John Fleming spent twenty one years as one half of the comedy duo Scared Weird Little Guys, and since leaving the act in 2011, he has ventured out on his own doing what he loves most – performing, along with being busy teaching music, doing corporate gigs, organising the Surrey Hills music festival and writing his new show. Fleming chose to write “Bittersweet and Low” about the life and music of musician James Taylor, one of his early influences for a number of reasons.
“When I was first learning guitar, James Taylor was one of the people who I was listening to and enjoying the guitar arrangements and the songwriting that he was putting out. He was one of my early influences as a guitar player and songwriter and when it came recently to me, I felt I really wanted to develop a show about someone using this great music, it was really quite a natural choice and plus I don’t think anyone has done a show about him like this before, telling the stories and singing the songs.”
Ideally Fleming wanted James Taylor’s collaboration, but had to concede with Taylor’s approval instead. “I emailed James Taylor and his manager got back to me and said that they receive a lot of requests. My intention was to have him co write the show with me, at least looking over the script and giving me some ideas. He declined to do that, but he did wish me well. So I’ve gone ahead with his blessing and put the show together.”
From inception to completion “Bittersweet and Low” has been about 2 years in the making with the last 5-6 months of “furious” music arrangements and writing. James Taylor was diagnosed with depression before he finished high school and was a heroin addict and psychiatric patient whilst still in his teens. His addiction also led to the break up of his marriage with fellow musician Carly Simon. The show, written and produced by John Fleming centres on his early life and music, and is performed by Fleming with the help of a number of musicians.
“It’s the quite dramatic story of his early life and all of his songs. Basically me on stage with an acoustic guitar and a whole lot of fantastic bands behind me, I’m telling the story all about him and his rise to fame. Its a beautiful comfortable setting with great music and a really engaging story.”
[pullquote]Just to put that in historical context, around the early 70’s there was a lot of distrust for politicians at the time, like Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war was a huge rallying point for people, who were just looking for something truthful that they could really believe in and when James Taylor put out ‘Fire and Rain’, it really was that rallying point, that authentic voice and everyone just went what we need and it was the rallying voice. That’s the reason he became a star and had that voice and why he stayed so present. [/pullquote]
Whilst theres a plethora of memorable songs in James Taylor’s repertoire, the one that resonates most strongly with Fleming is a ballad; “Theres a song he does called ‘ You Can Close Your eyes’, its quite a quiet song and he does it as a duet. He does with Carly Simon and then also with a few other people who were important in his life, like Joni Mitchell. It’s kind of a lullaby. It’s kind of ‘close your eyes relax everything’s going to be alright’, and also within the song there’s an element of hope. It’s very interesting because he wrote this song early in his life when he was battling with a lot of his drug issues and anxiety and depression issues. I find in a lot of his music theres an element of hope. It’s actually all going to be alright even though things seem pretty dire in his real life.”
James Taylor has a repertoire of forty singles, sixteen studio albums, four live albums and countless other releases. His songs are an expression of his personal demons, thoughts and feelings but also tap into a certain consciousness, and evoke a zeitgeist which people are experiencing at that point in time. Fleming sums up why he thinks Taylor’s songs are so timeless;
“I believe because they come from a really authentic place. When he was writing he really wrote about the stuff he was feeling, the things he was really engaged with and the kind of thoughts that he was having, whether it was dark or rocky. Whatever it is that he was feeling, that’s what he wrote. I think that level of authenticity, that’s not what only made him the star that he was in those days, but it also really embedded him in the consciousness of someone who was really singing about really important stuff. Just to put that in historical context, around the early 70’s there was a lot of distrust for politicians at the time, like Richard Nixon and the Vietnam war was a huge rallying point for people, who were just looking for something truthful that they could really believe in and when James Taylor put out ‘Fire and Rain’, it really was that rallying point, that authentic voice and everyone just went what we need and it was the rallying voice. That’s the reason he became a star and had that voice and why he stayed so present. The song chronicles a few episodes in his life; At age 17 he was diagnosed suicidal and he was put in an institution whilst he was in high school. He was in and out of institutions a bit and very reliant on hard drugs to get him through various times of his life. This period that I’m examining 1966-76, it really is all about that time; The paradoxical struggle between his personal life and the music he was writing.”
Fleming has assembled a number of fine musicians to assist him in the show : Lisa Hanley a WAPA (Western Australian Performing Arts Academy) graduate, who plays guitar, piano and the Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon parts. The “hot” band Bruce Haynes on piano and keys, Doug Robertson on bass (Icecream Hands), Gavin Gray on drums (Oxo Cubans and Batucada) and Steve Rando on lead guitar.
The Scared Weird Little Guys were a large part of Fleming’s life, so it’s no surprise that he has a multitude of on the road anecdotes to share and some more memorable than others. “One that does come to mind. When I was in Canada doing a show and the snow had just started falling. It was fairly far North in Canada and they were going to get snowed in for 9 months and they weren’t too happy about that- I was really enthusiastic. I said ‘Wow it’s snowing out there. Are you going to get your Ski-doo’s out? There was a bit of a rumble in the crowd and someone yelled out “Yamaha.” Ski-doo was not a generic name; Ski-doo was a brand name. Like with Holden and Ford theres a lot of loyalty behind these brand names and before I knew what was happening a brawl had broken out in the audience defending the honour of different branded types of snow mobile and it descended into an all end brawl. I had to get off stage.”
Fleming adds “I hope that people are passionate about James Taylor don’t throw chairs at me when I get a little bit wrong in the show. I hope they’re forgiving.”
When describing the show in food form, Fleming is clearly passionate likening it to a fine dining experience. “It’s like a gorgeous degustation menu, his songs are so varied, we might start with a nice subtle lemon sorbet to cleanse the palette, and then maybe we’ll read a little poetry , then what well have is a lovely anchovy and olive dish with a drizzle of a balsamic reduction, nice and tasty, and then we might have a beautiful, small but tasty piece of meat with a lovely buttery sauce on it. It’s kind of light and fatty in your mouth, but really yummy too and not too filling and then after that we’ve got a plate of greens, which are really good for you and make you feel wholesome and fantastic. So it’s a line of tasty morsels, the show.”
It’s no surprise with Fleming’s super busy schedule, he wants to have a bit of a break when it’s all over. “Once I finish my music festival and James Taylor show I’m going to have a bit of a lie down. I really want the show to have legs beyond this run in Melbourne, I want it to have legs and I want to take it around australia and take it overseas if I can and play better and bigger venues.”
In summary John Fleming is happiest when he is performing, and creating music or work defines his scene:
“My scene is finding music or creative work that I really love and am passionate about, and that could be my own original work or it could be work of another artist and really bringing that to an audience who can appreciate it and can be moved by it and can feel the emotional landscape that the artist or myself is bringing to it.”
Don’t miss the limited season of this stunning tribute to the rise of one of the great songwriters of our time.
“James Taylor- Bittersweet and Low”
MELBOURNE, CHAPEL OFF CHAPEL
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 12, 8:00PM
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 13, 8:00PM
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 14, 3:00PM & 8:00PM
Bookings www.chapeloffchapel.com.au or 03 8290 7000