Mid orchestra Friday night, Jackson Browne with his beard gone and his choirboy haircut unmoved since 1965 when he was 17, and his orchestrated jeans and flannel visage, he seemed and sounded unmoved by history. Only the glasses made the slightest reference to the passage of time, even Browne’s voice, he never had much range, sounded like a capsule of Socal in a package of yesterday; there is a reason why he is the patron saint of 2010s soft rock in the bleached bland pop world of Rilo Kiley and Dawes. A little odd because, as nostalgia shows go, Browne wasn’t performing one. One song by the sensitive man iconoclast, “The Dreamer,” was only released last December. But the pull of the past is so hard to deny…
In 1972 I was fourteen and despite having three sisters and going to a co-ed boarding school, women were a terrifying theory to me and Jackson Browne’s eponymous debut (aka Saturate Before Use) was a signpost to how you might be wanted or want a woman. All that “sad smile her apology” stuff, the lost and found of pitying confusions, and it made romance a more complicated and no less baffling and suicide a did he jump or did he fall moment away. Pitching itself in the midway place between Taylor in 1970 and Costello in 1976, it was a gentle caress of misunderstanding heartache and for me, a signpost to a future I wouldn’t reach for many years and wouldn’t much care for once I did. Browne filled his audience with an emptiness.
At the Beacon Friday night, the second of a two night stand, for 150 minutes Jackson gave us an etched picture of loss through the years as timelessness, except better played, of what it might mean to love a woman. And the audience, and I, lapped it up. Like most of his audience, I am stuck in the 1970s (he fell to earth on 1980’s Hold On) and despite that, just about every single song was excellent. Songs I’d missed along the way, “For Taking The Trouble” -from an album I never got past “My Stunning Mystery Companion” on, were revelations, his terribly blunt political songs, “Lives In The Balance” -an actively rotten song, were remade and a verse was added (the second time) by his backup singers Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills. The performances were mind bogglingly great, I don’t know how they could be any better, Val McCallum is a national treasure and his guitar solo on a song I have zero idea about, “The Long Way Home” seemed to encapsulate everything Dawes have ever dreamt of being. I could have lived without the intermission, but otherwise, I had to have all of it and more. No “Stunning,” no “These Days,” no “The Late Show”… but at his obscurist, his “Lawless Avenue” was on a best of but never registered, the quality of the, not always the lyrics, but the music was incredible.
Jackson would be my hero if only because he slept with Nico (“Nico was playing these small places, and she’d have various people backing her. Sometimes it was Tim Buckley, sometimes Lou Reed. I got the gig. I would not use the world ‘romance’, [but] it happened almost right away, and didn’t last very long. I was still young. She had a kid and would not speak about herself. It was up to you to guess what she was thinking.”) and Linda McCartney (just my theory, of course). He seemed to walk from 1965 to 1972 on a cloud of superstardom, a man that women wanted and then…. well, then his songs began to come true and in 1976 his wife Phyllis Browne killed herself at the age of 30 and that… that’s a real farewell, just months after they married. Reality is too messy, leave me in my room daydreaming about a girl I’ll never met looking out the window and her brown eyes turning blues.
In and out of Browne over the next coupla decades, but never taking the kid seriously since Robert Christgau nailed him in 1976: “The shallowness of his kitschy doomsaying and sentimental sexism is well-known, but I’m disappointed as well in his depth of craft. How can apparently literate people mistake a received metaphor like “sleep’s dark and silent gate” for interesting poetry or gush over a versifier capable of such rhyming dictionary pairings as “pretender” and “ice cream vendor” (the colloquial term, JB, is “ice cream man”)?”. I agreed with Robert but I would have agreed with Robert anyway because he said it so damn well. But… years later I was listening again and I wondered if I could excuse the vendor rhyme for this:
Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender
Browne was knocking on forty and disaster was looming and it seems to me that the only thing you can do with pretenders, losers if you will, is romanticize them. So, Friday night, I willed myself past the ice cream vendor and willed myself past the place where I think that he is the worst great lyricist ever. In the end, Browne has such a penchant for lovely melodies and a way of presenting himself to us in a veil of solipsism that his political beliefs fail to obscure, and that makes subjectivity a place of entrance, you might find yourself sad smiling at him. If you can’t learn about women from Jackson Browne, who can you learn about it from?
The first time I saw Jackson in concert was in 2002 opening for Tom Petty at MSG and he was excellent, and the next time I saw him was at the Beacon in 2004, on the eve of his induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, an evening that concluded with Bruce Springsteen (who had opened for Jackson back in the day -and it speaks books about Browne’s uncommon decency that long before Bruce was Bruce, Browne treated hm very well) joining him for “Take It Easy”. The Beacon show was a masterpiece and looking at the setlist today it is easy to admire a run of songs that took up half of the evening and was relentlessly wonderful. Friday night Browne wasn’t in the market to pat himself on the back quite so thoroughly. Halfway through the second set he brought the audience on its feet and to its knees with “Somebody’s Baby” followed by “Redneck Friend” and he was this close to blowing the evening into smithereens and he stepped back with “Lawless Avenue”. It made no sense to me but it was an artistic decision, he wanted to not be who we wanted him to be but rather what he saw himself as. That distant mirage of Browne, so far past his opening farewell, seemed to blur in front of us, he went in and out of focus. Later, when it was over, I thought it was good not great but honestly I decided to mull on it for another day, and now it feels like a triumph of performance and catalog.
It is worth noting Browne’s moment of infamy. Browne has consistently denied Hannah’s charges that he gave her a black eye, broken finger and swollen lip in 1992, but let’s say it is true: there is a world of difference between hitting a woman and being a woman beater: things happen in relationships that should never happen but hitting a woman once is not the same as being a perennial man with a punchline. I’ve known a woman beater, this man was furious and dangerous, but that isn’t quite what Browne is being accused of, is it? Watching and listening, and just hearing how there has never been the remotest hint of anything like that either before or since, makes it seem like not a #metoo moment at all -women love him and women can tell the stench of violence a mile off. Browne’s sensuality hasn’t dimmed ever and there was a whole lot of inappropriate shout outs from the women in the audience, he is like a Raphaelite picture, in his youth he was a lush dreamboat and also one who couldn’t get out of the way of his own emotional baggage: he comes across like a serial philanderer with a baffled sense of guilt.
My other problem with the set is that it didn’t seem to make an internal sense. Jackson claimed early that he was trying to perform songs he hadn’t performed on Thursday but the changes were minimal, we didn’t get “These Days” and they didn’t get “Sky Blue And Black” plus two other changes but in a 26 song set that’s just cosmetics. The inclusion of choir singers Chavonne Stewart and Alethea Mills meant that his Latin American songs were given a deeper and more spiritual take, this was especially true of “Lives In The Balance”. The evening opened with “Before The Deluge” off the hugely successful Late For The Sky and continued with “Some Bridges” off the vastly less successful Looking East. Next “You Love The Thunder” from the huge Running On Empty followed by 2014’s “The Long Way Round” from Standing In The Breach.. and “The Long Way Round” was best. All of them were given completely honorable performances but “The Long Way Round”….? That’s what time does to you, you can write a career high and nobody will notice when you’re knocking on 70. What else? The extended “Doctor My Eyes” is the best I’ve heard to date.
Browne is a good front man, he isn’t pompous, he is amused, sometimes bemused, self-confident but not arrogant, in complete control of everything, even when rebooting a song after he fucks up a verse. On a live album I heard a coupla years back he ended by saying “Thank you, you’ve been a wonderful audience” and his sincerity was irrevocable and complete and just kinda touching, it was a meeting of fans and man and something we’ve come to expect from the guy. I recently claimed that Browne played McCartney to Zevon’s Lennon, and the thought is I was putting Browne down but I’m the guy who has just reviewed his 38th McCartney post-Beatles album, how is that an insult to Browne?
When I was fourteen I had no idea how to treat a woman romantically, I knew nothing about romance -though a little something about unrequited love. I was fortunate to learn lessons of not just melody and tone and the texture of sadness, but a gentleness with women, whenever I can, however I might. And I learnt it from Jackson Brown. Thanks, Jackson.
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