Jackson Browne Earns His Letter in Music
Arms folded across a ratty high school letterman’s jacket, songwriter-performer Jackson Browne sinks into an easy chair in his Los Angeles home and considers his craft. “The recording medium is incredibly difficult. You’ve got to have the freedom to make half an album, then throw it away and start all over again, making the necessary changes. As time-consuming and expensive as that is, that’s what it takes. Most people publish their mistakes.”
Admittedly a non-prolific perfectionist, Jackson Brown has gained well-deserved acceptance on his own painstaking terms. With two impressive and well-received solo album to his credit, he is no longer the faceless songwriter behind such standards as “Rock Me on the Water,” “These Days” and Jamaica Say You Will.” Still, Jackson finds comfort in anonymity. Cherishing privacy, he is reluctant to discuss himself. Interviews are rare.
At 25, Browne can reflect upon a lengthy stay on the ever-grinding music business treadmill of demos and coffeehouse hoot nights. He started young, almost by default. “I was cut from the football squad,” he playfully recalls early high school years in Orange County, “so I began to get into music and started to hang out with the school poet laureate, Greg Copeland and Steve Noonan, who played bluegrass before his classes in the morning.
“Greg was the one who influenced me to the point where I actually begin writing, but I’d always loved the whole ‘beneath the trellis with a guitar’ image. More than anything else, it was probably the thought of me in that role that made me want to play guitar and sing. Nevertheless, I would have given anything for a varsity jacket. Are you kidding man? I bought this yesterday at a thrift shop for $9.”
Those observing him playing at the various Orange County clubs remember Jackson as the witty young folk singer with a weathered songwriting wisdom far beyond his years. By 17, he had joined with several other schoolmates to form an embryonic Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He stayed in the group two months. “My heart wasn’t into playing ragtime music all the time,” says Browne in retrospect. “I like ragtime, I grew up with it, but I wanted to play my own songs more.”
It was his carefree Orange County teens that inevitably surfaced as subject material for much of Jackson’s early writing. Looking back, he becomes easily nostalgic and reels off tale after tale of the local music community, which at the time was far from paltry. Among others, Brewer and Shipley, Tim Buckley, Hoyt Axton, Pamela Polland and Tim Hardin were all traveling the same circuit of local clubs and coffeehouses. “I don’t think Los Angeles was any more a legitimate music scene than Orange County was,” says Jackson. “Orange County has become a sort of laughingstock. Nobody takes it too seriously, but the fact is, it isn’t all Disneyland and the John Birch Society. Music is everywhere and in the midst of all the ‘Every Body Needs Milk’ family acts like the New Pepsi Singers Three or whatever, there was a lot of real music out there.”
A flurry of publishing contracts and record offers, as well as a disillusioning visit to New York City, were to follow. The depressing culmination, an aborted attempt to record as part of a poorly conceived sampler for Elektra Records’ new talent, resulted in Browne’s being dropped from the roster. “I suddenly realized,” he muses, “that it took a lot to make a record. You can’t just float into a studio and do it . . . from all accounts, I guess Bob Dylan can . . . and maybe I had to cope with the realization that I wasn’t Bob Dylan.
“I thought, ‘Well, enough of this business.’ I was always more interested in traveling anyway, and that’s what the music was all about. It’s what you have to do to make music. I really wanted to make a record out of spite, though. I wanted to make one album, call it ‘My Opening Farewell,’ and then disappear. A lot of people had had faith in me and I felt that I’d blown it.”
Sending an audition tape to then CMA agent David Geffen, Browne left Los Angeles to travel across Colorado and New Mexico. “I was gonna check out the communes,” he says, “and maybe get a job making bricks or something. When I got back to L.A. three months later, I found out Geffen had been trying frantically to get ahold of me”.
Signed to Geffen’s Asylum Records label, Jackson eventually settled on Johnny Rivers’ engineer Richard Sanford Orshoff to produce his debut album. The album, “Jackson Browne,” featured many of the tunes made familiar through other artists interpretations. Browne’s inspired delivery has made the LP an indispensable part of any collection. “To me,” admits Browne, “my favorite tunes are the low-intensity things. Songs like ‘Something Fine,’ ‘Looking Into You’ and ‘Song for Adam.’”
Perhaps his most moving lyric, “Song for Adam” is the highly personal recollection of dead high school acquaintance. Although he once drive cross-country with Adam “that summer when everyone wanted to go India, but get back in time for school in September,” Jackson knew him only briefly.
Together we went traveling
As we received the call.
His destination India
And I had none at all.Well, I still remember laughingWith our backs against the wall.
So free of fearWe never thought that one of us might fall.
“Adam was a very salty, secretive type of person,” says Browne affectionately. “He was a biology freak who, if you weren’t looking, would dissect your cat. He was great.”
While many argue his work is deeply poetic, Brown takes issue. “I like folk and I like rock ‘n’ roll, but I don’t think it’s poetry by any means. Dylan has written some poetry, but for the most part, it’s lyrics and songs. It’s a form by itself, not one or the other.”
“For Everyman,” Jackson’s second and most recent effort, is a more ambitious project than his first. Produced by the musicians involved, the LP seems constructed around the title track, an eloquent observation of the perennial search for The Answer. Much of the song was inspired by David Crosby’s publicly stated desire to sail off in his boat and start a utopia.
“The song is a sort of answer to that whole utopian dream. Not really an answer, but a statement of its faults. I don’t know how serious he was, but I just couldn’t see that Crosby was going to get very far. But I really wish the best to those people who are searching. They are Everyman.”
In the two years between his first LP and “For Everyman,” Browne was met with a new turbulence. “You get some recognition, which you have felt deserved all along or you wouldn’t be doing it, and what do you do? You become self-conscious. Where before you just hoped like hell you’d sell 30 copies, now you think you know what it was they liked about you and you try to do it again.
“My foremost pitfall was that I felt I had to write heavy songs. I never thought that my tunes were heavy, but gradually I got the impression they were by the way people related to them. But that’s taking someone else’s word for it. That’s fame . . . and it’s a real crusher if you let it take hold of you. That’s what makes me admire people like Elton John or the Allman Brothers all the more.”
Shifting his weight in the chair, Browne turns pensive. “I’ve to a ways to go. I don’t want to put the way I sing down or spoil it for anybody who really likes what I do, but I’ve never that satisfied with my vocals. I’ve sung a couple of things that I really liked, but I know when I’m singing well and I haven’t sung well on record yet.
“I’ve got a cassette recorded immediately before I cut the first album – and on it I’m singing much better. When I finished the record, I thought, ‘You mean I’ve spent this much time and money and I haven’t even done as well as I can into a cassette recorder?’ The studio is a hard place to be creative. It’s that ability to transcend your environment that makes you great.”
Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – March 3, 1974