Thursday, April 17, 2008

Jackson Browne

In preparation for an article I'm writing about him in Paste, I've been listening to Jackson Browne's first three albums -- his eponymous debut (AKA Saturate Before Using), For Everyman, and Late for the Sky. Does anyone listen to these albums?

Along with Joni Mitchell's Blue and For the Roses, these are the quintessential SoCal confessional singer/songwriter albums, and at one time they were among my most cherished musical possessions. It's odd to come back to them thirty-five (or more) years down the line and hear them in a quite different context than when I originally heard them. I still think they're pretty great. Although the confessional mopery heard here has become something of a musical cliche (see the whole Emo genre), Jackson did it first (or close to first), and he still may have done it best. Late for the Sky, in particular, still sounds like a perfect album to me. It's beautifully poetic, soulful, and it goes places where most songwriters never dare to go -- in this case, the exploration of numbness and sorrow that characterizes your life when, say, your wife commits suicide (which is what happened to Jackson. It's like Courtney Love's Live Through This, but with, you know, an actual songwriter). There's some harrowing writing here.

I quit paying attention to Jackson Browne after Running On Empty. That wasn't a terrible album, but it wasn't all that good either (although, naturally, it was his biggest seller -- see U2, REM, etc.) , and it didn't bode well for Jackson's future as far as I was concerned. I hated the fact that suddenly millions of people were buying Jackson Browne albums. I liked him better when he was pretty much the exclusive property of me and a few of my close friends. That was also about the time that people like The Clash and Elvis Costello came along, and my attention was diverted in that direction and away from the old hippies with acoustic guitars.

In any case, aside from a few assorted songs here and there, I haven't pulled out those old scratchy Jackson Browne albums in almost thirty years. Listening to his first three albums in their entirety again, back to back to back, has been quite a revelation. I thought that maybe I'd hear an overly earnest guy whose songs were typical of the age in which they were created, and that hadn't aged very well. But his songs have aged just fine. In fact, in some ways they might connect a little more deeply now that I'm eligible for the AARP discount. I hadn't lost anyone I loved when I first heard those songs. Now I have. It's heartbreaking writing, and although he could have easily turned maudlin and manipulative, he didn't. I'm staggered by the lines in "Fountain of Sorrow" (on Late for the Sky) about looking at old photographs of his now dead wife, and finding the one that wasn't the most flattering, but that best captured her spirit. Because that's what you do in that situation. You don't care about the glamour shots. You're trying to find something, anything, to remind you of a real human being who is gone, and you look for shards of a human spirit. There are so many lines like that on those first three albums. They're just true. It's been a great pleasure rediscovering this music.


Trip McClatchy said...

Andy – I never tire of those first three Jackson Browne records, especially Late For The Sky, which is the pinnacle of Southern California singer-songwriter-dom and a template (for better or worse) of current confessional (read emo for shorthand) songwriting, and I believe the only album to hit for the cycle with me (vinyl, 8 track, cassette, cd). I still play it frequently and it’s true about the meanings changing over time, from the moon-eyed embarrassments of a moody teenager, to the tragic losses of a young adult, to the middle-aged fading hipster trying to cope 9-to-5 and raise a family, Late For The Sky has been a constant, understanding if sometimes unforgiving, companion.

I saw a play several years ago about Gilda Radner called Bunny Bunny and though it dealt mostly with her friendship with SNL writer Alan Zweibel (who wrote the play and book of the same name), towards the end it deals with Radner’s battle with cancer in a candid, heartbreaking and even humorous manner. As the curtain drops, “For A Dancer” is played and the effect was devastating… still get flush years later thinking about it.

Andy Whitman said...

I note that this post has been referenced on the AARP Senior Community Living website:

I'm so proud.

Anonymous said...

hi--when is the Paste article comng out?
You might want to double check your facts on FOS--it is about Joni Mitchell NOT about his late wife.

Natsthename said...

I look forward to your article, especially since I think Paste is going downhill. It needs a boost from Andy!

I love those first 3 Browne albums, and it annoyed me that The Eagles had a hit with "Take It Easy." Browne's version is superior.

Anonymous said...

Interesting take on listening to some old music. I'm 38 and remember music from HOLD OUT as the first Jackson Browne I encountered as a kid. I've always liked him, but in the last couple of years I've really begun to appreciate him as a songwriter. Those early albums probably represent his best work. But some of the later songs - "Barricades of Heaven" and "Never Stop" for example - are really impressive. He s clearly a guy who still cares deeply about songwriting.

Nice blog.

Anonymous said...

I love those records. I came to Jackson Browne in a sort-of-roundabout way. My father loved him, and I first got into the music that my dad loved. But I really started paying attention when I really got into CSN and their many incarnations - I loved Crosby/Nash's harmonies on some of these early records. I remember writing a paper for a comparative arts class in college about the link between "Wooden Ships" and "For Everyman", which if I remember was a reply to "Ships". Great story and I'm listening to these albums again on the iPod today!