picture of Livingston A visit with
LIVINGSTON
TAYLOR
On March 9th, 1997, Livingston Taylor performed at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem, PA. Before his performance that evening, he took the time to speak with Otto Bost of WDIY-FM. The interview was edited and broadcast (along with highlights from the evening's performance) on May 12, 1997, on Otto's weekly radio program, "Acoustic Eclectic". What follows is a transcript of the interview.



The broadcast began with Livingston's performance of  "OLYMPIC GUITAR"

Otto This is Otto Bost, from WDIY. I'm talking tonight in the basement of Godfrey Daniels. I'm talking with Livingston Taylor. Good evening, Livingston.
Liv Good evening, Otto. Nice to be with you.
Otto You've played Godfrey Daniels a number of times over the years. Do you remember how many times you've played here, or how long it's been since the first time you were here?
Liv The answer is that I don't remember how many times I've played here. I've always loved being here, and feel very much at home at Godfrey Daniels. And I love being in this – I love being in this part of Pennsylvania. I've made a lot of music here over a lot of years, and it's just an absolute delight for me to be here. And the answer is, I don't remember how many times I've been here, but it's got to be – oh, gosh, ten or so times.
Otto Normally, when you come to this area, you fly down here. I believe you have your own plane, I understand. Is that right?
Liv Yeah, actually, I am a pilot. I've got a nice old 1964 Cessna 205. It's a single engine, six passenger, heavy hauler. Fixed gear, sort of a work horse of an airplane – not glamorous by any stretch of the imagination, but, you know, it's sort of nice for a ham and egg pilot like me, and I've had a good time in my airplane.
Otto Have you had any harrowing moments?
Liv Well, you know, it's interesting. I, uh, I lost an engine one time. I ate a valve, and my engine stopped, and I had to dead stick out of the sky. But you know, the answer is that um, no – I haven't had any. Some would say that is a harrowing incident, but when you're in the thick of it, it really isn't that harrowing. Another time, I iced up very badly in some bad turbulence – some unforecast ice – and that was a very . . . that was a very sad . . . a rather sad time. I think back on that as being a sad little hit. My wife was with me, and she was very sick, because the turbulence was just so massive, and I iced up really badly, going into a colder layer with an overriding warm layer, and just froze up like a popsicle – built up about half an inch of ice – clear ice on the airplane. The good news is that we were able to make into the airport, no problem. But I took that seriously. There are a few incidents like that, but uh, planes are rather forgiving . . . small planes are really quite forgiving. They're not forgiving of carelessness, but if things happen, they can be brought to the ground, and if they're still under control, they can be landed without too much distress.
Otto I understand your wife Maggie is somewhat of a partner in your music business. Tell me about how that works for you.
Liv Well, Maggie and I have been married about, ah, well, we've been married 20 years. Not about 20 – we've been married 20 years, and we've been together for about 25. For the early part of my career, I had a manager and an agent, and as years went on, it became much easier for Maggie and I to run it . . . nobody had a greater vested interest than Maggie and I in how the career went, so Maggie is sort of the manager, and I'm sort of the artist – but we mix up roles a lot. We write together and things. We really have a great time.

Livingston's performance of  "OUT OF THIS WORLD"
album cover - Bicycle
Otto Let's talk a little bit about your music. Your latest album is called "Bicycle," and I understand you recorded that with Scott Petito, in Woodstock. Tell me about that album.
Liv Albums are interesting. They're sorta the furthest thing from my mind until they're the only thing in my mind, and then all of a sudden, it's just sorta time to make a record. It's really – it must be what lemmings feel like when they jump off jump into the sea – I just have to sorta move ahead, and it – it's really a compulsion for me, and I'll go out, and I got Scott Petito, who's enthusiastic about my music, and we put together a nice team of musicians, and just had a terrific time, had a wonderful time making "Bicycle". It took us about a year to make it, and it just was an absolute pleasure. And it's a likable record, if you like Livingston Taylor. If you don't like Livingston Taylor, it wouldn't impress you very much, but, ah, I had a great time making it, and I'm glad that it's done, and I'm glad that it turned out so well.
Otto There's an interesting song at the end of that album, that sounds like a letter – it's called "Last Letter." Tell me about that.
Liv I had a melody, I had a series of chord changes, and I was very moved in Ken Burns' civil war piece about the letter from Sullivan Ballou that he wrote on the eve of, I believe, the first battle of Bull Run, where he was killed. And he'd written a letter home to his wife, and it was a lovely letter – and actually, as I understand it, a very common letter at the turn of the century. It was a widely published letter. People had copies of it in their homes and stuff, so with all due respect to Ken, it wasn't like it all of sudden sorta turned up in archives someplace. It was a pretty popular letter. And I took excerpts of it, and just set it to music. It was fun. It was nice to do.
Otto There's another tune that stands out on that album – the Lowell George tune, "Dixie Chicken." What made you decide to record that?
Liv Well, what happens is that when I'm making an album, I generally get four or five what I call "anchor songs" – songs that are good, I know are going to go on the record. And then I start filling things in from there, either writing or finding other material. And I had another song that was  . . . I was looking for that groove, you know, that sorta shuffle groove, because the album needed that. And I had song that I had written called "Writing a Book." It's a great song live, and I like to – it's funny live, and I like to play it live. But when I got to actually recording it, it was a little dark for me, it was a little darker . . . as I listened to it, the lyrics were a little bit, uh, more cynical that I wanted them to be. And I was surprised to feel that way about it. I didn't want that level of cynicism on my record, because it's not a way that I feel. And so, somehow live, it doesn't come across that way . . . it comes across funnier. But I really moved away from that song, and Maggie said, "Why don't you do "Dixie Chicken," 'cause that'll be fun?" and I did, and it did sound good, and I had a good time with it.

Livingston's performance of  "WRITING A BOOK"



There was a break in the broadcast at this point.



The broadcast resumed with Livingston's performance of  "LEVI'S BLUES"

Otto Tell me about your next album. I understand you're working on a live album now?
Liv Well I just recorded, in the Barns of Wolftrap, I just recorded up a couple of shows I did up there, and that may or may not turn into a live record. It's important to understand what a live record is. I never realized this, until I had a flash a couple of years ago – that a live record is not a recording of me. A live record is a recording of an audience listening to me. And there's a very, very, big distinction, so what you're looking for, Otto, if you want to make a terrific – this is a tip kids, write it down – if you want to make a terrific live record, what you need to do is record a terrific audience. My performance is really  . . . it's not insignificant, but it's secondary to a great audience. A great audience makes a great live record. I give you, of course, Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall, or Ray Charles live at Santa Monica Civic Center in 1956, Frampton Comes Alive . . . I mean, records that are truly great records. Cheap Trick live at Budokan is a very strong live record as well. So, very important that the audience  – that you're taping a good audience. That's the main part of a live record. And ah, I think that I had a pretty good audience at Wolftrap – uh, not a bit better than at Godfrey Daniels, but they just happened to be at the right place at the same time the tape recorder was. So we'll go to work on it, and see what comes together with it.
album cover - Unsolicited Material Otto You had put out a live album a few years ago called "Unsolicited Material". How do you feel about that album?
Liv Well, I like "Unsolicited Material," and what will happen is when I finish this live album, which – I think we're gonna keep, Maggie and I will keep the sort of same mail theme. We're liable to call this "Return to Sender" or something like that. It's – we like this mail, this U.S. Mail sort of theme. I like that record very much. There are some very, very funny things on it. The reason that I wanted to do this one is that I will discontinue the other one when this one comes out. I'll just stop producing that one, and this one'll take its slack, basically.

Livingston's performance of  "YOU CAN TAKE ME HOME"

Otto I understand you've also written some children's books. Tell me about that.
Liv Well, I've got a couple of children's books that I've written. One was taken by a company called Harcourt Brace, and was taken off a song that Maggie and I wrote called "I've Got my Pajamas on," and um, it's called "Pajamas." And then they asked me to write another one, and I happened to have a story that asks the rhetorical question "Can I be good now?" And ah, they gave it to an illustrator by the name of Ted Rand out in Seattle, Washington, and he just did a great job illustrating. That was fun, it was a fun thing to do.
Otto Do you think you may write more books in the future?
Liv Well I got a couple in my brain, that sorta clonk around in my brain, but I really want to write a book called "Ball." B-A-L-L. Ball . . . I just – really, I just don't think they can be too simple. But the great thing about "Can I be Good?" – it has a theme to it. I mean, it really is sort of an age-old question – Can I be good? – and it was a fun one to write.
Otto You also are a professor, I understand, at the Berklee College of Music, right? What do you teach?
picture of Livingston Liv I teach at the Berklee College of Music now. This is my seventh year there, and I teach only one class a week. Only one course do I teach. It's called "Stage Performance Techniques." I just teach about how to be on stage, about what your job is on stage, sort of the spiritual aspect about being on stage. Talk a lot about nervousness and fear and those things. And also a lot of sort of nuts and bolts things . . . about how do you dry your socks when the bus leaves in two hours, that kind of stuff. So it's a combination of a lot of different things, and it's a lot of fun. I really love my performance class.
Otto How many students do you typically have in a class like that?
Liv I typically have between fifteen and twenty in both sections. So between thirty and forty students a year – and that stays pretty consistently around there.
Otto Is there one piece of advice that you would give to any young budding singer-songwriter?
Liv Yeah, there is. What everybody believes is that their responsibility is to put out. But in fact, just the opposite is true. Your responsibility, what an audience wants you to do, is not to sort of spew your stuff all over them, like Cool Whip or something, I don't know – ugh! What an audience wants you to do, is they – an audience wants you to listen to them. So your job is not to put out; your job is to take in. Listen. Watch. Observe. And then look for the place where your music fits, and find – and then set your music where the audience . . . after paying attention to your audience, set your music where the audience wants it.

Livingston's performance of  "PAJAMAS"



There was a break in the broadcast at this point.



The broadcast resumed with Livingston's performance of  "NOT AS HERBAL AS I OUGHT TO BE"

picture of Livingston Otto I was reading that you're also a composer of network television themes and nationally broadcast commercials. What might we have heard on television that you wrote?
Liv "Network television themes" is a little overstated. I've got a – I've recorded a few themes for shows that have been syndicated around the country. One's called "A Likely Story," and then there's another theme for a show called "Evening Magazine," which was a Group W syndication. And "Likely Story" is still in syndication, around in various markets in the country, but ah, "Evening Magazine" is long since folded. And oh, I just did one the other day for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Somebody called me and asked me for that. And ah, I just did – also, I did another one for a television station in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example. And they – what they do is they call me with a specific set of problems. I don't do a lot of commercial work because it's very difficult for me to, and it's very painful for me to do. I take it very seriously. And not that I think that Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus is any – in itself, that doesn't particularly move me. But the fact of the matter is that there are people who work for Ringling Brothers, that the success of their company and their advertising campaigns means a great deal to the quality of their lives, and I take the – not the products seriously, but I take the people behind the products very seriously indeed. And I feel a huge responsibility. But by the same token, I'm not running a democracy. I don't like to get into . . . it's funny, on both of those spots there were certain lines that the Ringling people didn't – they worried – not liked – but they were worried about certain lines, and the television station was worried about another line. I said "Listen, these lyrics are the essence of what you're hiring me for. If you don't want these lyrics, I'll compromise on other lyrics, but these lyrics are very, very important, and if you don't want those lyrics, that's fine, but hire somebody else, 'cause you're gonna spend a lot of money on me, and I'm not going to budge on these things." There's places where I can compromise, but places where I just cannot, and of course now, they're both very happy that they took the lyrics that I said would work for them, 'cause they do work for them. But that's . . . it's a tough battle. And I find myself often sort of out there, alone, battling with the people who hired me. And they're not pitched battles, but the problem is that they can't afford as easily as I to go out a limb. Because if I go out on it – and I really understand it – if I go out on a limb with their product and it breaks off, um, well heck, I've got a parachute, called "the rest of my career." It's something they don't have. So I bring them out there with me, and I just have to tell them "Guys, it's gonna work out okay. You're gonna do all right. Don't worry."

Livingston's performance of  "BLUER THAN BLUE"

Otto You've been performing now for about twenty-seven years, is that right?
Liv (whistles) Well, I'm 46, and I started when I was 16, 17 . . . yeah, yeah – 28, 29 years. Long time I've been doing this.
Otto What is it that keeps it interesting for you?
picture of Livingston Liv Well, I don't think anything keeps anything interesting for somebody. The good news is that I'm an interested person. I just, I – everything fascinates me. I'm just delighted by the – by the world passing by. It's a thrill for me to wake up in the morning, and watch the world go by. And one of the ways I finance being interested is I make music. I mean, that's what I do for a job. Ah, I can watch a lot of the world through my job. And I, and again, I don't feel um – you know, after I've played a song 100 or 200 or 300 or 500 times, the reality is the song is sort of the product. Sometimes I feel okay about them, sometimes I get kind of bored with them. But behind the song there are . . . when I'm playing it on stage, it's not the song. The song is the conduit through which I have a conversation with my audience. And this song, this "product," as it were, that I may or may not be particularly enthusiastic about – the reality is that there are people who have really a strong vested interest in this product. So that's my real concern. I'm really fascinated by – I'm fascinated by lots of things, not the least of which is people. I really, I like seeing them, and watching them. And I get an opportunity to see and watch people with – using the mutually agreed upon language of a known song. So we have this conversation together, in the context of a song that they know, and that I know as well. So that's what keeps it interesting for me. It's not that the song – and I don't go home and play these songs when I'm by myself – I mean, sometimes I'll play a little of them, if I'm figuring out another change or something, but generally, I don't play these songs unless I'm in front of people, and then it's only as an excuse for conversation.
Otto You'll be back in this area in August, I understand. You'll be performing at Musikfest?
Liv I'll be back at the Bethlehem Musikfest. That's a – God – wonderful thing you guys do for yourselves around here. Yeah, we'll be there, and it'll be a lot of fun. Do that – what's that chicken dance that they, ah . . .?
Otto Oh, yeah!
Liv Get all – the dance long before the Macarena became – swept the country by storm – Yeah, get all whiskeyed-up and do the chicken dance. I think I'll forego the whiskey, but I may well do the chicken dance, no doubt about it!

The broadcast concluded with Livingston's performance of  "GRANDMA'S HANDS"




Thanks to Suzanne Sprague for her help with transcribing this interview, and thanks also to Livingston's website designer Dan Beach for graciously supplying the images of Livingston and his albums that appear on this page.


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