The 1960s might have ended on Dec. 31, 1969, but it's not as easy to know when "the Sixties" — the era that brought us the Sexual Revolution and the birth of the hippies; a new environmental movement; and strides in civil rights for African Americans and women — came to a close. Did it end in 1968, with the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., or not until 1972, with the Watergate break-in and the re-election of Richard Nixon?
Music journalist David Browne argues that the Sixties really ended in 1970, "the lost year" when "the remaining slivers of the idealism of the '60s began surrendering to the buzz-kill comedown of the decade ahead." In his fascinating new book Fire and Rain, he makes his case convincingly, with a look at the year through the careers of four of the world's most famous rock acts.
Browne follows The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young through 1970, as their careers take unexpected turns, and the youth movement struggles to make sense of events like the Kent State massacre and the convictions (later overturned) of five of the Chicago Seven. The year was as eventful in music as it was in society as a whole: 1970 brought the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, as well as the break-ups of The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, whose final days as bands are chronicled here.
Browne's sketches of the musicians during the turbulent months of 1970 are skillfully drawn and scrupulously fair; he writes about them with an obvious admiration and real sense of love, but never quite lionizes them. His style is particularly affecting in the sections on James Taylor, the shy, troubled young songwriter whose album Sweet Baby James became an unexpected hit; and on CSNY, the supergroup that both formed and broke up, at least for a while, in 1970. (The band would later become notorious for its ever-changing membership; when Crosby, Stills, and Nash appeared on The Colbert Report in 2008, Colbert asked them, "Is it hard to re-do the stationery every time Neil [Young] drops out of the band?")
Most impressive, however, is the adroit and intricate way Browne ties the musicians' stories together with the confused spirit of the times. Neil Young's outrage over the Kent State shootings led to one of the year's most enduring songs, the blistering "Ohio." And The Beatles were briefly dragged back into the spotlight, unwillingly, when Charles Manson claimed their music inspired his murders.
Browne is an incredibly intelligent writer, but never a pretentious one, and his considerable narrative skills make Fire and Rain one of the most entertaining and informative books of the year. It's bound to be enjoyed not only by rock fans, but by anyone interested in popular culture and social change — in the year when "whatever hadn't already exploded in the two previous years let loose one last time."