Sunday, December 4, 2011

1970: A book report

by little TAD, age 11 in 1970


I liked this book. But that doesn't mean I think it's REALLY GREAT or anything like that.
If you're a fan of any of the pop stars that Mr. Browne's book follows, you'll obviously want to read it. There's some good behind-the-scenes information about the chaos surrounding Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's recording of DEJA VU, their second album. And you'll learn a lot about James Taylor's struggles on his way to stardom. There is quite a bit about the stresses Simon and Garfunkel went through while recording BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER -- a lot of it probably won't be new to big S&G fans.
But Mr. Browne doesn't add much behind-the-scenes info to the stories you've probably already heard about the Beatles' recording of LET IT BE.
As a recounting of what these four acts did back in 1970, this book is solid, clear, vivid, detailed and enjoyable. There are a few laugh-out-loud moments. And there is a truly unbelievable amount of drugs consumed by the people in this book.
But the ending is disappointing, and I think I know why.
How much you get out of this book will I think depend on whether you think the year 1970 itself is a "lost story," as Mr. Browne says he does in his Introduction.
I turned 11 years old in the summer of 1970 and was vaguely aware of most of the big events mentioned in this book -- the Kent State shootings, Charles Manson's murder trial, the US invasion of Cambodia, the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the breakup of the Beatles. It wasn't really that long ago, & I think most of these events are unlikely to be forgotten by folks who were around at the time.
And if the book is intended for younger audiences, I'm not sure Mr. Browne makes connections that would make a younger audience care.
I kept waiting for Mr. Browne to find some deeper significance in these people's stories, some deep inner meaning to be found by looking back from 40 years later -- but Browne doesn't do it. He doesn't find any bigger meaning other than showing in his "October 2009 Coda" that most of the players survived it all and went on to other things. Life went on. I'm not sure that's enough. I wanted it all to mean more.
Nobody reads history primarily to make sure all the facts and details are right -- they all seem to be right here, though occasional words are dropped and one minor player is incompletely identified the first time he's mentioned.
Written history is about trying to find a context or a meaning for what happened. I don't think Mr. Browne found the big picture he was trying to show. Or maybe he did and I just can't see it. I don't get his "lost story" theory. I don't see what was supposed to be here that people might have missed.
BUT: If you're a fan of any of these artists, FIRE AND RAIN is worth checking out. There's some things in it even big music fans probably don't know:
* I didn't know early-'70s singer Rita Coolidge was one of the many factors that helped break up CSN&Y.
* I didn't know singer-songwriter Carole King got BOOED when she toured with James Taylor (usually as his opening act) while James did concerts in support of his SWEET BABY JAMES album. Despite all those great '60s hits King co-wrote ("The Loco-Motion," "One Fine Day," "Pleasant Valley Sunday," etc.), she was virtually an unknown to audiences, a year away from her own breakthrough album, TAPESTRY. King also gets one of the big laughs in the book when someone calls in a bomb threat to one of her and Taylor's shows.
* I didn't know Stephen Stills played piano on Ringo Starr's "It Don't Come Easy," one of the first 45's I ever bought.
* Maggie and Terre Roche (later of the Roches) first met Paul Simon by auditioning for a songwriting class that Simon taught. He let them take the class for free, and later produced their first album, SEDUCTIVE REASONING.
There's a lot about social and student unrest in FIRE AND RAIN, and there's a long section about the Kent State shootings. It's also interesting -- apart from CSNY's "Ohio" and Graham Nash's "Chicago" -- how far AWAY these artists were from depicting social unrest or registering protest through their music. They didn't exactly reflect the turbulent times, musically. Taylor was depicted at the time as sort of an alternative to unrest -- music to chill-out by. As Mr. Browne notes, "Not everyone was enthralled by this."
To sum up: If you're a fan of any of these acts, this book is worth reading. You may also be interested in the way the cast-members cross paths and appear on each other's songs. There's some really good writing about David Crosby recording his rather free-form first album, IF I COULD ONLY REMEMBER MY NAME. The book wasn't enough to make me a big James Taylor fan -- I still think he has maybe three great songs in his career. But the in-depth looks at the artists' various albums are valuable, and Mr. Browne nails S&G's underrated "The Only Living Boy in New York" when he calls it "one of their most magnificent creations."
FIRE AND RAIN also comes in a very 1970ish-style book cover, which I don't think does it any favors.

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