On the occasion of Jackson Browne’s 2004 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rhino Records has assembled The Very Best of Jackson Browne, a two-disc, 32-track retrospective spanning the years 1972 to 2002. The release of the set inspired veteran rock writer Bud Scoppa, who’d championed Browne early on, to reflect on how Browne’s music has connected with his own life experiences.
When Rolling Stone review editor Jon Landau assigned me Jackson Browne’s debut in 1972, I had no idea what the young Southern Californian sounded like, but I’d heard great things about him, and as a longtime lover of Los Angeles rock—starting with The Byrds and The Beach Boys and extending to Neil Young, Gram Parsons and Lowell George—I could hardly wait to find out. Browne was reputed to be a boy wonder, drawing a tantalizing rave in 1970 from David Crosby, who claimed in Rolling Stone that Browne was “one of the probably 10 best songwriters around … he’s got songs that’ll make your hair stand on end, he’s incredible.”
The buzz had started way back in 1967, when Nico, Tom Rush and Steve Noonan recorded some of the precocious teenager’s songs. While these cover versions were scrutinized as if they were the work of a new Dylan, very few people had actually heard Browne sing. So when the package bearing the logo of brand-new Asylum Records arrived from L.A., I ripped it open and immediately put the white-label advance vinyl on my KLH turntable.
The first thing that caught me was the voice coming through the speakers; solemn and urgent, it was the sound of an angel with a head cold, underscoring the plaintiveness and yearning of his remarkably articulate lyrics while lending his long ribbons of melody a captivating fluidity. By the end of the opening track, “Jamaica Say You Will,” he had me.
“It’s not often that a single album is sufficient to place a new performer among the first rank of recording artists,” I wrote after playing the record nonstop for several days. “Jackson Browne’s long-awaited debut album chimes in its author with the resounding authority of an Astral Weeks, a Gasoline Alley, or an After the Gold Rush. Its awesome excellence causes one to wonder why, with Browne’s reputation as an important songwriter established as far back as 1968, this album was so long in coming. Perhaps Browne acquired performing abilities worthy of his writing skill only after much hard work.”
As it turned out, my hunch was right. Jackson’s sensibility had formed itself well before he’d located his voice, and that singular vocal style—“as marvelously American as Ella Fitzgerald’s,” according to rock critic Christopher Connelly—didn’t emerge without some struggle. The 1967 demos he recorded for Elektra reveal an 18-year-old with no clue how to sing his already-sophisticated songs. Four years later, in the batch that got him his deal with David Geffen as Asylum’s flagship artist, his voice is fully formed—dead-earnest with its loping declamation and syllables stretched like Silly Putty.
I kept gushing for the length of the review (just as I’m doing now), rhapsodizing over “Jamaica Say You Will” as if it were a movie, which—in a way—it is. The finished review went off in the mail to Landau, and I eagerly anticipated the night Jackson would bring his songs and guitar to my neighborhood, Greenwich Village.
I didn’t have long to wait. His self-titled album (aka Saturate Before Using) came out in January 1972, whereupon Browne began his showbiz boot camp in the form of a solo club tour. When he took the stage at The Bitter End a few weeks later, my friend and mentor Paul Nelson, my wife and I were sitting close, hoping the kid would live up to his record. He turned out to be as boyish as his image on the album cover, but he’d sprouted a moustache in an apparent attempt to look older. Young Jackson sang with disarming sincerity, deriving in no small part from the courage it took to stand in front of a crowded room and share his intensely private songs.
While he may have been uneasy, the guy had a lot going for him—which turned out be precisely what worked against him, for some observers at least. The beauty of his songs conspired with the beauty of his face, framed then as now by a cascade of lank brown hair, to polarize the audience. Inevitably, during one of the quieter moments a heckler snarled, “Oh, Jackson, you’re so f---ing sensitive.” Browne paused in mid-song, and to the astonishment of the otherwise polite crowd, shot back, “You wanna take it outside? Asshole.” That comeback hushed the heckler, and Jackson dove back into the limpid pool of melancholy from which he’d briefly emerged.
The next time he came through town, Jackson brought protection in the elfin form of David Lindley, whose playing on a variety of stringed instruments as he stood alongside his lanky partner perfectly complemented Browne’s voice and songs. On stage together, they enlivened the material in a way Jackson hadn’t been able to pull off on his own, and Lindley’s song-serving virtuosity deepened the impact of the follow-up album, 1973’s For Everyman, which, along with Robert Altman’s film The Long Goodbye, formed my impression of Los Angeles as I contemplated heading west.
It’s been said that relationships don’t travel well from New York to L.A., and true enough, my own marriage unraveled within a year after making the move. The breakup played out with Jackson’s Late for the Sky as its soundtrack; indeed, as I listened to the album in preparation for writing this piece, the feelings of dislocation and torment came rushing back to me. At the time, I didn’t know whether Late for the Sky was a masterpiece, and I didn’t care, because it spoke to me and my situation so directly (not realizing how many others felt Jackson’s songs were speaking directly to them as well). There’s a great synergy at work here: writing is cathartic for him, just as experiencing his songs is cathartic for his listeners.
For the record, yes, it’s a masterpiece. Thirty years on, the album—graced by the extraordinary interior epics “Fountain of Sorrow,” “For a Dancer,” “Late for the Sky” and “Before the Deluge”—remains captivating as ever, the drama and pathos of its coming-of-age reflections made even more resonant by the passage of time.
In “Fountain of Sorrow,” which contains the indelible lines, “When you see through love’s illusions / There lies the danger,” Browne writes with the ear of a poet and the eye of a reporter. The song’s first-person narrator describes the opening of a drawer and the unexpected discovery of some snapshots of his significant other—bringing you right into the room with him. It’s like you’re holding the photographs in your hand and leafing through them, and you can’t help but be struck by their retrospective poignancy.
I was blown away by the title track, whose chorus is a series of questions:
How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night?
How long have I been dreaming I could make it right?
If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might
To be the one you need?
Those queries led me to ask one of my own: How did he know exactly what I was feeling?
Fast-forward another year. Landau, my onetime editor, is now Jackson’s producer, tackling another high-profile project in the wake of having produced Bruce Springsteen’s landmark Born to Run. It’s a good thing that Jon’s on hand to keep him focused; since the release of Late for the Sky, Jackson has become, in turn, a father and a widower. The intrusion of real-life tragedy would permeate The Pretender, although the bulk of the material had been written before the suicide of Jackson’s wife, Phyllis. The album coalesces around the anthemic title song, with its universally relatable workingman’s mantra, “And when the morning light comes streamin’ in / I’ll get up and do it again.” Those lines never get old.
Life went on for me, as I found the love of my life, as it did for Jackson. After The Pretender transformed him from a cult figure into a star, he became for the next few years a tireless road warrior, a phase documented with great animation on the subsequent album, 1977’s Running on Empty, with its bracing title song and vivid aural snapshot of a nightly road ritual, “The Load-Out”/“Stay.”
During the ’80s Jackson kept a lower profile, his records less frequent and less noticed. I found other music to listen to, although none of it held me as Browne’s had earlier. After 1982’s “Somebody’s Baby,” one of his most engaging up-tempo tunes, I lost track of him, missing out on a clutch of songs conceived and executed with as much passion as ever. The fact that these songs are focused on sociopolitical issues makes them no less personal than his confessional work.
Browne’s political consciousness—part of his life since the mid-’70s, when he’d become an activist in the fight for the environment and against nuclear proliferation—began to find its way into his writing, taking center stage on 1986’s Lives in the Balance, which called to task the imperialist and elitist policies of the Reagan administration, and, in “Lawless Avenue,” mourned the victims of the war on America’s streets. Reviewer Jimmy Guterman noted that Browne’s “newfound ability to link the personal to the political breathes life into these songs and prevents them from becoming too didactic. … Browne’s not just writing about the headlines; he’s trying to tell the stories of the people they affect.”
But Lives in the Balance also contained “In the Shape of a Heart,” one of Jackson’s most memorable love songs, which opens with the image of a necklace with a heart-shaped ruby worn by the narrator’s lover and ends with the necklace lying discarded on a night table beside the bed they’d shared.
The half-dozen tracks closing the retrospective’s second disc will be an even bigger revelation for those erstwhile fans who, like me, fell behind somewhere along the way. These songs, cut between 1993 and 2002, are as unified as those on Browne’s first three LPs, reflecting the veteran artist’s coming-to-terms with his life and the world he lives in.
The anthem of renewal, “I’m Alive,” and the love-scarred “Sky Blue and Black”—a post-breakup reflection that wouldn’t have been out of place on Late for the Sky—are culled from 1993’s I’m Alive, and both seem to trace the metamorphosis Browne had undergone during his tumultuous breakup with Daryl Hannah a few years earlier (from a distance, the experience seemed to come right out of one of his songs, as a seemingly perfect relationship turned out to have been an illusion). Looking East, released in 1996, is distinguished by the gorgeous “Barricades of Heaven” and the kick-ass title track, a modern-day protest song that rocks with the authority of “Running on Empty” but with an even greater sense of purpose.
Programming the two discs in my CD player in order to revisit favorites and perhaps discover some previously overlooked post-’70s gems, I happened to juxtapose “Take It Easy” from For Everyman and “The Naked Ride Home” from the 2002 LP of the same name, and discovered that there’s more than a fleeting connection between the two songs, separated by nearly 30 years—from their expansive sound to the asphalt along which they roll. True, the ready-for-anything boyish exuberance of the earlier tune (co-written with Glenn Frey, it became The Eagles’ first hit single in 1972) is countered by the latter song’s sadder-and-wiser romantic ambivalence. But the protagonist of “Take It Easy” could certainly relate to the opening scene of “The Naked Ride Home,” whose narrator is being fellated in the front seat of his car as he nimbly negotiates what may well be the tricky Highland-to-Barham maneuver on the Hollywood Freeway. He recounts the moment: “Across those five lanes not one driver glanced over to see / The beauty known only to me, and a big rig or two.” Singing the lines in typically dignified fashion, Jackson can’t resist a bit of playfulness in the telling (big rig, indeed), but the image is still far more discreet than the memorable metaphor powering “Red Neck Friend.” Both songs indicate Jackson doesn’t live exclusively in his head (pun unavoidable).
Experiencing his remarkable body of work as a whole, with its pervasive humanity, caring, courage and eloquence, has been nothing short of a revelation for me. And if you’re still reading this, I suspect it will affect you just as strongly. All these years later, Jackson once again has me in his thrall, and I’ll take his music with me into the deepening night.