It’s been a couple of months since I last posted in this occasional series – that one was Cat Stevens – and I think it’s time for another. This is another of those artists whose music has been a large part of my listening since his first album was released in 1972, and as he gave us his latest offering last month it seems right to feature him.
Jackson Browne was born on October 9, 1948, in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father Clyde Jack Browne, an American serviceman, was stationed for his job assignment with the Stars and Stripes newspaper. Jackson’s mother, Beatrice Amanda (née Dahl), was a Minnesota native of Norwegian ancestry. When he was three the family moved to his grandfather’s house, Abbey San Encino, in the Highland Park district of Los Angeles. In his teens, he began singing folk songs in local venues such as the Ash Grove and The Troubador Club. After graduating in 1966, Jackson joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: he wasn’t with them for long, but they later recorded a number of his songs, including These Days, which was also covered by Nico, of Velvet Underground fame, with whom he was in a relationship after moving to New York. In 1968, following his breakup with Nico, he returned to Los Angeles, where he first met Glenn Frey. These Days would later appear on his second album, For Everyman.
That new album that I mentioned is his fifteenth, so he can’t be described as prolific over his forty nine year career, but he takes his time to ensure that everything he does matches his own high standards. He has also released five live albums, plus a couple of compilations, he has been involved in many collaborations, and there has also been a tribute album on which others covered some of his songs: this was Looking Into You, a 23 track double album released in 2014, featuring a range of great acts, including Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Marc Cohn, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby, Lucinda Williams amongst others. For me, that stellar cast list reflects the esteem in which he is held by his fellow performers.
Now for some music. The first of his songs that I’m sharing has become a kind of signature song for him, having been a massive hit for the Eagles, who released it on their 1972 debut album. Jackson’s own version appeared on that second album, For Everyman, which was released in November 1973. It has since become a rock standard, and has even been used as a blog title:
That song was begun by Jackson, but he got stuck on the lyrics and asked for help from Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, who was a neighbour in the same apartment block. The rest, as they say, is history. Jackson’s version is a little more laid back, and I’ve always liked it. It was released as a single but didn’t hit the charts: the album, though, reached #43 in the US and has sold over a million copies.
The next two songs both come from his follow up album, Late For The Sky, which came out in September 1974. As one of my favourites of his, that seems only right. This one is lovely:
The song was written for a friend of Jackson’s, who died in a house fire. The friend was a dancer and ice skater, and Jackson has explained the song’s meaning:
“When I wrote him the song – it’s a song I’ve sung many times, other times when people have died – but I was making a metaphor out of the dance. Just the idea that your life is a dance. And there’s a line in it, ‘In the end, there is one dance you do alone.’ That’s one of the songs I’ve sung all through the years, and for me, it’s like going to that place, and dealing with the fact that life will end. It’s a sad song, but at the same time, it feels good to sort through that reality and touch base with it, and then go on.”
The song has a special link to Saturday Night Live, having been performed at memorial services for John Belushi and Phil Hartman (on the latter occasion, Jackson himself sang it).
My second choice from this album is, perhaps, one of my all time favourite songs – by anybody. It is a typical Jackson Browne song, following the thread of a strong social conscience which has always run through his music. This is a fantastic live performance of a wonderful song:
Late For The Sky reached #14 in the US but didn’t chart in the UK. My only regret about this song is that when I saw Jackson live in concert in 2010 he didn’t do this one, but I’ve seen a video on YouTube of him playing it three days before I saw him. Do I feel short-changed? No, it was still one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, so I’ll forgive him!
It would be another two years until his next album, in November 1976, which gave him his highest position thus far in the US albums chart, and was also his first to break into the UK chart. This album was The Pretender, and this is its title track, which is another piece of magnificence:
That live performance, backed by CS&N, is magical. Mutual respect abounds, and the beauty and power of the song and its wonderful lyrics shine through. Simply amazing. As I said, the album performed well: it got to #5 in the US and #26 in the UK, and this song was a #58 single in the US.
I’m jumping forward a good bit for my next selection, which takes us twenty six years and seven albums on from that last one. Again, I’m giving you the title track, which is another of my JB favourites:
That was, as the video shows, The Naked Ride Home. I couldn’t find a live performance with good sound quality so decided on the official audio only version: there was no way I was leaving this one out! Whilst many of Jackson’s songs display a deeply felt social conscience, he has also written many with a wry take on affairs of the heart, and this is one such. Regrets at missing the signals are very much a part of what we feel after a relationship ends, and this is a perfect description of them. The album peaked at #36 in the US and #53 in the UK, but this song wasn’t released as a single. I think it should have been!
I’m going back to 1986 for my next choice. That was the year of Jackson’s eighth album, Lives in The Balance, which was probably the first where his social and political views were to the fore on the majority of the tracks. However, there was still room for another of his love songs, which was about his first wife:
You can almost see him thinking back to the days he was writing about as he sings the song – the thoughtful looks, the memories coming back to him, as he alludes to in the little piece at the end of the video, before it was unfortunately cut off by the uploader! The album reached #23 in the US and #36 in the UK, and as a single this track got to #70 in the US and #66 in the UK.
As well as his own records, I mentioned earlier that Jackson has been involved in a number of collaborations over the years, and I thought I’d share a couple of the more recent ones with you. Again, his social conscience is very much on display in these. The first one is The Dreamer, from 2017:
As background to that, in 2017 the newly installed Trump administration was waging war on the ‘Dreamers.’ From Wikipedia:
“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a United States immigration policy that allows some individuals with unlawful presence in the United States after being brought to the country as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit in the U.S. To be eligible for the program, recipients cannot have felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records.”
Those who had taken advantage of this scheme became known as ‘the Dreamers,’ as dreams are what their families had when they first came to the US. The scheme was started under the Obama administration, and it was hardly a surprise when Trump, as part of his programme to overturn everything Obama had done, announced his intention to close the scheme in September 2017. This song, written by Jackson with Eugene Rodriguez, describes how such young people were affected by notification of their impending deportation and the destruction of their lives. I think this is a heartbreaking piece of music. As far as I can tell it hasn’t been released by Jackson on record, either as a single or on an album, and the video is the only incarnation of it that I have found. I’m guessing this may, therefore, be the first time you’ve heard it. A further search of Wikipedia does, however, give some information about the band singing with Jackson on this one, and the article does go on to mention this collaboration:
“Los Cenzontles (Nahuatl for The Mockingbirds) is a Mexican American group, cultural arts academy, and media production studio, that promotes Mexican roots music through research, performance, education, musical recordings and videos. They are based in the working-class city of San Pablo, California where they form the core of Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, where the members of the group were trained. Los Cenzontles have revived and promoted little known styles of Mexican regional music since 1989.”
The other social conscience song I’m sharing is A Human Touch, which was written in 2019 by Steve McEwan, Jackson, and Leslie Mendelson for 5B, a documentary about the hospital workers who cared for AIDS patients in the early days of the illness. This has been included on Jackson’s new album, and it is stunning:
The song was released as a single, but didn’t chart. For me, that doesn’t really matter: this video is incredibly moving, both in the clips it shows from the 1980s and in the obvious impact it has on Jackson and Leslie.
I thought I’d close this piece by bringing it right up to the present, with another track from the new album, Downhill From Everywhere. This one shows that amongst all of his heartfelt lyrics, Jackson also has a sense of humour. And a heart:
In case you were wondering, there is a medical technology company called Cleveland Heart with offices in that area. It works with the Cleveland Clinic to develop “mechanical cardiac circulatory assist devices,” according to the company’s website. As far as I know Jackson hasn’t required their services! The nurse who devours the removed heart is played by the singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, who looks like she was enjoying herself. The album has only been on release for four weeks, so chart positions may end up becoming misleading. So far, though, it has reached #86 in the US and #35 here in the UK. I hope it sells more!
This piece has somehow developed into quite a long one, and I could go on for much longer, as Jackson Browne’s catalogue is filled with superb songs. I’ve given you a selection of nine of them which I hope give you a feel for his music and why I rate him so highly. If your memory serves you well, you may recall that when I posted R.I.P Nanci Griffith last Saturday, I mentioned that I was deferring one in this series to make way for my reminiscence of a wonderful singer-songwriter who had, sadly, just passed away. I hope the wait was worthwhile for you.
I’ll see you again for the next one in this series, possibly with a shorter gap between them!