1970 was a bummer of a year all around. The '60s had ended in assassinations, violence at the Altamont concert, and bullets and screams at Kent State. The Weather Underground blew up a brownstone in Manhattan. And to top it off, The Beatles were breaking up.
"I think by the end of 1970 ... people were just really exhausted after three years — '68, '69 and '70 — of political assassinations and antiwar protests," author David Browne tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host David Greene. "It was just a laundry list of horrors."
Weary Americans wanted to be comforted when they turned on the radio. They were ready for acts like James Taylor, whose first big hit provides the title for Browne's new book: Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970.
"With James Taylor, he really was sort of the right guy at the right time," Browne says. "By the end of 1970, it was just one of those convergences of cultural mood and music. I think people wanted to take a breather."
Browne says the song "Fire and Rain," with its intimate, confessional, quiet sound, was just what people wanted that year.
"A guy like James Taylor, who was very upfront in talking about what he had been through those last couple of years ... his own drug problems and his stays in mental hospitals ... I think a lot of people really connected with that," Browne says.
The book Fire and Rain is arranged chronologically, beginning in January of 1970 with one of the most important musical events of the year: the beginning of the end of The Beatles.
John Lennon was far away in Denmark with Yoko, and the remaining three Beatles converged at Abbey Road for what would be their last recording session together. They banged out "I Me Mine," for the Let It Be album, in what Browne says was record time.
"That was a real sign, that like, 'OK, we really want to get this over with ... and kind of move on with our lives in a way,' although they weren't really telling anyone at that point," Browne says.
A few short months later, the band dissolved in acrimony and lawsuits after Paul McCartney announced publicly that he'd had enough.
It was a pattern that would repeat throughout 1970 as other big musical acts began to fall apart.
Browne says that dissolution is emblematic of what was happening to music that year. "Three of the most iconic groups of the '60s — Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — releasing these landmark albums that year ... and then imploding," he says.
"And then rising out of those ashes is this guy named James Taylor who was really an obscure, almost cult figure at the beginning of 1970," Browne says. "Yet by the end of the year, [he] emerged as the rising new star of the year and usher[ed] in that kind of singer-songwriter, more introspective, far less political sensibility."
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."