He wrote for The Eagles, he sang with Joni Mitchell; as Jackson Browne looks back on 30 years in music, Helen Brown listens in
The lights have fused in the murky English hotel where I meet Jackson Browne. It's as though the room is paying tribute to the fact that, at 57, a year after his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the legendary Californian singer-songwriter has decided to pull the plug on the stadium electrics and release a greatest hits album of solo acoustic performances.
For those of us who've always loved the melancholy, confessional style of albums such as The Pretender and Late for the Sky, but have been too scared to play them to friends who'd sneer at the Seventies LA production values, this is the time to come out, quiet and proud, as Browne fans.
When he walks into the room, the first thing I notice is that the trademark troubadour hair is all there. It's slightly more salted these days, but it still swings glossily in front of those soulful, lost-boy eyes.
"It's all done with lighting," he chuckles, tucking into a piece of shortbread and telling me about his morning's record-shopping. Browne is apt to derail interviews into the type of enjoyable chat that slyly ends up having nothing to do with his life and career.
I want to ask about hanging out with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Neil Young and The Eagles in the Seventies. I want to ask about the late-Nineties break-up with Daryl Hannah, and the subsequent - since retracted - allegations of domestic violence. But I work up to it by congratulating him on the new album, which he says grew out of solo acoustic performances that began in the UK.
"I get some heat for what English people call 'overproduction'," he admits. "I don't think my older stuff was overproduced, but I do think that sound has dated. The favourable reviews for this album were very funny. One of the few bad ones said something like, 'It's OK if you don't mind the sound of a thousand middle-management Americans howling along.' What does that mean?" He laughs. "I think it's a class thing. English people are so trapped in this class paradigm."
Browne was born in Germany to American parents who moved back to California when he was three years old. As he grew up, he began singing intensely personal folk music and hitchhiking around the state. In 1966, he joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and spent a brief spell in Tim Buckley's backing band before playing on Nico's solo debut, "Chelsea Girl". The former Velvet Underground vixen also covered a song he wrote, aged 16, called "These Days", which appears in a gloriously raw version on the new album. Browne says he didn't play his preferred acoustic guitar on Nico's recording as "her manager, Andy Warhol, thought she should sound more modern. So I played electric guitar. And they put a string quartet on it. That was real modern."
In 1971, Browne was snapped up (along with Mitchell and The Eagles) by David Geffen's singer-songwriter-friendly new label, Asylum Records, and released his eponymous debut, which also featured the song he co-wrote with The Eagles' Glenn Frey, "Take It Easy". Apparently, many audience members still think he is in The Eagles and shout for songs such as "Peaceful Easy Feeling". He's happy to oblige.
In one of the few bits of stage banter included on the new album, Browne confides that he's still hunting down the Cantonese version of "Take It Easy", but that his favourite translation is the Spanish one where the line "I'm looking for a lover who won't blow my cover" is rendered: "I'm looking for a love who's not religious, not dangerous and will eat me like a lobster in pink sauce."
It took until 1976 for Browne to break through to the mainstream with The Pretender, released shortly after the suicide of his wife, Phyllis. Lyrically, he found himself confronting adult disillusionment and "the fear of living for nothing". On the title song, he still satirised those who gave in to dead routine and the consumer culture, while relating to the Everyman "caught between the longing for love/ And the struggle for the legal tender".
In 1979, he was campaigning against nuclear energy, and by the Eighties albums such as Lives in the Balance and Lawyers in Love were overtly anti-Reagan.
It's said that Browne had Bob Dylan's career in reverse, starting out personal and becoming political. "I always embraced the politics," he says. "We all have a stake in our community. We got people to vote. The fact that our voting machines are not plugged into anything the Republicans want them to be is not the fault of the voters. And they'll have to fix that if they want to go on thinking they live in a democracy.
"It doesn't help that our mainstream media is so complicit with big business. I'm a big fan of British journalists like The Independent's Robert Fisk, but it's hard to find voices like his in the US. We didn't get Bush out of office last time, but the results of our recent activities will have their effects. I grew up in very close proximity to the civil rights movement. When I was 16, my sister went off and campaigned against the Republicans and I would hitchhike to visit her."
At that time, Browne was writing many of his best-known songs, and political engagement was cool in Southern California. "I didn't see the Laurel Canyon scene as 'glamorous'. When we went to Hollywood, we were playing folk clubs and sleeping on other people's floors. There was the constant excitement that you would meet somebody beautiful and think: 'What a beautiful world.' The hills were beautiful. But the culture was part of this ugly, plastic, suburban sprawl."
Of all the Laurel Canyon set, it was Browne who gazed most into the shadows. "The hippie dream? I wasn't so convinced everything was going to be just ducky, but my dream came from a longing to be connected. When my sister came back from college, she would bring black friends, and this was when things were really segregated. I'd gone to a school in a Mexican neighbourhood when I was younger and there were lots of black kids, and then by the time I got to high school, that wasn't the case.
"So when the political climate began to change it was like that 'interruption of connectedness' was coming to an end. Of course, where I live now, it's a bit pricey, but it's racially diverse. Still, most of my friends get stopped on the coast highway."
We chat about the drugs in Laurel Canyon. "I have to admit to taking cocaine a long time before I went touring. At times I used to think cocaine would be a useful tool for songwriting. It could help you stay focused, but it was the wrong kind of focused. I did a lot of bad work when using coke."
With the drugs came accusations of violence. In "Not To Blame" on her 1994 album, Turbulent Indigo, Mitchell accused Browne of beating up his then girlfriend Darryl Hannah. In interviews, Browne called Mitchell "disturbed". And in the biopic America's Prince: JFK Jnr, two scenes imply that Browne hit Hannah. The film was modified after legal action from Browne, who stated: "I never assaulted Daryl Hannah, and this fact was confirmed by the investigation conducted at the time by the Santa Monica Police Department."
It has been suggested to me by Browne's PRs that I avoid bringing this up, but I do. "Well, it was a drag." A shock? "A drag, a drag. The fact that they changed it shows anyone paying attention that I was misrepresented."
Browne rushes off to a radio phone-in, which the fans call in hordes. I think of when he said that singing his songs is like looking at old photos: "You never know when all that emotion is going to rush up and whack you."
'Solo Acoustic Vol 1' is out on Angel
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