Through the lens of four fabulously successful musical acts, a Rolling Stone contributing editor looks at the moment 1960s idealism “began surrendering to the buzz-kill comedown of the decade ahead.”
By decade’s end, the ’60s counterculture ethos of peace, love and togetherness lay pretty much in ruins. Browne (Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth, 2008, etc.) alludes to many dismal headline events that dominated the news of 1970—the shootings at Kent and Jackson State, the Manson trial, the Weather Underground’s terror bombings, Apollo 13 limping home from space—but focuses here on the music makers, the most visible representatives of the youth subculture whose collaborations became every bit as dysfunctional as the Establishment they mocked. Released in 1970, the Beatles’ Let It Be, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà vu were their final albums together and signaled the end of an era. The early fame and the seemingly effortless camaraderie gave way to jealousy, greed, infighting and disarray. Artists turned their backs on group albums in favor of solo efforts; intimate concerts were replaced by stadium shows; outdoor festivals, attempting to duplicate Woodstock, were brushed by fans demanding free admission. Hard drugs hovered over the entire scene, crippling musicians—Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin overdosed—and addling fans. That same year, James Taylor, famously a former mental patient, himself strung out, issued Sweet Baby James, for better or worse, the herald of a softer, more relaxed vibe that would dominate the years ahead. Browne skillfully interleaves the stories of these musicians during this tumultuous year, making room for substantial walk-ons by other significant industry figures like Bill Graham, Peter Yarrow, Phil Spector, Rita Coolidge, Carole King and Joni Mitchell. Intimately familiar with the music, fully comprehending the cross-pollination among the artists, thoroughly awake to the dynamics of the decade’s last gasp, the author expertly captures a volatile and hugely interesting moment in rock history.
A vivid freeze-frame of Hall of Fame musicians, some of whom would go on to make fine records, none ever again as central to the culture.