On the recommendation of my friend Andy Smith, I picked up a copy of Fire and Rain by David Browne; the book is his unfiltered look at the music and culture of 1970 as defined by four artists or groups: the Beatles, CSNY, James Taylor, and Simon & Garfunkel. It's a fascinating read, since it underscores the incredible potential and the tragic dissolution of all four. It's a surprisingly similar story of squandered opportunity, unrestrained egos, personal excess, professional self-indulgence, musical genius, and culture influence on a level that is difficult to perceive today, when most musical acts are less important to contemporary culture than a Kardashian...
If you lived through this turbulent musical year (as I did--1970 is probably my own personal "golden age of music" year) Browne's chronicle will remind you of how important each of these artists were musically. Two of them are on the wane--the Beatles are in the process of falling apart, and Simon & Garfunkel have broken up in spirit already, as the lyrics of many of the songs on Bridge Over Troubled Water underscore. The other two acts are relatively new but already in trouble. James Taylor can't escape the demons of his own dependent personality, which leads him into drugs and away from the strength of his own music. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young are driven by the frenetic and conflicting natures of their personalities that lead them to unite, confront, compete, condemn, and betray one another on a far too regular schedule.
But oh, the music--this was an incredible year for all four, giving us such wonders as Let It Be, Sweet Baby James, Deja Vu, Bridge Over Troubled Water, McCartney, Plastic Ono Band, All Things Must Pass, After the Gold Rush, Sentimental Journey, Beaucoups of Blues, "Instant Karma," and "Ohio." This was the year that some of 1971's greatest albums were begun, including Paul Simon, Songs for Beginners, If I Could Only Remember My Name (one of my five favorite albums of all time), Mud Slide Slim & the Blue Horizon... How could so much wondrous music have been created in such a short period of time?
If you prefer to envision your favorite musical performers as dedicated artists driven by artistic devotion, then you're going to be very disillusioned by Browne's chronicle. There are egregious examples of prima donna behavior (CSNY creating an album cover that was so out of the ordinary that it required that a photograph be hand-glued onto each and every copy, or Paul Simon assembling some of the best studio musicians of the era and then attempting to teach them how to play their own instruments before finally just dismissing them entirely). But the book reminds us that no one was either wonderful or wretched--but every one of these stars could at times be both.
If you're not familiar with the stories of these performersm Fire and Rain is a fascinating read. But even more, it's a wonderful metaphor for what was wrong with our culture in 1970.