When David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash appeared on the Colbert Report in 2008, Stephen Colbert couldn’t help but take a crack at the group’s tumultuous history: “Is it hard to re-do the stationery every time Neil drops out of the band?” Colbert quipped.
That one question captures the behind-the-scenes bedlam that personifies Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in 1970, for sure. But it could also encapsulate the entire Folk-Rock scene in what David Browne refers to as “the lost year.” Browne examines in this worthy book not only the music scene but also the backdrop of civil unrest that took place politically, culturally and musically in the dawning year of the ’70s.
There’s a bit of a debate surrounding when the optimistic, flower-child era and Sexual Revolution of the 1960s actually ended. After reading Fire and Rain, it seems right to believe that the rose-colored ’60s ended before the decade came to a close. In 1968, both Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., were assassinated, signaling the end of an era.
Still, times they were a’ changing. Lyndon B. Johnson had escalated the United States’ role in Vietnam, and across the nation, riots disturbed college campuses and inner cities. This era of political disturbance gave way to a culture of hard drugs and tripped-out Folk Rock, evidenced, according to Browne, by CSNY’s Déjà vu, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and The Beatles’ Let It Be. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, with its lonesome, enigmatic lyrics, serves as another sign of the times: 1970 was a year of somber reflection.
Those albums leave those of us looking back to wonder if volatile musicians make the best music … or perhaps if volatile times inspire musicians to create their best material. Either way, 1970 brought forth albums that still haven’t lost their luster. Fire and Rain explains why.
The story kicks off on January 3, 1970, when Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr gathered in their London studio to put the final touches on The Beatles’ LP soundtrack for their latest movie, Let it Be.
In the months preceding the recording date, serious tension had developed between group members. Paul was hiding out with wife, Linda, somewhere in Scotland. (Although the tabloids speculated that McCartney might be dead, he was actually working on a solo project). Ringo was searching for something new to take the place of the stardom he gained through The Beatles—for a brief moment, he turned to Elvis Presley for answers. George was a new student of Hinduism, living in a gigantic Gothic mansion about an hour west of London. And John Lennon was rumored to be somewhere in Denmark with Yoko Ono. As it turned out, Lennon was holed up in the home of Ono’s ex-husband, and he had buzzed his long hair to signify his willingness to embrace a new era.
A new era, it was.
Three days later, on January 6, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young took the stage at the Royal Albert Hall. Although The Beatles’ Apple label had mysteriously passed on signing CSNY, McCartney was counted among the crowd of 5,000 that gathered to see the seasoned musicians in their new configuration. Browne captures the band’s intentions that night:
“Starting with their name, which read more like a law firm than a rock band, [CSNY] wanted everyone to know that they were a paradigm for a new, more liberating era in rock and roll. The group format, they insisted, had become too restrictive, too limited, too Establishment.”
Across the pond at New York University, revered songwriter Paul Simon had offered to teach a songwriting class. The memo posted on a bulletin board at the university was so modest that many students took it as a joke. Nonetheless, more than a dozen people signed up to learn from one half of Simon & Garfunkel. They were surprised to learn that Paul Simon couldn’t actually read music.
And thousands of miles away in California, Warner Brothers execs scratched their heads over what to do with a tall, long-haired, folk-singer named James Taylor, who was so fragile that bigwigs generally steered clear of his recording sessions. (Taylor’s moodiness caused people at the label to fear that their very presence would derail him from a successful session. Later, they learned why: Taylor was addicted to heroin and had spent some time in psychiatric hospitals.)
This sets the scene for Fire and Rain, which tells the story of 1970 through the lens of the year’s biggest musical acts. Following the groups from London to Mexico to Laurel Canyon, Browne outlines the twists and turns in the musician’s careers that year.
Details? We get plenty. Neil Young owned tiny, nocturnal pet monkeys that ran amok in his hotel rooms. A tragic car crash took the life of Crosby’s live-in girlfriend. A girl Taylor barely knew overdosed and died—which led him to write “Fire and Rain.” He wrote the second verse of the hit song while checked in to the psychiatric ward of a New York hospital.
The problem with Fire and Rain—if it’s a problem—isn’t that Browne fails at telling the story of 1970. It’s actually that he’s too talented a raconteur. As you follow the ups and downs of each band—and each individual who plays a major role in its success—it’s hard not to come to doubt (or even hate) some of Classic Rock’s most famous musicians.
The romantic photos of Lennon and Ono looking almost identical give way to the image of a depressed former star hypnotized in front of a television set—as Lennon was for much of 1970. To go with Neil Young’s infamous, waning, high-lonesome voice, readers now know Young as sometimes selfish and greedy. And then, of course, there’s Taylor: His heroin addiction makes him seem fragile at first, but it eventually causes him to become self-centered and unmotivated. It’s hard to view your favorite 1970s troubadours under such revealing light.
None of these quibbles detract from the fact that Browne is the perfect person to tell this story. A contributing editor at the Rolling Stone, he has reviewed nearly 1,300 albums in his career as a journalist. Before Fire and Rain, Browne authored three other books: Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley (2001); Amped: How Big Air, Big Dollars and a New Generation Took Sports to the Extreme (2004); and Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth (2008). The man has credentials, and his narrative skills weave stories in a way that doesn’t lose readers along the journey.
That said, Browne writes in a very matter-of-fact tone. Fire and Rain has even a tabloid feel at times. On CSNY’s 1970 tour, Stephen Stills accidentally fractured his hand—bad news for a guitarist—when he skidded into a parked car while trying to avoid a police officer. Embarrassed about the small accident—which postponed CSNY’s tour for a month—Stills fled to Hawaii with a friend and spent the month gossiping about his band mates and reading a smut novel.
Around the same time, Graham Nash received a break-up telegram from Joni Mitchell (about whom he wrote the song “Our House”) that read: “If you hold sand too tightly, it will run through your fingers.” When the tour finally kicked off, the band had to fire bassist Greg Reeves, who seemed to have fallen off the deep end: He wandered around security muttering about his medicine, and tried to convince the band that he was a witch doctor.
Then, during the first show of the tour, Neil Young stalked off stage, angry that CSNY had added only one of his songs to the set list. He never came back. One show into the tour, CSNY was history.
This kind of behind-the-scenes drama strikes most every band. It leaves you wondering: What’s going on right now that we don’t know about? And what kind of music will our political and social climates produce?
With luck, David Browne will write other books, and we’ll find out.
Megan Pacella is a freelance music and lifestyles writer living in Nashville. She blogs at megan-writes.com, and spends her free time exercising, gardening, and drinking too much coffee.