Rant ‘N’ Roll: 1970 Revisited

Fire And Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY And The Lost Story Of 1970 (Da Capo Press) by David Browne is a stunning, spectacular account of how that particular year ended one era and presaged another. Browne, the longtime music journalist from Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, New York Times, Spin and the New York Daily News, has taken information from his own interviews, 40 other magazine articles and 48 additional books to seamlessly tell the fascinating story—complete with deliciously juicy anecdotes—of the 11 legendary musicians in the book’s title.

Set against a backdrop of a year that saw the deaths of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the Charles Manson trial, the National Guard killing four unarmed students at Kent State University, radical homegrown bomb-blasting terrorism and the start of environmental awareness with the Greenpeace movement, Browne weaves his tale of rock star squabbling, druggy excess, petty jealousies and changing musical moods with a deft, cinematic touch. It gets ugly, man.

The Beatles wind up hating each other. Garfunkel gets tired of being asked, “Do you write the music or the lyrics?” and having to answer “neither.” Heroin addict James Taylor, fresh from a mental hospital, gets signed to the Beatles’ Apple label. (Crosby, Stills & Nash also audition for the label but are rejected.) CSN want to add a fourth “name” to tour in support of their massively popular debut. They ask George Harrison, Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton (all without bands at the time). They’re turned down. Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun suggests Neil Young. Stills, already having been in Buffalo Springfield with Young and putting up with his oddball ways (which include two monkeys in his hotel room), certainly doesn’t want that guy! Stills and Nash fight over Rita Coolidge. Stills is given a check for $450,000 and leaves the band to go to England and live the life of an ex-patriot rock star. And boy, does he ever! He hates to have to come home and face those other three again. Between the bruised egos and drug-fueled bickering, he constantly clashes with those three guys. He flirts with starting a band with Jimi Hendrix. He’s crestfallen when Jimi dies. (Interestingly enough, when the new Hendrix studio album comes out on Feb. 15, 2013, one of their tracks together, “Somewhere,” will be included.)

To read how these 11 20-something musicians (only Lennon and Starr were 30 in 1970) were so bursting with creativity, lusting for art (and Joni Mitchell) and grabbing life by the balls is insightful, but for a brief moment, be in their skin and think their thoughts.

The stories are endless. Browne’s achievement here of recreating the era is stupendous. I couldn’t put it down: midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., I just had to devour another chapter. It’s that kind of read. Hell, when you’ve been listening to these people for the last 40 years, to get to know them as fallible human beings is a rare treat. I still can’t get some of the images out of my mind.

Warner head Joe Smith introduces James Taylor to the Everly Brothers at the Newport Folk Festival and watches as Don and Phil harmonize with the newcomer on his “Carolina In My Mind.” That seals the deal for Smith and he signs Taylor.

Taylor, in the mental ward, sees, or thinks he sees, Ray Charles. “I thought I was hallucinating. It scared the shit out of me,” he says. Turns out it was Charles, who had been sent to the same facility after a heroin bust. The sight of one of his musical heroes in the same ward haunted Taylor for decades.

Jerry Casale, 21, a Kent State English lit senior, is in art class when he hears the National Guard is coming to quell a campus protest. Class gets out, confusion reigns, kids are in the streets, and before the tear gas explodes, he sees his friend Jeffrey Miller. Thinking the National Guard is retreating, they run from the craziness back towards the campus. Then he sees “the 70 gas-masked soldiers in the G Troop of the 107th Calvary stopping, turning around, and pointing their bayoneted rifles…he couldn’t imagine the guns were loaded…at that point the screaming begins…the bullets had flown over the head of Casale…[but] Miller lay on his stomach, blood pouring on the roadway…” Browne describes this scene with a mounting sense of dread and nightmarish horror. Graduation is postponed. It just seemed that the world had devolved into complete chaos. Not having the stomach to join the radical wing of anti-war protesters that were bombing buildings, he starts a band with fellow student Mark Mothersbaugh that he likes to call “devolved music for a devolving country and era. Different times called for a different, more discordant soundtrack,” writes Browne. “Eventually, they called themselves Devo.”

How many of us even know that just weeks after the four were killed at Kent State, two more were killed at Jackson State University in Mississippi by America’s military might? (“Something is definitely wrong when a country kills its own children,” Nash told me earlier this year.)

Stills is busted. Crosby flaunts his pot by walking into airports with a lit joint in each hand. He’s surrounded by such an entourage that although security can smell it, they don’t know who has it! By the time they delve deep into the entourage, Crosby has divested himself of the contraband.

The defense team for Charles Manson wants but fails to call John Lennon to the witness stand to describe what “Helter Skelter” means. (Manson had used the song as an excuse for murder, thinking the Beatles were trying to tell him something.) Lennon, who had nothing to do with the song (McCartney wrote it) never appears at the trial, but says months later, “I’ve never listened to the words properly, it was just noise.”

Backstage drama at The Fillmore includes fights between CSNY when Stills extends his solo time on stage to impress Dylan sitting in the audience. “Who do you think you are?” screams Nash. Back to the stage for the second set, they have to physically step over Bill Graham who is on the floor wrestling with a filmmaker trying to stop him from filming the show.

On and on it goes, from Paul suing John, George and Ringo to James Taylor’s rise to superstardom signaling a seismic shift in hippie tastes away from loud rock bands and more towards introspective balladeers. Still, despite success, and his Joni Mitchell romance (after she broke Nash’s heart), he’s still doing things like putting out his cigarette on his hand during business meetings. (The music biz execs at the meet smelled burning flesh and couldn’t figure it out.)

I could go on.