Among the best of 2011′s uniquely impressive field of music biographies was rock journalist David Browne’s exquisite Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970. The very concept of the book is fascinating–in 1970, amid a violent sociopolitical backdrop (the Kent State shootings, the tragic Apollo 13 mission, the domestic bombing campaign of The Weathermen), four of the twentieth century’s most important albums were released while the artists creating the music were breaking up their bands, fleeing the music industry and in one case, fending off another round of institutionalization.
1970 saw the release of The Beatles’ Let It Be even as the band were on the verge of breaking up, fueled by the acrimonious and often public bickering between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Crosby, Stills and Nash were struggling to complete their new album Déjà Vu while acclimating to the addition of ornery new member Neil Young. Simon & Garfunkel were barely speaking to each other, with Art Garfunkel caught up in his new acting career and a frustrated Paul Simon teaching songwriting classes at NYU. Somehow the two managed to release the majestic Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Meanwhile, a young unknown troubadour by the name of James Taylor had recently checked out of a sanitarium and although he still wrestled with the demons of addiction, he assembled a band and over the course of four days he recorded the multi-platinum Sweet Baby James.
Taken individually, each story is riveting–full of tension, raw emotions and vivid personalities (the in-fighting between The Beatles is particularly eye-opening and not entirely flattering to the august legends), but collectively they present a rich, cohesive narrative. What blends these dramas together so seamlessly is the astonishing number of points at which the stories intersect and converge. The artists stumble across each others’ paths either directly or tangentially throughout the year, with musicians appearing on each others’ albums, showing up at the same concerts and collectively observing and reacting to the violent social climate that defined the year.
Despite these considerable challenges, the artists managed to create timeless albums that even today cast long shadows over all of modern music and its expansive number of genres, from West Coast hip hop to Norwegian black metal. Amazingly, there was nothing disposable about the music released in these records. In today’s dysfunctional shell of a music industry, artists are practically expected to issue sub-par albums to limply fulfill record contracts, often choosing to release inferior product rather than to address uncomfortable personality clashes in their band.
The three established groups in Fire and Rain had as much, if not more motivation to phone it in with uninspired material, yet they were so attuned to creating resonant music, steeped in truth and innovative musicianship, that they persevered through the challenges to erect unimpeachable monuments to superior songwriting. Admittedly, James Taylor had all the motivation in the world to record a great album, but with the hallways of the insane asylum still fresh in his psyche, drugs and alcohol still barking at his door and a mere four days to record, his album is every bit the equal of the other three.
Browne’s narrative buzzes with the inescapable vibe that something was happening in 1970–something very special that even the key players could not see at that time. You can’t help but smile when a principal musician from one story crosses through the background of another, all parties blind to the profound cultural impact they were each in the process of making. Hindsight gives the music even greater significance as we see that these four albums happened almost in spite of themselves.
Rare is the music biography that can appeal to those beyond the fans of the underlying music. Fire and Rain stands among those few titles, presenting an attractive and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience to virtually anyone who cracks open its pages.
Though the onslaught of interviews regarding his 2011 blockbuster Fire and Rain has somewhat subsided, David Browne’s dance card is as full as ever. In addition to the demands of his contributing editor post with Rolling Stone magazine, Browne additionally blogs for the Huffington Post and reviews albums for National Public Radio. Browne, a former Music Journalism Award winner, has freelanced for a broad spectrum of other outlets and with four books under his belt, his musings on music and culture enjoy a wide audience.
We were thrilled to catch up with him between his myriad professional assignments and his ongoing obligations to ensure that his daughter’s musical education is responsibly stewarded.
How did you come up with the book’s concept? These four albums are roundly viewed as some of the best of the twentieth century. It’s amazing that these uniquely compelling stories weren’t just happening simultaneously but they were repeatedly intersecting as they each played out. How did you notice that?
It all started with a conversation I had with my wife right after the publication of my last book, Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth. She said “At some point you have to write about all those first records that you owned and that meant so much to you when you were a little kid and that you still play. Like Neil Young, Simon & Garfunkel and Crosby, Stills and Nash. You have to write about them at some point.”
I knew she was right but I thought, “What could I do? Most of those people have already been the subject of books.” The Beatles came up, and of course, the world doesn’t need another Beatles biography. Then she said the magic phrase: “Well is there anything they have in common? A year, for example?” And it instantly hit me, being a record nerd who remembers release dates and record labels and things like that, that 1970 was a connecting thread.
Right away I thought of the four records that came out that year that are the lynchpin of the book. When I thought about it a little bit more, I realized what an interesting story was there. Three of those albums were by iconic groups of the Sixties who all fell apart that year (The Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and Simon & Garfunkel), and then the fourth one, the James Taylor record, was a breakthrough hit of the year that also carried implications for music to come. So you had a really interesting arc of sorts–the rise and fall of the Sixties, musically speaking, from the collapse of these groups to the rise of the solo singer/songwriter movement that so dominated the first half of the Seventies.
Doing a little more research and digging into my rock trivia brain, I realized that there were some connections between these people. James Taylor was on Apple (Records, the label founded by The Beatles), Ringo Starr was on the Stephen Stills album that was recorded that year and various other things that are sketched out in the book. It sounded interesting and I’d always wanted to do a book about a scene as opposed to doing another biography.
So all those things came together, nicely so, but it was a tricky book to outline once I got into it. But that’s the basic origin of it–wanting to write about that music, that era and that cultural transition.
The James Taylor story is like the book’s feel-good hit of the summer…
That’s a good question that no one has asked me before. One of the first things I did was go through my record collection and pull out everything from 1970, and I ended up with a pretty big pile. There were all kinds of major records that came out that year, which some reviewers have pointed out, like Captain Beefheart, but there’s something about those four acts that really seemed to gel. If I tried to cram the Flying Burrito Brothers in there, it wouldn’t have fit the narrative. And I wasn’t attempting to write a book about every musical trend of 1970–I wanted to use these people and their lives and careers that year as a mirror of that transition from one era, one sensibility, into another. And these four seemed to fit together and the connections between them, before and after, became more clear. Years later when I found myself covering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concerts that I write about in the epilogue and saw those people interacting backstage again, that really solidified it for me. This story goes on for those people, forty years later.
You mention how the stories all interact. What was your process for outlining the book? With so many stories and so many intersections it had to be quite a challenge.
It was a huge challenge. What I did was from the beginning I bought a stack of index cards and on each one I wrote down a particular event, whether it was “Kent State” or “First show of CSN on tour.” Then I laid them out on my living room floor and moved them into four seasons. That was a huge help in visualizing these things. And even after I had done the research and was deep into the writing of it I would come across something that needed to be moved. So it was a huge and challenging puzzle, more so than my other books, and certainly there were times when I wondered if it would make any sense, when I was so deep into it. Fortunately my editor thought it worked. As soon as he started reading it, I think I gave him the first quarter of it, he said, “Oh yeah, this is great!” So that was a huge relief but it was an extraordinary challenge to put it all together–like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
I didn’t want to overdo the connections, either, so it was a challenge, to say the least.
What do you mean that you didn’t want to “overdo the connections?”
I wanted to show that the connections were natural. I would end one chapter by leaving a hint of going into the next group’s story. I wanted to find natural links and transitions and not force it in any way.
So you didn’t want to take up the role of the Greek chorus, constantly pointing out, “Look how this person appears on both this album and that album.”
Right. It all played out organically and I wanted the stories of these individual acts to tell the stories themselves. I didn’t want to get too literal and ram the points home. That’s how I’ve done my other books as well. I wanted to let the reader put some of the pieces together as they were reading it and make the discovery on their own, maybe noticing “Oh, Art Garfunkel went to that Greenpeace concert where James Taylor was performing,” and then lead that into the James Taylor plot. I wanted it all to seem subtle.
You seem to give fairly equal time to each of the four plots. Was it tough to spread the love equally? Did you have to push one story forward or pull one back?
I tried to give equal time but it was a challenge in terms of access. I put in requests to talk to people like Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and their people were like, “Oh sure, we’ll get those requests in,” but they get literally hundreds of interview requests a day and those guys generally don’t like to talk about that period anyway, so I knew going into it that my odds of talking to certain people, who don’t generally run to the press, like those guys or Neil Young, were going to be problematic. But I was able to talk to enough associates of all those groups to hopefully flesh out each story and I certainly wanted to give each story equal time.
It was easier in some cases, like Crosby, Stills & Nash, because I got to interview them. It was a little tougher in the Beatles’ case but fortunately there were enough survivors who were around back then. And there were enough court papers. Certainly finding the Beatles court papers in London was a huge moment for me because I’d heard about that lawsuit (filed by Paul McCartney on December 31, 1970), but I wanted to actually read the papers. I don’t trust much I read on the internet anyway. Except on The Nervous Breakdown!
(laughs) So I went to London, and it’s a whole process. It took many calls to even find out where the papers are. It turns out they’re in a place called the National Archives, which is a structure about an hour outside of London that houses all of these historical papers. It’s a beautiful building with fountains out front and it has everything from maps of England going back to England to the Magna Carta. And that’s where the Beatles’ court filings–the original papers, were kept.
I had to make an appointment then I had to go there and bring all sorts of ID, like my phone, gas and electric bills, in addition to my passport and my driver’s license to prove who I was. Then I got a pass and they escorted me into a windowless room that was locked from the outside–a small room with a big table, and I sat down at this table and this clerk disappeared and came back in with these two cardboard boxes of the Beatles court papers.
I knew already that they had certain rules. You couldn’t bring in a camera to take pictures and you couldn’t use a pen because they didn’t want anybody marking these things up–these are historical documents, after all. So I have my notebook and my pencils, and I crack open the box and I start reading the stuff about money matters and such, and a few minutes later the clerk comes back into the room and says, “Pardon me, sir, you can’t use erasers. You have to either give them to me or pull the eraser heads off of each pencil,” so that’s what I had to do. I pulled the eraser heads off of each pencil and gave them to this guy and then we were good to go. When I finally left at the end of the day I couldn’t find him, so I never got my eraser heads back–they’re all somewhere in the National Archives building… (laughs).
Those papers were amazing to read through. All the court transcripts and the various things about money matters between the bands, or the letter that Paul dictated to Phil Spector about how pissed off he was about “The Long and Winding Road” and on and on. That was a real goldmine for me and it compensated greatly for not getting to talk to Ringo. In fact those papers are probably more trustworthy because they were all done at that time.
How long did you get to study the documents?
I was there for most of a day. I could have gone back and I would have had to make another appointment for a second day. But I was there for five or six hours and that was fine. I had enough time to go through everything twice. Thankfully I was able to squeeze it all in.
When I was going back through the book I revisited a lot of notes that I had written in the margins. One of these notes said “These stories show that you can fail on your own, but you can’t succeed without the help of others.” I think I wrote that because you draw such colorful pictures of the supporting casts–the key players outside of the spotlight, who helped to make these albums happen. Did any one interview stand out as particularly illuminating?
Those are always the absolute best people to talk to. In many cases they rarely do interviews or haven’t done them in decades, so someone like Simon & Garfunkel’s old manager Mort Lewis, who was retired and living in Connecticut–tracking him down was a real piece of detective work. He’d been out of the business for ages and he had good memories of what their lives and music were like back then. He hadn’t talked to anyone in ages about them, their early days, early meetings with them, and how business-savvy Paul was, even in 1965.
Even somebody like Leland Sklar, who was James Taylor’s bass player–he hadn’t been quoted that much before. I went to his house in Pasadena–a very nice guy, with an incredibly long beard and mountain man look–he had great stories about meeting James that year and how disheveled he was and doing gigs when there was nobody there and then suddenly they’re playing the Troubador and it’s sold out and everybody’s singing along with all of the words to all of the songs, and a month before nobody was. Nice little details like that are the kind of stories, perspectives and insights that the main players don’t always have because they’re used to telling these certain stories over and over again. The support crew often has the freshest memories in a way because they’re not used to telling the stories.
Another real goldmine was the photographer Henry Diltz, who did the cover of Sweet Baby James and the first Crosby, Still & Nash album. I reached out to him because I wanted to see about using his photos–I ended up using a couple in the book–and I thought he might have a story or two about shooting the Sweet Baby James cover because I knew he was around those guys. He was a very nice guy and said “Sure, come on out if you want to come out to my house in the valley and go through some pictures. Also I kept daily journals. I’ve kept them my whole life.” I was like, “Oh really?” (laughs)
He spent a considerable amount of time in 1970 with Crosby, Stills & Nash and he pulled out these two notebooks from 1970, written in this beautiful calligraphy, and we went through that year, day-by-day. So I was able to pinpoint exact dates of things, and certain things would trigger his memories of other things or clue me in to other people I should talk to.
Henry was someone who was not the focus of the book but who turned out to be a great resource because not that many people still have their journals, if they even kept them back then. It’s always the people who surrounded the stars who have the great memories, and who have the mementos and diaries, who can be great sources. Much more so than the stars themselves.
The four bands here are at various points of their career with one guy in his ascendency (James Taylor), and the Beatles in their swan song. What, if anything did the creative processes behind the albums share?
What’s interesting to me is that Let It Be, Déjà Vu and Bridge Over Troubled Water shared a similar creative process in that they were all wrought with tension and friction. In each case the tensions between the band members were escalating, there were various verbal and musical battles in the studios, whether it was Stephen Stills suddenly having to get used to Neil Young being there, and not being in control, or Paul Simon having to deal with Art not being around that much… And yet you don’t hear any of that, which was quite fascinating for me to realize. When you go back and listen to those records, they’re all pretty smooth, lyrically. The records don’t bristle with any underlying tension. It’s almost as if the tensions were smoothed down or sanded over in the final record.
With James Taylor, how interesting was it to see how he was battling with all sorts of demons in those days, yet that record was cut in four days. Very efficiently and under-budget for the time (the triple platinum-selling album was cut for only $7,600), and I think that again, a similar connection is that while he wasn’t fighting with his band, here was a guy who was coming off of being institutionalized just a few months before, who was doing a little better by the time he cut the album but he was still dealing with drug and alcohol problems. Again, you wouldn’t know that listening to that record. It’s not like you’re listening to a Johnny Thunders record. It’s a pretty mellow, laid-back, beautiful piece of music. When you’re listening to Sweet Baby James you don’t feel like you’re listening to someone in the midst of all of this turmoil. There may be hints in the lyrics here and there, like in “Fire and Rain,” but I don’t think that anyone listening to that record in 1970 thought, “Wow, that guy’s got a big drug problem.”
So I think that’s a connection between all the records–they were all borne out of a tumultuous time and yet you don’t hear any of that in the music.
It certainly is ironic that the albums relied so heavily on harmony as a defining characteristic of the music, when harmony was almost entirely absent from the process that created it.
Yeah, I’d say that’s true.
I found it a bit eye-opening to read just how petty and short-sighted the Beatles were, at least in their dealings with each other. Was there ever any hope of righting the battleship, assuming that John didn’t get taken so early? Was the damage irreparable by the release of Let It Be?
Probably not, although at the time it seemed like it was. Throughout the Seventies, they’d get together in different combinations and put some chords together and spend some time together. There’s that famous story of John and Paul getting together to watch Saturday Night Live in ’75 or ’76 and almost jumping in a cab and making a surprise appearance together–one of the great lost opportunities in rock history…
Paul did give an interview recently to promote his new album and he said something like he thought that at some point they would have worked together again in some capacity, so who knows? It seems like that could have happened but certainly in 1970 there was so much tension with Paul on one side and all of the other guys on the other side that it really did seem that it was over for good. Which is something that I found really fascinating. The animosity at that time was pretty up-front. They were dissing each other in songs, interviews… They sort of started the practice of the public dis. The rappers went and ran with it but I think the Beatles really started it. (laughs)
You point out that not only did Bridge Over Troubled Water chart at the same time as Let It Be but it beat it (Bridge held the number 1 spot on the charts with Let It Be reaching 2). Do you assign any significance to the fact that Simon & Garfunkel beat out the Beatles for number one?
Well you have to understand that by the time Let It Be came out as a movie and an album it was right after Paul had issued his own album with a statement that basically said “I’m on my own right now; I’m not working with the other guys.” He wasn’t so blunt as to say the Beatles were over but if you read between the lines, that’s actually what he was saying. So I think that by the time Let It Be came out as both a movie and an album, there was a pall over it. It had bad vibes written all over it even though it was successful at the time–”Let It Be,” “Long and Winding Road” and “Get Back” were big hits. But it was pretty clear that people didn’t love it as much as other Beatles records.
It’s interesting that when I bought my copy of Let It Be, which I think was in ’73, it was in a cut-out bin in a mall record store in New Jersey. And to this day I’ve never seen any other Beatles album in a cut-out bin. That was the reason I bought it. You never see a $1.99 Beatles album, they were always full price. But they pressed so many of those, at (manager) Allen Klein’s demand, and so many went unsold, that they had to dump them in these cut out bins and I think that says all you need to know about the end of the Beatles. (laughs) But it was a really good deal at the time–I was really excited about it.
What was the singular most important musical event of 1970?
I suppose the break-up of the Beatles. If you’re talking about as that year was happening, certainly that’s the one that made the news and that was world-wide news when it broke. And that was a period when rock and roll news didn’t always make the mainstream media. It was not really considered that important. Looking at pictures of people on the sidewalks of London holding that newspaper in their hand with the headline “Paul Breaks Up Beatles,” that was a visual reminder to me of how groundbreaking and how hugely impactful that story was.
The other stories I wrote about in the book didn’t receive nearly as much media attention. The Simon & Garfunkel break-up was so low-key and under the radar that nobody even knew for a couple of years. And Crosby, Stills and Nash’s squabbles backstage didn’t get that much attention. It wasn’t until later until some of that stuff started coming out and even then they didn’t issue a big public statement saying they were over.
Towards the end I write about when Led Zeppelin usurped the Beatles as the number one music group in that poll, and after that you had Black Sabbath, then the first Emerson, Lake and Palmer… you had a significant changing of the guard that was very important, along with the rise of the singer/songwriter that fall, with the James Taylor record breaking through, with Bread, with Cat Stevens… Suddenly the airwaves were filled with these guys with facial hair and acoustic guitars. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment such as Paul McCartney issuing that statement, but that combination of the rise of soft rock in the fall at the same time that you had Black Sabbath and Zeppelin and ELP emerging and being taken to by the younger siblings of the original Beatles fans–that was the biggest moment, almost on par with the Beatles because it was the first real break in the rock audience. It wasn’t just a generation gap, it was a musical gap where you saw the rock audience, which before that was one big group of people, starting to splinter. The younger fans wanted louder and harder music and the older fans in their mid-to-late twenties wanted more peaceful, easy feelings, to quote the Eagles.
Time for our Either/Or. I’ll give you a series of choices and you pick which one you prefer. Good to go?
Sure. Go ahead.
Rock or Folk?
Oh boy… Um, I guess it depends on how you define “folk.” Hmm… You know, I might have to say folk because I have two older sisters and I grew up hearing all of those old singer/songwriter records in the late Sixties and early Seventies. So that stuff was more impactful to me at that age than Elvis was.
Let It Be or Bridge Over Troubled Water?
It’d be easier if you said Let It Be or Abbey Road. But um… again, I’d probably go with Bridge Over Troubled Water because it was the second or third record that I ever owned, when I was twelve years old. And I bought Let It Be later but Bridge was one of the first records that I listened to repeatedly and I know every note on it, so it’s kind of ingrained in my brain. Tough choice.
US music magazines or UK music magazines?
Gosh… what’s left of US music magazines? Well, it’s a tough question but I’ll say US, because I write for some of them. But the US ones seem to find that middle ground between reverence and snarkiness, and the UK press goes a little more toward tearing down the buildings.
John or Paul?
See, if you said Paul or Ringo it would have been easy. (laughs) I’d probably go with Paul because I listen to more of his solo work than I do John’s and I think my all-time favorite Beatles song is “Hey Jude.” They both did great work with the Beatles, but part of me tends towards the more melodic.
Last one–music of the Sixties or music of the Seventies?
I’m gonna go with music of the Seventies because that’s the decade when I started buying records and the albums that I wrote about, the Neil Young albums, the Jackson Browne albums… these were all the prototypical records of the Seventies that meant a lot more to me than say, Tommy because I’d buy them right when they were coming out. So I’m not saying it’s necessarily better, but that music was more meaningful to me.
David, thanks a bunch for your time.