Tonight, Troubadours, a well-done documentary subtitled “The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter,” will, depending on your point of view, confirm or try to convince you that James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles and their ilk represented a summit of popular music. It also serves as proof that nostalgia has its limits.
The documentary, premiering on PBS’ American Masters, is full of rare footage, and is ostensibly about The Troubadour, the famous Los Angeles nightclub that showcased early, career-making performances of acts ranging from Taylor to Elton John. The film also trades heavily on the greatest-hits tour that Taylor and Carole King conducted in 2010.
Troubadours does a good job of placing the early-’70s explosion in performers who wrote their own material in the post-Beatle era in perspective, documenting how essentially folk-based musicians, inspired by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, folded rock instrumentation as well as fame and its attendant wealth into their careers. Coinciding with a growing music industry, these sensitive souls ended up powerful superstars.
There are interviews of varying degrees of illumination by Taylor (who speaks uninsightfully about his music and frankly of his drug addiction and recovery), King (who seems like one of the nicest people imaginable), Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Steve Martin (who played serious banjo in addition to working out his comedy act during that era), the excellent author Barney Hoskyns, and the great rock photographer Henry Diltz. There are some interesting comments from the small circle of musicians who backed a lot of these artists in the recording studio, including guitarist Danny Kortchmar.
Kortchmar takes a gratuitous swipe at rock critics who had the gall to suggest that some of this music wasn’t all genius material. “Nobody remembers Lester Bangs, but everyone remembers James Taylor,” says Kortchmar. “The music always wins — always.”
Since Bangs isn’t around to defend himself, and as someone who edited some of Lester’s terrific prose, I’ll assert this: Bangs’ writing will be remembered as long as Danny Kortchmar’s contribution to music, to say the very least.
The rock critic Robert Christgau turns up at just the right moment, about two-thirds of the way through, to provide a bracing counterpoint to the misty hosannas to this era, articulating as he does the flaws in the hedonistic self-absorption that characterized a chunk of this music and its Los Angeles social scene — in particular, for Christgau, the fungible music and haughty attitude of the Eagles.
Oh, and to answer the question I posed in the headline: No, of course the music wasn’t “better” then than it is now. (Well, for the most part; I’ll put Al Green’s Call Me and Joni Mitchell’s Blue up against anything you can throw at them.) The music, and the music industry, was simply different. The music of the Troubadours era came along just at the end of the time when pop culture was mass culture, the culture everyone shared. It thrived before it splintered into oppositional sub-genres, and before the music business was weakened by a rapaciousness which sought to commodify the very spontaneity that could make the troubadours seem fresh, or even like sages.
They weren’t, of course. But when you look at Troubadours, you get the feeling that they sure had a lot of fun. Those poor American Idol kids — they’re stuck in a music world that obliges them to make it look like such hard work.