Read Fire and Rain Online

Authors: David Browne

Fire and Rain

Table of Contents
 
 
 
 
 
 
ALSO BY DAVID BROWNE
Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth
 
Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of Jeff & Tim Buckley
 
Amped: How Big Air, Big Dollars and a
New Generation Took Sports to the Extreme
For my sisters, Linda Virginia and Colette:
Without you and your record collections, this book wouldn't exist
.
INTRODUCTION
This book has its roots in that most devastating of traditions, classroom humiliation. One Christmas long ago, my parents asked me for a list of possible gifts, so I gave them the names of a few records. Only months before, for my twelfth birthday, I'd received my first LP, making the momentous transition from singles to albums—a twerp-to-cool-kid rite of passage that's since gone the way of the turntable. Since my older sister Linda had already introduced me to the music of Simon and Garfunkel, I asked for one of their albums for my own.
Our first day back after winter break, my classmates and I at our elementary school in Hazlet, New Jersey, filled each other in on our presents. When my turn arrived, I proudly announced I'd been gifted with an album. What one, they asked? Simon and Garfunkel's
Sounds of Silence
, I replied. Their aghast looks—the way they pulled back from me as if I'd admitted I couldn't
wait
to get home to start homework every day—was the first sign something had changed. Then one of them said, in a tone equally puzzled and contemptuous, “Why do you want that
old
music?” All my surrounding classmates then turned, en masse, away from me.
Yes, the album
was
six years old, an eternity for a teenager. But from my friends' reactions, you'd have thought I'd been given a collection of Stephen Foster parlor songs from the middle of the previous century. Hadn't the '60s just ended?
I had to admit those years already felt farther away than they were. Repeatedly, those of us who came of age in the '70s were reminded we'd
missed out on the most astounding era in history, a flowering of culture, society, and mankind like none before (and with girls in mini skirts to boot). Compared to that, our era was an even darker Dark Ages: Welcome to a world of Watergate, KC and the Sunshine Band, '50s nostalgia, and gas rationing, we were told. Personally, I loved hearing early disco songs on the radio and happily watched Fonzie say
“Aaayyy,”
yet I still wondered: What happened, and how did it happen? When did the hopeful sensibility of one era give way to the dimmer one of another?
The question has tugged at me ever since. If friends my age are drawn to the '70s, it's generally the second half—the momentous years of punk, Studio 54 disco, the original cast of
Saturday Night Live
, the films of Lucas and Spielberg. But the messy conflicting signals of the first half of the decade have always haunted me: utopian music like prog rock alongside post-utopian movies like
Deliverance
, men-pushed-too-far action films like
Billy Jack
and
Walking Tall
next to an antiestablishment, pacifist-central TV series like
M*A*S*H
. And everywhere was the fragmentation of so many of the classic bands of the '60s, replaced by flaxen-haired troubadours sweetly serenading the ladies (the “Frisbee Guys,” as my friend Tom and I call them). After
Sounds of Silence
, some of the first LPs I ever owned were all the other Simon and Garfunkel albums (
Bridge Over Troubled Water
spun regularly on the close-and-play stereo in my bedroom), the Beatles'
Let It Be
, and everything recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, together, separately, or in duo form. I didn't have to buy James Taylor's
Sweet Baby James;
I always seemed to hear its low-maintenance melodies drifting out of my sister Colette's bedroom.
Many years later, during a brainstorming session for my next book, my wife suggested I write about the music I loved in my childhood, meaning not just Simon and 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 achieved 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 one, in some regards—of upheaval and collapse, tension and release, endings and beginnings.
Combined with the music and musicians who provided the soundtrack to those events, a story—the one I'd been wondering about since those grade-school years—started to take shape. Many have rightly argued that the dawn of the '70s began in 1972 or 1973, just as the '60s didn't genuinely launch until JFK's inauguration in 1961. Yet the more I thought about it, the more 1970 felt like the lost year: the moment at which the remaining slivers of the idealism of the '60s began surrendering to the buzz-kill comedown of the decade ahead; each subsequent year built on its foundations. I don't pine for my childhood, especially moments of mortification, but I couldn't resist revisiting a moment when sweetly sung music and ugly times coexisted, even fed off each other, in a world gone off course.
PROLOGUE: JANUARY
The new year and new decade blew in colder than expected. In Times Square, the thousands waiting to greet 1970 warded off flurries and temperatures that tumbled unapologetically below twenty degrees. Detroit and Chicago were equally frigid, and even the normally balmy Los Angeles felt the chill, the city's thermometer nose-diving to ten degrees above freezing. The cold snap then migrated across the ocean. Clouds and sleet blanketed London, and by Saturday, January 3, the cold rain and snow showers had arrived and the sun refused to materialize all day.
That morning, a cheery thirty-year-old emerged from the St. John's Wood train station and began making his way down the tree-lined Grove End Road. Sporting his usual white shirt and tie, Richard Langham strolled briskly for five minutes, finally arriving at 3 Abbey Road, a twostory building with elegant, architrave window and door frames and a small parking lot out front. As always, Langham was greeted by a security guard who flipped open a sign-in book for Langham to initial. Langham then checked the schedule and saw that today's clients, starting at 2 P.M., would be the Beatles.
Like many of his colleagues at EMI Studios, Langham wasn't necessarily thrilled at the news. A staff engineer at the studio, Langham had worked his first Beatle session in 1962, when, as a novice learning his trade, he'd helped them unload their equipment into the studio. Langham had trouble telling them apart, with their suits, ties, and nearly identical, just-over-the-ears haircuts, but was struck by their camaraderie and solidarity; he was also charmed when the drummer, Ringo Starr, kept
bumming cigarettes off him. Within a few short years, though, Beatle sessions had become torturous ordeals for the studio's staff. The Beatles seemed to take forever to put new songs on tape; even when they did, they might easily return the following day and start again. They would frequently bicker, and they didn't seem to care whether they kept the studio staff long past regular hours. From the standpoint of EMI employees like Langham, working with the Beatles felt like a frustrating waste of time, and those assigned to them felt they were being punished for one infraction or another.
To Langham's relief, today's session promised a return to the band's early, bash-them-out days. From the start, they seemed like the same old Beatles, if older and more hirsute. Paul McCartney, twenty-seven, sported a bushy black beard and gave Langham his standard hug—never simply a handshake—while Starr, twenty-nine, with shaggy locks that flopped around his head, was affable as always. Few twenty-six-year-olds looked as severe as George Harrison did with his long brown hair and beard, but he too appeared in generally good spirits. The three congregated at Studio Two, the expansive room where the Beatles had recorded so much of their most indelible, groundbreaking music—“In My Life,” “Yesterday,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” good chunks of the White Album. In another sign that they were back to business as normal, George Martin, their longtime, straight-British-arrow producer, took a seat behind the console.
As the EMI staff learned, John Lennon wouldn't be participating today; he and Yoko Ono were supposedly somewhere in Denmark. He and McCartney hadn't spoken in several months, so no one knew for sure. Lennon's absence was duly noted: At one point, Martin pulled out a notepad and drew a rough map of Scandinavia to give everyone a general idea of where the missing Beatle was. That same morning, an interview with Lennon appeared in the latest edition of
Record Mirror
, the weekly music tabloid. “I suppose it is a lot more difficult for us to get together
now because everyone is involved in different things,” he commented on the state of the band. He nixed the idea of Beatle live performances in the near future; after all, he said, “For the Beatles to come back now, people would expect Jesus and Buddha.” He seemed far more interested in plugging his new concert album
Live Peace in Toronto
or talking about pornography in Denmark or the avant-garde nature of his albums with Yoko Ono,
Wedding Album
and
Unfinished Music No. 2: Life with the Lions
.
Whether the other Beatles saw the interview or not was unclear, but Harrison, who had a subtly scathing sense of humor when he chose to flash it, turned Lennon's absence into a joke. “You all would have read that, uh, Dave Dee's no longer with us,” he drolly remarked, referring to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, a British pop band that made a handful of appearances on the charts earlier that decade. “But Mickey and Tich and I decided to carry on the good word that's always gone down in Number Two.”
1
Carry on they did, with a diligence and efficiency few had witnessed at Beatle sessions in years. The three settled in behind their instruments—Harrison on acoustic guitar, McCartney on electric bass, and Starr on drums—and went to work on “I Me Mine,” a song Harrison had written about the struggles he was having with his inflated, fame-fueled ego. With Martin, Langham, and another engineer staring down at them from the control room above the studio space, the Beatles quickly laid down several basic takes of the song. To flesh it out, McCartney and Harrison added another layer of acoustic guitars; Harrison overdubbed a tense electric lead in the intro and riffy chords in the chorus. McCartney dubbed in a fu-nereal
organ and a jaunty electric piano. In another moment that harked back to their formative years, the trio playfully jammed on a Buddy Holly song, “Peggy Sue Got Married.” Thanks to their industriousness and the brevity of the song (which was all of one minute and thirty-four seconds long), “I Me Mine” was wrapped up shortly after midnight—an accelerated heartbeat by recent Beatle standards of working.

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