Near Greatness

My Ride With James Taylor and Carly Simon

Long ago and far away, the legendary singer-songwriters picked up this 15-year-old hitchhiker and gave him an unexpected lesson in reality

Taylor and Simon, around the time they stopped for a hitchhiker.

My romance with the '60s ended in 1972, in the back seat of James Taylor's car. My older siblings had introduced me to hippie culture. They rolled through the house in their long hair and bell bottoms, trailing the scent of marijuana. They told tales of hitchhiking from this concert to that protest. They camped in city parks and dodged "the pigs."

It all seemed wickedly adventurous and romantic, and I desperately wanted to take part. But being all of 10 in 1967, I had to wait to claim my share of freedom, music, peace and love.

In the summer of 1972, I asked my parents if I could go to Martha's Vineyard to look for a job. They said sure and loaned me $50, to be paid back when I was settled and employed. I packed a backpack, walked out of our New York City apartment, took a train to Stamford, Connecticut, got off the train, walked to I-95 and stuck my thumb out. I was 15.

Martha's Vineyard hadn't yet become the Hamptons of Cape Cod. The Black Dog Tavern was a dockside burger joint, not the heavily merchandised institution it is today. The hotels in Edgartown were a little ragged, bustling with tourists and the hippies who worked in the kitchen and made the beds. I got a job as a dishwasher in the Harborview Inn and claimed a single room in the dorm out back. I made $2 an hour.

On my days off, I hung out with other summer workers I'd met. We smoked pot and skinny-dipped. We went to concerts in Oak Bluffs and slept on the beach. We ate horrible, but very affordable, fried food. My hair grew out. I lost my virginity. I finally got a taste of what I'd missed in the '60s and, boy, did it taste good.

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One hot afternoon, I decided to hitchhike to Chilmark to visit a girl I'd met on the beach. She had a rainbow tattoo on her thigh and recently changed her name from Janet to Amari. I don't remember the make of the car that stopped for me on the Edgartown/West Tisbury Road, but as I approached it, I noted the long-haired woman and two men in the front seat. They were older, about the same age as my hippie siblings. I remember feeling relieved that I'd be riding with my people — my '60s people.

"We're going as far as the airport." The driver didn't turn around, and I couldn't see his face in the rearview mirror.

"Cool," I said, bringing my mellow.

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And then, for no particular reason, the woman turned around and smiled at me in a maternal way. It was Carly Simon. I slid over as discreetly as I could to get a look at the driver.

Yes, it was James Taylor. The other dude was one of those Muppet Show back-up musician types, all hair and sunglasses.

James Taylor was (is) a musical hero of mine, right up there with Hendrix and Joplin and Lennon and Jagger, but Taylor always felt more familiar, like he could have been a schoolmate or a neighbor. And his songs were partially responsible for infecting me with that dreamy '60s romanticism that led me to the Vineyard in the first place.

As we rolled toward the airport, I fought back that giddy desperation for connection that comes with a celebrity encounter. I wanted to scream "Love your work!" and invite them to hang with Amari and me, or engage in a way that would prove I was cool enough to hang with them. But I was a shy kid, so I just listened, sure that wisdom, poetry and other transcendent stuff would pour into the back seat.

"We need a new grill for the party," Carly said.

"We have a perfectly good grill," James responded.

"It's not perfectly good. It's broken."

"So, we'll fix it."

"James."

"OK, OK. We'll get a new grill."

And the conversation went on, into where and when they would get the grill and how the grill would get to the house and where they would put the grill once they had it at the house.

What? Really? My rock star heroes didn't spend all day speaking in rhyme, tossing daisy petals, fucking and spinning cotton-candy melodies in the air. No, they didn't. In fact, they sounded a lot like my parents.

With that horrible thought, a leaden realization landed on me; I could be all the hippie I wanted to be — hell, I could become the icon of post-'60s hippiedom — but like everybody else, I would still have to do reality time, tending to the dull tasks of life, like wandering a grim department store and picking out appliances. From that moment on, I realized I could only go to Carolina in my mind.

To be fair to James and Carly, I didn't truly become disillusioned with '60s culture until the following summer, when all my shit got stolen at the Watkins Glen music festival.

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