By Moina Arcee, Feb 27, 2016 Edited August 26 2018
As the Eagles took stage at the 58th Grammy Awards to perform a tribute to recently deceased Eagles co founder Glenn Frey, some in the audience were confused when a long haired non-Eagle took center stage to lead the band’s signature song, “Take It Easy.” Who is this guy?
The guy with the long hair and well worn tenor voice has a claim to the stage. His name is Jackson Browne, and as he told the Grammy audience:
“I wrote this song with Glenn Frey. It’s a song that I started, but I didn’t finish it. Even if I had finished it by myself, it wouldn’t be the song that it is and it wouldn’t be the song that we all love.”
Then Browne and the Eagles strummed it up and hit the opening line, “I was standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona…”
(In another lifetime I detoured to Winslow on my way to California. A British hitchhiker I picked up along the way took a snapshot of me smirking while “standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona” – next to a large sign that read: “A world in chaos needs word of the cross.” Given my Baptist upbringing, it was perfect.)
As the story goes, Browne had “Take It Easy” half written but couldn’t finish it. Frey dissolved Browne’s writers block by supplying the line: “It’s a girl my Lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.” The Eagles soared off with Browne’s song in 1972 and the rest is history.
Critics say Browne excels at sniffing out the tiniest whiff of angst and moaning some vapid soliloquy about it. He has been dismissed as a narcissistic, selfish Southern California navel gazing millionaire artist specializing in taking common folk to task for not being sufficiently self aware or progressive in their politics – according to Mr. Browne’s standards, that is. Some critics ask why Jackson Browne, with all his stardom, money, fame, and fortune, sounds so hopeless so often. Others just call him a whiner.
There is some truth to the criticism. But don’t we all chew on our own tails sometimes? Don’t we all get passionate and intolerant on topics like politics and religion? If Browne may at times be guilty as charged, he is not the only one.
(Once upon a time Browne’s fandom included a brokenhearted college kid away from home for the first time. Something about Browne’s lyrics and melodies in Late For The Sky told him that NO, he wasn’t crazy, he wasn’t alone, and there could be nobility in his life despite the shame, blame, and dysfunction he carried on his back along with his school books. To this young one, Jackson Browne was a trusted chronicler of the lacerated hearts and troubled dreams of those too sensitive to deal with the wolves of the world.)
On March 25, 1976, four months after Browne and Major married, the laughter stopped. Phyllis overdosed on barbiturates and died. Browne was working on The Pretender album when he discovered he was now a single father.
After The Pretender came Hold Out, and then Browne’s biggest commercial success, Running on Empty (which included a cocaine induced “conversation” between Browne and Glenn Frey that ended in snickers – not the candy bar).
(I saw the Running on Empty tour when it hit town. We were behind the stage and Browne threw us a salute from time to time. He was trying to finish the show with “The Load Out/Stay”, his tribute to the roadies and the fans. Browne was on piano and got into a shouting match with some of the audience who got too close to the monitors and messed with his sound. One of the audience threw a towel which hit Browne square in the face: this during his song of tribute to the fans – awkward, ey? Anyway, Browne pounded on his piano for a few extra bars before he was composed enough to continue the salute to his fans. Other than this awkwardness, the show was a great, if foggy memory.)
The 1983 release of Lawyers In Love signaled a change in Browne’s musical focus.He became a lyrically explicit protest singer, taking to task the Reagan and Bush presidencies for (allegedly) fomenting wars around the world. After Lawyers In Love Browne went on to release a series of albums over the next two decades, all of which had a decided leftist tilt to the lyrics.
Lives In The Balance, released in 1986, continued the criticism of those in power. The album also contained perhaps the best song Browne has ever written. “In The Shape of A Heart” is a song about Phyllis Major written ten years after her death. Time had granted the artist a respite from the sharper edges of sorrow, and a precious distance from the hurt. Yet some pains are built to last, as evidenced by these stark lyrics:
It was a ruby that she wore
On a chain around her neck
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart.
Was a time I won’t forget
For the sorrow and regret
And the shape of a heart…
I guess I never knew
what she was talking about
I guess I never knew
what she was living without…
You keep it up
You try so hard
To keep your lives
from falling apart
And never know
the shallows and the unseen reefs
that are there from the start
In the shape of a heart…
(Many years later the broken hearted young man was now a broken hearted older man. Jackson Browne had not been his muse for a long time. But like Browne, he was also oblivious to “the shallow and unseen reefs…in the shape of a heart.” The result was a brutal and bitter divorce. One night he heard “In The Shape of a Heart.” Once more Browne’s lyrics touched his heart, bringing tears of “sorrow and regret,” and spirals of bitterness and sweet release. Afterwards the troubled man felt nothing (no thing) except an awareness of possibility and choice. He had received a great gift.)
We all try to come to terms with our pain so it doesn’t run/ruin our lives. Browne came to terms with his grief through the creative process of music. He would go onto release many more albums: World in Motion in 1989; I’m Alive in 1993; Looking East in 1996; and The Naked Ride Home in 2002.
As the pace of Browne’s album releases slowed, recognition for his musical achievements grew. In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine selected three of Browne’s albums as among the 500 best albums of all time (For Everyman, Late for the Sky, and The Pretender). In 2002 Browne received the John Steinbeck award. In 2004 he was given an honorary Doctor of Music degree by Occidental College in Los Angeles for “a remarkable musical career that has successfully combined an intensely personal artistry with a broader vision of social justice.”
In 2004 Jackson Browne was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Bruce Springsteen gave the induction speech). In 2005 he released Solo Acoustic Volume I, which was nominated for a Grammy award. On June 7 2007 he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
A tribute album is very flattering, but it has a sharp point. Like winning the Super Bowl in old age, it is a sign to retire. The same year the tribute album came out, however, Browne released his fourteenth album, Standing In the Breach.”
The following year was the Grammys, and Browne entered the spotlight again, taking Glenn Frey’s role for the singing of “Take It Easy.” While Eagles fans are left to mull over the possibility the Eagles will reform with Browne as Frey’s replacement, Jackson Browne fans are happy their hero is alive and well, even in his sixties. And an older man who still listens to Jackson Browne feels grateful to have been touched by his music across the chasm of lifetimes. Good on you Jackson, thanks for touching my life, and the lives of so many others.
On March 24 2020, Jackson Browne contracted the coronavirus. He believed he was exposed to the virus around March 12, when Browne participated in a benefit concert at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. Upon returning to California, Browne developed a cough and high temperature.
At age seventy-one, Browne was in an at risk group for COVID fatalities. He stayed home for two weeks, quarantining himself. After the two weeks he no longer tested positive, and rejoined his community. It is probably the only thing Browne has in common with (present) President Donald Trump: they were both in their seventies, and they both had mild COVID cases from which they recovered quickly and did not relapse.
Browne told an interviewer:
“It’s important for us all to be pretty forthcoming about what we’re going through. Our experiences will be helpful for others to know. I don’t think my case is that important, but it might be helpful to know that some people don’t get this really bad.” He found hope in the idea that those who recover “can contribute to the overall herd immunity. You get over this as quickly as you can and be available to help others.”
As part of helping others, Browne released a song around the time of his illness called “A Little Soon to Say.” The literal meaning of the song seemed to relate to his coronavirus condition, with his successful recovery being “a little soon to say.” The song was the B Side of “Downhill From Everywhere,” the title track of a new album originally slated to be released late in 2020.
But, as is typical with Jackson Browne songs, there is obvious and less obvious meaning. While his stated audience is the most recent batch of young progressives around the world, the lyrics of “A Little Soon To Say” are flexible enough to fit many situations, including the future of the United States of America. With a determined pandemic still taking lives, with an election that seems certain but is still not completely resolved, with the unfair death of black men at the hands of police, and perhaps most disturbing, the out of control arson, looting, and rioting across so many cities in the United States that show no sign of stopping even if/when Joe Biden becomes President.
Anyway, those are this writer’s concerns for the future, and it is most definitely a little soon to say whether our country perseveres or turns into something else entirely. As always, Jackson Browne, even at age seventy one, still makes music whose lyrics touch my heart, my mind, my soul as very few other people ever have on this earth.