David Browne’s masterfully researched and written Fire And Rain is the sort of book that should have come along much sooner than it actually did. It also serves as proof positive that as years go, 1970 was not only pivotal, but very definitely underrated in the larger scheme of history.
By focusing on the about to implode careers of three of rock’s then greatest, most culturally significant acts — the Beatles, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and Simon & Garfunkel — and combining this with the rise of another superstar in the making (James Taylor), Browne makes a very convincing case for a shift in the socio-political fabric of the culture itself.
Whether you buy into these arguments or not, at the very least it makes for a very compelling, thought provoking read. In the process of making his case, Browne gives you a ringside seat into the time tunnel of events surrounding everything from the Kent State Shootings which inspired Neil Young’s “Ohio,” to the legal turmoil enveloping the messy breakup of the Beatles.
What is most clear in reading Browne’s Fire And Rain is that society itself was rapidly changing, and that the music of those turbulent times was dictating the change as much as anything else. With a narrative that will have you skimming its pages faster than you can turn them, Browne weaves together all of these events with the strokes of a master storyteller.
You are right there as Paul Simon’s songwriter ego struggles with the idea of his sidekick Art Garfunkel making a bigger name for himself as an actor. You are likewise in the studio and backstage as the Beatles and CSNY try to hold it together amidst a gathering storm of clashing egos — and in the the Beatles case, the seductions of dueling evil businessmen.
Most interesting here though is the way that Browne details the rise of James Taylor.
In the midst of a culture that was shifting as fast as the music was, Browne rightfully points towards Taylor as the catalyst for a post sixties generation yearning for a cure to the hangover of those turbulent times in the form of a softer, less threatening musical soundtrack.
Although Taylor will never be remembered as the same sort of musical trailblazer that Lennon, McCartney, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young are, in that respect Browne’s account of those times is dead on.
As much as the folk rock of the sixties may have been the bridge, it was Taylor who paved the road to its early seventies mass commercial acceptance. A very decent argument could be made that without Sweet Baby James, the Eagles and even Elton John never could have existed. Which is exactly what makes Fire And Rain such a fascinating read.