July 6, 2011
Luther Spoehr, Review of David Browne’s “Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970” (DaCapo Press, 2011).
[Luther Spoehr, an HNN book editor, teaches "Campus on Fire: American Colleges and Universities in the 1960s" and other courses at Brown University.]
As he contemplated writing this book, Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne conceived an ambitious agenda: “The more I thought about it,” he says, “the more 1970 felt like the lost year: the moment at which the remaining slivers of the idealism of the ‘60s began surrendering to the buzz-kill comedown of the decade ahead….I couldn’t resist revisiting a moment when sweetly sung music and ugly times coexisted, even fed off each other, in a world gone off course.” An entirely reasonable idea. The book itself, however, is uneven—strongest when considering the “sweetly sung music,” weakest when describing the “ugly times” in which that music appeared and trying to establish why the times and the tunes were connected.
Occasionally the errors are factual. It’s certainly true, for example, that “the two years leading up to [“Bridge Over Troubled Water’s] release had been brutalizing ones,” but the years 1968 and 1969, saturated with violence though they were, did not include assassination of “both Kennedys.” Slips like that would matter less if there were sustained discussion of the world beyond the music, but there isn’t. We just get summary versions of the late-60s litany of “one piece of bad news after another”-- the killings at Kent State and Jackson State, the Weathermen’s turn toward violence, the seemingly endless arguments over Vietnam, civil rights, and urban crisis. But Browne doesn’t try to explain why 1970’s events made idealism surrender.
Some of 1970’s bad news involved musicians. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died of drug overdoses. The Supremes broke up, as did Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Sam and Dave. Browne focuses on arguably the most important ones still making music: the Beatles; Simon and Garfunkel; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and James Taylor. All produced iconic albums and reached a kind of peak in that year. They didn’t stay long at the top: by the end of 1970, members of the three groups were going their separate ways, while Taylor still seemed to teeter on the verge of personal disintegration.
Increasingly, popular musicians responded to the times by turning away from politics. Except for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio” (about Kent State), the music that Browne’s subjects presented to the public was essentially apolitical. But why did it happen at that particular time? And why a shift toward quietism, rather than escalating anger? Although Browne can’t explain why the shift took place, he’s right to point out that it did, and from a musical standpoint he has a lot to say. He’s an acute listener, employs voluminous resources (including many interviews of his own) to provide incisive close readings of well known songs (“Let It Be,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Teach Your Children,” “Fire and Rain”), and shows how they fit into his overall argument. A characteristic assertion: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” provided “a much-needed respite….It was a perfectly written and produced song that had arrived at exactly the right time.”
Browne traces the paths his four subjects took to their 1970 successes. Simon and Garfunkel, for instance, had become folk rock superstars thanks partly to a lucky intervention. Their original, acoustic version of “The Sound of Silence” had gone nowhere. But in 1965, “without Simon or Garfunkel’s knowledge, [Columbia Records’ Tom] Wilson overdubbed electric guitar, bass, and drums onto the original…The transformation made all the difference. The electric guitar made the song spooky and spectral, as if listeners were walking into a long, darkened tunnel.” It went to the top of the charts.
Browne’s analysis of “Bridge over Troubled Water,” which “sounded like nothing [Simon] and Garfunkel had done before,” is equally precise and evocative, and he’s just as insightful on songs by the others. For example, he makes the point that CSNY’s Déjà vu, which included “Carry On,” “Our House,” “Woodstock,” and “Teach Your Children,” was not really a band album: “The general public had no idea [Neil] Young played only five of its ten songs. Supposed band tracks like “Carry On” were mostly played by [Stephen] Stills….Deja vu was a sonically enveloping and powerful illusion, but it was an illusion nonetheless. The group hug of [the earlier album] Crosby, Stills, and Nash was replaced by the sound of four men each in his own space.”
Perhaps because he was able to interview three of them recently, Browne spends a lot of time (perhaps too much) on CSNY. After a while you stop caring which one had George Harrison’s house in England, or who was lamenting the loss of Judy Collins--or was it Joni Mitchell? And he gets less deeply than you might expect into the musicality of the Beatles’ Let It Be, although he does take time to defend—rightly, I think—Phil Spector’s decision to overdub strings, a harp, a choir, and more drums on “The Long and Winding Road.” We do get to hear lots about the intramural legal wrangling, Paul’s obsession with his own popularity, John and Yoko’s descent into primal scream therapy and total weirdness, and other familiar stories.
Unlike the Beatles, CSNY, or Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor did not have a long record of accomplishment behind him as 1970 rolled around. But the zeitgeist was with him, and he was the harbinger of things to come. “The times,” says Browne, “picked ‘Fire and Rain’ as much as any radio programmer.” With its “understated vulnerability, uncluttered melody, and easy-to-follow metaphors,” the song—and the album it was on, Sweet Baby James—spoke to audiences who were exhausted and looking for solace. “From the plaintive sound of Taylor’s voice to the crisp, woodsy crackle of his fingerpicked guitar, Sweet Baby James was undeniably old-fashioned—pre- rather than post-hippie. The songs reference country roads, the Berkshires, and highways.” Taylor’s own “apolitical, lonely guy persona” fit the times, and “the sense that Taylor had been damaged by drugs or mental instability only added to his mystique.”
The biggest hits of 1970 were songs of weariness, comfort, reconciliation, reaching out. “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Let It Be,” and “The Long and Winding Road,” all went to Number One. (So did similarly-themed songs that Browne doesn’t even mention: B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There,” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown,” and even, in a sense, Edwin Starr’s “War.”)The trend was clear. In the early ‘70s Taylor’s muted “soft rock” would be joined by songs from groups such as Bread and the Carpenters and solo performers such as Elton John and Cat Stevens, to say nothing of the former members of now-splintered ‘60s acts.
Browne does not explain why popular music turned as it did in 1970. And he tells us more about the endless comings and goings of sidemen, backup groups, and girlfriends, to say nothing of who was injecting or snorting what when he wrote that hit, than most of us really need to know. But for close analysis of important musical markers of the blighted year 1970, Browne’s book provides good value. Baby Boomers of a certain age who carry this music around in their heads (including me, I admit) can jump right into it. Younger folks can dust off their oldies collection, fire up the CD-player, and enjoy the fact that they can read this book without bifocals. And we can all ponder again the persistent questions about the relationship between popular music and the times in which it appears.
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