By Web Behrens
Whether responding to the tangled politics of the human heart or the heartless policies of human governments, Jackson Browne brings a distinctive approach to his art. With a poet’s eye and musician’s ear, he crafts songs with lyrics that stick and melodies that soar. He doesn’t give you easy answers after asking the hard questions, but he does deliver catharsis: Even his most haunting songs help you, somehow, feel better.
These are the reasons that elevated Browne to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2004, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame three years later. In the course of a career spanning nearly five decades—born in 1948, the prodigy began composing and performing as a teen—he’s recorded 14 studio albums (along with a number of live recordings, sundry one-offs for compilations and soundtracks). His most recent release, 2014’s Standing in the Breach, prompts his current tour, which brings him to Ravinia on September 5.
In some ways, though, Breach isn’t his latest work. Time and again, its tracks harken to years past. His most profound trip in the Way back Machine is a Byrds- influenced song that kicks off the release: “The Birds of St. Marks.” Previously only heard on his Solo Acoustic release from the mid-’00s (a two-CD set, though originally released separately), it’s a song he first wrote in 1967 as an ode to Nico, the German chanteuse best known for her part in Velvet Underground. Browne and Nico met in New York, and he performed on her first solo album.
“The ironic part is, the way you’re hearing it now is how I was hearing it at the time, but it took me until now to figure out how to do that. I almost had to go to Byrds school,” jokes Browne during a phone interview with Ravinia Magazine. In fact, he’d originally hoped to get his friend David Crosby, a founding member of The Byrds, to sing harmony on the track, but in the end, Browne recorded it with another singer, thereby retaining the homage factor.
“That was built into my idea of the song,” he explains. “Because Nico is Nico and nobody associates her with California—even though she spent time there—nobody would guess that she was a fan of The Byrds. She loved ‘Eight Miles High’ and ‘So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star.’ She loved The Byrds! So I wrote it as a song to her, as I left [New York]. I only worked for her for a couple months, and then I went back to California. That was one of those songs you write on an occasion of leaving—but it took many years for that song to come into being.”
For an artist so thoroughly identified with Southern California, where he’s spent all but a few years of his life, it might be a surprise that Browne (along with two of his siblings) was born in Germany. His father worked for the Stars and Stripes newspaper there in the aftermath of World War II, but after moving around the country for a few years, the family returned to the West Coast, so Browne retains no actual memories of his birth nation. (Amusingly, he recalls that, once in the United States, his parents “only spoke German when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about.”)
But it was his father’s passion rather than vocation that guided Browne’s destiny. The senior Browne played piano as well as a range of horns. “This was a central thing in our lives growing up, that our dad was a musician,” he says. “My dad collected instruments. He had a sort of alcove for his desk, and there were pegs all around this alcove [holding] a trumpet, a trombone, a sousaphone, and a French horn. When we were out in the neighborhood playing and it was time to come home, he’d get out on the front porch with one of his horns and play a little call. He was eccentric in a lot of ways, and I learned a lot about music from him.
“Everybody played,” Browne continues. “My brother played sax; my sister played piano. We were all taught music. I wanted to play piano, but he insisted I play the trumpet.” Young Jackson eventually rebelled, giving up all music, but that didn’t last. In high school he picked up guitar; later, he taught himself the piano that he’d always dreamed of playing.
Influenced by what he calls “the folk boom in the ’60s,” Browne taught himself classic folk tunes, “and then Bob Dylan came along,” helping impart another lesson about making music: the importance of telling a story. “That’s still what matters to me in music,” he says. “That’s still what’s at the heart for everyone from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers to Wilco to Dawes. They may have grown up playing primarily rock ’n’ roll, but it was the telling of a story, creating a narrative, that always moved me. It’s the thing that, I think, makes the song.”
While still in his teens, Browne played venues in Los Angeles before leaving for his stint in New York City. A mere lad of 18, he fell into the Greenwich Village music scene, playing with Tim Buckley and Nico. In fact, she was the first to record one of Browne’s earliest compositions, “These Days,” which he wrote at age 16. Browne played guitar on the track, and while this early recording experience served as testimony both to Browne’s talent and good fortune, it also provided a prescient sign of things to come: He was bound for success, both as songwriter for others as well as for himself.
Browne moved back to Southern California in 1968 and began recording his eponymous debut album in 1971. Before its release the following year, The Byrds recorded the lead track, “Jamaica Say You Will,” for its Byrdmaniax album. Ironically, his first big hit came shortly after Jackson Browne hit record shelves, but via someone else’s recording. He couldn’t finish writing the catchy ditty “Take It Easy” to his satisfaction, but his buddy Glenn Frey, who was on the same open-mic circuit, had heard the song-in- progress and loved it. Browne gave it to him to finish, and Frey recorded it with The Eagles for their debut. Released as the group’s first single, it rocketed up the charts, putting the band on the map. (Browne soon caught up with his own songs: On his sophomore release, 1973’s For Everyman, he sang his own versions of “These Days” and “Take It Easy.”)
Browne quickly blossomed into a musician whose sound helped define the singer-songwriter sound of the ’70s. With his very personal songs about love, loss, and life, he ensured that his name would become associated with the upper echelon of folk-influenced musicians of that vibrant decade, along with Carole King, James Taylor, and Carly Simon. During the ’80s he segued into a hybrid of pop and rock, with tracks like “That Girl Could Sing” and “Boulevard.” In another moment of commercial irony, his highest-charting single, “Somebody’s Baby,” belonged not to one of his own albums but to the soundtrack of the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Browne’s commercial heyday came during those first two full decades of his recording career—unsurprisingly, mostly before he began singing explicitly about social and environmental ills. As the Reagan era marched on, he picked up an overtly activist stance for which he’s still proudly known. He signaled that shift with 1983’s Lawyers in Love, but it came into powerful fruition in 1986 with Lives in the Balance, an album full of criticism of US foreign policy. Its cover depicted a close-up of the Statue of Liberty’s face, surrounded by scaffolding that gave the effect of prison bars.
Still, for an artist of Browne’s stature—having achieved popularity with both critics and the public, as well as record sales numbering in the tens of millions—it’s a surprise that he’s never won a Grammy Award. On the other hand, the activist-musician has been honored with a number of accolades he’s likely more proud of, including the John Steinbeck Award, which is given to artists whose social- and environmental-justice work reflect Steinbeck’s values. He’s also the co-founder of MUSE, Musicians United for Safe Energy. That’s not simply a title; he owns a ranch that’s entirely off the grid, powered by wind and solar energy.
“It’s a getaway, but I could live there,” Browne says. “I have a garden and chickens, and I have a piano. It produces electricity by photovoltaic cells and a wind generator. But I wouldn’t want to live as rurally as that while trying to make records. The music is all I’ve got, so I tend the fires of music by being close to other musicians. The reason I created the ranch off the grid was [because] it was the only way I could do it [at first], because it was very rural. Eventually, electricity was brought into the canyon, and I had the chance to change, but I’d already been off the grid for 20 years. Why hook up to the grid now? But also, I was involved in the No Nukes concerts, opposing nuclear energy, and I’d been arrested blockading the local nuclear power plant, which is not that far from this ranch. So I just wanted to see what it would take. I was saying, ‘No, we don’t need nuclear power’—and in fact we don’t, and I proved it to myself. It’s very doable.
“It’s here. The future is here,” he continues. “You don’t have to use fossil fuels. You don’t have to drive a car with gas. I’ve had a Chevy Volt for about three years, and I have only used 50 gallons of gas in that time. The problem is, not enough people think that’s important.” But even when he feels weary, considering the troubles facing the world, he reminds himself—much in the way his music reminds his listeners—“You mustn’t lose hope. You mustn’t give up.”
The list of renowned musicians with whom Browne has collaborated in some form could fill a whole page. His early brushes with Nico, Buckley, Frey, and Crosby were just the beginning; in the years to come, he toured with such icons as Linda Ronstadt and Joni Mitchell, and he made music with everyone from Warren Zevon to Bonnie Raitt to Bruce Springsteen. So it’s hard not to wonder, from such an embarrassment of riches, do any of those collaborations stand out for him as favorites?
“Well, I think—” the always- thoughtful Browne pauses, considering this answer even more carefully than most. “The collaborations that I did with my bandmates are probably the [favorites]. They may not be the best known, like ‘Call It a Loan’ with David Lindley. We collaborated musically on songs that I had written myself. David made them sound the way they sound, just by virtue of playing on them. He doesn’t get a songwriter’s credit for his solo in ‘Late for the Sky,’ but my collaboration with him is a little closer to the bone than sitting down with another songwriter and tossing some lines back and forth.” Full- on songwriting collaborations, he further explains, “are rare for me, because I need to be alone to find out what I think about anything.”
It’s no surprise, then, that he took nearly 50 years to record “The Birds of St. Marks.” And you can find thoughtful nods to his past throughout Breach. One track, “You Know the Night,” marries a Browne composition to Woodie Guthrie lyrics. The rockabilly swing of “Leaving Winslow” winks, both in sound and title, to The Eagles and that famed corner of Winslow, AZ, from “Take It Easy.” The opening notes of “The Long Way Around” deliberately echo the intro to “These Days,” while his opening lyric croons, I don’t know what to say about these days. Although it sounds like an updated, upbeat cover, the lyrics reflect the older artist, musing about societal ills—overconsumption, gun proliferation, and even the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision—and then marrying those larger anxieties to personal reflection about his life’s journey, traced back to his early days: I made my breaks and some mistakes / Just not the ones people think I make.
“This whole record is full of stuff like that. I don’t think I can go on doing it this way,” Browne says with a wry chuckle. “It takes too long. This is like me cleaning house, in a way.”