For all of us of a certain age – cultural historians, economists, academics, old hippies, revolutionaries and music fans alike, the hoary old debate about exactly when the ‘Sixties’ actually began depends entirely of course on what your take on the sixties is and as such renders the question completely pointless. There is however, as this well-researched and perceptive book asserts, a good case for stating that any meaningful concept of the sixties well and truly ended in 1970. In retrospect the hippie/Woodstock idyll ended when the last person shut the gate on Max Yasgur’s farm in August of the previous year and the notion that a new generation of young idealists could change the world (and specifically the U.S.) was drastically revised in the wake of the Kent State University shootings in Ohio, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the violence and mayhem perpetrated by the anti-government/capitalist Weathermen movement which contributed to the hardening of mainstream public opinion against any kind of revolutionary cause. Add to that an increasingly downbeat global economy, the Apollo 13 crisis which spelt the beginning of the end of the Apollo space programme, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and the trial of Charles Manson, and the perception was that the world was becoming more troubled, unstable and difficult to predict and make sense of.
One of the ideas that David Browne suggests, but understandably doesn’t fully explore, in ‘Fire And Rain’ is that people generally had finally come to terms with the death of sixties idealism and, with their senses bludgeoned by a succession of turbulent and disturbing social and political events sought refuge in the music of artists who could provide an aural balm for the times. Hence the phenomenal success of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ by Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY’s ‘Deja Vu’ , and James Taylor’s ‘Sweet Baby James’. This book plainly isn’t meant to be an overview of the state of popular music in 1970 as there was so much more going on that doesn’t get a mention here, but as a way of symbolising what was happening in the big picture then a snapshot view of the crisis-torn, insecure, tempestuous and self-centred careers of these particular artists, plus the break-up of The Beatles (perhaps the most momentous musical event of 1970) is both revealing and entertaining.
Very few of the protagonists emerge from Browne’s descriptions of this stage in their lives as being particularly likeable. James Taylor is depicted as chronically introverted, morose and drug-addled for most of the time, Paul Simon appears to have been an aloof, paranoid control freak and something of a martinet, CS&N (but not perhaps Young) had (and might still well have) egos, tempers, drug dependencies and sexual appetites of literally mind-numbing proportions, and The Beatles by then were just obviously completely fed up with being ‘loveable’ Beatles and were determined, individually, on being anything but. Even the saintly George Harrison was said by a Beatles associate to have “had a distinct way of making ‘Hare Krishna’ sound like ‘fuck you’”. If 1970 wasn’t exactly the year when these artists’ careers fell apart it was definitely a watershed and Browne weaves a lively, anecdotal, interconnecting tale of rampant egos, pathetic, juvenile behaviour and of course life-changing success.
Simon & Garfunkel released ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ which sold 1.7 millions copies within three weeks, topped the charts in the U.S. and was at No.1 in the album chart here for nearly half the year. That didn’t stop them breaking up acrimoniously though, Garfunkel to pursue the acting career that irritated Simon so much, and Simon himself, to his great credit, forging ahead with a solo career that has been both prolific and artistically rewarding. CS&N had seemingly lost the cosy, hippie vibe that smothered their debut album and with the addition of Neil Young had become embroiled in a near-comical war of egos and one-upmanship that had its origins in drugs, status and women. ‘Deja Vu’ was hardly a group effort but it cemented their reputation as a supergroup and sold accordingly. The in-fighting, cancelled shows and solo projects didn’t auger well for a long-term future for CSN&Y though. The fact that James Taylor actually managed to make a record, play shows, retain a coterie of friends and cultivate a huge following of (mostly female) admirers is a minor miracle if everything Browne relates here is true. His temperament, looks and general demeanour were obviously perfect for the time though and his album ‘Sweet Baby James’ and his subsequent career flourished. The Beatles’ tale of 1970 is messier and sadder. Their break-up was something of an inevitability after well-publicised spats between Lennon and McCartney and much political in-fighting, but their final album, ‘Let It Be’ spent three weeks at No.1 in the UK chart. McCartney has the final say on the year when, on Dec 31st he sues the other Beatles to dissolve their legal partnership.
Browne, author of highly-recommended books on Tim & Jeff Buckley and Sonic Youth, relates all of this in some detail without ever becoming bogged down in the potential tedium of it all. What emerges from his narrative is the realisation that, apart from the astounding fact that all of these artists save Lennon and Harrison are around today and seemingly thriving, their lives in 1970 had now become careers, the music business was fast becoming an industry, and artists’ egos had become too big to be reigned in by the conventional band format. 1970 was the year when solo albums became almost an artistic necessity – if you didn’t make one you couldn’t be taken seriously. Even Ringo Starr made solo albums. These safer, blander, more introspective artists were obviously hugely popular but they of course don’t tell the whole story. 1970 also saw the release of the MC5′s ‘Back In The USA’, Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘Loaded’ by The Velvet Underground, Spirit’s ’12 Dreams of Dr.Sardonicus’ and at least another twenty or so brilliant albums that were subsequently judged to be both influential and indespensible.
The most sobering fact that emerged from the book for me personally concerned the ongoing Vietnam War which was that “on June 24 1970 changes in the Selective Service System brought both good and damaging news. Instead of drawing from the large pool of eighteen-to twenty-six year-olds, the draft would limit its intake to nineteen-year-olds, those born in 1951”. The year I was born.