As everyone with an iTunes account can testify, buying music these days is deceptively easy. While the transaction is quite simple, the selection process can be paralyzing. Popular music has spun into an endless spiderweb of genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres, and while more of us are listening to music than ever before, we are customizing our playlists to our own personal aesthetic.
As a result, popular music is becoming less of a common touchstone. There’s not much opportunity for water cooler talk if we all bring our own bottles.
In Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970, David Browne vividly recreates a time when popular music, as a communally shared pastime, really mattered.
Despite its unwieldy subtitle, Fire and Rain provides a clear and brisk journey through one of the most catastrophic years in rock history. Whenever cultural historians write about the ‘60s, they often focus on 1968. With the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive, the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention, international student protests, and the upheaval at the Cannes Film Festival, 1968 was clearly the decade’s climax. However, Browne believes denouements are important too, reminding us that even though the 1960s didn’t end with a bang, there was certainly a great deal of whimpering, especially among music fans.
His approach is deceptively simple. By looking at the events surrounding the release of four key albums, Let it Be, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sweet Baby James, and Déjà vu, Browne attempts to tell the story of 1970. Sounds easy enough, but in the wrong hands it could easily have turned into an exercise in herding cats.
Consider the challenges: the four musical acts consist of 11 major characters, each with a distinctive personality, backstory, and ego, and each plagued by personal flaws, fears, and ambitions. Collectively, in addition to the four central albums, these eleven musicians worked on at least eight solo albums, five motion pictures, and one television special. Two of the groups permanently broke up, a third temporarily disbanded, and one solo performer became a star. Add in marriages, breakups, affairs, arrests, overdoses, fights, lawsuits, and even the quiet intimacy of a one-semester teaching gig at New York University, and Browne’s narrative quickly makes HBO’s Game of Thrones look like a chamber piece.
Browne also tries to broaden his scope by sketching the larger social context and telling these stories amid the backdrop of the Kent State shootings, the war in Vietnam, the bombings of the Weathermen, the Charles Manson trial, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the breakup of Peter, Paul, and Mary. That Browne manages to keep the narratives and characters clear and moving with any semblance of ease and grace is a testament to his skill. No doubt, had Tolstoy been a reporter for Rolling Stone, he could’ve told this story better, but it would have taken him an extra 500 pages.
Browne progresses chronologically, focusing each chapter on only one musical act at a time. If he skimps on any one of them, it would be the Beatles, no doubt because the four members are never in the same room together. Instead, a typical Beatles chapter gives us a little Ringo, a quick stopover in Scotland for Paul, a jam session with George, and a scream therapy session with John and Yoko. Somehow, the four parts never quite make a satisfying whole, just as no four of their solo albums ever quite added up to Abbey Road. To his credit, though, Browne manages to remain relatively even-handed in presenting their breakup—no McCartney bashing nor McCartney hagiography here.
On the other hand, we get plenty of melodrama with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Unlike the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY was more of a concept—a recently formed supergroup of already successful performers who had just added Neil Young to the mix. While Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel gradually drifted apart, and while the Beatles turned passive aggression into an art form, the members of CSNY never seemed to like each other from the beginning—ironic for a group remembered primarily for their amazing harmony.
The outsider to all of these group dynamics is the solo artist, James Taylor, whose breakthrough single provides the book with its title, and whose introspective, confessional lyrics establish the somber, reflective tone of the early ‘70s. Not only is Taylor a solo act as a performer, but as Browne presents it, he was very much a solo act in life as well, even when recording with his fellow musicians, performing with Carole King, traveling with his girlfriend, Joni Mitchell, or acting in Two Lane Blacktop, his first and last movie. Taylor is nearly always described as isolated, non-responsive, and enigmatic. It’s a significantly more remote portrait than Timothy White provides in his Taylor biography, Long Ago and Far Away, but it certainly dovetails with what Browne sees as the tenor of the early ‘70s.
Given the scope and complexity of the book, none of Browne’s etchings is particularly deep, though he seems to have more personal insight into Paul Simon than any of the other artists. Nor are his inclusions of cultural history in each chapter particularly groundbreaking. Some of them appear seamless and organic, such as detailing the Kent State shootings in one of his CSNY chapters, but others, such as a discussion of the space program in a Simon & Garfunkel chapter, feel forced and formulaic.
Browne writes ably about all the music, reviewing the four central albums in particular, and he provides detailed analyses of CSNY’s live performances, but he doesn’t delve as deeply into the bars and frets as many hardcore music fans might wish. It’s not that kind of book. Instead, he focuses on the relationship of the music to the culture at large during a time when the music industry was far less fractured than today, when almost everyone listened to the same stuff, and when a single album, good, bad, or indifferent, really mattered.