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A Soothing New Sound For A Crummy New Decade

Author David Browne describes the young James Taylor as a shy, troubled songwriter whose album <em>Sweet Baby James</em> became an unexpected hit.
Max B. Miller
Getty Images
Author David Browne describes the young James Taylor as a shy, troubled songwriter whose album Sweet Baby James became an unexpected hit.
David Browne is a contributing editor for <em>Rolling Stone</em> and the author of <em>Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth.</em><em></em>
/ January Stewart
January Stewart
David Browne is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and the author of Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth.

1970 was a bummer of a year all around. The '60s had ended in assassinations, violence at the Altamont concert, and bullets and screams at Kent State. The Weather Underground blew up a brownstone in Manhattan. And to top it off, The Beatles were breaking up.

"I think by the end of 1970 ... people were just really exhausted after three years — '68, '69 and '70 — of political assassinations and antiwar protests," author David Browne tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host David Greene. "It was just a laundry list of horrors."

Weary Americans wanted to be comforted when they turned on the radio. They were ready for acts like James Taylor, whose first big hit provides the title for Browne's new book: Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970.

"With James Taylor, he really was sort of the right guy at the right time," Browne says. "By the end of 1970, it was just one of those convergences of cultural mood and music. I think people wanted to take a breather."

Browne says the song "Fire and Rain," with its intimate, confessional, quiet sound, was just what people wanted that year.

"A guy like James Taylor, who was very upfront in talking about what he had been through those last couple of years ... his own drug problems and his stays in mental hospitals ... I think a lot of people really connected with that," Browne says.

The book Fire and Rain is arranged chronologically, beginning in January of 1970 with one of the most important musical events of the year: the beginning of the end of The Beatles.

John Lennon was far away in Denmark with Yoko, and the remaining three Beatles converged at Abbey Road for what would be their last recording session together. They banged out "I Me Mine," for the Let It Be album, in what Browne says was record time.

"That was a real sign, that like, 'OK, we really want to get this over with ... and kind of move on with our lives in a way,' although they weren't really telling anyone at that point," Browne says.

A few short months later, the band dissolved in acrimony and lawsuits after Paul McCartney announced publicly that he'd had enough.

It was a pattern that would repeat throughout 1970 as other big musical acts began to fall apart.

Browne says that dissolution is emblematic of what was happening to music that year. "Three of the most iconic groups of the '60s — Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young — releasing these landmark albums that year ... and then imploding," he says.

"And then rising out of those ashes is this guy named James Taylor who was really an obscure, almost cult figure at the beginning of 1970," Browne says. "Yet by the end of the year, [he] emerged as the rising new star of the year and usher[ed] in that kind of singer-songwriter, more introspective, far less political sensibility."

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