that the angst is most expressed:
I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you again
Why the last line? Why do individual people, perhaps not even people that others think are significant for us, matter so much? Perhaps Suzanne was the embodiment of a whole world of hope, perhaps it was something more random and arbitrary.
Do most of us have a sense that there were people in their lives who were significant, but who went unnoticed by even those closest to us? Teachers, friends, colleagues, people who just made life different and whose absence left us with a sense of loss. Sometimes it’s not the hard times that are difficult, sometimes it’s just the sense that there are people we will never see again.