“It seemed like such a cool thing to do,” said David Browne, author and journalist. “Merge your love of music and love of writing.”
Last month, Mr. Browne was a featured guest at Authors Night, the East Hampton Library’s annual fund-raiser. There, he signed copies of “Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970,” in which he examines these artists and their work in the context of the seismic political and historical events surrounding them.
On a recent day, Mr. Browne, who lives in Manhattan and on Shelter Island, had plenty of writing to do: a chapter on his upcoming book on the Grateful Dead, scheduled for publication in 2015; a feature on the musician Nile Rodgers for Rolling Stone, where he is an editor, and an article for Men’s Journal on Josh Garrett, who recently completed the fastest-ever hike through the Pacific Coast Trail, were all on the agenda.
It has been a long and winding road for the rock ’n’ roll fanatic from Hazlet, N.J., who has served as music critic for The Daily News and Entertainment Weekly, and written for The New York Times, Spin, Time, The New Republic, and The Huffington Post. He has also written “Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley,” a biography of the late son and father; “Amped,” a history of extreme sports, and “Goodbye 20th Century,” a biography of the band Sonic Youth.
“Music was around me all the time,” he said of his upbringing. “I had two older sisters, one 13 years older. She was a big Beatles fan and was playing their records constantly, and the other was into the classic rock of the ’70s. My dad loved big band records; Mom loved Billie Holiday. And I grew up reading all the rock magazines: Rolling Stone, Creem, Crawdaddy, all those classic first-generation music magazines.”
He majored in journalism, with a minor in music, at New York University in the music mecca of Greenwich Village. An early gig at Music and Sound Output led to a weekly column at The Daily News and freelance work for Rolling Stone. “What’s really fun about covering music is it’s constantly changing,” he said. “Genres come in and out, return, combine with other genres. People come back who you’d never expect to — Nile is a good example of that. It’s a fun and constantly evolving turf to cover.”
He also has an eye for a good story. Tim and Jeff Buckley, musicians who died at 28 and 30 years old, respectively, are explored in “Dream Brother,” published four years after Jeff Buckley’s mysterious death, by drowning, snuffing out a career that held enormous promise. “He seemed like one of those people who was on his way to being one of those enduring artists,” Mr. Browne said. “By that point — the mid to late ’90s — there weren’t too many other people who seemed like inheritors of that tradition. When he died, I thought, ‘What a loss in so many ways.’ A few months later I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a book in him.’ ”
“Fire and Rain,” published in 2011 and issued in paperback last year, examines a time in Mr. Browne’s own youth, and the music that shaped it. The catalyst, he said, was a conversation with his wife, Maggie Murphy, who is the editorial director of Parade magazine. “We were driving to Long Island,” he said. “I said, ‘I’d love to get another book going,’ and she said, ‘At one point in your life you need to write about all those records you bought when you were a teen, those early records that were so important to you and you still play around the house. All that stuff is still clearly so meaningful you.’ She said the magic question: ‘What do they have in common? Is there a year?’ Being a record geek, I immediately flashed on 1970: ‘Let It Be,’ ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’ ‘Sweet Baby James,’ ‘Deja Vu.’ ”
Growing up in the 1970s, he said, was to be constantly reminded that you had just missed the Beatles, the Kennedys, the civil rights movement, Woodstock. “It’s always been in the back of my mind: What did I miss? Linking these four albums into that year was a way into finally telling that story,” he said. “It is a book about those four acts, their lives and careers, and also the story about that change from the ’60s into the ’70s, how those musical acts that year symbolized that change in their different ways.”
Mr. Browne and Ms. Murphy started visiting Shelter Island in 1990, when a colleague at Entertainment Weekly offered them a share in a group house. “We were only remotely familiar with Shelter Island, but were in the mood to do something like that,” he said. “We loved Shelter Island immediately, loved how it was laid back and quiet, especially as a respite from Manhattan.” They rented until 2000, when they bought a house. “It’s been 23 years we’ve been going out there,” he said. “It’s still pretty much the same as it was.” He hopes to spend some of next summer working on his next book there. “It’s very easy,” he said of writing on the island. “It is so quiet and still.”
Tonight at 7, Mr. Browne will be the featured speaker at a music discussion group at the Half Hollow Hills Community Library in Dix Hills. “Fire and Rain” will be the subject.