There are books of every imaginable variety people have read numerous times over, much to the bewilderment of others struggling to conceive of finishing even a single book, and that’s fine either way – there are a few of my own that have devolved into a haphazard stack of torn and worn pages crammed inside a cardboard cover that long ago gave up the illusion of ever actually ‘binding’ anything. But how many books have you enjoyed so much, just treasured every page and quiet moment you could deliberately slow your metabolism and neurotransmitter activity to most effectively consume those words you’re reading for the first time, that before you’ve turned the last page you know you’re going to immediately start right back over at the beginning? There are only a couple that have inspired that reaction in me, the last one being way back in 2006. David Browne’s Fire and Rain has joined that very short list.
It’s not possible to discuss my, er, “informed” opinion of Fire and Rain, dealing specifically with 1970, and not disclose that a 53-year-old person is writing it. Whether or not my random opinion holds any weight at all, let it be understood that the majority of history written by Mr. Browne of pop and rock music’s transition in this singular year, as described, is clearer and more instantly accessible in my own memory than the last ten years will ever be.
From the title alone, I knew Fire and Rain would be either excellent or excrement – its self-declared status as “The first book on the musical, political and cultural changes of 1970” pretty much sets the final categorical choice itself. But what Browne does so beautifully in recounting this precious, precipitous time of bitter endings, and one near-astonishing beginning, is to clarify an existing perspective that, at the time, with the artists involved or their millions of devoted and expectant followers, could not pause in its rapidly expanding metamorphosis to be fully comprehended by anyone who actually lived it.
Without needlessly attempting to re-phrase anything Browne makes perfectly clear all by himself: In this one year alone, fans who had followed The Beatles with rabid dedication for years – fans who were currently being blown away at their first listen of their latest masterpiece, ‘Abbey Road’, were finding out just weeks later that the group were not only about to break up – they already had. And they were four very bitter, angry young men who barely recorded a note together as a group on this swan song, and never would again.
In 1970, Simon & Garfunkel had achieved the most desired popularity of any duo making records up to that time – their music was embraced by both sides of the most critical generation gap in our nation’s history. After opening a tentative dialogue between young and old with ‘Sound of Silence’, then lampooning it with ‘Mrs. Robinson’ in the 1967 film soundtrack of ‘The Graduate’, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released their most artistically accomplished, critically successful, massively awarded, 4 million-selling, Number One Album in 1970, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. Yet, even as they were reaching a status of world-wide popularity, their own evolving artistic and personal pursuits had only further separated them, making their relatively quiet breakup somehow even sadder. As Browne reveals in refreshing detail, there wasn’t so much the jealousy or resentment commonly found in most musical pairings, and certainly no drama between the two, as could be normally expected, but more of a mutual apathy towards continuing to make the same music they had taken as far as they could as a duo. It didn’t matter so much that the world was still wanting more of their music, as much as they needed to cultivate their own individual identities, something that their combined talent couldn’t compensate for.
But the story of Crosby, Stills, Nash (& Young) is as frustratingly unfulfilled as their entire recorded output has made quite clear in retrospect. After CSN’s performing debut before 400,000 people at Woodstock with just a couple of acoustic guitars, and subsequently releasing a debut album of exquisite harmonies and soft instrumental backing almost exclusively from Stills’ musicianship alone, in startling contrast with most everything else on the radio stations of 1969, CSN was so perfectly poised to be the most successful ‘supergroup’ for the next decade that adding another initial to C,S,N (& now ‘Y’) for their 1970 followup album only made everyone more excited to hear it. And they loved it, alright. But it was to be their last release for seven years, after drugs, temperaments and their attendant over-sized egos blew them apart, once again crushing the expectations of their invested fans, and leaving a gap in the newly-created ‘acoustic sound’ that lesser groups like America would capitalize on.
Throughout all of the above-mentioned triumph and turmoil, each story seamlessly interwoven and given equally detailed attention, David Browne parses out smaller, yet ‘time-appropriate’, events that add up to the most intriguing and, for me, ‘original’ musical success story of his book, in the recounting of James Taylor’s serendipitous and ultimately astonishing rise in the industry during 1970. It would be futile trying to distill just this one aspect of Browne’s wonderful work into this review, but this story of mental illness, severe drug abuse and being signed to The Beatles’ new company before having recorded one notable song alone would have made for a very good book.
When settling in and getting deep into the story, I feel like I’m right back there in 1970, except with the advantage of Browne’s narrative, giving me a detached yet accurate view of events, while knowing how they are molding a future that the principals haven’t yet experienced.
For anyone who is a fan of the music and the artists from this era, or the younger reader who would like learning more about recent 20th-century history that the majority of the featured artists are still thankfully around to verify, I highly recommend this book – to my 3-years-older brother, who exposed me to all of the music I grew up with sooner than I would have otherwise, it was imposed, mandatory reading that required him to indulge me in endless ‘Wonder Years’ reminiscing and using direct quotes from the book.