by TAYLOR HINE
Jackson Browne hasn’t changed his hairstyle since the 1960s. It’s remained roughly shoulder-length, parted in the middle, and has retained the slightest wave. The farther back in time you go, the more gentle, carefree, and innocent his countenance becomes; he sometimes looks like he’s forcing seriousness. But he probably isn’t.
His first wife, Phyllis, committed suicide soon after they were married, and his third studio album, The Pretender, was released later that year. The song “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” was written about the incident:
Never should have had to try so hard
To make a love work out, I guess
I don’t know what love has got to do with happiness
But the times when we were happy
Were the times we never tried
Phyllis’s suicide didn’t initiate his introspective songwriting. Songs like “Song For Adam” (about the death of a close friend) and “Doctor My Eyes” (about growing up and seeing the world through eyes that inevitably don’t retain their youthful innocence) are two of the key thematic songs from his self-titled first album. Despite the personal tragedies that seem to haunt him in his songs, he’s remained incredibly private about them. He doesn’t advertise his life through song; he processes it.
My mother didn’t let me ride in the front seat until I was almost in middle school. I would ride in the middle of the backseat, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees to listen to whatever cassette she decided to put in. We were on our way to the grocery store one hot morning in Louisiana when she asked me what I felt like listening to. I was four.
“Hmmm,” I said dramatically, pretending to consider this heavily. “Jackson Browne.”
She put in a collection of his greatest hits – The Next Voice You Hear – and it was during “In the Shape of a Heart” that I first remember registering a tone of desperation, a plea for some sort of reconciliation between lovers. I thought that he may have been singing about my own parents, asking them in so many words not to fight anymore: “There was a hole in the wall/Left from some ancient fight/About the size of a fist/Or something thrown that had missed.” I asked my mother if he was singing from the speakers in the car – if he was actually inside them, along with his band. I very much wanted him to be.
“No, honey,” she said. “He’s not there. But his voice is.”
My mother told me a story some years later about the time Jackson Browne flirted with her. It was the late seventies or early eighties – I can’t remember which, but it was certainly quite some time before I was born – and she and a friend had somehow managed to sneak backstage at one of his Red Rocks shows. My mother had on a long-sleeved midriff shirt, a short white skirt, and wore her hair down to her waist. She was rail-thin – 110 pounds at most – and her legs were miles long. She and her friend – blond, tan, a few inches shorter than my mother – peeked around a lighted corner and there he was, wearing a dark blazer with a t-shirt and blue jeans. He picked up his guitar and slung it around his shoulders by the strap and a woman approached him with a makeup compact in her hand. Everyone was bustling backstage, moving drums and guitar cases around, wearing headsets and shouting for mic tests. Some people laughed together and a few frowned down at their clipboards.
“Come on!” her friend said, afraid of being caught. She started to make her way back the way they came. But my mother didn’t budge. He looked her up and down as makeup was dusted onto his face, and he smiled and gave a little wave.
I never asked my mother what year this happened, exactly. I like to think that “Somebody’s Baby” was written about her – a song about wanting to approach a beautiful woman but being daunted by rejection: She’s got to be somebody’s baby; she’s so fine.
Throughout his career, Jackson Browne has sung first and foremost about matters of the heart. Often, for him, this includes politics. It’s been easy for me to skip past most of his more political songs; they had no effect on me because, well, I wasn’t interested in politics, and I wasn’t exposed to those particular songs when I was younger. My mother skipped over them, too.
This is popular opinion, though it has never swayed Jackson. In an article from The Telegraph late last year, both a reflection of Jackson’s career and a review of his most recent album, Standing In the Breach, Martin Chilton wrote:
Many of his most memorable compositions from the Seventies were deeply personal love songs, about pain and death and desire, but since the Eighties Browne has been one of America’s most vibrant political songwriters.
He talks with passion about his frustrations with the present state of affairs. ‘America is not really a democracy at the moment and things that don’t serve big business are thrown under the bus,’ he says. ‘It’s not surprising that political issues find their way into songs. I think that is true of every singer and every band, because everyone has got something that they feel that strongly about. Bruce Cockburn, who is one of my favorite singers, is able to condense ideas and get to the heart of a political question in a song, but it is not easy. There is a limited audience for that compared to more universal or general subjects such as love. And I try to write about everything that goes on in life.’
Standing In the Breach, released late last year, has a few political songs on it. “Which Side” asks the listener to decide whether s/he is fundamentally passive or active. “Corporations attacking the natural world, drilling and fracking” may sound a bit extreme to some, but I have a feeling that he doesn’t mean for blunt lyrics like these to piss anyone off, and he certainly isn’t trying to preach. They’re meant to make us think about the world rather than simply hide in it. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve admired this sentiment more and more. However, it still remains a sentiment rather than a way of life for me – the stuff of songs that is on my moral to-do list. It’s not easy to stimulate, much less initiate, political thought and conversation. But what better way to try than through song?
My parents and I took a road trip from Denver to Santa Fe in early summer, at the tail-end of my freshman year of high school. This was a time of unsettlement and unrest in their relationship; they broke up just a few months later. We took several day trips up to the mountains that summer, too. We also took a road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota and visited Mount Rushmore, staying in a remote cabin in the middle of the woods for almost a week. My father was, he says, trying to bring some sense of fun and togetherness into the family; we weren’t exactly known for spending a whole lot of quality time together, especially away from home.
For the road trip to Santa Fe, my father made a mixed CD. On it, surprisingly (he isn’t a huge fan of Jackson’s), he included “Sky Blue and Black,” a song about lamenting the loss of a long-ago relationship, reflecting on what went wrong, and what could have been done right. The drive south along the Rocky Mountain range was overcast, which, to my mind, predicted a sense of truth about this song in particular. Something just didn’t feel right about the whole trip; it all felt forced and uncomfortable. My mother still has this CD, but she can’t bring herself to listen to it anymore. She’s convinced that the songs – and that one in particular – were included as a message to her. The CD ended with “All Good Things,” from his 1993 album I’m Alive. It all had to come to an end sometime.
Aside from demonstrating pure and introspective songwriting talent, Jackson practices humility like it’s a religion; for him, these go together like nothing else can. In the documentary Going Home, Jackson doesn’t point to his influences as mere inspirations or muses; he talks about them as friends, as peers from whom he drew a bottomless well of support. He does not mention that his “Take It Easy” rocketed The Eagles to fame, nor does he take credit for writing and playing several songs on Nico’s Chelsea Girl. He doesn’t claim Warren Zevon as his protege, even though Jackson signed him with Asylum Records and helped produce his first two albums, including Excitable Boy. His achievements can be listed for pages and pages. But they’re scattered here and there, recorded by both casual observers and lifelong fans alike.
Jackson thanks God often for having been able to spend his life producing art that he loves, and being able to share that with others who similarly share that love:
Pages we were years from learning
Straight into the night our hearts were flung
Better bring your own redemption when you come
To the barricades of heaven where I’m from
He knows that despite the fiscal wealth he thought he may have yet to accumulate and the lessons he has yet to learn from giving himself wholeheartedly to his art (he wrote this song about, and perhaps to, his 16-year-old self), he remembers that, when it all comes down, he will need to earn forgiveness, whether it be for himself or for a higher power – or perhaps both.
Taylor Hine is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Asheville. You can find an archive of her writing in these pages here.
“These Days” – Nico (mp3)
“The Fairest of the Seasons” – Nico (mp3)