Hearts of Darkness




Hearts of Darkness is the story of a generation coming of age, through the experiences of its three most atypical members.  Neither James Taylor, Cat Stevens nor Jackson Browne could ever be termed your typical late sixties songwriter.  Self-absorbed and self-composed, all three eschewed the traditional means of delivering their songs by the simple means of taking tradition and turning it inward.  The result was a body of work that stands among the most profoundly personal art ever to translate into an international language, and a sequence of songs – from “Sweet Baby James” and “Carolina In My Mind” to “Peace Train” and “Wild World,” and onto “Jamaica say You Will” and “These Days” – that remain archetypes not only of what the critics called the Singer Songwriter movement, but of the human condition itself.
Penetrating, pointed and laced with vivid insight and detail, Hearts of Darkness is the story of rock when it no longer needed to roll.

In October 1966, Time Magazine published a one page feature titled The New Troubadours, celebrating the birth of literacy and sensitivity in the world of rock’n’roll.   Five years later, in winter 1971, Who Put The Bomp printed James Taylor Marked For Death, which incorporated journalist Lester Bang’s carefully considered plea for literacy and sensitivity to be packed back into the classroom… or buried in a pit… or thrown off a cliff. Anything, as long as they were finally shut up.

“Hate to come on like a Nazi,” the bellicose Bangs snarled.  “But if I hear one more ‘Jesus-walking-the-boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-JT’s-shoulders’ song, I will drop everything… and hop the first Greyhound to Carolina for the signal satisfaction of breaking off a bottle of Ripple and twisting it into James Taylor’s guts until he expires in a spasm of adenoidal poesy.”

This book (which actually agrees with Time’s point of view, but has the Ripple on hand just in case) is the story of what happened in between those two extremes, which means that events later in the performers’ lives, no matter how much retrospective light they may shed on the events retold here, are not a part of this tale.  Jackson Browne’s first wife has yet to commit suicide.  James Taylor has yet to clean up.  Cat Stevens has yet to convert to Islam and endorse the fatwah issued against Salman Rushdie.

Those are tales to be told another time, in another book, because this one is about something else entirely. This is the story of the music that ensured those later events would even be noticed; of the days of struggle, growth and breakthrough that must take place before “fame” can be consolidated and “celebrity” developed; and the story, too, of the lives and lifestyles that contributed to those factors, as they in turn became a part of a wider story, a musical story that for a couple of years at the dawn of the 1970s, was set to completely rewire all predictions for the new decade.

Few people, and even fewer music historians, today truly bother to distance the singer songwriter explosion of 1970-1971 from the events and movements that either preceded or followed it, a state of affairs based largely on the continuity and longevity enjoyed by the best of its progenitors – among whom James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Jackson Browne are irrefutably numbered.  Yet the first two, Taylor and Stevens, shook away the trappings of the genre that they created at almost the first opportunity they were given; and the third, Browne, never saw himself slipping into their company in the first place.

True, not one of the three would so completely reinvent themselves as did Elton John and Neil Young, two other performers who burst through on the same wave of introspective one man balladeering, and from much the same launching pad too.  Neither, despite their longevity, have their personal legends attained the same peaks as Bob Dylan, whose own raison d’etre, long before the term was coined, placed him in much the same vein of singer-songwriterdom as they.

Indeed, while those other performers could be said to have continued growing and developing throughout their careers, to the point where a new album from Neil Young or Bob Dylan remains as likely to excite controversy and comment as any of older classic, it could be argued that Stevens, Taylor and Browne have remained relatively static in the years since they unshackled themselves from their earliest burden.  It is unlikely that there will ever be a Modern Times or Le Noise from these quarters.

But all have continued, albeit with some disruption and delay, to make music; all have retained and expanded upon their original musical following; and all have, once those adjustments were made, remained true to the notions that they started out with, to write and sing songs that speak straight to the soul of the listener.  Baby James is still sweet, Jamaica still says she will, and the peace train is still on a straight track.

This book tells how they reached those points in the first place.

One thought on “Hearts of Darkness

  1. I’m 100 pages into the book and it’s a very engaging read. More than just a bio of the 3 featured artists, it goes into detail about the folk scene that so profoundly influenced their work and the singer-songwriter movement in general. Thompson seems to researched his material quite well. The only glaring blooper is that he states 3 times that Tim Hardin wrote the folk standard “If I Had a Hammer.” A cursory glance at the composers’ credits on any recording of the song reveals that it was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes.

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