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Hard-Nosed Soft Rock

David Browne's new Fire and Rain proposes 1970 as the year the counterculture had to learn to do business

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The relationship between the late-60s rock counterculture and Madison Avenue was never entirely a one-sided affair, as easy as it is to imagine packs of predatory suits hungrily circling starry-eyed flower children. The great lie of 60s rock is that it was untainted by commerciality. Once it became clear that there was serious money to be made off the music, the musicians themselves had to figure out how to work the system if they wanted to keep any of that cash—otherwise it'd end up lining the pockets of promoters, managers, and label executives. Artists learned quickly and often painfully that it's better to sell yourself than to be sold.

In Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris tells the story of The Graduate director Mike Nichols deciding to use Simon & Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" as a musical cue, unheard-of in 1967 Hollywood—at that time, scores were typically written to order, and previously released recordings rarely made it into films. To convince his skeptical producer, Joseph Levine, of the song's effectiveness, Nichols screened the first 40 minutes. "I ran it, and he said, 'I smell money!'" says Nichols, "thereby endearing himself to Paul Simon for all time." Five years later, Aerosmith bought themselves more recognition than any other band in their hometown of Boston by plastering their logo on a billboard in Copley Square. "It was up there for a long time," writes Steven Tyler (with help from David Dalton) in the new memoir Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? "Anybody that came in or out of Boston saw those wings before they even knew who we were." For a glorious moment in the late 60s, it had seemed like this kind of crass advertising would never infiltrate the world of rock—that it would be obviated by goodwill and the right intentions. But rock was just too profitable not to become more corporate.

This transformation is one of the subtexts of David Browne's excellent new book, Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970 (Da Capo). But its principal task is to dive into the 60s hangover on a day-to-day level, describing the tensions that drove U.S./UK rock culture—emblematized by the four artists in the subtitle—toward the sweet, consoling embrace of Let It Be, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sweet Baby James, and Deja Vu, all of which came out in 1970. Browne details the Kent State shootings, as well as the unrest that erupted on campuses all over the country in their aftermath—from 20 students arrested at Eastern Michigan University for "pelting police" to the deadly violence at Jackson State College in Mississippi, where students occupied a construction site and set a dump truck on fire and the police, apparently mistaking the sound of breaking glass for sniper fire, shot 14 protesters, killing two. A series of bombings, many perpetrated by radical group the Weathermen, furthered the sense that the youth protest movement had turned into guerrilla theater. Meanwhile Nixon's "southern strategy," which played on white voters' racial fears during the 1970 midterm elections, confirmed the left's worst nightmares.

Browne's book also tells the story of the ways in which rock became more professional, largely by necessity. If Pictures at a Revolution chronicles the moment when the critical praise and enormous box office generated by The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde made it impossible for Hollywood (and America) to continue ignoring the 60s counterculture, then Fire and Rain is a look at the counterculture's response to getting noticed. Recognition by the mainstream generally means exploitation by the mainstream, so the 60s generation took the reins of its own business—the beginnings of hip capitalism, which would become a recurring theme in rock.

In 1970 the sharks were circling en masse: for one thing, every promoter and his mother seemed to be trying to put on Woodstock II. "Each week seemed to bring an announcement of a new multi-day, multi-performer festival in Hawaii, Illinois, Florida, even Japan," Browne writes. "Sometimes the festivals announced their lineups, sometimes not. Even when they didn't, plenty of optimistic fans mailed away for tickets, assuming the event was legit and the promoters would live up to their promises."

Shady promoters and managers are one reason the artists Browne covers got hard-nosed about business. The Beatles had been getting screwed by bad deals for years by the time they broke up. In 1969, when Paul McCartney began using his father-in-law, John Eastman, as his manager, the other three went with the abrasive Allen Klein; McCartney soon became convinced Klein was ripping the band off, and he ended up being right. The chaos at Apple Corps, the Beatles' do-it-all "hippie dream" of a company—the phrase comes from Apple press officer Richard DiLello—flooded their ledgers with red. By late June 1970, things were so disorganized in the Beatles camp that when Eastman made a request for royalties on the solo album McCartney, it took Klein's company, ABKCO, two months to respond. "[T]he money wasn't forthcoming since EMI didn't know whether to send the funds to ABKCO or McCartney's own company—a matter of confusion that even EMI admitted was true," Browne writes. "As a result, the funds were frozen yet again."

No wonder that, as the book describes elsewhere, the members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young took dinner with Paul Simon to learn the ins and outs of extricating themselves from contracts with their earlier bands. As Browne points out, CSNY was "in many ways . . . a corporate merger, a business deal." The group was engineered by Atlantic exec Ahmet Ertegun, who wanted an "American Beatles" of his own; not satisfied with the harmonious trio CSN, he changed it into an acrimonious quartet by adding Neil Young, Stephen Stills's old Buffalo Springfield rival.

Few bands in rock can match CSNY for instantaneity of flameout. Fire and Rain chronicles the recording and release of Deja Vu, which involved lots of bickering over how many minutes of material each member would get, both on the album and onstage; bass player Greg Reeves was eventually fired for, in Browne's words, "think[ing] he was a witch doctor." He was let go on a tour that nearly ended before it began: the quartet called it quits the night of the first show, and only started up again because their management pointed out at an emergency meeting three days later that if CSNY canceled, with a $25,000-per-show guarantee, the promoters would likely sue. The fact that the band carried sums like that in cash on the road is as vivid an example as any of how urgently musicians needed to develop business savvy to match their newfound moneymaking ability.

Of course, it wasn't just professional problems creating the tensions within CSNY. There were also women. Joni Mitchell went from Crosby to Nash, and the group came to an acrimonious end—the first of several—because Rita Coolidge had attracted both Stills's and Nash's attention. (Nash and his cute English accent won.) "The serenity of the music turned out to be merely a cover for the hidden turbulence that lay beneath," Browne writes. "The songs meant to comfort fans were often as not a product of recording studio magic [rather] than true collaboration. CSNY's chummy onstage banter, the way each member flattered the other after a song ended, turned out to be more show business than reality."

Old-fashioned show business was, of course, the enemy of many posthippie rock 'n' rollers. Fire and Rain is a reminder that in 1970, before the Rolling Stone generation more or less wrote it out of history, the old guard of prerock pop still enjoyed plenty of popularity and visibility. On February 15 of that year, The Ed Sullivan Show programmed a Beatles tribute featuring "an oddball, largely non-rock parade of entertainers interpreting their songs": Dionne Warwick, Peggy Lee, and Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gorme, with dancer Edward Villella doing ballet to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Warner Brothers executive Stan Cornyn likened James Taylor to "Steve and Eydie and Vic Damone—that good voice you liked to hear, that your mother would not say 'turn that down.'" Browne also went through unused reporters' notes from Time's famous 1971 cover story on Taylor, and writes, "There were grumbles that Taylor marked the end of social protest in rock: One undergrad dubbed Taylor 'post-revolutionary, post-radical decadence,' while another said, 'With him, we've finally returned to TV, to middle-class values—he's a WASP Tom Jones.'"

But Taylor was too savvy at marketing himself to be considering entirely a throwback. His heroin habit and history of mental problems contributed mightily to his sensitive image, but as Browne makes clear, the singer was only too happy to nudge that image along. At Taylor's show in Berkeley on May 29, 1970, the audience "chortled, as they always did, when he rolled out the self-deprecating 'Big Jim' line in 'Steamroller.' 'My my my,' he ad-libbed that night, during the song, 'I don't know nothin' but the blues.' The line was half joke and half branding act."

Taylor's persona reflected the confusion of the times and offered a cushion against it. And lots of people were looking for a cushion—Simon & Garfunkel's defining hit is likewise evidence of that. "Given that the musicians on it had once worked with Phil Spector, 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' felt like a distant cousin of one of Spector's Wall of Sound productions," Browne writes. "In their case, though, the song was nothing less than a Wall of Balm." This isn't a new idea—the great post-60s lie-down of soft-rock is a matter of well-established rock-historical consensus. But Browne renders this somnambulant period with such care that he makes it seem alive—if hardly something you'd want to live through.

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