My parents taught me more about listening to music than anyone, and growing up, I was glad that they had diverse tastes in music. At some point in my adolescence, I went through the obligatory phase of listening to their album collection. My parents were children of the sixties and seventies and I remember a lot of The Who, Pink Floyd, some Led Zeppelin, and other classic rock. These records, and also their insistence on listening to a wide variety of new music, have served me well as I’ve gotten older. I’m proud of an eclectic Ipod and my ability to make a killer mix tape. (Yes, I know they aren’t tapes anymore, but still.)
That said, I’ve never been a fan of the tell-all book about the music industry. I know there are tons of books about Fleetwood Mac’s sexcapades and The Beatles and Janis and Jimi and the rest of them, but they are just not my cup of tea. So I was surprised at how much I enjoyed David Browne’s “Fire and Rain,” helpfully subtitled: “The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970.” Browne takes readers on a chronological journey through 1970, which happened to be the year of several important music events: The Beatles split after “Let it Be”; Simon & Garfunkel split after “Bridge over Troubled Water”; CSNY embarked on their tortuous “Déjà vu” tour; and James Taylor took off with the American public. The author picked a watershed year in the music industry to chronicle, and coupled with the historical events of 1970 (Kent State, NYC bombings, Nixon’s political games), it made for a fine summertime pop history book. Nothing too meaty, but interesting, nonetheless.
I think the bands of the 60s and 70s also reflected the times—the world was dramatic, unsettled and intense. And so were the bands. This was pre iTunes, obviously, when a smaller band can beget a profitable following through social media, word of mouth and the fact that so many subsets of music trends are readily available. The bands of the 60s and 70s were big, national acts. And accordingly, we now look at them as reflective of society as it was during those times. CSNY had terrific arguments; Browne describes a tense concert where Neil Young walks off mid-performance. The drugs were rampant nearly everywhere. James Taylor was a headcase. The Beatles were allowing individualism to trump the group mentality that had led them to greatness. Like the strife on campuses and in our body politic, the bands of this time also seemed like a volcano about to blow.
Some brief observations in the book: We see The Beatles at their worst. Fighting with one another and splintering. Yoko isn’t the obvious villain, though she and John seem to be feeling the effects of heroin and heroin withdrawal during most of the year. David Browne seems to make Paul out to be the jerk, hell-bent on destroying the band to become a solo artist. And ironically, it’s George Harrison’s solo shot that ended up being the most critically acclaimed. Simon & Garfunkel were unusual; I’m having a hard time describing them other than saying they both seemed like they just gently drifted apart. Some drama, but mainly just a marriage that changed over time. The CSNY stuff was wild. Described as a “corporate merger,” these guys just seemed like they were unlikely bandmates. Great music, but they left carnage in their wake. And I like James Taylor much less than I did prior to the book. He just seemed like a junkie, more indicative of the future of music—it was more about the personality, look, and style, rather than the ability of the musician. Don’t get me wrong, James Taylor is great, but he seemed like he worked because he fit the casting call.
It was hard to fathom just how small of a world these guys lived in. I’m not sure it is still the same today, I wouldn’t really know. But it just seemed like they all were popping in and out of one another’s lives, playing in jam sessions, sleeping with one another, and hanging out together. It must have been a wild ride to be in that scene.
It’s worth noting that Browne doesn’t overdo the history—he barely even does it at all. I would have liked some more balance on that end—even if it was how the band members felt about the events of the day. Like I said earlier, it was merely good summertime pop history.
The book reminded me of “Almost Famous,” which is one of my all-time favorite movies. That movie did a superb job of setting the stage of the time period, and also focusing on the music. And like the movie, the book needed a soundtrack, so I downloaded several of the albums that were a focus of the book. Playing some of them while I read enhanced the experience, especially when the author was describing what went into writing and producing each song and album. Granted, it would have been better had the albums been playing on a turntable as originally intended, but what can you do?
Finally, I’ll say this: I just can’t imagine a book like this in twenty-five years being written about today’s music culture. There are maybe one or two bands (U2 or maybe E Street, but even these guys are really products of a more classic rock environment) that would even have enough of a story to tell that wasn’t just about marketing, focus groups, American Idol and a generally overproduced sound. A book about Lady Gaga or Brittney or LMFAO? God help us.
Thanks for reading.