Today, "Five Questions" are again put to David Browne, who recently answered 5 Q's for us about his recent book on the Grateful Dead titled
So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead. This time, however, we inquired about his book "Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1971."
Here's what he had to say.
Everyone points to 1968 (the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the chaotic Democratic convention) and 1969 (the Manson murders, Altamont) as landmark years in the death of the ‘60s. And while I don’t doubt the importance of those years, 1970 struck me as the year when the last vestiges of the ‘60s died and the ‘70s began, almost as if right on time with the calendar. Thanks to changes in the draft and Weather Underground bombings, the anti-war movement started to crumble that year; Apollo 13 dealt a crucial blow to the space program; and three of the most iconic bands of the 60s (Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) all fell apart. On the other hand, 1970 saw the dawn of the environmental movement, the GOP’s long-standing “Southern Strategy” (luring away Southern Democrats by playing into racial fears), and, with James Taylor, the rise of the apolitical singer-songwriter movement that would dominate the first half of the ‘70s. Those contrasting visions made 1970 very compelling to me, and not just because I was able to report on and write about the making of some of the first LPs in my collection (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Déjà Vu, Let It Be).
The acrimony and bad vibes of the Altamont tragedy seemed to spread to many popular band’s inter-relationships. Your title characters in The Beatles, CSNY and Simon & Garfunkel all seem to have fallen victim to that. What happened and why?
In the case of the Beatles, CSNY, Simon & Garfunkel, everyone in those groups was getting a little tired of their partners; the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel in particular had been together a decade or more, which was uncharted territory for rock-band longevity in 1970. The Beatles were also torn apart by financial differences stemming from who would manage their affairs (Allen Klein, favored by Ringo, John and George, or the Eastman family, whom Paul preferred).
Kind of a follow up question, but on a macro (socially and culturally) and a micro (bands and musicians) level, peace and love seem to descend into selfishness, narcissism and serious drug abuse. Why did everything go so dark?
Each of these acts was a sociocultural mirror of its time. Reflecting the aging of the original rock audience, who were approaching 30, the Beatles were becoming family men who wanted to spend more time with their partners in their separate estates than in the studio with each other. Simon & Garfunkel, who were never exactly hippies to begin with, were suddenly deemed unhip and “middle class” (in the phrase of one critic at the time). CSNY was a grand experiment being conducted in public: Could you be a “band” but operate separately outside it at the same time, like the rock equivalent to free love? Drugs were certainly an issue for them all; Lennon battled heroin issues that year, Stills was busted for pills and coke in a hotel room, Crosby was increasingly immersing himself in drugs after the fall 1969 death of his girlfriend; Taylor was battling junk addiction as well. Those drugs were becoming an increasingly larger part of the rock world, another unfortunate aspect of 1970. Taylor, who was open about his wounded psyche, was an unintentionally perfect reflection of the time too; I’m sure many of his fans, after enduring the highs and lows of the ’60s, felt equally wrung out.
Why these four albums (Let It Be, Déjà Vu, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Sweet Baby James?) Except for perhaps “Bridge…,” the titles of those records do not portend sunny days, but rather clouds on the horizon. Is that the sound of the door being closed on the Sixties?
I chose these four entities and four albums (as well as the side projects many of them did throughout the year) for a variety of reasons. As I wrote earlier, the breakups of the three bands—and the rises of Taylor—felt like a natural story arc. Also, rock was a much smaller world back then — the music was only about 15 years old, about the same time between now and the first Strokes’ gigs—and as the book shows, these guys knew each other or interacted: Stephen Stills and Ringo became friends in England that year, Crosby and Nash met with Paul Simon to pick his brain about the music business, Taylor was still fending off possible lawsuits associated with his departure from Apple Records. So, to me, they all fit together in multiple ways. The albums themselves told a story: Let It Be was the soundtrack to a documentary filmed in 1969 in which the Beatles seemed to be falling apart on camera; Bridge Over Troubled Water and Déjà vu were called “group” albums, but chunks of each were done without the other members of the group. The introspective, sensitive-guy ambience of Sweet Baby James took the folk-pop singer songwriter in a far more personal direction ever before.
The Seventies would eventually invite in, to me at least, sunnier and lighter (some would say “lightweight”) music fare. Your thoughts on why that happened?
To a large degree, the “soft rock” revolution of the early ‘70s that was driven by Sweet Baby James was a natural reaction to the post-‘60s hangover. People were worn out by years of confrontation and loud rock & roll and wanted something calmer. (Disco was its own version of escapism.) Of course, punk would emerge in just a few years, so the decade didn’t end calmly. It’s like the cycle of (pop) life. But there’s a reason Taylor made the cover of Time in early 1971.