By Brian Wise.
It seems almost impossible that Jackson Browne’s classic album Late For The Sky is 40 years old this year. That angst-ridden recording captured a moment in time for Browne, one of the kings who presided over Laurel Canyon back then – along with JD Souther and his buddies in the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Crosby & Nash et al.
A lot has happened to Browne since then – personally and politically – but his latest album Standing In The Breach shows that he is not quite ready to settle into affable semi-retirement, churning out a few ditties for fans who want wallow in nostalgia. His latest album Standing In The Breach (Inside Recordings/Warner) is a reaffirmation that Browne still has plenty to say.
While it is six years since Browne’s previous studio album (Time The Conqueror) and another six prior to that to (The Naked Ride Home), Browne has been busy cultivating musical friendships with younger Los Angeles- based artists such as Jonathan Wilson and Dawes, devoting himself to various causes and, in the past few years, crafting the music and lyrics to this latest recording which is his strongest for many years.
Not that the new album is on a par with Late For The Sky – it is difficult for any writer to match their early works unless they happen to be Dylan or Cohen. But Browne addresses some long held concerns, revisits the past with a song that he wrote when he was just 18 and shows that he still has plenty to say.
At the recent Americana Awards in Nashville, Browne received the Spirit of Americana Award from the Free Speech Center. The award was presented by old friend JD Souther and was recognition of Browne’s stances over the years on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation to human rights. Those concerns can still be heard on the new album.
Speaking to Browne the day after the Awards ceremony proved that he has lost none of his energy or commitment – and at 66 years of age neither has he lost any of his hair or his handsome good looks. But don’t let me be the only judge. After a friend found out that I was interviewing Browne she messaged me: ‘Tell him I will leave my husband for him!’
“I’m truly honored to be given this award,” said Browne. “It’s just so exciting to be here. I mean I heard Loretta Lynn sing last night.” The Awards ceremony also honoured Lynn with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her songwriting and she performed ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ with a house band that included Ry Cooder.
“I could probably count on one hand the times I’ve seen Ry Cooder smile,” he continues, “but he was on the stage with the biggest grin I’ve ever seen. He was like a kid. Watching him get to play with Loretta Lyn was one of the highlights of the night for me. It was full of great moments – Taj Mahal, Rodney Crowell – there were some really great moments.”
Browne also got to perform with that amazing band: a song from the new album – ‘The Long Way Round’ with its lyrical and musical reference to his classic song ‘These Days’ – and ‘Fountain Of Sorrow’ from Late For The Sky.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to bring certain things up in a song without putting people off,” explains Browne. “It’s a skill that I’ve cultivated or that I try to cultivate and I haven’t always observed it in the same way, but I mean I’ve noticed that some people are really good at it and I’ve always wanted to get better at it. I appreciate getting an award for keeping trying.
“On my new record, I bring up a number of things. It could be considered political topics but they’re also just in the course of talking about a life. If anything in this recent record, I’ve cultivated trying to bring up these subjects in the way that one would bring it up to a friend or somebody that was reading the morning paper might mention to the other person that’s at the table without making a full frontal attack on a person’s logical view of the world.
“I think that I’m motivated to keep talking about these things because these problems are not going away. If anything if they’re worse. They’re quite a bit worse. The oceans are on the verge of collapse, which is to say that we rely on the ocean for every second breath we take. That oxygen is produced by the life forms in the ocean and the ocean has got numerous dead spots in it. There are huge collections of plastic garbage in five of the world’s oceans.”
Songs such as the title track, ‘Standing In The Breach,’ along with ‘Which Side’ and ‘Walls and Doors’ (with lyrics by Cuban Carlos Varela), address Browne’s current concerns. (Another song, ‘You Know The Night,’ puts music to the words of Woody Guthrie). He is assisted on the album by guitarist Val McCallum as well as legendary bassist Bob Glaub and pedal steel maestro Greg Leisz (both of whom have also been part of the touring band).
Browne says that the song ‘Standing In The Breach’ addresses ‘what’s wrong with the world not only economically but ecologically’ as he sings ‘I’ll never understand how one life can be struck down and another life be spared.’
“That’s incomprehensible. When it comes down to it. We think we’re prepared but there’s no preparing for an earthquake of the kind of magnitude that struck Haiti. It has threatened and it’s been long predicted to happen in California.”
The song ‘Which Side’ seems to have been inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ and asks some of the same questions but Browne says, “I think it’s similar to that song, but I wasn’t inspired by it.”
“I certainly have heard that song so maybe I did lift it. There’s a very generous tradition of lifting things from one place to another in American music and particularly in folk music. I had that first verse for a long time. I was saying, ‘You might be young or you might be old, you might be a woman or a man, but you know that’s it’s coming, the fight for the future, which side are you on?’ It gets to the subject right away. I sang this song at Occupy for the first time and it got put on Rolling Stone’s site and I sang it with Dawes.”
The lyrics to ‘Walls and Doors’ on the other hand were written by someone else – Cuban activist and musician Carlos Varela.
“I wrote the English translation so I’m very proud of what I did to make this into the song that you hear,” says Browne, “but it really begins as one of the most popular songs by a very, very celebrated Cuban songwriter who probably came into prominence in the early ’90s and was part of a new wave. When he came along, when Carlos came along, he was really telling a kind of truth about their situation that people had not done yet. He won’t leave Cuba. He’ll leave to go play but he does not try to leave and immigrate to the United States and have a more lucrative career. People in Cuba love him because he’s willing to tell the truth about their reality.”
“I spend a lot of time on these songs as everybody has continually pointed out in recent times,” he adds. “I’ve always done that. So many songs were written over a period of more than a year.”
‘The Birds Of St Mark’s’ harks back even further –in fact, to the very start of Browne’s career. ‘That was written probably quicker than any of them because I wrote it when I was 18,” he explains. “I don’t know how many years ago now, 40 something, 46 years ago. I’ve got an elephant’s memory so sometimes songs just stay in pieces. Think of it as like a guitar maker who has got a really good back and sides and he’s waiting for just the right piece of spruce to make the top. He knows he’s got something good and he wants to make sure that when he puts it all together it will all be right.”
“I started doing that a long time ago,” he continues. “There were songs on The Pretender that were supposed to be on For Everyman. ‘The Fuse,’ for instance. I recorded it on the For Everyman record but it wasn’t quite right yet.”
‘Leaving Winslow’ could be the answer to ‘Take It Easy,’ which Browne wrote with Glenn Frey.
“It used to be that Highway 66 ran straight through Winslow,” reflects Browne. “The town still goes only 6 blocks long and 2 blocks wide, but I’ve spoken to people who lived there their whole lives. They said it was a beautiful place to live in and it’s an amazing little town. When the interstate went by it or went past it, nobody knew it was there anymore. That’s why they fastened on to the song. Visit historically Winslow, standing on the corner … Just like you, people want to go do this. They want to go stand on the corner.
“I got invited to take part in an art show that was traveling on a train from New York to Oakland, California. It was stopping in places like Barstow, California and doing shows. People come off the train and do art installations as well as local artists would gather from the local places. Our trains are everywhere and Winslow existed because of the trains. When they said they were going to stop at Winslow I said, ‘Well that’s where I’ll come.’ For that show, I did what you would call a site-specific art piece in the form of this song.
“A lot of people got around in those days. I mean Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, everybody had their train songs. I don’t know how I got through the folk era without writing a train song, but anyway here it is. Better late than never.”
Standing In The Breach is available through Inside recordings/Warner music.