Busted: Chip Taylor

The songwriter behind "Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning" and "I Can't Let Go" on music, gambling and the Church of the Train Wreck

If he’d done nothing more than pen the seminal “Wild Thing,” Chip Taylor would still be a force to be reckoned with. The garage stomp classic that The Troggs topped the charts with in 1966 has become so emblematic of the genre that if you mapped the DNA of rock ‘n’ roll Taylor’s name would no doubt appear on several strands.

But Taylor has done more…much more. During the 60s and 70s the Yonkers, NY native also wrote “Angel of the Morning” which has been a massive hit in three different decades—the 60s, 80s and, most recently, in 2001 with a reworked version by Shaggy. Taylor — who was born James Wesley Voight and is the brother of Oscar-winning actor Jon Voight and renowned geologist Barry Voight (talk about DNA…) — also wrote scores of hits for rock ‘n’ roll acts like Janis Joplin, The Hollies and Jackie DeShannon as well as country legends Wille Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris. His songs have also been recorded by such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Fats Domino, Dean Martin and Bonnie Raitt.

Going Pro

After becoming disillusioned with the music business in the 1970s, Taylor switched careers and became a professional gambler who specialized in blackjack and horse racing. True to form, Taylor excelled at this as well, becoming one of the foremost thoroughbred handicappers in the United States. His skills as a card counter were so good that he was banned from major casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Europe.

On the ride home after a particularly successful day at the track in the mid 90s Taylor had an epiphany that changed his life. The revelation came while bouncing between two different radio programs featuring a preacher and a self-help guru. It led him to quit gambling completely and go back to making music. Eventually he began to share his insight — what he calls The Church of the Train Wreck — through his website and podcasts (and, soon, on satellite radio).

Taylor’s “church” isn’t intended to replace houses of faith. It doesn’t have pastors or ministers, just “challengers.” In fact The Church Of The Train Wreck is more of a philosophy for those who need help to get back on track toward the fulfillment of their goals in life. On his podcasts, Taylor supplements the philosophy with music that is intended to remind us of the beauty and depth of the human spirit. Ultimately, as the conversation below makes clear, Taylor’s feelings about music are imbued with a deep sense of spiritual resonance.

BustedHalo: You were in your twenties when ‘Wild Thing’ became a big hit in 1966 but before that you’d been writing for country artists up until then. How did a kid from Yonkers get into that end of the business?

Chip Taylor: Even in New York back in the 50’s, there was no country music and my dad and mom used to let me and my brothers listen to the radio at night. Between the bedroom where the three boys slept and the kitchen there was a big Motorola radio. So late at night I could pick up country music and I loved it. And I remember particularly, I loved the passionate, sad things. That’s what always took me, the sadness about what they were singing about: either lost love or just something that was going wrong. It was the country, blues. And that’s what got to me mostly. So I had a country band when I was in high school and I wrote some up-tempo rockabilly things and I wrote some pretty things, and I guess some things you’d think were sad.

BH: What was the first song you did that really broke through for you?

CT: Well, the song that got me my first record deal was a song called ‘Faded Blue,’ which if you go to YouTube it you can see my brother singing it with me at The Living Room [see below]. That’s one of the first songs I wrote, if not the first song, and that got me a deal with King Records. Jon reminded me of the song. So I got him up on stage to sing it one time –I didn’t remember the damn lyrics. [laughter] It was the first song I wrote and one of Jon’s favorite songs.

The first song that really got me going, probably, as a songwriter was called ‘He Sits at My Table’ which Willie Nelson sang and it made the top 30 country record. And then all of a sudden I was getting recordings by the Brown family and Eddy Arnold, and then Waylon [Jennings] and Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash—I was all of a sudden a country writer when I was a kid. Still living in New York. I was just an amazing story.<

BH: You never lived in Nashville?

CT: Never. I always felt like—you know, you talk about the civil rights movement back in the day and everything like that. In New York if you were a writer or in the music business, you never felt it because half your buddies and your musician friends were black. But where you would feel it is if you went down South—I was getting recordings down in Nashville, and it wasn’t just that you would worry for the black folks down in Nashville, because there were some down there that were working and people treated them quite nicely but you didn’t see a lot of them in good positions down there. What you worried about was New Yorkers going to Nashville—they hated Yankees! [laughter] So here I was having all this success down there and I would go, and I remember my feeling was ‘just get in there, keep your mouth shut, say hello.’

BH: There’s clearly a political consciousness to your new cd New Songs of Freedom. Were you writing with those sorts of things in mind back in the 60s?

CT: Well, my thing would always be to pick up the guitar and just play, and whatever would come out, would come out. That being said, I was writing a lot of things that were somewhat commercial back then. When I started making my albums in the 70’s, there were a lot of personal things that would come out about people I knew, songs dedicated to my folks. A lot of family-oriented songs were in there. But love songs were a part of the thing, whatever the feeling was. But that was one of the things that set me a little bit aside from some people that I just drew on typical kind of feelings.

BH: In the 60’s you wrote ‘Angel of the Morning’ which was a huge hit, and ‘Wild Thing’ which is a legendary classic as well as ‘Try’ from Janis Joplin, ‘I Can’t Let Go’ —a great song by the Hollies—and a number of other songs. Do you remember what it felt like to be churning out so much successful music during that time?

“So I decided I’d just go ahead to the recording studio and let whatever came out of me come out of me. And that’s what came out of me, and that was ‘Wild Thing.’ So that didn’t take more than a few minutes.”

CT: Well it’s like I said with all the rest; I just was picking up the guitar and letting things flow out. I was a big one for sounds of words against melody. I never picked up the guitar to say ‘I want to write a song about this, or I want to preach about this’, I never did that. So I just would pick up the guitar and let words come out and if the words hit each other in a cool little way that I liked, then I kept it going. And the emotion of it was in the aftermath. It’s like when ‘Angel of the Morning’ was introduced at a concert as “here’s a pretty little song”, well, I could tell you right now ‘Angel of the Morning’ is a pretty song and it’s an emotional song and it’s a power-packed song. And I didn’t do that because my brain taught me how to do that; it just flowed out, and the aftermath I can look back and say ‘That is some song.’ That’s emotional. I got a chill with everything I did in that song. I wrote it in ten minutes and I was totally on fire. And it’s a similar feeling with ‘Wild Thing.’ Those songs were important. Why? I don’t know. But there was some kind of emotion that was captured there.

It’s like the songs that I have out now, I never set out to write a morality play with any of these songs to tell anybody what they should be thinking or not, but in the aftermath of a lot of the songs that I’ve written, I learn a lot. And I get coached to be a better person from the songs, not because I set out my brain to do that—I didn’t. But in the aftermath of listening to ‘New Songs of Freedom’ or ‘Dance with a Hole in Your Shoe’ or ‘Former American Soldier’, those things teach me a lot and if somebody else gets something from them, then that’s great and that’s why it’s important for me that they’re out there, they’re teaching me something.

BH: So it’s not a conscious thing at all, even though the later stuff that you’ve been doing is the same approach as you did with ‘Wild Thing’, essentially.

CT: Yeah, I’ll give you an example: ‘Dance with a Hole in Your Shoe’ [off of New Songs of Freedom]. I was in Holland in October working with [violinist] Carrie Rodriguez, and every night after the show I would always try to wind down in some bar with a good scotch. That was my typical thing. I didn’t care if somebody joined me or they didn’t. Well in a town called Gouda there was no such little bar, but there was a slammin’ dance club. And I went in there and I had some cheap scotch, which was watered down, and the people were very nice, and I was listening to the pounding dance beat and just out of the blue, this dumb little phrase ‘war, war, what the hell for, global warming, call Al Gore,’ right to the sound of the beat, and I wrote in on a coaster. It was just a feeling and a beat and it sounded like fun.

And then two days later, when I did this stream of consciousness thing, ‘hate everybody that’s not like you, they can go back and hate you too; everybody can hate somebody, berate somebody, and negate somebody, take somebody and shake somebody, and dance with a hole in your shoe.’ I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. It just came out, it flowed out like that. And then I said, ‘what the heck is that?’, you know, and then I listened to it and I said, ‘ohh.’ Then I would get the start of where I should go, but I let the words flow out like notches and then in the middle of it, I got the coaster out and I put ‘war, war, what the hell for…’ so all of a sudden something was going on here, but at its inception I had no idea what was going on, and it wasn’t until after it was all finished that I finally realized what the hell ‘Dance with a Hole in Your Shoe’ was about. So it took me a while to see ‘if the sea’s still green and the sky’s still blue, you could dance with a hole in your shoe’ and then it made all the sense in the world. So then to me it was an important song. I didn’t set out to write an important song or to teach anybody anything, but in the aftermath it taught me something, it made me feel something. And I know what I feel about those things when I say them.

CT: Well, it’s like for me, you’ve got to try to learn from everybody and you can’t be too quick to be passing judgment on people. And you can’t be too quick to say it’s time for our pacifist-button mode because you never know what you’ve got to do. If history teaches us anything it teaches us that there’s a lot of good things, a lot of good communication, and in the aftermaths, a lot of people whose mental thing has strayed into a different place and they have to be stopped.

So when we say, ‘war, war, what the hell for, who needs it, so they say, who needs it’. Well I say ‘so they say’ and that’s important, because I think absolutely we need to cross borders for political order sometimes and most of the time we want to just watch and learn—learn from different cultures. But sometimes we gotta do something, and then people say ‘well, why do we do it here and why do we not do it there’. Well, those are good questions but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing something. So it’s those kind of thoughts. I don’t know the answers to any of these things but I know some things that I know that I’m not sure, like ‘New Songs of Freedom’ said ‘don’t cross the border for political order, upset the balance of culture.’ Well I don’t believe that. I think sometimes you gotta do it, and the ‘New Songs of Freedom’, ‘just let it go, get there honest.’ It will get there honest in some place, but Jesus, who the hell knows where. And in our fallible nature we humans still must speak up and say what we believe in.

One of the things for me is that I hate the idea of polarizing both sides of the equation, of people saying that only this works and other ones saying that only this works. I hate the idea of political people not being able to change their minds from day to day and having somebody on the other side say ‘well there they go, flip-flopping again’. Well, good! If they’ve got reason to flip-flop, f****** great. If Obama goes over to Europe and he goes to Iraq and learns something over there, well isn’t it wonderful that the guy can learn something. I don’t know what he said, I don’t know what he’s gonna say. But in it is something he could learn. John McCain is another great American, if he can learn from something. But come on, stop with the rhetoric. Don’t keep saying stuff because you want to win.

I don’t like people taking positions for the sake of winning masses of votes and keeping masses of people in the dark as to how it should be to live your life in a spiritual way and in an intelligent way to help the country grow.

BH: When you’re talking about music it becomes clear that it’s a spiritual experience to write a song. Can you talk a little bit about that?

CT: Well that’s definitely what it is. It’s like, I get such a chill even knowing that tomorrow something may come out of something that was not there before and it’ll have nothing to do with my brain. So you’re really channeling something. You know the brain kind of edits a little bit as you finish it up and say, well you change this word or that word or something. But the spirit of it, whether it’s a sexuality kind of thing or it’s just a political thing or if it’s a song about your folks or your kids or something—as long as it’s done from this honest, honest place, then I think it’s all beautiful.

I don’t think there’s anything not beautiful about a song, a sexual feeling, if it comes from an honest place. I always think that’s what we’re all about. The Lord put us here and that’s what we’re about. If it comes from a good place it’s good; if it comes from a phony place it’s bad, no matter what you’re singing about. It’s definitely a free kind of form for me, and I just feel so happy to be there in that place as the process is going on. And a lot of times I have not a clue—I mean, when I tell you I don’t have a clue as to what’s being said; it’s like, I started a song the other day and it was like, I just liked the feeling of this thing. It went like… [sings and plays guitar] I only saw what I saw, I only saw what I saw, nine soldiers in Baltimore, fifty-thousand in the Vietnam war, making plans at the grocery store, so we don’t have to go there no more

When I started that song I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. I had not a clue about what that was. ‘Who the heck is that? What is that?’ And then, in this day and age you can Google things, so it was like a different thing. I didn’t have any idea what it was about. And I’m not sure exactly how I want to take it, because you know, when I was there and this stuff happened it was different for me then. I was one of these guys, you know; you didn’t want to get too involved in the dangers of life and stuff like that. But this was still a Berrigan and those seven, Father Dan and the seven other souls, and the missioners from Maryknoll and the Christian brother from St. Lou’, and I learned about it. So that’s what it’s about.

Yeah, sure. I remember it now that I remember it. But now I’m getting into it because most of the time I was just trying to—you know, a fairly conservative background, I wouldn’t say ‘oh, those brave guys’ and I certainly wouldn’t want to equate their braveness with something less brave than going to war. So my dilemma here is I want to make sure that even though I see these folks as brave folks because they stood up for what they believed in, that I want to say also that they’re heroes and also the other heroes are the soldiers who went and did what they thought was the right thing.

BH: That’s the Catonsville Nine you’re referring to [nine Catholic activists in 1968 who burned draft cards in opposition to the Vietnam War].

CT: Yeah, the Catonsville Nine. [sings] I only saw what I saw, I only saw what I saw, the Berrigan father Dan, seven brave souls took a stand, three missioners from the Maryknolls too, a Christian brother from old St. Lou’, they took the draft cards thanks a lot, went and burned them in the parking lot, well we don’t have to die there no more, nine soldiers in Baltimore. So you know, it’s like it is. It’s wonderful. It wasn’t here before and it’s here now and I had nothing—all I said was ‘nine soldiers in Baltimore for fifty-thousand in the Vietnam war’ and I had no recollection of Philip Berrigan. None whatsoever.

BH: You came from a pretty Catholic background in Yonkers was it a very strict household?

CT: No, it wasn’t like that. No, we went to church on Sundays. Dad was a golf professional so he couldn’t go to church, that was his day of work. And so Mom would take us to church, and we were usually a couple of minutes late for church. We went to St. Joseph’s in Bronxville, and when you’re late for church they used to make you sit on the altar, so I used to hate that. That was a punishment for the latecomers and that was our usual seat. All the boys—Jon, Barry, and I—we went to Catholic school. In high school we went to Archbishop Stepinac, and I have a lot of good feelings about all of that stuff and a lot of good feelings about the general teachings of love and kindness, and a lot of specific not-such good feelings about—it’s all human: some of the folks that were teaching you didn’t like so much or some of the sermons you were listening to. It was constantly this word of God, ‘blessed be the word of God,’ that would always kind of get me. I feel kind of guilty—‘I’m not sure I believe this,’ you know?

BH: So the songs are coming in the same way you said ‘Wild Thing’ came in a couple minutes to you?

CT: Yeah, all these songs come fast. You know, sometimes I exaggerate —‘a couple of minutes’, I don’t know. ‘Wild Thing’ came within, yeah, 2 or 3 minutes, and then I had nothing; I didn’t have a second verse. So I decided I’d just go ahead to the recording studio and let whatever came out of me come out of me. And that’s what came out of me, and that was ‘Wild Thing.’ So that didn’t take more than a few minutes. ‘Angel of the Morning’ I would say it didn’t take more than—the entire song, once it began, it took me like an hour to begin ‘Angel of the Morning.’ I had the feel, I had the melody, I had the flow of how it was—it just felt so juicy. But nothing came out that really gave me a chill. And then when the first line came out, ‘they’ll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can’t bind your heart,’ I was on fire. And I put the guitar down, my eyes were misty, I picked the guitar up, I sang that line again to myself, and then I sang it again and the rest of the song just wrote itself. It was like within 10 or 15 minutes the whole song was written.

I kind of play, even in my dumbest ways when I was a kid, kind of percussively a little bit, but it was like … [strums guitar] and I was just playing that softly to myself. It just sounded so pretty to me. [sings and plays guitar] There’ll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can’t bind your heart And then when I sang that I just stopped, I said ‘what is that?’—I had no idea what it meant. Not a clue. And I just started it again, and then from there it took form as to being the most beautiful relationship in the world. If you had to pinpoint me as to where I would say it was, it was like maybe in a war zone where these two people would never see each other again and she’s saying ‘this could be our last day together’.

BH: So when ‘Wild Thing’ came out it was this primal thing, especially when The Troggs version came out. Is that how you envisioned it at all?

CT: Yeah. The Troggs version sounded just like the demo. I mean it was just the whole sexual blast, you know [laughter] with a lot of the most important stuff in the song being the silence. So it was just blasted out.

BH: Was that controversial? Did people think it was sort of lewd?

CT: Well it was controversial to me when I first wrote it. I took all the demos—when the demos came back because I sang it, I had the engineer guy turn the lights down so I could be as into it as I could possibly be when I was singing it. If you’ve got people watching you when that’s where you come from, this Catholic upbringing and who you are and everything; I wanted to just have nobody see me when I sang it. So I sang it very, very authentically because I felt every second of it, and then when it was done and I heard it back I said, ‘oh my God, that’s exposing myself too much,’ and I was like, ‘yikes!’ And so I took the demos and I sent over about 6 or 7 of them, and I took them and I hid them. I didn’t want anybody to hear it. Then the publisher found them and sent them out, and that was all over. Now I don’t feel that way.

BH: [laughs] You feel a little more comfortable with it?

CT: It makes you feel much more comfortable. Take the money and do good things.