(A look at the career of Jackson Browne, with some reflections by the author about how Browne has influenced his life)
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.
It is said that if Jackson Browne never wrote another song in his life after “Take It Easy,” he would be a millionaire just by royalties. But Browne is no one hit wonder. He has recorded 14 albums over four decades, scoring singles, awards, and Grammy nominations along the way. He is known for crafting meticulously written and composed songs about broken hearts, soul-searching, spiritual longings, ecological apocalypses, and progressive politics. He is an introspective writer who excels at precision in his wordplay. A master of verbal expression, his lyrics explore the most subtle nuances in the ebb and flow of emotions in relationships.
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.
Whatever one thinks of Browne’s politics or his melancholy bent, no one has ever questioned his sincerity. He is a modern day troubadour who means every word of every song he writes. His political views are equally serious. Browne’s aching sincerity got him featured as Jimmy Thudpucker in G.B. Trudeau’s comic strip Doonesbury. Thudpucker is one of the few Doonesbury characters left unscathed by Trudeau’s satirical wit, which matches up with how Jackson Browne’s decades long loyal fans see him.
(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.)
Like all of us, Browne has had his share of sorrows. He was living life large way back in the 1970’s, with his pick of fabulous women to have relationships with. After being with Joni Mitchell for some time, Browne dumped her for the beautiful actress Phyllis Major. They met at the (aptly named) Troubador nightclub where Browne was appearing at the time. He fought a guy over her, got beat up, but won the girl. In 1973 Phyllis had their baby, a boy named Ethan Zane Browne. Browne wrote about it all in a humorous song called “Ready or Not.”
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.
Browne wrote a song on The Pretender about Phyllis’ suicide called “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate.” There is a line in the song – “I found my love too late” – that might refer to Browne finding his wife’s dead body. Another line is also poignant: “the only thing that makes me cry is the kindness in my baby’s eye” – a reference to little Ethan.
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 in back of 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 many tears of “sorrow and regret,” and spirals of bitterness and sweet release. After, 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.
In 2008 Browne released Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2, and a studio album titled, Time the Conqueror. In 2014 a tribute album to Browne was released. It featured renditions of Browne’s songs by artists like Don Henley, Bruce Springsteen, and Bonnie Raitt.
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.