Jackson Browne

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It seems safe [now], if somewhat brash, to make a claim: Jackson Browne is the most important American songwriter since Bob Dylan and is perhaps as true a voice of the 70's as we are going to hear.

The claim requires apologias on several fronts. The first is that Browne is nowhere near so loose, prolific or wide-ranging as Dylan, and we still have not seen all that much of his work yet….

The second apologia is to recognize that "The 70's" is a vague and amorphous term….

[This] decade does have its feel, defined, as all eras, by the overriding political and economic realities of the society. Much of the tone of the 70's is a result of the accommodation of people's minds to a geometrically expanding technology. (p. 242)

The songwriter has a special place in this scheme, for at his best he verbalizes the state of society, either directly by openly questioning or protesting things, or indirectly by depicting the private life and interior feelings of someone who moves within that society.

And what I detect the songwriters mirroring is a tone of mellow (but not capitulatory) resignation resulting from "our long national nightmare" that included not only Nixon and Watergate but Johnson, Vietnam, civil and racial strife, political assassinations, etc.

Early in the decade this feeling was represented most notably by James Taylor and Neil Young, both of whom touched the national nerve very deeply, Taylor so much that he was lionized on the cover of Time. Browne has continued on this road. (pp. 242-43)

Browne, like Dylan, has focused his light on the interior world of reflection and uncertainty that exists inside, under the skin of the young person alive and thinking in these times.

In addressing so directly the interior emotional life Browne has an inherent advantage, because the territory of the emotional imagination is much more vast than the territory of Long Island or New York City or Asbury Park or California. Browne, like all major artists, is able to speak simultaneously and at equal volume about himself and about society; consequently his appeal is instinctive and universal. I have not heard songs since Dylan's best of the mid-60's that work so magnificently on so many different levels as "For Everyman" or "Before the Deluge" or "Rock Me on the Water" or "For a Dancer," nor lines that depict so chillingly the Nixonian death's head we've stared at for so long. We have seen the end coming down long enough (How long have I been sleeping, Jackson asks in another context) to know that we've heard the last warning—a warning sounded by the men who had learned to forge the earth's beauty into power. This at a time when we were watching the frightening ugliness of Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman on TV.

These are very insecure, violent and consequently sorrowful times, and Jackson has touched that nerve like no one else. Sing a joyful song, he says to his dancer, and sow some seeds of your own; and between the time you arrive and the time you go there just may lie a reason you were alive. But you'll never know.

Even Browne's love songs—wherein he is not addressing general problems—limn the doubts and psychological maneuvers of the lovers as surefootedly as Dylan's love songs. (p. 245)

[Browne, Dylan, and Neil Young] share another intriguingly similar central characteristic: their pose as a small boy hurt and vulnerable before a hard, cold and unyielding world. Childhood, a metaphor combining innocence, dream, primitive vitality and vision, seems natural to all three. (p. 246)

(This entire section contains 1299 words.)

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[Browne, Dylan, and Neil Young] share another intriguingly similar central characteristic: their pose as a small boy hurt and vulnerable before a hard, cold and unyielding world. Childhood, a metaphor combining innocence, dream, primitive vitality and vision, seems natural to all three. (p. 246)

Browne's child images tend to be more universalized and less idiomatic than either Young's or Dylan's. He has two songs openly titled after the idea: "I Am a Child in These Hills" and "I Though I Was a Child." He tells us how he has chosen to be gone from the house of his father, how he sits before his only candle that gives so little light to find his way. Help me find a way to fill these lifeless sails, he pleads. He asks, much as the boy from "Hard Rain" might have asked, if he was unwise to leave his eyes open for so long.

It might be noted that Browne and Young share a Los Angeles acculturation…. Both Browne and Young convey the feeling of having seen the sunny organic paradise, and a precious feeling of resignation and withdrawal at having experienced the highs and lows of that paradise, at having seen what the garden has been converted into….

Aside from the child images, there are a few other parallels to draw between Browne and Dylan. One I've already suggested: the ability to enchant and evoke, and thereby to achieve multiple levels of meaning within a song. "For Everyman," which calls forth a world spanning the medieval morality play Everyman to [Samuel] Beckett's Waiting for Godot, is a prime example.

These multiple levels are often provoked by the idea of death, about which both men write with precision and directness. (p. 248)

Like his child images, Browne's images of death are softer and more universalized than Dylan's. I can think of no other songwriter who has addressed himself so sensitively to the problem of death or who has intimated the afterlife so positively as does Browne in "Song to Adam," "For a Dancer" and "Rock Me on the Water."

And Browne, like Dylan, has the perhaps unconscious ability to unify his oeuvre through consistent repetition of images. The use of the child image applies here. Browne's work is also suffused with a spiritually symbolic use of the element of water. "From Silverlake," "Rock Me on the Water," "Our Lady of the Well," and "Before the Deluge" are some of his titles; "Who will show me the river?", "I'm looking for water, I'm looking for life" and "Our waters have run dry" are some of his lines. His work is a constant baptism….

In "Our Lady of the Well" Browne plays Spanish lines on the guitar and addresses a girl named Maria. In "Colors of the Sun" he says goodbye to people named Joseph and Maria. The important thing about those names is that they follow immediately a touching and graphic verse about the California Jesus freaks….

Here is perhaps the central theme of Browne's work, just as it was always the underlying core of all Dylan's work: the unrelenting and embarrassing search for The Answer, which ultimately each person must find for himself. (p. 249)

Browne, like Dylan, has the ability to state large and universal themes to a great many people at once, in a language they can understand….

Browne is saying that these are not easy times and that one must find his own spiritual waters to drink if he wishes to see his way through. The Sisters of the Sun are there if you will seek them. In the naked dawn a few will survive; the buildings will keep our children dry, the music can keep our spirits high….

His advice is (1) Find a place to make your stand … and (2) take it easy.

He is not talking about militancy. He is talking about making a stand the way Thoreau did at Walden Pond, where you can discover the ground of your soul and the water of salvation. Then you can take it easy.

If Browne himself continues, in that sense, to take it easy—if he takes his time, keeps his nerve, and allows himself room to grow within the potentially stultifying atmosphere of L.A.—then he may eventually wind up with a body of work as culturally important as Dylan's. (p. 250)

Jack McDonough, "Review Essay of Jackson Browne," in Popular Music & Society (copyright © 1975 by R. Serge Denisoff), Vol. IV, No. 4, 1975, pp. 242-50.


David Spiwack


Timothy White