By Brian Wise.
It is almost exactly 46 years since the release of Jackson Browne’s self-titled debut solo album. Released in January 1972, many still refer to it as Saturate Before Using, after the lettering on the cover. Regardless of how it is known, all these years later it remains one of the great debuts of all time. The lyrics showed a remarkable maturity and the music featured some of the finest Los Angeles session players.
Browne, who had already lived a life and had turned 24 just prior to the album release, quickly joined the vanguard of the West Coast sound. When he co-penned ‘Take It Easy’ with Eagles’ singer Glenn Frey he became inextricably linked with a ’movement’ that was synonymous with the California lifestyle.
While that debut album is still revered, ironically it was Browne’s least commercially successful album. It wasn’t until his third album, The Pretender, that he broke into the Top 10. Its successor, Running On Empty, now celebrating its 40th birthday, became his all-time best seller and dominated radio in the USA and here.
Fourteen albums down the track and things have full circle. Glenn Frey died in January 2016, closing the book on one chapter of Browne’s life. This year, ‘A Song For Adam’ – one of the standout songs from Browne’s debut – was recorded by Gregg Allman (with Browne’s help on vocals) for his final studio album Southern Blood.
Allman, who died in May 2017, had also recorded Browne’s classic ballad ‘These Days’ for his debut solo outing, Laid Back, in 1973.
“In each case he really makes the song his own,” says Browne, “and has really added something that only he could have added to the song. And in the case of ‘Song for Adam’ I always thought it was a pretty young song. Little bit dramatic, like ‘I sit before my only candle’, although I think that everybody – especially young people – everybody’s felt that way some time or another: that you have only so much light in your life, and you have to really struggle to find your way. Everything about this song gets magnified by hearing him sing it at the end of his life.”
“It was very emotional for me,” admits Browne. “They gave it to me and I talked to him after singing on it and he could barely speak at that point. He had to talk in a total whisper. I’d seen him a year and half before and I thought I was going to get to sing with him this year, this summer, but he had already passed.
“But ‘Song for Adam’…….At one point he played a trick with the words, and so you realise that he’s really singing about Duane. “Now his journey….” he says, and wow! You realize how much he has been carrying Duane with him his whole life. They knew those songs. He heard those songs back when they were written. They’re from way back when I knew him first, when they lived in LA and they were the Hourglass. It was very moving that he remembered these songs and wanted to do them.”
There is the story of how a young Jackson Browne was sent off for six-months by David Geffen, then the head of Asylum Records, to perfect his songs before recording that debut album. But Browne says there was a lot more to it than that.
“I was totally immersed in The Band,” he explains. “Think about how amazing the songs were on [Music From] Big Pink. When I was trying to get my first album together and trying to write songs, trying to get enough good songs to have an album, Big Pink came out. And it just changed everybody’s thinking so much, but most of all there’s that incredible songwriting: Robbie Roberson. You can’t forget how amazing these songs were. That these were guys that could collaborate with Bob Dylan on a song, and it would work.
“I mean it’s songs like ‘Tears of Rage’ which have Richard Manuel and Bob Dylan. Wow! Or ‘This Wheels on Fire.’ Robbie Robertson is just a monster songwriter, and they didn’t base it on being a singer-songwriter. They were a band. It was a band playing. It wasn’t a kind of soloing that you’d hear on a Queen record.”
“But I’d just say in general: the song writing in those days was really, very, powerful, elemental,” riffs Browne on the songwriters of the time. “And we had all been raised on Bob Dylan and John Lennon and Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Some of the most amazing records of the day, in those late ’60s were Judy Collins’ records where she curated songs from Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen, and Donovan.
“It’s what Linda Ronstadt went on to do, bringing us the most amazing songs by young writers. And Bonnie Raitt, despite the fact that she herself was a great writer, she did the same thing. She found ‘Love Has No Pride’ by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus. I mean there was a way in which people listened to songs in those days [and]it hasn’t been the centre of things like it was then, for a long time.
“One more person who did that, and you would never think of her as a person who did that was Nico. But it was the same period of time, late ’60s. Nico’s first album had a Tim Harden song, had a Bob Dylan song no one had ever heard. It had Lou Reed songs, three of mine, and really it was that there was that same spirit of, ‘Let’s gather together the most incredible songs.’ There was an emphasis on that. And don’t forget that what many of the people, what we were used to having happen too was people like Nina Simone had turned into this amazing songwriter. There was that in the air. It was in the water, it was in the air. It was in everything we took in, really because of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and the Stones of course who were already a huge band when they became amazing songwriters. Between the Buttons was one of the great records of all time.”
It is these recollections that prompt me to ask Browne if he has ever considered writing a memoir.
“Well, I’ve though of it,” he responds. “But the question is which life do you want to recount? Because there are so many aspects of life that are worth talking about. I’d almost have to become a good writer of prose to do this. The truth is that I’m very fluent when I speak. As I long as I could speak it and then edit it I suppose, [I could] do it like that. But I would never want to do an ‘as told to’ book. Even though I’m reading an amazing one now; but it’s not actually an ‘as told to’ but the biography of Tom Petty, which is not a memoir. It’s a biography by a great writer, Warren Zanes.
“And it’s a fantastic book, fantastic to know [about[ Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – not only Tom, but Mike Campbell, and then Benmont Tench, were all great writers. It’s not presented like three people writing singing their songs. Tom collaborated with Mike a lot, and Benmont, I believe, had his influence on what they did as a band. I don’t know if you’ve heard any of Benmont’s solo songs.
I mention that I have heard Tench’s latest album and that I saw him playing earlier in 2017 with Tom and the Heartbreakers at the New Orleans Jazz & heritage Festival. In fact, I also saw him playing beautifully a couple of years ago with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
“He’s so great,” continues Browne, “on that album and there’s a bunch of songs he’s written since. When I go to see him play I’m just wonder struck at how good these songs are, and it stays in my head for days. He’s really in touch with something powerful and elemental, and I can’t wait to hear the next album and see what he does next. But there was a band where Tom was writing for those guys. There was that dynamic, the same way it’s who you’re writing for, who you know is listening, and who you want to knock out.
“There was that element in the circles that I travelled in, in those days. And so at some point or another, things come together. Then the thing also that happens is, that when you get some notoriety, when you get some recognition for that, it builds a fire under you, and you’re able to go to another level there too. So without the attention I got for some of those early songs, I wouldn’t have written the songs I wrote later.”
Glenn Frey was one of those people that Browne spent a lot of time with in the early ‘70s as he developed his songwriting and their careers became connected. But while Gregg Allman had been sick for a while, Frey’s death came as a complete shock.
“We knew Gregg was sick, but Glenn, that was a big surprise. I think he was so stoic,” says Browne. “I don’t think anybody knew how sick he was, and I was pretty surprised. I wanted to reach out to him. There was a project that I thought that he’d be interested in, and I called Joe [Walsh] just to find out how to get in touch with Glenn at this point, and we hadn’t been in touch for quite a while. And he told me how sick he was.
“When you see how short this life really is, and how vital, and how strong the contribution was that Glenn Fry made to that, and it was a very slow and powerful realisation for me. I was used to thinking of Don [Henley] as the really powerful writer, but really it was the two of them together and the effect they had on each other. It was like Glen was the mercurial one who was confident and robust, a really huge personality, and a robust partier, or a guy that wanted joy and excitement. Don was funny as hell too but also he was the one who would sweep up after the party and put the syllables together, and do the long term work of ordering the songs. They had a tremendous ebb and flow between them.
“I got to hear this eulogy that Don made of Glen, at the memorial, and I hope someday they just put that out. That should be released. It was just a powerful piece of writing and a powerful piece of history.
“Even people who would piss on the Eagles and complain about some aspect of their sound or their style – they were too smooth or they were too polished or they were one thing or another – they can’t really deny the influence that they had on so many musicians, and so many country musicians as well.
“I’m thinking of some of the really hard ass New York critics that like to take the piss out of whatever’s going on in the West Coast and diminish it for not being as intellectually as powerful or life not being as crucial in the west as it is in the east. There’s kind of a conceit that they were god-awful. But really even they had to look at him and go, ‘Look at that. They don’t wanna take it easy, or they don’t want life to be peaceful easy. They considered that to be less than…….but really if you see Bruce Springsteen singing ‘Take it Easy’ to his East Coast audience, and every single person in that stadium is singing at the top of their lungs.
“You know that these things there’re no frontiers. There are no boundaries there. They’re about if you like the Ramones, then you would not be singing ‘Take it Easy’ and that’s actually not true. That’s a thing that when you’re the object of that kind of disdain by some East Coast critic, some part of you believes it. So that is not really true.
“I met The Ramones one time, and they were fantastic to me. They were incredible and Dee Dee was incredibly kind to me. By kind I mean friendly. Like, Wow!
“Glenn and I were kind of estranged for a long time. His dying really put me in touch with what he really accomplished in his life, and the gifts that he really gave us, and it was enormous. He and I were really close when we were young, and then just our lives sort of drifted apart, and for that matter we felt really close the Gregg although we didn’t really see each other very much at all. I feel like every fan who loves those guys’ music, it was enough. You don’t make a big deal about having known somebody, when really you have their music. We’re left with their music and it’s a great gift to us all.
No doubt Browne will be playing ‘Take It Easy’ as a tribute to Frey on the forthcoming tour and Bluesfest appearances. His band includes a couple of other legends: guitarist Greg Leisz and bass player Bob Glaub. Leisz has recently been recording again with Lucinda Williams and he and Browne have just done an acoustic tour together.
“Well, we do that from time to time,” explains Browne. “It’s really fun playing with just him because it’s got everything. I mean it’s got the feeling I used to have playing with David Lindley when we played by ourselves. It’s just it’s two people completely complimenting each other and he improves my time, everything. Especially he’s a wonderful player. He’s a wonderful, wonderful player. He plays so many instruments, and so many talents.”
“I’m bringing my band, and they’re excited about it really. I love Australia, I love playing in Australia and last Bluesfest was so great. I love Byron Bay, and all the other venues too. I get to play in the West this time, which doesn’t always happen.”
“When I first went to Bluesfest it was probably 20 years ago,” he continues. “It was really little. It was beautiful, it was so good.
“I actually had spent time in Byron Bay not doing the festival and I think I might have been vaguely aware that there was a festival but really was never there at that time of year. I’d be there with my family. I had a favourite surf board that I bought, a Mini Mal board that I bought in Byron Bay and took care of everybody that always use to glom on to that board when we’d be on vacation. Everybody wanted to ride that little board.”
In fact, I first met Browne when he was a punter at Bluesfest. It was more than the 20 years that Browne estimates, maybe closer to 23. I guess he was one of the first ‘celebrity’ guests to appear at the festival. It was the first time we talked and I practically had to twist his arm for an interview. I recall him saying that he didn’t have an album out at the time to promote and I reassured him that we would find plenty to talk about!
“Byron Bay is a fantastic place, as a matter of fact,” adds Browne. “I was a partner in a plot of land up there in Federal, which is a little town overlooking Byron Bay. I still have family. I still have my son’s close relatives there. I was married to an Australian and I still know her family.
“So, I have a special feeling for that place. And when I went there the first time I ran in to Norton Buffalo and Roy Rogers, and it was wow. I mean I loved that show, and I loved them. I just loved it. The quality of the bands you know, was so good.
“I realised that they were really bringing the best of the blues musicians they could find and that they could attract to come there. Now, of course, it’s turned in to one of those world-renowned festivals that everybody wants to play at and they have the biggest and the most famous bands in the world play there.
“But when I was first there, it was a rainy, muddy little blues festival with the most terrific people playing.
“I saw some pictures not long ago that my son was really young, as a matter of fact, I was going there with him for a vacation and we found out about the blues festival just going there, just by showing up there. It’s great. I remember buying him a blues Harp and showing him some stuff on the harp you know. There were these great bands from New Orleans, like the real deal. Then one year, then there was the year that I discovered the North Mississippi All Stars and that was like, “Holy shit! How long has this this been going on?”
“But Australia’s for real, people there take it seriously. Great music is coming from Australia.”
There will also be some great music coming from Browne’s band and I mention that on this visit he will be returning with pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, with whom he did a short acoustic tour earlier this year. One of Leisz’s acclaimed recent projects was on the 2016 fantastic album, I Long To See You, by jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd & The Marvels with another guitar maestro, Bill Frisell.
“Well, we do that from time to time,” says Browne of the duo concerts. “We’ve done that before. It’s really fun playing with just him because it’s got everything. I mean it’s got the feeling I used to have playing with David Lindley when we played by ourselves. It’s just two people completely complementing each other and he improves my timing, everything. He’s a wonderful player. He plays so many instruments, and has so many talents. He doesn’t really have to know the song, he just responds in such a magical way. In that, he has that same thing in common with David Lindley.”
Not only does Browne’s band have one of the world’s great guitarists, it also has one of the world’s great bass players, Bob Glaub, who has played with just about everybody!
“And [guitarist]Val McCallum who was also huge fan of Greg’s,” adds Browne, “and the two of them just magically divide up the space and the time. It’s different all the time, and they’re constantly sort of entertaining each other. So, yeah it’s quite a thing to see. It’s very inspiring to be on stage with them. Bob has sort of put a spell of Fritz [Lewak], my drummer.
So those kind of things start happening with this band.”
As we reach the end of our conversation I realise that we hadn’t even started to talk about politics. Of course, Browne has always had strong political view and aligned himself with numerous environmental and political causes.
“That’s probably just as well,” says Browne when I mention this. “Somebody from Perth was talking to me a couple weeks ago and, unfortunately, we started with that, and we never got to music!”
Jackson Browne Tour Dates
Monday March 19 – State Theatre, Sydney
Tuesday March 20 – State Theatre, Sydney
Thursday March 22 – AEC Theatre, Adelaide
Saturday March 24 – Leeuwin Estate, Perth
Wednesday March 28 – Canberra Theatre, Canberra
Thursday March 29 – Palais Theatre, Melbourne
Saturday March 31 – Bluesfest, Byron Bay
Sunday April 1 – QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane