Songs that say America
It wasn’t obvious as it was happening, but, as David Browne shows in Fire and Rain, 1970 turned out to be a watershed year in popular music. By this time, the Beatles were not only fractured but fractious toward each other. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were spinning in different directions, too, with the former contemplating a solo career and the latter immersed in movie acting. The members of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were demonstrating in every way that their harmony was musical, not fraternal. While these superstars were getting the lion’s share of public attention, a mellow voice with a wry wit out of North Carolina was casually moving into the spotlight. Folkish though James Taylor’s sound and songs were, they carried virtually none of the political content or self-righteousness that characterized folkies of the 1960s. His songs were more like easy-listening landscapes of the soul.
Even though the three bands Browne chronicles were twisting apart, the albums they released in 1970—the Beatles’ Let It Be, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and CSN&Y’s Déjà vu—became instant classics. The same was true for Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, also delivered in 1970, which featured the song that gives this book its title. During the course of this year, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State University, Charles Manson went on trial for the “Helter Skelter” murders and the Vietnam War continued to rage.
Proceeding chronologically, Browne alternates between close-ups of studio sessions and personal relationships and wide shots of how these situations affected or were affected by the overall culture. He sprinkles his narrative with fascinating vignettes: Simon teaching a songwriting course at New York University, Nash and Stills sparring over the affections of Rita Coolidge, Ringo Starr recording his first album in Nashville. Wonder of wonders, he makes all these voluminous details, which might have led to factual overload in lesser hands, eminently readable.
Now a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, Browne gleaned much of his information by interviewing primary sources, among them Crosby, Stills, Nash, Taylor, Coolidge, record executive Clive Davis, singers Bonnie Bramlett and Peter Yarrow and such omnipresent sidemen as Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar. Browne’s engrossing account of this fertile but volatile period sets the standard by which comprehensive musical histories should be judged.