THE adjective ‘precocious’ could have been invented for Jackson Browne. At an age when most of us were still worrying about acne and failing to revise for exams, he was already on his way to becoming musical royalty. By the time he left his teens he had been in two bands, worked as a staff songwriter for Elektra Records, been the lover of a Teutonic ice queen ten years his senior and written several classic tunes. And he had the cleanest, glossiest hair in all of rock and roll.
Clyde Jackson Browne was born on October 9, 1948, in Heidelberg. His father Clyde Jack Browne (notice a pattern there?) was a US serviceman working in Germany on the Stars and Stripes newspaper. His mother Beatrice was of Norwegian ancestry but born in Minnesota. Both loved music. When Jackson was three the family moved to his paternal grandfather Clyde’s house in Highland Park, Los Angeles – Abbey San Encino – an intriguing mishmash of ecclesiastical architectural styles.
When he graduated from high school in 1966, Browne was a regular performer in folk clubs on piano and guitar. He joined the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who recorded a couple of his songs on their eponymous debut album, and another group, Gentle Soul. But before he was even 18 he had moved to Greenwich Village in New York and had been hired by Nina Music, Elektra’s publishing company. He became the lover of the German model turned Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, and supplied the first two songs of her solo album Chelsea Girl – The Fairest of the Seasons and These Days. I have already remarked on the world-weary tone of These Days, written by Browne at the ripe old age of sixteen. He was also hanging out with Tim Buckley, which explains why the first lines of Buckley’s I’ve Been Out Walking are the same as the opening words of These Days, although the songs are totally different.
After breaking up with Nico, Browne retreated to LA, where he rejoined the folk club scene. His reputation as a writer was cemented by the singer Tom Rush, who included the Browne original Shadow Dream Song on his 1968 album The Circle Game and These Days on his Tom Rush LP in 1970. Although Browne’s potential was already being acknowledged as ‘mind-boggling’, it wasn’t until 1972 that his extraordinary voice, pure and clear, was unleashed on the world. Jackson Browne, on his manager David Geffen’s Asylum label, was also known as Saturate Before Using because of an instruction printed on top of the hessian-look sleeve, which was based on a cooler-bag. The album was a huge success.
A single taken from it, Doctor My Eyes, was a top ten hit and went on to be recorded by a dozen or so other artists including the Jackson Five. It was another example of Browne’s pessimistic worldview but the upbeat sound driven by his pounding piano ensured its popularity. It is probably my least favourite track on the album. By contrast the opener, Jamaica Say You Will, is sublime.
It is followed by A Child in These Hills and Song For Adam, a requiem for his friend Adam Saylor, who died in mysterious circumstances plunging from a hotel balcony in Bombay – ‘Well they say that Adam jumped but I am thinking that he fell.’
The whole of Side Two is brilliant – Something Fine and Under the Falling Sky, which would both be covered beautifully by Bonnie Raitt; Looking Into You, Rock Me on the Water and the last track, My Opening Farewell. I cannot think of another debut album so stuffed with great songs.
Browne had no problems with ‘that troublesome sophomore album’, as the rock magazines used to put it. For Everyman, released in 1973, was even better than its predecessor and is one of my all-time favourite records. Wonderful songs and great musicianship provided by such luminaries as Raitt, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, Glenn Frey and Don Henley – even Elton John, credited for contractual reasons as Rockaday Johnnie. Most significant of all was the beginning of Browne’s enduring partnership with the peerless David Lindley on guitars and fiddle. Opening track is Take It Easy, which was co-written with Frey and had already provided a breakthrough hit for the Eagles. Browne had intended it for his first album but had difficulty completing the lyrics. One night he played Frey the unfinished second verse which begins: ‘Well I’m standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona.’ Frey completed it with: ‘Such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl my lord, in a flatbed Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me.’ Browne’s For Everyman version features Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar and Lindley on electric.
Next comes Our Lady of the Well, followed by Colors of the Sun and I Thought I Was A Child, all excellent, but the standout is Browne’s own version of These Days, with soaring lap steel guitar from Lindley.
Side two begins with the rocking Redneck Friend, featuring Elton pounding away on the joanna, and then we’re into four charming pieces. The Times You’ve Come is followed by Ready Or Not, about being unprepared for his future wife Phyllis Major’s pregnancy.
‘Someone’s going to have to explain it to me
I’m not sure what it means
My baby’s feeling funny in the morning
She’s having trouble getting into her jeans
Her waistline seems to be expanding
Although she never feels like eating a thing
I guess we’ll reach some understanding
When we see what the future brings’
Ready Or Not also includes an account of how Jackson met Phyllis, a blonde former model and actress. Apparently they were in the Troubadour, a West Hollywood rock club, when he saw her in a screaming row with her boyfriend. He intervened and took her back to his place. According to the song,
‘I met her in a crowded barroom
One of those typical Hollywood scenes
I was doing my very best Bogart
But I was having trouble getting into her jeans
I punched an unemployed actor
Defending her dignity
He stood up and knocked me through that barroom door
And that girl came home with me.’
The gloomy counterpoint to the incident is that it marked the end of Browne’s relationship of a few months with Joni Mitchell, who is said to have attempted suicide when he failed to arrive at her hillside house that evening. She in turn describes events in her song Car On a Hill, from the Court and Spark album.
I’ve been sitting up waiting for my sugar to show
I’ve been listening to the sirens and the radio
He said he’d be over three hours ago
I’ve been waiting for his car on the hill.
He makes friends easy
He’s not like me
I watch for judgement anxiously
Now, where in the city can that boy be?
Waiting for a car
Climbing the hill.
Back to For Everyman, and Sing My Songs To Me segues into the title track, which culminates in a long drum roll bursting into a joyous final instrumental sequence. I saw Browne perform this at the Royal Albert Hall in 1994 and at the climactic moment a girl in the audience leapt, I swear, six feet into the air, arms aloft.
The cover of For Everyman, by the way, depicts Browne in Abbey San Encino.
Blimey, well over a thousand words and that’s only his first two albums. I’ll move on to the next pair, the brilliant Late For The Sky and The Pretender, at a later date.
PS – I am indebted to the West Coast music sage Michael Sentance for guidance and information on today’s post. Thanks also to reader dholway for pointing out in response to last week’s blog that the Feelies were far from an ordinary band, reporting that ‘at their peak in the late 80s and early 90s, they were the best band I’ve ever seen in concert, just jaw-droppingly intense’. Wish I’d seen them.