by Dave Marsh
It's tempting to say that Jackson Browne has had Bob Dylan's career inside out: He began as the most personal of songwriters and became intensely interested in the politics and society of his times. No one has written more eloquently of love lost and won, the perils and pleasures of the search for it, and few have been better rewarded with critical acclaim and commercial success. Yet, at the height of his fame as a romantic confessional balladeer, Jackson Browne did the absolutely unexpected. Rather than turning his back on the world with its "slow parade of fears," while waiting "to awaken from this dream" and "this feeling that it's later than it seems," he has refused to be "afraid to live the life I sing about in song," and steadily worked to integrate his personal vision, which no artist could abandon, with a vision of humanity and justice.
Yet all the quotes in the paragraph above come not from the years of Browne's direct social activism but from two of the first songs he ever wrote: "Doctor My Eyes" and "These Days." In this way, he is really more like Dylan than unlike him -- and I mean that as the highest of compliment -- in the way that his vision has always been integrated, able to see the world in a teardrop, even if it's trickling down his own face.
It's inevitable to write about Jackson Browne in terms of his lyrics but that's because his sense of language is itself so musical -- the way the lines twist and turn through unlikely metric shapes is one constant of his work from his debut album, Saturate Before Using, through his mid-'90s masterpiece, I'm Alive. The settings he uses range from the near-country rock of the early years, a sound reminiscent of his allies, The Eagles, through the straight-ahead rock'n'roll of The Pretender, Running On Empty, and their late '70s and early '80s successors, his period of greatest popularity, to the more eclectic material, including hints of the Caribbean, on his politicized albums of the mid- through late-'80s.
His records demand attention in a way that most contemporary records do not, and their musical rewards are not always obvious -- Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records famously couldn't hear it at all, even when David Geffen implored him to sign Browne because "there was a fortune to be made." "You start a label," Ahmet said, "you make the fortune." So Geffen started Asylum Records, and he not only made a fortune, his label, with Browne and the Eagles, became the center of California rock in the Seventies.
Although Jackson has written some of the most profound songs of our time -- including all those already mentioned, "Fountain of Sorrow," "For a Dancer," "Late for the Sky," "Lawyers in Love," "Before the Deluge," and more -- it's also inevitable to talk about him in terms of his albums. Unlike almost any other star still recording today -- Don Henley and Bruce Springsteen are probably the most obvious exceptions -- Browne's albums consist of suites of songs, each of which makes a statement that adds up to a greater whole. This sense of the wholeness that emerges from lovingly detailed individual pieces is exactly what links his artistic vision to his political idealism, just as the sense of potential introspective apocalypse that drives early albums like For Everyman and Late for the Sky leads directly to the courage it took to challenge the rightward drift of America's Reagan years, its secret wars in Central America, the entire apparatus of deceit that lies at the core of his culture's everyday public life.
If you look at it this way, the central song of Brown's career may well be "The Pretender," the title track of his 1976 album, The Pretender. It's arguably not the greatest song he's ever written, but it probably gets closer to the core of his vision than any other. And it was the key in his transition from looking at the world through eyes tinged with fear about his own life to the more open embrace of the world he was able to achieve over the next decade.
With someone so identified with the confessional lyric, it's important to note that "The Pretender" is not Jackson Browne, although there's some Jackson Browne in it -- but then, there is probably no one who lived through the '70s in America who could completely deny that within them there's a piece of this character, with his blasted ideals and devotion to the false facade that's all that holds him together psychologically. Jackson really sees The Pretender from a distance, and in a somewhat comical light. (Another problem with being stereotyped as a confessional writer is that your sense of humor sometimes goes right past people.
But who else in his generation has written songs as funny as "Redneck Friend," "Ready or Not," "Rosie," "My Problem is You" and, above all, "Lawyers in Love"?) In its way, "The Pretender" portrays the life and culture Jackson escaped when he left stultifyingly conservative Orange County to go up the road to Hollywood as a teenager: thus the veterans dreaming at the traffic light, the children waiting for the ice cream truck, here in the rockribbed heartland of the American dream "where the ads take aim and lay their claim / To the heart and soul of the spender." For this guy to declare himself a "happy idiot" is to restate what's obvious in every line of the song.
Yet Jackson can't view the scene with contempt. He knows what's missing here -- it's what he's looked for in every song he's written since he blew out of Orange County. It's expressed in the last lines of the final verse: "True love could have been a contender / Are you there? / Say a prayer for the Pretender." He sings this with immense personal passion, as if he can feel the bullshit he thought he had escaped creeping up Highway 101 to take over the sanctuary he and his comrades thought they had created. In fact, his very next record release after "The Pretender" was "Running on Empty" (from the album Running on Empty), which features he and his friends in flight, on 101 and in a dozen other ways: "I look around for the friends I used to turn to pull me through / Looking into their eyes, I see them running too."
These two songs encapsulate the crises that confronted the California soft-rock stars as the '80s developed their sometimes sinister cast and a crass materialism that made the '70s seem like an innocent paradise in contrast. Reagan, and what he represented, transformed the world in which these artists and their music had developed. There was no longer the slack in the system for purely personal work -- something was dying, while something else slouched into existence.
Browne may have tried to be a Hold Out on his 1980 album, but his albums of the mid '80s, Lawyers in Love, Lives in the Balance and World in Motion took on an angry, oppositional cast, best portrayed, perhaps, in the impassioned "Lives in the Balance," though there's a lot to be said for the satirism of "Lawyers" where the Reaganite obsession with Russia is satisfied by the disappearance of the Russian people from the face of the earth. Browne helped organize antinuclear rallies; he visited Nicaragua to help publicize the way the United States was subverting the revolution there, by staging the covert war later known as Contragate.
The albums he made in these years are more mixed in their accomplishments, and had fewer hit singles than Browne's early works, but then that figures: They are about struggle, about lives being torn apart by external forces too great for the greatest inner strength to completely survive. Yet within each of them, Jackson Browne finds a moment of peace and it is always discovered by pausing long enough to acknowledge love: "Tender is the Night" and "For a Rocker" (It was written for James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders), "In the Shape of a Heart," "Chasing You Into the Light." From 1989 to 1993, Browne made no albums. When he returned with I'm Alive, the focus had again turned inward, to an exploration of love lost, a direct reflection of his highly publicized (and grievously misreported) breakup with his longtime lover, Daryl Hannah.
Opening with the title track, a declaration of survival wrenched from a heart bereft ("I thought that it would kill me / But I'm alive!" he shouts while standing six inches from the trucks roaring by on 101), yet set to a backbeat with hits of reggae, the album peaks with one of the most beautiful love songs Browne -- or anyone else -- has ever written.
"And the heavens were rolling
Like a wheel on a track
And our sky was unfolding
And it'll never fold back
Sky blue and black"
This is one time Jackson Browne did his words profound justice as a singer -- it's simply a great piece of singing, stark, angry, pained and yet aching more than anything else with love that's proven yet again to be insufficient to hold a life together. The question while this music and the story unfold is not how the singer will survive -- he's already told us that -- but how the listener will keep his composure long enough to hear it through.
Since then, Browne's only album has been Looking East, which revisits much of the same emotional territory as I'm Alive. Yet it also begins to restore a concern with the rest of humanity, as well. It begins "standing in the ocean... at the edge of my country, my back to the sea, looking east... On the edge of my country, I pray for the ones with the least." And it ends with "It Is One," that takes a look at the situation from the vantage point of a man shot into outer space, from where one can see how all things are united but also a lonely man, this time in Africa, who's also shot but this time, shot down into the earth -- gunned down for daring to dream.
"It's not a world of our own choosing / We don't decide where we are born," Browne declares. "This life is a battleground between right and wrong/ One way or another we are torn." The beat is reggae; it feels as if the singer has turned around from the album's beginning, standing now to face the sun. But where he turns his gaze is less important than that he's still singing, still doing his best to tell the truth and chew up the lies, to give us the secrets he's paid so much to learn. To remind us to love. He succeeds. You can feel it in your heart.