Fire And Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor CSNY and the lost story of 1970

January 01, 1970

(Da Capo Press)






Any of the groups and/or individuals named in author
David Browne’s title would be or have been worthy subjects for biography.
Browne’s contention that they are inextricably linked to the cultural and
political world events of the year 1970 is broadly accurate but not necessarily
as significant as presented. Ringo Starr joined the Beatles in 1961 and that
makes half a century of ongoing and unquestionable musical and cultural
significance for that band. Simon and Garfunkel had their first hit not long
after. As a music making duo, they, and legendary genius producer Tom Wilson
(Bob Dylan; Sun R; Frank Zappa; Velvet Underground; Soft Machine; Blues
Project) who added drums and electric instruments to the music tracks of “Sound
Of Silence,” are doubtless among the chief architects of what became
‘folk-rock’ – a rather stupid but fairly accurate term for a music that is
still vital. (Though it has been replaced in many ways by the term ‘Americana’ which conjures
up a grittier, earthier sound.)


It’s also certain that the Beatles and, to a
lesser degree, Simon, have produced music for the ages and are responsible for
songs that will probably go a good hundred years before becoming mostly titles
in music and other history books. Can the same be said for CSNY and James
Taylor? Doesn’t seem likely. Fame is fleeting for sure. And because it takes a lot to join people like Plato, Chaucer
and Shakespeare whose creative works have endured and whose names are still
familiar after half a century and more.


It’s even trickier with Western popular music.
Quick. Name three American popular songwriters from the 19th century. After listing Stephen Foster most would be hard pressed to come up
with another name. But of course Foster wasn’t the only popular songwriter
working in the 19th century geographical and cultural west. He may
not have even been the best. But for a combination of reasons that probably
included a good publicity machine in addition to the ability to write a catchy
tune, Foster’s music – some of it – has endured, and if his songs themselves
are no longer the stuff of Saturday night get-togethers, his name is still
familiar to a great many. Crosby etc. and Taylor may have been hugely popular
at one time and are hardly obscure now, but they were not groundbreakers on the
same level as the Beatles or even Simon. Reading
about them is interesting in a sort of National
way, but none except the Beatles have entered recent popular
mythology and legend in terms of who they are rather than what they did. Except
the Beatles (once again) and to a lesser degree (once again) Simon, these folks
were certainly of their times but whether or not they had much to do with
shaping them is up for debate.


Within the pages of Fire And Rain, Browne makes a personally inspired case. But in the
year in question Browne was only 12. By that age most folks have started to
realize what their long term musical interests will be and many have begun to
pay attention to the world around them that exists outside of home and school.
But reading Browne’s book one can’t help but think that recent history,
cultural history in particular, might best be left in the hands of those who
were more involved in it. There are plenty of people who were adults at the
time – who are still around and far from their dotage – with fairly clear
memories of the events of the time. Perhaps more important, despite the parts
that nostalgia, resentment, disappointment or revisionism may play, they have
memories of the atmosphere. They recall how it felt to pick up a newspaper or
turn on the evening TV news and find out that members of the United States armed forces had shot and killed
students at Jackson and Kent State Universities. In 1970 the memory of
100,000 music lovers gathering at Woodstock
the year before still inspired amazement and a little hippie smugness. Such
sense memories are hard to convey from the perspective of a near outsider. Browne
was in it but not really of it; a historian – albeit a good one –
rather than a true eyewitness.


It also seems just slightly off that the most
significant record in a 12 year-old boy’s collection (his first LP in fact) was
the then six year-old Simon and Garfunkel album Sounds Of Silence. No doubt Browne was not the only 12 year-old boy
to count that as a favorite but it seems an odd choice for an eye-opener or an
avatar, given that by 1970 there was so much quality stuff available and so
much of it accessible on radio. By then there were all of the original albums
from the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground; the first two MC5
albums; the first three albums from the Band and Led Zeppelin; the first four
from Sly and the Family Stone and the early stirrings of heavy metal and punk.
In 1970 Dylan was already up to New
which wasn’t even the first of his many “comebacks.”


does a good job of keeping to the big picture, but still, a lot what is said about
Crosby and gang (except maybe Neil Young) and Taylor is not all that
interesting unless you are already an admirer. Crosby
for one has always come across as self-involved, self-indulgent and pompous
even for a pop star; there’s not much here to counter that. To his credit,
Browne never claims that Fire And Rain is
anything other than one man’s opinion. Here, he’s done some diligent research
for support and has included some choice anecdotal gossip to make a pretty
interesting and sometimes surprisingly informative book.   

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