Hearts of Darkness: James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Cat Stevens, and the Unlikely Rise of the Singer-Songwriter By Dave Thompson www.backbeatbooks.com, 336 pp., $27.99
Whether you love their deep introspective, often angst-filled lyrics and laid-back strumming or despise them as weak-ass, spoiled, granola-eating navel gazers, there's no denying that the singer-songwriter movement of the early '70s was hugely popular and influential.
In this book, Thompson takes the stories, struggles, and successes of the three tentpole S/S artists in the title, and explores the genre's development while weaving in cameos by other like-minded musos including Carly Simon, Carole King, Jim Croce, Laura Nyro and Elton John.
Coming on the heels of Woodstock and a more bombastic rock sound, the singer-songwriters (often armed with just an acoustic guitar) wrote instead about their inner selves, taking a hint from earlier folk artists like Bob Dylan and Tom Rush as well as the open mike nights at Doug Weston's Troubadour club.
Often with backstories of teen pop prodigy (Stevens), blown opportunities (Browne) or heroin/mental health/wealth issues (Taylor), the singer-songwriters were folks you could have in your living room and they would wipe their feet on the doormat. And, if you were a motel owner--know would not tear the joint up, but end up serenading the maids...before fucking the shit out of one or two of them.
Thompson's writing style sometimes awkwardly veers off of subject into greater social commentary, but he manages to tell these interweaving tales as parts of a greater whole while throwing in some bits of trivia: Linda Ronstadt's grandfather invented the flexible ice cube tray, while Carly Simon wrote "Anticipation" while waiting for a very late Cat Stevens to show up for a date.
Even "Father of Grunge" Neil Young got caught up in the genre, with his massively successful Harvest record and tunes like "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold." Though -- in a famous quote -- he noted that he'd seen the middle of the road, and liked the view from the ditch better.
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And while the S/S genre is ripe for parody and disdain (L.A. producer/vocateur Kim Fowley called it music of "James Taylor and saggy tits and granola... castrated hippies with no skin tone sitting on stools wearing overalls and flower print dresses singing about Laurel Canyon dogshit"), there's no denying it struck a chord with fans.
And even the hardest of Black Sabbath, Who or Clash fans can cite the lyrics to "Fire and Rain," "Moonshadow," or "Running on Empty." And they may even have a copy of Tapestry in the back of their collection that they'll claim really belongs to their mom....