Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)
“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.” Paul Simon
The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year. But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs. The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon: “I consider his soft sound a copout. And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation, like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”
Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote: “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.” Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).” And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel. Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”
Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory. This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America. Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY). Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.
If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John. Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s. In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.
I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids. Here’s another one… According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin. Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them. It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.
If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up. As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).
Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.” Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.