Sunday, March 11, 2012

Fire and Rain

A few weeks ago, my father sent me a copy of a book called Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970. I didn’t have to ask why. We have always connected on music... not necessarily on our taste in music, but on our enthusiasm for music and its formative influence. My dad doesn’t talk much about his past, so I was intrigued when he pitched this book to me by saying that 1970 was a “watershed” year for him - the year he got his driver’s license, the year his parents divorced and he moved to a new town, a year when music played a significant role in his life.

He once told that he briefly played guitar in a garage band as a teenager. (Years later, when I was about twelve years old, he taught me how to play the opening of “Secret Agent Man.” That’s as far as my own musical training goes.) On another occasion, he told me that his mother forgot his birthday and, in her haste to pick out a last-minute present at the local department store, bought him a copy of a Steppenwolf album that she normally wouldn’t have approved of. (It’s almost impossible for me to imagine my grandmother allowing anyone to listen to Steppenwolf around her. When I was a kid, she wouldn’t even let me bring Garbage Pail Kids stickers into her house.) He was clearly impressed with that particular birthday gift, even if it did arrive late. One of the only other details I’ve heard about my father’s teenage years is that he once pinned a giant American flag on the wall of his bedroom - which suggests to me that a song like Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” might have spoken to him about the ways the country was changing in 1970.

1970 was also an important year for David Browne, the author of Fire and Rain. In the introduction, Browne explains how he got the idea to write the book: “My wife suggested I write about the music I loved in my childhood, meaning not just Simon & Garfunkel but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Beatles, James Taylor, and so on. As she rightly pointed out, I was still giving cursory listens to those musicians’ new releases, attending their reunion concerts, even interviewing them for one outlet or another. When we wondered aloud whether they had anything in common, one thing came to my mind: 1970. Here was the year in which two of those groups fell apart, one achieve critical cultural mass and also collapsed, and another broke through to a new level of mass acceptance. Further researching those twelve months, I was reminded what a turbulent year 1970 truly was. I’d remembered Kent State and Charles Manson’s trial, but I’d nearly forgotten about the Southern Strategy or the brownstone that exploded in New York’s Greenwich Village, right down the street from an NYU dorm where I would later live. It was a year - a strangely overlooked on, in some regards - of upheaval and collapse, tension and release, endings and beginnings.”

Browne does an admirable job of organizing and providing cultural context for four albums: the Beatles’ Let It Be, CSNY’s Deja Vu, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends and James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. I was intrigued by many of the details he unearthed about the artists -- Simon & Garfunkel’s first incarnation as a bubblegum pop duo called Tom & Jerry, McCartney’s legal separation from the Beatles, Taylor’s rehab, and the creation of David Crosby’s first solo album (a haunting psychedelic journey with Jerry Garcia) -- but I was also left with a desire for a different book... one that focused on different albums.

Let It Be is the least relevant album of the Beatles’ mature years. Browne uses it to illustrate that the musicians, and American culture in general, were in transition. If the Beatles represented the past, the author proposes, CSNY (who were then being hailed as “the American Beatles”) represented one possible continuation. Of course, that continuation was not to be. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young quickly split up and pursued solo careers. As Browne explains, the very notion of rock super-groups was becoming outdated, the “come together” mindset of the late 60s giving way to the “me decade.” Simon & Garfunkel also parted ways in 1970, as younger listeners turned to harder rock. As a solo artist, Simon retained the older (early 30s) audience. So did James Taylor, who always had a softer, “adult contemporary” sound.

If Browne shared some of his own personal experiences of this music, and justified his album choices in an emotional way (beyond the book’s introduction), I think the narrative might resonate more strongly. Because he adopts a more staid journalistic approach, I couldn’t help feeling that the focus on these four particular musicians was somewhat arbitrary, and the book itself a bit too blandly nostalgic. Why not also write about the harder rock that was already replacing the music of these four bands? I was left wanting to hear about how The Doors made the transition from the sixties with their laid-back, blues-heavy 1970 album Morrison Hotel. Or the way Led Zeppelin followed their balls-to-the-wall Brown Bomber album (an early taste of heavy metal) with the somber mysticism of Led Zeppelin III. The story of guitarist Nick Drake, somewhat similar to Taylor’s tale of drug abuse and mental breakdown, might have made for more compelling reading. And Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew surely would have inspired a more challenging look at the progressive mutations of rock and roll.

Of course, my reaction is based mostly on my own musical preferences. I suppose all I’m really saying is that when someone writes about music, they should be 100% emotionally engaged, not just intellectually engaged. The hell with journalistic objectivity... I want to hear more of the enthusiasm that’s in Browne’s introduction. I believe that music, more than any other art form, conveys pure emotion. Writing about music should mean tapping into that pure emotion, and trying to convey it via another medium. A good writer should be able to get the reader just as engaged. Could I find the right words to share my initial emotional reactions to Morrison Hotel, Led Zeppelin III, Bryter Layter and Bitches Brew? I don’t know... If so, it would be a hell of a book.

Of course, David Browne has a distinct advantage over me here. He experienced those four albums at the time of their release, and within the cultural context that inspired and influenced them. I could not write about them in that context with the same kind of honesty that he can. I’d have to pick another year, one that corresponds with my own personal formative experiences of music... Where to begin?

In his book This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel J. Levitin writes: “Researchers point to the teen years as the turning point for musical preferences. It is around the age of ten or eleven that most children take on music as a real interest, even those children who didn’t express such an interest in music earlier. As adults, the music we tend to be nostalgic for, the music that feels like it is ‘our’ music, corresponds to the music we heard during these years. One of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease (a disease characterized by changes in nerve cells and neurotransmitter levels, as well as destruction of synapses) in older adults is memory loss. As the disease progresses, memory loss becomes more profound. Yet many of these old-timers can still remember how to sing the songs they heard when they were fourteen. Why fourteen? Part of the reason we remember songs from our teenage years is because those years were times of self-discovery, and as a consequence, they were emotionally charged; in general, we tend to remember things that have an emotional component because our amygdale and neurotransmitters act in concert to ‘tag’ the memories as something important. Part of the reason also has to do with neural maturation and pruning: it is around fourteen that the wiring of our musical brains is approaching adultlike levels of completion.

“There doesn’t seem to be a cutoff point for acquiring new tastes in music, but most people have formed their tastes by the age of eighteen or twenty. Why this is so is not clear, but several studies have found it to be the case. Part of the reason may be that in general, people tend to become less open to new experiences as they age. During our teenage years, we begin to discover that there exists a world of different ideas, different cultures, different people. We experiment with the idea that we don’t have to limit our life’s course, our personalities, or our decisions to what we were taught by our parents, or to the way we were brought up. We also seek out different kinds of music….”

When I was twelve, I made a mix tape using my father’s music: CSNY, James Taylor, The Eagles, The Band, Three Dog Night, The Doobie Brothers, Elton John, etc. By the time I was fourteen, I was paying more attention to “new” music. (New to me, at least.) Part of me would love to write a book about 1994, featuring an album for each new season of emotion. 1994 was the year I got hooked on Pink Floyd (via their album The Division Bell) and Led Zeppelin (prompted by the release of Page & Plant’s live album No Quarter), and newer bands as diverse as The Cranberries (No Need to Argue) and Nine Inch Nails (The Downward Spiral). It was also the year that hometown boy Dave Matthews released Under the Table and Dreaming. I was never a huge DMB fan, but if you lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, at that time... there was no avoiding that album, and no dodging the enthusiasm it created on the local music scene.

Another writer might be more inclined to recall 1994 through the music of Oasis, Green Day, Beck, Smashing Pumpkins, Portishead, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, L7, Luscious Jackson or even (god help us) Hootie and the Blowfish. Whatever the year and whatever the musical selections... if a writer can explain their choices with emotional honesty, I’ll always listen.

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