WITH his floppy centre parting and big brown eyes, Jackson Browne was the quintessential sensitive singer-songwriter in the Seventies.
When Bruce Springsteen inducted him into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 2004, he spoke of a “guy in baggy jeans and T-shirt, singing his serious songs. And his hair was perfect!”
At 72, the long-time Los Angeles resident, who wrote Take It Easy for the Eagles, still exudes West Coast cool and is highly regarded by the next generation of singersCredit: PR Handout
Jackson in his younger daysCredit: PR Handout
He continued: “I also noticed Jackson drew an enormous amount of good-looking women while the E Street Band and I were drawing rooms filled with men. Not that great-looking men, either!”
When The Boss was on the way up, he opened several shows for Browne, the troubadour selling millions of albums with his socially aware songs about life’s big issues.
“But what most people don’t realise is that Jackson Browne was a bona fide rock’n’roll sex star,” affirmed Springsteen. “And my wife (Patti) says he still is.”
Today, the dark brown locks are greying and the matching beard helps give Browne the appearance of a distinguished elder statesman.
But at 72, the long-time Los Angeles resident, who wrote Take It Easy for the Eagles, still exudes West Coast cool and is highly regarded by the next generation of singers.
I’m that old geezer on the edge of the photo
Having duetted with the singular Phoebe Bridgers on her song Kyoto, she returns the favour by appearing in the video for My Cleveland Heart from his first album in seven years, the thought-provoking, beautifully realised Downhill From Everywhere.
In typically self-deprecating fashion, he says: “I see myself on the periphery of this scene of younger musicians. I don’t hang around with them but I get to see them from time to time.
“I’m that old geezer on the edge of the group photograph who prompts people to say, ‘What’s he doing there?’ ”
Calling me from LA, Browne adds: “Phoebe’s unique in the way she uses language and the way she sings.
“The way she inhabits the narratives she’s giving you is a wonderful development because decades go by and you’re thinking, ‘Where’s the next Warren Zevon coming from?’ ” (The late Zevon is still best known for his laugh-out-loud hit Werewolves Of London).
Browne name-checks Bright Eyes singer Conor Oberst and Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. Then he singles out another collaborator, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, for songwriting that connects the dots between now and the Seventies golden age.
“You can’t describe him as a writer like Joni Mitchell, though,” he decides.
“There’s nobody like her. There’s just Joni Mitchell.” Since he started out, a strong theme in Browne’s music is his love of the planet and his alarm at man’s destruction of it.
Over the decades, he has joined campaigns against nuclear power and the build-up of plastic in the world’s oceans.
His new album’s title track bears the lines: “Do you think of the ocean as yours? Because you need the ocean to breathe. Every second breath you take is coming from the sea.”
It’s an evocative moment from a fine album which recalls his early laidback, country-tinged triumphs yet also belongs very much in the present. The warmth of the music belies the burning passions in the lyrics.
As the image on this page suggests, his songs serve as profound prayers for humanity. Browne makes clear that Downhill From Everywhere is not just about the world his own “amazing, beautiful grandson” will inherit.
“It’s really important to preserve the environment for everybody’s children,” he stresses. “But there are so many young people active in politics now that it’s really a source of hope for me.”
I ask if he follows the progress of Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who brilliantly berates world leaders for not doing enough about climate change.
Killings have been going on a long time.
“She has inspired people to redouble their efforts,” he replies. “It’s vital they (campaigners) understand they have power, that they have a voice. We’re at an important moment. Greta has demonstrated the kind of influence one young person can have.”
He also draws my attention to “those kids who survived the Stoneman High School shooting in Florida”. (Fourteen students and three staff were killed.)
“They are powerful activists with undeniable authority having lived through a massacre, having seen their classmates murdered. It’s their world that they’re trying to improve.”
Another strong new song, Until Justice Is Real, was written before the murder of George Floyd but still resonates with that horrific event. He says: “All these songs have a social justice component and these killings have been going on for a long time. A good black friend of mine says, ‘It’s just now that we have cameras’.”
His aim is to make his compositions “as intimate as love songs” despite their wider threads. On a deeper level, Until Justice Is Real finds the singer asking himself a series of questions “to do with the difference between wealth and wellbeing”.
The eternal dreamer yearns for equality rather than craving the finest trappings of our materialistic world for himself.
“I mean, I’m guitar-rich,” he admits. “But I don’t have stocks and savings. I guess, by modern standards, I’m rich but that just happened through following my dreams. The point wasn’t just to amass a fortune. If you do that, then you lose sight of what makes life good.”
Another key aspect of Browne’s album is the sense of place, whether it is harrowing scenes at the Mexican border, troubled but inspirational Haiti, beautiful Barcelona — where he keeps an apartment to “decompress” — or the Los Angeles urban sprawl.
The breezy Minutes To Downtown is about his love-hate relationship with his home city. “For ever on this freeway dreaming of my getaway, don’t know how I’m still in LA,” he sings.
Browne tells me: “It’s a place I’ve been trying to leave most of my life. There are things about it that drive me nuts. There’s so much driving and it’s getting more and more crowded. When I was making my first record (in 1971), I assumed I’d get a place out in the country as soon as I could. It was a part of the counter-culture ideal of the day.
‘WALLS MANIPULATE PEOPLE’S FEARS’
“But I’m still here. I’ve lived all over this city, the east, the west and the suburbs.”
Browne feels “an emotional connection” to Highland Park, Echo Park and Silverlake, which he says are “basically Mexican neighbourhoods”. Despite some gentrification, they still have great cultural identity and a sense of pride.”
He also remembers times as a young man when he would “drive through huge expanses of orange trees to go surfing” at places like Sunset Beach.
“It’s all city now, housing developments and malls,” he adds. “I realised the malls in Orange County had the same stores, same restaurants as in Austin, Texas, or Detroit, Michigan. That culture is springing up everywhere.”
The principled Browne believes in looking after the wildlife that remains and says: “You have to protect the green spaces inside the city and preserve the bluffs overlooking the ocean in Santa Barbara where Monarch butterflies gather.”
This brings us to gorgeous song The Dreamer, sung in both English and Spanish and written with Eugene Rodriguez of LA collective Los Cenzontles and Los Lobos legend David Hidalgo.
Against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s infamous border wall, it tells the story of a Mexican migrant who settled in the States as a child only to receive a deportation order when she was older.
“I know Lucina,” says Browne of the deportee. “All I can say is how good these people are. They’ve given so much to our country.”
He believes “the wall is there to manipulate people’s fears and a blatant, disgusting attempt to portray the United States as being under siege”.
Only last year, a film called Linda And The Mockingbirds, showed Browne and Mexican-American icon Linda Ronstadt travelling by bus from the Bay Area of San Francisco to the small town where her grandfather grew up.
He says: “On that trip, we saw concertina wire strung up across the border. You see Lucina sitting at the crossing talking about what it’s like to come to the States as a young person, only to be discriminated against. It’s heartbreaking.
“Your heart gets engaged and that’s what I want from a song, to appeal to people’s emotions.”
Another effort ticking that box is Love Is Love, inspired Browne’s trips to poverty-stricken, trouble-torn Haiti where he witnessed the blossoming of both a school and a music studio.
“The poverty is so omnipresent but what you’re left with is this incredible spirit,” he says.
The song focuses on a young couple who fall in love despite their surroundings, where communities “live in tin shacks with mud floors”.
The final verse speaks of Father Rick Frechette, a selfless soul who has devoted his life to making Haiti a better place.
Browne says: “The guy went there as a priest but they said, ‘We don’t need a priest, we need a doctor’. So he became a doctor, came back and built hospitals . . . a real example of the imitation of Christ.
“He lives in a tiny room in a hospital, with no possessions, and all he does is meet the needs of these people.”
What you get from both Browne’s music and his every word is empathy with his fellow humans.
He, like the rest of us, is enduring a period like no other because of the Covid-19 pandemic, including having a mild dose of the disease in March 2020. As our chat winds up, he reflects on the different world we find ourselves in.
“I was in a restaurant last night where people were eating indoors and everybody was saying, ‘This is great’. We’re returning to a kind of normalcy but with insights we’ve been given during the pandemic year.
“We’ve examined what it means to be in the world where the health of others very much impacts on the health of ourselves. So we have to fashion a world that works for everybody. The ideals of inclusion, fairness and justice are very much a part of that fabric.”
He also returns to a subject that looms large in his mind: “We have an existential threat to the oceans. Half the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean and there are dead spots because of human activity. We have enormous challenges to manage this world better.”
Browne’s last word, however, is on music and playing live again. “I want be in a concert where people are safe. But if we want to go back to what we had, we have to go forward to get it.”