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1970: The Year That Gave Us American Idol, Celebrity Rehab and the First School of Rock

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"Why 1970?" It's a question I'm often asked regarding my new book, Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 (Da Capo, June 1).

I was drawn to that long-ago and seemingly forgotten year for many reasons. As a child of the '70s, I've long been obsessed with the moment the mythically glorious '60s began giving way to the gloomier decade that followed. I've also long wanted to write about some of the first records I ever owned and loved, like Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà vu -- both of which came out in (coincidence!) 1970. And the more I learned about that year, the more it became clear that 1970 is a missing link moment, the year when so many totemic institutions of the '60s (the Beatles, the space program, the anti-war movement) crumbled and so any emblems of the '70s (from the green movement to the singer-strummer-songwriter onslaught) started to blossom.

From recent headlines, it's also clear that the spirit of 1970 is still with us. Echoes of that year, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the hirsute, have never quite gone away. Some recent examples of the unlikely influence of the Year That Wasn't 1968 or 1969 -- but was pretty significant nevertheless.

Justin Bieber: the John Lennon of our time? Three months back, the Beeb chopped off some of his waterfall locks and handed them over to Ellen DeGeneres. who sold them on eBay to raise money for an animal rescue fund. But lest me forget, Lennon did it first. In Denmark in January 1970, he and Yoko Ono had their long hair reduced to buzz cuts -- and then donated the leftovers to an auction supporting a London commune.

Indie-rock beardos -- been there, grew that. The current indie landscape is strewn with sensitive guys with facial hair murmuring and harmonizing over delicate acoustic guitars: Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, Bon Iver, and other Pitchfork poster boys. If that scenario sounds familiar, it is: 1970 was the year of the New Quiet, the airwaves filled with intimate ballads sung by hirsute guys like Cat Stevens ("Tea for the Tillerman") and Gordon Lightfoot ("If You Can Read My Mind"). Even the normally smooth-faced Paul McCartney flaunted a beard that year. And let's not even start on David Crosby's Gaucho-gone-wild mustache.

Paul Simon -- the original Swizz Beatz? The hip-hop producer (and Alicia Keys spouse) is wrapping up his first year as producer in residence at NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. Yet 41 years ago, Simon was there first. In early 1970, he taught a two-month songwriting course at NYU -- a class so low-key and under-documented that the only existing documentation is a few sheets of paperwork in a manila folder at the university's archives. Among the students: Melissa Manchester, pre-"Midnight Blue" and "You Should Hear How She Talks About You," and sisters Maggie and Terre Roche, later of the Roches.

Primal Scream: Celebrity Rehab before it was cool? Thanks to Dr. Drew, we've grown accustomed to the sight of stars diving into their wells of angst and emerging purged. That trend, too, can be traced back to 1970, when John and Yoko enrolled in the Primal Scream Institute in Los Angeles and spent time with other students in a large, unfurnished room, talking about their inner, suppressed hurt. Primal Scream founder Arthur Janov filmed some of the sessions but denies to this day that Lennon's and Ono's group was ever on camera.

Music should be free, man!
The Internet-era idea that no one should be expected to fork over cash for music has its roots in the rock festivals of 1970. Inspired by reports of fans who'd trampled over the gates at Woodstock the previous summer, concertgoers around the country and the world, from Canada to Holland, demanded they be let in gratis. The results: chaos, riots, major financial losses for the promoters. The one difference between then and now: That quasi-revolution didn't make a long-term impact in the business, but the Web music revolt already has.

Forty years ago, Ringo Starr was the most influential solo Beatle. Other than death and taxes, two things we can seemingly count on forever are albums of pre-rock standards (thanks, Rod) and wobbly auditions on American Idol. For all that, we can thank Ringo Starr. Looking for something to do while John and Paul were figuring out if they could still stand to be in the same room together, Ringo spent the early months of 1970 finishing an album of his own. Sentimental Journey found the lovable-loser Beatle singing standards from his mom's era: "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," "Night and Day," "You Always Hurt the One You Love." Everybody covers those songs now, and Ringo's voice, which had more charm than chops, cries out for three judges sitting at a table and stroking their chins.

Even then, Roger Ailes was calling the shots.
As he had in 1968, Richard Nixon turned for some 1970 image rehab to Ailes, then a 30-year-old TV producer. After watching Nixon on TV and in public appearances, Ailes wrote an extended memo detailing what Nixon should do to improve his standing: carrying a handkerchief to wipe away perspiration (the Prez perspired a lot) and urging him to act warmer toward his own wife. ("Women voters are particularly sensitive to how a man treats his wife in public... the more attention she gets, the happier they are.") And just like everything Ailes has tried since, it worked distressingly well -- until Watergate, anyway.