The other night, I went to see Jackson Browne in concert. As is usually the case these days I went with some close friends who, like me have walked the Jackson-Browne journey for many years. The venue was the old State Theatre in Sydney, a beautiful space crafted in a peculiar blend of Gothic, Baroque, Nouveau and Deco that seems to lift you out of time when spending those few hours within its walls.
Over the last forty-plus years, I have seen Jackson Browne in concert in excess of twelve times that I can remember. It’s been a bonus that he has visited Australia so many times; one of his sons, Ryan, now in his late thirties, lives here.
The first time I saw him live was in about 1977 just after the release of his fourth album – The Pretender – and just before Running on Empty.
Of course, to most people reading this, these album names don’t mean much. Jackson Browne’s music floated in and out of the mainstream, never staying too long. Occasionally, a song on the radio like Doctor My Eyes, Take it Easy or Running on Empty might jog a memory, but the gold I have found in a generation of being a part of Jackson Browne’s music has been hidden in the beauty of lyrics woven impossibly through often unusual and far-from-mainstream melody lines.
But as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it just so happened that for me the beauty paralleled the path of my life.
As a confused but arrogant teen, in those moments of silence in time alone, I related viscerally to These Days and the words written by a sixteen-year-old Jackson Browne:
These days I sit on cornerstones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend;
Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.
And in the turbulence of late teens, identity crises and the mystery of discovering and losing love, the poignant Love needs a Heart gave me a place of troubled understanding:
Love won’t come near me,
She don’t even hear me;
She walks by my vacancy sign.
Love needs a heart, trusting and blind,
I wish that heart were mine.
It’s been said that the career of Jackson Browne was the reverse of Dylan’s, starting out deeply personal and moving through to politics and activism. I think that’s pretty simplistic as much of the attraction for me was JB’s ability to bare his soul honestly and deftly and to recognise our connectedness and social responsibility.
The mass market sees a differentiation between the personal and the political, but Jackson Browne doesn’t. There is a strong connection that has flowed through his lyrics that has only strengthened as he has matured. For Ev’ryman was released in 1974 and hints at the notion that, although each of us has our own journey, the truth is that we’re all in this together:
Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place
To get it together,
Where with a few of my friends I could give up the race
And find something better.
But all my fine dreams,
Well-thought-out schemes to gain the motherland,
Have all eventually come down to waiting for Ev’ryman.
Although I have always given assent to the numerous environmental, social and political causes that JB actively works for and espouses, it’s really only been in the last decade or so that for me the penny has finally dropped: To truly believe means that activism is not an option; it is a natural outflow. It is not good enough to merely argue a case. It is not good enough to merely sit on my hands, pray and hope, because those things just shuffle my responsibility off into the ether. I must invest my life, time and money in what I believe to be true, otherwise I clearly don’t believe it. Activism is simply accepting my responsibility and “acting” on it.
One of the real, refreshing beauties that I have appreciated in Jackson Browne’s music and lyrics is a tolerance of those who may not see what he sees – a rare quality amongst activists. He sees that part of his responsibility is to “stand in the breach” on behalf of others. In fact that is the title of his most recent album – Standing in the Breach:
We rise and fall with the trust and belief
That love redeems us each
And bend our backs and hearts together standing in the breach.
You don’t know why it’s such a far cry
From the world this world could be
You don’t know why but you still try
For the world you wish to see
You don’t know how it will happen now
After all that’s come undone
But you know the change the world needs now
Is there, in everyone
Through all these years of following his career and in some strange way building a relationship with a man whom I’ve never met, I came to a realisation the other night as I contemplated the fact that he would be turning seventy this year; to countenance the loss of this “brother” who has walked alongside me spiritually and given voice to my feelings and contemplations, is more than sobering. I realised my gratitude and the fact that those who walk the truth-seeking path need such poets to give voice to the multitude of feelings and frustrations that accompany such a walk.
In many ways the music and lyrics of this man have been my soundtrack, to use a well-worn cliché. But unlike others who have become jaded or burnt-out or have just plain shuffled off the scene, Jackson Browne retains the innocence and poignancy that he had way back when I first started listening to him a generation ago.