Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970

AS A 19-YEAR-OLD COLLEGE sophomore, I wore out the vinyl albums of the musicians whose memorable year of 1970 is profiled by Rolling Stone contributing editor David Browne in this fast-paced and entertaining book.

But Fire and Rain is much more than an account of the ups and downs those 12 months marked in the careers of a handful of musical greats. It’s the story of a tumultuous year, one scarred by the senseless killings at Kent State and Jackson State, elevated by the heroism of the astronauts of Apollo 13, and, in the world of music, darkened by the deaths of rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

It was a year, most of all, which signaled the transition from the chaotic ’60s to the more somber ’70s.

The year featured the release of albums whose titles alone will summon up a torrent of memories for those of a certain age: Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, The Beatles’ Let it Be and Hey Jude, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James and CSNY’s Déjà vu. For later generations conditioned to think of music as individual MP3 files downloaded instantly from the iTunes store, the notion of the album as a cultural event, Browne describes, will be difficult to grasp.

A musician once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and Browne doesn’t spend much time dissecting these albums in a way designed to appeal only to music geeks. Instead, he’s more interested in offering a sense, among other things, of the way the “serenity of the music turned out to be merely a cover for the hidden turbulence that lay underneath.”

Whether he’s writing about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s primal scream therapy, James Taylor’s ongoing struggles with drugs or the clash of personalities that spelled the end for Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s gorgeous collaboration, he draws on a wealth of interviews and other source material to peel away that surface layer.

In the wake of 9/11, it’s easy to forget that the early years of the Nixon administration produced their own frightening version of domestic terrorism in the form of a wave of bombings of corporate and industrial sites.

Fire and Rain relies on an episodic narrative, intercutting from one group to the other to recount the internal conflicts and external rivalries that flared in 1970. In April, Paul McCartney announced the breakup of the Beatles over “personal differences, business differences, musical differences.” Simon split from Garfunkel in September, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young nearly disbanded in the midst of a concert tour. The fact that he was a solo act seemingly was the only thing that kept James Taylor from a similar fate.

In the wake of 9/11, it’s easy to forget that the early years of the Nixon administration produced their own frightening version of domestic terrorism in the form of a wave of bombings of corporate and industrial sites. While the loss of life was low, a researcher died in a blast at the University of Wisconsin and a bomb-making factory explosion destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing three Weather Underground radicals. On a more hopeful note, 1970 saw the birth of the modern environmental movement, with the celebration of the first Earth Day in April. As Browne recalls it, the sharp political and cultural divisions almost make our red state/blue state divide seem tame by comparison.

His reminder that, amid this turmoil, music remained a political force, seems almost quaint to anyone who didn’t experience the era. Less than three weeks after Ohio National Guard troops killed four students at Kent State, for example, CSNY were in the studio recording “Ohio,” a blistering Neil Young anthem commemorating an event that galvanized college campuses, including a large contingent of Dickinson College students (of whom I was one), who marched from campus to the Army War College.
But, as the war wound down and the draft lottery diminished the threat of conscription for many young men, much of that political energy dissipated, until by the end of the year, as Browne writes:

“By then, the country, even the world, was exhausted after ten months of Vietnam-related anguish and homegrown terrorism, pandemonium, and death on campus, and the collapse or failure of so much from the past decade, be it the Beatles or moon missions. The two previous years had jarringly demonstrated that social or political change was no longer in plain sight. It had all accelerated that year, so that the worlds of January 1970 and twelve months later felt like polar opposites.”

In the affectionate October 2009 coda that concludes the book, Browne admits he “couldn’t resist revisiting a moment when sweetly sung music and ugly times coexisted, even fed off each other, in a world gone off course.” John Lennon and George Harrison are gone, but as some of Browne’s subjects enter their 70s, they’re still making music, and even if they never sing another note, they’ve left behind an enduring musical legacy.