Jackson Browne: Even More True Now

Jackson Browne needs no introduction. Justly famous as a songwriter, musician, and human rights activist, the following musings, recollections, and advice from Jackson reveal that he is also gracious, humble, and funny. This conversation with middle school students (our leadership and oral history groups) took place on a rainy afternoon at the Hollister Ranch, leaning snugly against “the cheek of God.”

“I started playing the trumpet when I was about eight. I took music lessons, learned to read, and my father was into Dixieland jazz, the kind of music that was made by Louis Armstrong, the kind that was popular in the 20’s and 30’s. So I started playing the trumpet, and I lost interest in that and started playing guitar when I was about 12 or 13. I told my father I wanted to play the banjo, and so he saved the money and got ready to give me a banjo for my next birthday, and between that time and my birthday, I lost interest in the banjo and was playing guitar. I just borrowed other people’s guitars.”

“There are a lot of musician jokes in the music world. Musician jokes are a kind of joke that usually have to do with how much money someone makes. Musicians are always starving, so they’re really mean to each other about who makes what. Like, What is the least often heard sentence in the English language? That would be: Say, isn’t that the banjo player’s Porsche parked outside?”

“Now, when there’s so much electronic music being made, a lot of people who make great music don’t actually play an instrument; they program the beats on computers and stuff, but there’s a joke that goes: A car full of trombone players are driving along, and they pass a car full of frogs going in the opposite direction. What’s the difference between them? Well, the frogs might be on their way to a gig. The trombone players? They’re definitely not working.”

“Right when I started playing guitar, there was a thing called a folk revival that happened about the end of the 50’s, beginning of the 60’s, and I got swept up in that. People were learning to play traditional music, folk songs, and that’s a big field – that’s everything from blues to Appalachian music. All the people who came to this country brought musical instruments, and a way of playing. Right around the end of the fifties, college students and young people in general, began to realize that this music was almost like a history of our country – this music contained the real history of the people of this country. Not so much in terms of where this battle was fought, or when this declaration was signed, but about where these people were from. These songs that were made up and passed from person to person comprised a valuable history. It’s an education of sorts.”

“And the main thing is that it was acceptable to change these songs, so that people began writing their own versions of these songs. I’ve written many extra verses to songs that I learned to sing – an extra verse about a friend, or just add some verse – and that led to writing my own songs. So what I do, more than play any instrument — I mean, I love to play — but more than that, I write songs. Songs that are about living, about what it’s like to be going through all the things that people go through in life.”

“I wrote songs about girls that I was interested in when I was in high school. I was at my high school reunion not too long ago, and I saw this girl that I had written a song for, I had literally made her sit and listen to it – it’s embarrassing now, because it’s a pretty corny thing to do, I guess. But at the time, I was really earnest. It didn’t work. I think it might have been a little bit overwhelming.”

“I was taking her to the drive-in. I was such a bad dater! I had no idea what to say on a date, and when her father asked me, ‘Where are you going?’ I went, ‘The drive-in?’ ‘What are you gonna see?’ I didn’t know what was playing. So it was just such a bust. ‘I don’t know.’ He could tell I was just gonna get next to his daughter…”

“Anyway, that’s the thing I’m supposed to be good at –writing songs. I never was a very good singer. That folk music led to learning to play, and making things up led to what turns out to be the most lucrative part of the music business — writing, because you get paid every time that song gets played. Also, right at that particular time in the music business, because of people like the Beatles, people began owning their own publishing. I’ll just say this really quickly –they used to divide the money for the music that was written in two, just equal halves. One was the money for the publisher, which was a company that licensed everyone else to use it, and the other half went to the writer. If there were two writers, they split that half in half. There were what we called ‘two pennies’– a publisher penny and a writer penny. Every time the song got played on the radio, there would be two pennies…”

“Right around the time the Beatles began to wow everybody with these amazing songs they’d written, they began to decide, ‘We don’t need a publisher to tell everyone to listen to our songs. People are gonna listen. Let’s just be our own publishers.’ We began to keep all the money. Pretty good deal. It was a great time to be born, because I got to have my own publishing company right from the beginning, so I made more money than somebody would have doing what I did ten or fifteen years before.”

“I’d have to say that my favorite thing is writing a song that really says how I feel, what I believe – and it even explains the world to myself better than I knew it. It’s a way of examining my feelings and my perceptions and my situation and coming up with something about it, like saying where I am in the world in relation to those things. And some of the songs I wrote when I was really young are some of my best-known songs, and other people still sing ’em, I still sing ’em. The idea that I wrote something that stood for the way I feel about things, and that it lasts, that’s probably my favorite thing that I’ve done”

“I’ve also gotten to play in front of a million people in Central Park when there was a grass roots movement calling for nuclear disarmament – it was about 1982 — they called it Peace Sunday. There was one in L.A., and there was one in New York, where a million people came to Central Park. I got to play there. I sang with Joan Baez, and Bruce Springsteen, and Orson Welles spoke – he spoke directly to the president. That was an amazing thing to do.”

“As far as those kinds of things, I also played at the concert to call for the release of Nelson Mandela when he was a political prisoner in South Africa. We were celebrating his 70th birthday and calling for his release. Then, a year and a half later, I played at the same place when he was there with us, and he had been released. That was a magnificent thing to be a part of.”

“And then to be backstage in this area where they had trailers, and everybody was together, and Nelson Mandela came and sort of addressed these musicians who had been so instrumental in focusing world opinion about South Africa, about his situation, and to thank us. It was really something …I mean, he had been in prison. His is a very interesting life; he is a very big inspiration.”

“People had written songs about what was happening in South Africa. I don’t know if you know the Peter Gabriel song, Biko…Unfortunately, this is something I’m glad I have the opportunity to tell you about, not because it’s a happy thing, but because it’s something important for you to know about. This event was seen by two billion people around the world on television, and it was seen in this country, but it was censored in this country.”

“It was sponsored by Coca Cola, and it was seen on the Fox network, and when I came back — it was held in England — people said, ‘Hey man, I saw you on television! That was cool — what was that?’ And they hadn’t seen the introduction to Biko, where Peter Gabriel spoke of the death of Peter Biko, and his murder in detention – they didn’t see the introduction that little Stephen Van Zant gave to his song, Sun City in which he talked about Shell Oil and all the multinational corporations that were really propping up apartheid in South Africa. They didn’t even see the introductory speech by Harry Belafonte talking about Nelson Mandela. They literally didn’t hear a word about Nelson Mandela!”

” And that’s a kind of censorship that exists in this country, because the sponsors of the television show have the legal right to do that. There was a delay. It went out live to most places, but the United States is eight or nine hours difference, so in that time, they edited it. That way, Coca Cola would not have to be involved in sponsoring what was essentially a political event calling for the release of this man. So I gotta tell you that it’s been part of a long, slow realization for me that censorship exists in our country.”

“Now it’s not the kind of censorship that may have existed under a despotic rulership like the Third Reich or some of the other dictatorships. We have an open society. No one will come and take me away for saying what I am saying. But they don’t have to, if they can control how many people hear it. And that’s how they do it.”

Family Background
“I was the middle son. I have an older sister and a younger brother. Everybody played. My father was a pianist. While he was not a professional musician, he was very good. When I was first starting out to play, he told me, ‘Don’t worry about getting paid. Let everybody use your stuff. Don’t worry about that.’ When he was young, he had written an operetta, and the community theater in Pasadena wanted to put it on, and he wanted to get paid, but they didn’t have the money to pay him, so they didn’t do it. And he felt that he really missed getting an entrance into a more professional music life.”

“But he played every weekend, in Dixieland bands. We’d go down from where we lived in Los Angeles, in Highland Park, we’d drive down to see him in Hermosa Beach play at a place called – I don’t think it was the Lighthouse – I think it was The Saints, or something. And he’d play in the afternoon. He also played in the evening, but we’d go hear him in the afternoon. We were allowed to sneak into the back of this bar and we’d hide ourselves. We weren’t gonna drink, but it was against the law. We felt very special.”

“And my dad wanted me to play the trumpet because that’s what he liked. His idol was Louis Armstrong. My dad thought my teeth came together in a way that was perfect for playing the trumpet. Not perfect, but better than my brother’s — he had an overbite, so he was supposed to play the sax or the clarinet, because if you had an overbite, it’s not supposed to be good for the trumpet. None of these things have to do with what you like. This is what your parents think. So I had a couple of years of playing trumpet. I really enjoyed it, but it was not the kind of instrument you could whip out at a party. Let’s face it.”

“Now, guitar was pretty cool. Everybody knew something on the guitar. So I wanted to play guitar, but I told my dad if he wanted me to keep studying something, I’d like to study piano. He wanted me to stick with the trombone – he just didn’t think I should switch instruments. To this day, I still have this problem, this bone to pick with my dad. I cannot believe that he wouldn’t let me study the piano! I taught myself to play the piano, because I wanted to play it. By the time I did, though, I wasn’t living at home, and I ‘d moved on.”

“I think my dad was proud of me, but I don’t think he got what I did. When I was twelve, I really liked singing in the chorus and singing musical comedy. I came home and told him I had joined the chorus in school… to him, it just wasn’t as cool as playing the trumpet, ’cause that was his generation. That’s all. So when I started playing guitar and writing songs, I know that he struggled to try and find a way to compliment me, because he was very supportive of me, but I realize now that he just didn’t get it. I mean, he even saw my success, and I just think he thought, ‘Wow. Isn’t that amazing? All these people are listening to what he has to say…’

“But he raised me to love words. I grew up reading Shakespeare and Mark Twain. And he was the kind of person that no matter what you’d ask him, he’d give you an answer with double meaning, at least two meanings. One meaning would be the specific, humorous answer; the other would be this whole other ironic double entendre – he’d just enjoy that. It was what he loved about literature, and I got that from him. So, I know he liked my lyrics.”

“When my kids listen to house music, to me, it’s like going to the dentist, though parts of it are pretty interesting. And now my oldest son — he’s been listening to electronic music for a long time — and he’s starting to make really interesting music, stuff that I find interesting, so, you know, I think the point I’m trying to make is something about authority. You can take as much as you can from the generation that has preceded you, but then it’s up to you to make something new. That’s maybe the most important thing each generation does, is to break a lot of rules and make up their own way of doing things.”

What Music Did You Listen to as a Teen-ager?
I listened to rock & roll on the radio, and I listened to the music my dad listened to. My sister loved this doo wop – girl groups singing doo wop…you would hear a lot of this stuff if you listened to those oldie stations. My brother was a big fan of Elvis Presley. I liked him, too, but I liked comedy records. I liked these Stan Freidberg records, or satirical records making fun of some other artist…”

“When I really started liking music was when I could play some of it myself, and after a couple of years of playing folk music, I kinda rediscovered those hits that were on the radio all the time when I was a kid. I remember when I first learned to play a Chuck Berry song like Johnny Be Good — you’ve heard this…or Sweet Little Sixteen …that kind of rock and roll, you can play that with one guitar and it sounds pretty good. I remember when I realized I could do that. I’d never sung those songs, and we started singing those songs, and I realized I knew them, and I could play them and I’d never tried. I’d never used my guitar and my voice for that. I had developed playing folk music and stuff, and by that time I was also writing songs So all the music you take in now is really a part of you. It’s in there. Human beings are like recording devices. You have a memory. You can program yourself to play it back, to change it, to do something different with it…”

Getting Started
“There was more nurturing going on in the sixties, because everyone was under the spell of that — all the changes of the sixties, all kinds of awakenings and revolutions– spiritual awareness, civil rights, political change, opposition to the war, sexual revolution — all these things were happening. It’s almost as if they’ve gone away now. Things have returned to a sort of material order. But I got the friendship and interest of people back then who saw some potential. They encouraged me and helped me along. And I gotta say I was happy to just coast along and work to develop myself. I wasn’t in a big hurry. I made my first album when I was about 22 or 23. A lot of my friends made records when they were 18 and kind of made them before they should have.”

For A Dancer
“I wrote the song For A Dancer for a friend of mine who died in a fire. He was in the sauna in a house that burned down, so he had no idea anything was going on. It was very sad. He was a really interesting guy. Besides being a great dancer, he was an ice skater — he had a job in the ice follies; and he was a great tailor — he would make his friends clothes. One time he invited this girl to the ballet, and he not only made her a gown, but he made himself an amazing suit. And they just went — in a way, it was his way of competing with Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn. They were the ballet. He had this great spirit, and when he died, it was a tragedy to everyone that knew him. He was a painter, too, and a sculptor. He was a Renaissance man. When I wrote him the song –it’s a song I’ve sung many times, other times when people have died — but I was making a metaphor out of the dance. Just the idea that your life is a dance. And there’s a line in it ‘In the end, there is one dance you do alone.’ That’s one of the songs I’ve sung all through the years, and for me, it’s like going to that place, and dealing with the fact that life will end. It’s a sad song, but at the same time, it feels good to sort through that reality and touch base with it, and then go on.”

“Music relaxes me. I love to read. I love to stretch. In the morning, I get up, and if I’m not in a hurry, I will lie on the floor on a rug, look through some books and magazines, and maybe listen to music and try to do stretching exercises to tune up. And I like to surf. Music itself is a great source of relaxation. Parts of it anyway. Working in the studio, that’s not relaxing, but playing an instrument that I don’t know how to play is unbelievably relaxing, because I don’t have any pressure on me. I’ve played with some of the great slide players of all time, and it’s a hard thing to do because I’m not very good at it, but I love to do it. Like surfing. I’m no good, but it’s fun.”

“The biggest influence? I’ve had several at different times – but the biggest for me was Bob Dylan, who was a guy that came along when I was twelve or thirteen and just changed all the rules about what it meant to write songs. He sounded like an old hillbilly. He wasn’t a matinee idol looking guy – -there were times in his life when he was an incredibly romantic looking figure, and actually pretty handsome and interesting looking, — but really, he was kind of scruffy, tons of attitude, a brilliant writer, and one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the century.”

On Writing
“You know, you have a conscious mind and you have an unconscious mind. And there’s the stuff that you think when you’re using your head, as they say, and there’s the stuff that you think when you’re not using your head that you are nonetheless thinking, but it’s just below the surface. And so much music – especially the truthful stuff — comes not from the mind that works out equations or thinks of what you’re gonna do, but from the depths of your subconscious. When I write, I might trick myself by playing an instrument I don’t know very well, or a new guitar. I have a lot of guitars, because each one of them makes me play somewhat differently, so I’ll be playing, and when I realize I’m getting into something I like, I just turn on one of these handheld tape recorders, and then I forget about it. I just forget it’s on. Occasionally, it’s run out and I haven’t noticed it and I just turn it back on, but basically it’s like this — harvesting ideas. And later, I usually remember what I was doing, but I’m sometimes surprised by playing back that tape. I always play it back, ’cause you never know. Sometimes, I go, ‘Oh,’ ’cause the mistakes are just as interesting as what I was trying to do. You go, ‘Oh, that was interesting.’ And I might have to listen to it over and over again to learn how to do that little mistake.”

“Or, I just got through recording a song with a band, and it really changed a lot when I started playing it with musicians. I was playing this really simple, very infectious rhythm thing, and I was singing, but when I played with the band, my rhythm thing on my guitar didn’t sound very good, and it just sort of became superfluous, and we threw it out. And then other things happened, because I kind of write in an ensemble that way, collaborating, really, and the song was finished. But then I heard this old recording of me trying to play it by myself, and I kind of liked that better. So I might actually do a version that’s unlike the band version, but has stuff in it that came out of the band version but is more like the way I played it originally. I might do two versions of the song.”

“And some stuff just didn’t work at all unless I play it by myself. So the writing process is…it’s all about trying to get to the truth of something and then in the end the song reflects that search for what you really think. You could surprise yourself. You wake up in the morning, and look at what you were writing that night, and…”

“Once I woke up and I looked at something I had written, and I thought, ‘No, I can’t be writing about this. I don’t wanna be talking about this.’ I’d been reading about this and it was about U.S. foreign policy. The song is a political song. I thought, ‘I just don’t know if people wanna hear about this.’ It was full of references to a really hard-to-take aspect about what goes on in the world, about third world economies, and imperialist countries. But in the end, I had to admit that this is what I was dealing with, what I was thinking about when I sat down to play. I wasn’t trying to write a song about that. It just came out. And that’s a good way of finding out what you really think. Just write and write.”

“Some writing teachers, when they’re talking about how to write words, prose, have an exercise where you just write, you sit down and start writing, the thing is to not let that pen stop, even if you say, ‘I don’t know what to say..’ if you just keep the pen moving, you’ll be united with that flow of what you really think. We all have a way of censoring ourselves, of saying what we think people want to hear, or what we think people will want to buy, what will make me look cool, what will make this girl want to go out with me, what would be a cool stance – all these manipulative things that the conscious mind thinks of…to be loved, I think, to be adored.”

“But the truth of things is a little bit deeper. Sometimes you have to dig a little bit more. And I became quite a good editor. You let all this come out, and then you sift through it for the stuff that tells the most truth and is the most meaningful.”

Running on Empty
“That came more or less from the music first. It didn’t start out with an idea I’m gonna write a song about touring. I was touring at the time, and I don’t really remember coming up with that, what happened first with that…Running on Empty was an album that was much more successful than I thought it would be. It’s kind of a — one of the more famous records that I made, and I was just stalling for time while I wrote my “important” songs, what I thought of as my really significant contributions. I had this idea for a touring album that would be a bunch of songs about being on the road. It turned out to be much more interesting to people than what I thought of as my “important” stuff. So we went out and recorded this album live. It had stuff recorded in hotel rooms, on the bus …and I got to do a couple of other people’s songs, songs that I didn’t write.”

Late for the Sky
“No, I was trying to think of something that began with just an idea and then became a song. Oh, here’s one. Okay. I have a song called Late for the Sky and it’s something I said to somebody once. I was trying to say good-bye to somebody that I had met — I had to go ’cause we were leaving on a plane — and I said this thing — it’s maybe a little corny — in a conversation; maybe very corny if you said it now, ’cause there’s a song by the name — but I said to this girl, ‘Well, I have to go. I’m late. Late for the sky.’ It was at a party, this little romantic encounter, and it’s like ‘I gotta go.’ And it sort of stuck in my head.”

“Well, I have a memory like an elephant, and it stayed in my head for a long time. I eventually started writing a song, trying to get to say that. I wanted to say ‘late for the sky.’ And between the beginning and end of the song, I wrote what I consider one of my best songs. Really. It was about a lot more stuff. There are some passages in that song that I’m really — I’m proud of.”

“Years later, while I was writing the song, my wife asked, ‘What is this song called?’ I said, ‘Late for the Sky.’ And it wasn’t finished, but she’d been listening to me work on it, and she said, ‘Late for the sky? What does that mean?’ I said, ‘Well, you know — when you get to the end, and when I say it, it’ll mean what I got it to mean.’ And it really works that way. It goes through this whole long song, and it builds into this big emotion thing, and the very last words you hear are ‘late for the sky.’ And it really does mean something. It doesn’t just mean that I’m late for the plane. It means that in this whole relationship that I was in, there was something that I yearned for, we never achieved– and I may be leaving the relationship because the relationship isn’t giving me that thing. It’s really about breaking up, and there are passages in it that I think are — well, if I were with my friends I’d say, ‘lucky lines’ — I came across some lucky stuff.”

“I’m proud of those passages, what I was able to get out of this metaphor. The idea of the sky. As a matter of fact, I’ve forbidden myself to use it anymore because I use it as an all-purpose metaphor for something, maybe some sort of spiritual fulfillment, or awakening, or the idea of homecoming, or something, but “sky” became this sort of word — I mean, there’s a moratorium on it now — I can’t say it anymore. I can’t use it in a song because I’ve used it too often to mean something indefinable about reality, the reality of being. This chorus says:

How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night?
How long have I been dreaming I could make it right
If I closed my eyes with all my might
And be the one you need?

And the last time it says:

How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night?
How long have I been running for that morning flight
Through the whispered promises and the changing light
of the bed where we both lie…
Late for the sky.”

“I should say that one of my favorite things about any music is ambiguity. Most people will tell you, especially in high school, ‘Be clear.’ But ambiguity is a wonderful thing about art. It can mean this, and it can mean that. It can mean much more than you think it means even when you write it. This may sound like cheating, but I actually find new meanings in my songs having lived longer now. I’m in my fifties, and some of the things I said that were true, are now true in a different way, even more true.”

I’m not a member of an organized religion or faith. My grandmother was Lutheran. My mother belonged to the Unitarian Church, which is a church that some of the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau were involved with, and it’s a way of applying progressive ideas, social ideas, ideas about society, to the form of worship. But the truth is, I am religious. I think I practice a kind of religion, though I don’t have to say that I do at all. A friend of mine is director of the gospel choir of a high school l go to sometimes. He lets me come, and I love this music — these kids are so amazing — as a matter of fact, if you could ever get Fred Martin and his kids to come to your school, any way to make it happen, I would try to sponsor it. This music is a tremendous force in their lives; it comes from the Baptist tradition, a certain ethnic place in our culture. They’re definitely singing the praises of God. But one time Fred wanted me to sing in church with them, and I said, ‘I’d be very happy to. I’d like to, but you know, Fred, I’m not really a Christian exactly.’ He goes, ‘That’s okay. That’s all right.’ So he gets me up there in front of the church, and I’m wearing a suit to perform one of the songs I perform with the choir, and he says, ‘Now Brother Jackson here says he’s not a Christian.’ There’s a big silence. Then he says,’Yet!’ Everybody applauded.”

“Later, another time, we’re walking down the street, and he says to me, ‘I don’t get you – why you say you’re not a Christian. ‘Cause you do what Christians do.’ He was talking about my activism in human rights, the environment, and especially for social justice, you know, working for kids, and I just believe in a kind of … but I said, ‘Fred, you know, Hindus believe in what I do, too.’ And so does Islam, actually. Islam was founded by a prophet of God, like the prophets in the Christian religion. One of the tenets of Islam is to start taking care of the orphans, the widows, and the poor instead of having this entirely material view of life. So I said, ‘Fred, yeah, it’s true. I do the same things that …I believe in the teachings of Christ…but these same beliefs are held by others.’ One of the things that Christianity believes that I can’t really adhere to is the idea that unless you are a Christian, you won’t go to heaven. That’s leaving an awful lot of people out.”

The closest thing I belong to that’s like a church is a group of friends that over the course of twenty or thirty years have probably done hundreds and hundreds of benefit performances to raise funds for a variety of causes. There’s no name for us. We call ourselves ‘the usual suspects’ or funny names like ‘the bleeding hearts’ — we know about each other because we’re always asking each other to do things.

Favorite Place
“My all time favorite…that’ll be hard. And it depends on whether you mean places to visit, or places to live. For instance, the Plains Indians didn’t live in the Black Hills. They’d just go there. They would go there at certain times of the year to do certain things. They were nomadic people. I kind of aspire to live a nomadic life. I won’t go on an on about this, because it would take too long, but living in one place is only a relatively recent thing for humans…the main thing about being nomadic is you can’t really accumulate too much stuff. You trade your stuff, you don’t hoard well — which we’re all good with. I know I hoard guitars. Or musical instruments.”

“But to try to answer your question, I think this place. Right here. This part of California is one of my favorite places that I’ve ever been. I’ve had a place here for twenty years, but I don’t live here — I come here. And a few years ago, I made my house bigger so I could be there with friends. It used to be one big room, with a loft, and a downstairs and upstairs – like camping, you know. But once your kids grow up, everyone wants to have their own room. It’s not that comfortable to be all together. So we’ve made an addition, and now it’s a great place to come with friends, though it’s still quite small. Sometimes I come up with a group of people I want to relax with — we have a meal, we talk, we play music — or I come by myself. Maybe the most renewing kind of thing is to be by myself at the Ranch and to spend a few days just thinking about things.”

“The natural beauty. A friend of mine had a phrase for it. She said, ‘That’s called leaning up against the cheek of God.’ I was trying to explain to her that when you come to my house –I keep telling you how beautiful it is, but I’m not telling you about a fabulous house. I’m telling you the house is beautiful because of where it is.”

“Ah, those places! Those places where the house is built to see the nature. My house here was designed by an architect – a friend I’ve known since I was twelve, and when he and I were twelve, we used to go to Gaviota State Park with our families, and we used to dream about getting into the Ranch and going surfing. He was a little more serious than I was and would try to make it up the tracks before he was turned back by the Ranch foreman. He went to Hawaii to surf. He was serious. So when I got a place here, I called him, and said, ‘Guess what I got?’ So we’d go surfing here, and he became my partner, and he was the architect. So I’m living in a house built by my childhood friend and me, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. It’s just this thing we did together.”

“But I grew up in a house that my grandfather built with his friends. And when he built it, there was nothing around there. It was a house in the country, but now it’s in the middle of L.A. It was halfway between Pasadena and downtown L.A. along Figueroa Boulevard — well, it wasn’t a boulevard, it was a dirt road, and you could go about ten miles an hour in those days in a Model T. As a matter of fact, he and my dad used to camp in Gaviota Canyon… so when my dad saw where the ranch was, and where I bought, he said, ‘This is where my father and I used to camp,’ and they’d drive up the coast to look at the missions. That area where the State Park is was something that he named ‘Browne’s Pass’ when he was about twelve years old. So we have some history with this area, loving this part of the country, and I’d say this is my favorite place – this is where I want to be an old guy surrounded by my kids and their kids.”

“I’ve had a place at the Ranch for 22 years now. Practically the first money I made that I could keep, that wasn’t to be used to invest in equipment or something like that, I bought a parcel here. That was in 1978. My business manager told me, ‘Don’t do that. Land is a terrible investment.’ From his point of view, the idea was to make more money with that money, to invest, to build. He said, ‘You can’t just run out and buy something that’s just gonna sit there.’ I said, ‘Watch.'”

“In my opinion, it’s a great investment. Even when I was younger than that, I thought it would be great to go out and buy land and not do anything with it, because so much of the land is being developed. I thought ‘I’m gonna buy some land that no one will ever do anything with,’ and I found that people were basically doing that here –. restricting its uses so it would stay in its natural state. It’s great. More than being neighbors, aside from being near each other, the people up here at the Ranch share a similar philosophy.”

“You all live in a beautiful place, too. Santa Ynez Valley is one of the great places on earth.”

Ever Get Tired of Your Songs?
“Yeah. I do. Well, I’m lucky because I actually made sure I don’t tour year in year out. I get to be my own boss about this. I’ve had enough success to say when I’m gonna tour and when I’m gonna take time off. I made sure not to get on that success treadmill. I define success in my own terms, in terms of what I do with my time.”

“For instance, this last year, I went out without a band quite a bit. Because I was writing new songs, I didn’t want to tour very much, but I’d go out a week at a time on tour and play four or five shows and come home. By the fifth show, I was pretty sick of myself. No other instruments out there, no other band, just playing by myself. That’s a challenge, playing these songs. It helps that some of these songs are pretty well known, and people are interested in hearing a cut-down, simple version of it — that might be interesting to my biggest fans, my most dedicated fans. But really, to sit and listen to myself sing two and a half hours, three hours, for five nights — that’s just too much of me. I’d much rather have a –I have musicians who play with me when I play with a band, and they have fun with it, they change it around each night. They express themselves differently. We have a team, like a basketball team with certain kinds of moves they try to pull off, and someone will do something different, and they have to respond — that’s one of the biggest joys in music.”

What’s a Good Fan, and What’s a Bad Fan?
“No one has ever asked me that. But there is a difference, and it’s interesting to me that you realize that…”

“A good fan is somebody that really –okay, this is such a guilty pleasure, but it’s somebody that really knows everything about, makes it their business to know everything about, knows all your music really well — just listens to it. Really listens.”

“And I think a bad fan is a kind of stalking fan. Somebody that needs something, needs you to really know about them, needs to know everything. It’s almost impossible to admire somebody the way I admire the people I admire without wanting to let them know. And that’s not the kind of fan I’m talking about. Like the first time I met James Taylor, he was really famous, and I wasn’t. But I thought that he knew something about me because we had some friends in common, and I knew guys that played with him in his band, and they said, ‘You know, James knows about that song of yours. He knows who you are.’ I said, ‘Really? Cool.’ You just had to tell me that.”

“So I saw James at this club, and I went up to talk to him and say, ‘Hi, glad to meet you. I know Danny and Joel.’ It was like talking to a post. The guy was looking everywhere beyond me. He was like, ‘How do I get out of this? How do I get out of this?’ And I noticed it right away. I’m like, ‘Oh. I just wanted to say hi’ but he wanted to split. You know? It wasn’t about me, but he was in a very public place, in a club he was playing, and what happened was that somebody from the audience was comin’ up to him, to probably pay him a compliment, or in some way talk to him about how much he means to them. It’s a natural thing to wanna do. But there’s a time when that might work, and a time when it won’t. And it wasn’t working.”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t even remember that. I wouldn’t bother to tell him, ‘Oh, yeah. The time I met you, man, you really dissed me – what’s up with that?’ But now we know each other. We’re friends. A few years later we met in some circumstance in which there’s a chance to become friends, to know each other. But the fan that really needs to get something, get your attention — I don’t believe in that. I would think the music should be enough. You know?”

“And I always felt that way. When Bob Dylan was the most important person in the world to me, I remember reading something. I read everything that I could about him, and one of the things he said was how people shouldn’t put anybody up on a pedestal. Really, that’s an unfair thing to do. I wouldn’t want anybody to do that to me, and I wouldn’t do that to the people I admire. You wouldn’t idolize him. Don’t make him into a hero.”

“So every time I met Bob Dylan, and there was a bunch of times, I just really made it a point not to fawn over him or even tell him that it was a big deal. It was a big deal. It was a big deal for me. I think now that I was kind of a fool about this. I should have at some point said something, or done something to become friends with him. Even though I kinda knew from the beginning it was impossible. This is a guy that was like the voice of a generation, an icon…no, I don’t think I can; we’re not gonna become pals or something, you know…”

“One time I was even in a place — this was years later, I’ve met him so many times now — he’s sitting in this place, we were both at this party, and I was just lookin’ at him, and I was talking to this guy who works with him, and he’s saying, ‘Do you ride a motorcycle?’ I said, ‘No.’ He goes, ”cause you know Bob rides a bike, and I’m always kinda lookin’ for someone to go riding with Bob.’ I’m just lookin’ at him, and I said, ‘Do you think he would wanna hear just how much he’s meant to me over the years?’ The guy looks at me like…’Don’t do it, man. Do not blow it. ‘Cause he’s comfortable right now. He’s having a good time. He’s watching something else go down, and he’s included here, and he’s not up on some ridiculous plateau that people put him on.’ I said, ‘Of course, you’re right. What was I thinking?’

“It’s been that way for me many times. And just recently I had a stalker situation where somebody had built me up to a place in their mind, and it became a problem, actually. It was a person who is mentally ill. It involved the police and stuff. Yeah. The fans who want more than the actual work. It’s a mistaken notion to become obsessed with another person’s life.”

“But you see, we live in a time when that’s encouraged. The celebrity industry. The tabloid media and all the celebrity shows, Lifestyles and the Rich and Famous — when you think about it, probably more than half of what’s on television is selling you some notion of ‘there are some beautiful people someplace, and you can find out about them, and you can be like them if you tune in, and you can buy stuff that they buy, be where they go, go where they go…’ That’s all crap. That’s complete and utter crap. That’s to say that their lives are more valuable than yours. They are trying to convince you that you don’t really have a life unless it’s on television or in some way viewed as a famous thing-until finally, you have people that are merely famous for being famous rather than for some real contribution that they’ve made. There’s a lot of that.”

“Anyway. Good fan – Japanese fans. Japanese fans because if you’re a fan of mountain climbing, and you’re Japanese, you know everything about it. There’s something about that culture – they make it their business to know everything. There are blue grass groups in Japan playing banjos and mandolins and wearing country clothes, and they’re playing faithfully executed blue grass. They are a country of people who go collect things and bring them back. And so there’s a Japanese equivalent to most famous things in the world. I know the guy who used to be the Japanese Jackson Browne, and he and I are friends now. He moved on. He became the Japanese Bruce Springsteen after awhile, which meant he imitated me for a time, then decided to go imitate Bruce. I think he may have become himself eventually, because it isn’t as if they don’t understand what it means to be original — Japanese culture is full of things that are very original! It’s just that it’s okay with them to be a disciple. They have masters – they say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, so there is a period of time, when might be more humble to say ‘I am just an imitator’ when you actually are quite good. They might think it audacious or wrong to aspire to being a creator. That might be a little too full of yourself. So they’re serious about stuff like that, and when they appreciate you they really treat you with the greatest respect and the most gracious acts. It’s awe-inspiring to go to a country like Japan and be treated like an artist, when in the United States you’re kind of treated like a commodity, something new, a fad.”

Have You Ever Felt Embarrassed About Being On Stage?
“I’m not really nervous about going on stage. I stopped getting nervous. It’s rare now. As far as embarrassing, all kinds of embarrassing things happen. But the best you can do is put those feelings aside, because what makes performances really good is when you erase the barrier between audience and performer. For instance, I don’t know if you can imagine singing a song that you wrote, and getting to the middle of the song and not be able to remember the words, especially in a really climactic emotional moment. You get to this part where everybody knows the song, and you just stop because you’ve forgotten the words…that’s embarrassing! That’s happened to me.”

“But actually, the audience loved it. They thought it was so funny. You can’t do it a lot, but audiences like it when you turn out to be kind of human. You goofed up. If it really made you uptight, that would mean you wanted not to be human, you want to be perfect. It’s better to be imperfect. Then you’re in the same place together. Then to forget something is not a big deal. You have more intimacy.”

There’s funny embarrassing, and then there’s other kinds. My mother gave a bunch of my baby pictures to an unauthorized biography once. This guy lied to my mom, very shameful. Bad guy. He lied to my family, saying he’s writing this book with me, and they just believed him. They didn’t call and ask, ‘Hey, you want us to cooperate with this guy?’ They just did it. So that was a deeper kind of embarrassment. Because it was like they gave some sort of family approval for what was really a very badly written book, and when I would try to explain how that happened, I had to deal with the fact that I wasn’t very close with my mother and my brother at that time in my life. That was deeply embarrassing to have to say, ‘My mom and my brother didn’t know enough to ask me about this, and I haven’t seen them in awhile’ That’s terribly embarrassing to me. I remember really being unhappy. I said, ‘I can’t believe you did that!’ But we got through it all right.

Advice for Kids
“I’m honored to be able to speak to you– you’re future leaders; you’re already making decisions, taking initiative. Keep doing it. Ask a lot of questions. You have every right to ask. Don’t be afraid of asking the wrong question. You have to ask the questions. I would encourage you to examine everything, find out for yourself. Other than that, I’m pretty unqualified to give advice.”

“My generation made a lot of mistakes, but it was all part of the same impulse to be the one to decide, and a reaction against the kind of strictness we were subjected to. Question authority. Just ask the question. Don’t always do the thing you’re told, because they will take advantage of you — “they” being political leaders, businesses, corporations. They prey on the people who just do what they are told. They want obedience…they want to convince you that you are not even a person if you don’t buy whatever it is they are selling. And they are very cynical about it. Corporations have no conscience about the environment, human rights, rights of consumers…they do it because they can get away with it. As much as I love the world, I know it’s also full of people who think they have the right to do that. There are fights in the world. There are some fights that are coming your way. Don’t back down from what you know is right. In the end, you are the one to decide what’s right and wrong.”

36 Responses to Jackson Browne: Even More True Now

  1. Ben says:

    I was just curious as to when this interview took place. Fantastic interview I might add. Thanks for sharing.

    • cynthia says:

      Thank you. And I agree that it is a fantastic interview, but that’s because it’s just Jackson being completely at ease, and Jackson is…well, not only fantastic, but a genuinely good person. Even beyond his extraordinary talent, his generosity, compassion, and idealism are apparent. This conversation took place nearly ten years ago, and I sometimes wonder if those middle school kids, who are grown-ups now, were influenced by his words or ever think about it. Most of them had no idea they were talking to an “icon”!

      • Helen Kitchel says:

        Best interview I have ever read with Jackson. Feel very fortunate to have read it. Thank you

        • David Holgate says:

          Yes, I agree with Helen. Thank you, Cynthia, for arranging such an informative interview. Perhaps it was because Jackson was talking to kids who were unconcerned about his status that he spoke so warmly and freely.

  2. Don Huebner says:

    I’m a big fan of Jackson. If not for him I would never have made it through my late teens and twentys. His music and words have always had a calming effect on me. I saw him in the Red Rocks in 1977 during his Running on Empty tour. It was great because the alblum was not released until a few months later. I have a great picture of him taking a picture of the crowd from the stage before the show.

    • Helen Kitchel says:

      I was at that show and it remains my favorite ( and I have seen many) we got there very early and somewhere I have some great photos I shot when he came out in the afternoon and practiced for two hours!

  3. Keith says:

    I am a long-term fan and have read much about him yet I learned a great deal from this interview. Thank you for posting it.

  4. Susan Verwys says:


    I just came across this interview with Jackson. I have been a fan of his since the 70’s and often wonder about his spirituality. I’ve wanted to ask him if he is a Christian; his music is so soulful. Thanks for sharing!


    • cynthia says:

      You’re welcome, Susan. Sharing is the point and the pleasure here. And this interview dates back a number of years, but I think Jackson speaks pretty openly in it about his religious beliefs and spirituality. I’d say he makes his heart known in the giving of his music and his many generous deeds.

  5. Mary Kozik says:

    Thanks so much for the article. It was a great insight into Jackson, and confirmed my opinion of him.

  6. STeve Pike says:

    Great interview. Thanks for posting it!

  7. Kevin Devine says:

    Fabulous interview, Cynthia. I, too, have been a massive fan since the ’70’s and my son and daughter were raised on his music and they are now passing him on to friends. I don’t think he realises how much of an icon he is. I saw the Eagles in Liverpool last night and Jackson was mentioned a few times by Don and Glenn. The respect in the tone of their voices was there for all to hear.

    • cynthia says:

      Yes, and it’s well-earned respect. I think he sort of knows he’s become an icon. What I wonder is if he really gets how much people genuinely love him, even strangers, because his songs have been such a part of their lives. I dunno. Maybe he does.

      • Tim Miller says:

        Very well said. I have read this before, and what resonated wth me is how complete his awareness is of being a wholly dedicated fan (his wanting to share his admiration of Dylan wth him),but states how inappropriate he feels it is for his fans to have the same urge and desire. Certainly an example of his self-deprecating character. Cynthia, I and all his most intensely loyal fans agree with your words ~ I don’t think Jackson understands how deeply he has affected people through his songs, how people consider him to be one of their best friends even though they have never spoken to him. I don’t have space here to write what impact he has made on me and my life, and the relationships i have had thus far. I’m sure Jackson is aware, but I intuit his impact among his fans is much deeper and indelible than he knows. Great work Cynthia, thank you……

  8. Rhonda says:

    I love this interview! I’ve wondered about Jackson’s religion or spirituality, his feelings towards fans, and if there is an artist whose work evokes feelings in Jackson that he evokes in his fans. I am “still amazed” that 40 plus years later his lyrics/music still moves me like no other.

  9. Mark Darryl Smith says:

    As far as his religion goes I think it is pretty clear from his lyrics in “Before The Deluge:”

  10. Mark Darryl Smith says:

    As far as his religion goes I think it is pretty clear from his lyrics on Before The Deluge.

  11. nadir says:

    Marvellous interview. Very insightful. Thanks for sharing.

  12. bobbie enke says:

    spectacular read. very informative. i often wondered about his affiliation to japan. glad to be able to gain even more insight.i think i’m in the good fan category. been enjoying his art for many years since 71. have had the pleasure to see him since 77. hoping to be in reading pa show next september!

  13. Mike O'Brian says:

    I’ve been a fan of Jackson since I was 16. His music has got me through many tough times. I’m 58 now and still have his music and words easing me through life. Really enjoyed the conversation, thank you.

  14. Virgil Brus says:

    As a long haul trucker; I can tell you I have listened to Jackson’s music exclusively from Iowa to California back to Iowa so many times in my life! He just takes me to a calm place! I think he is the greatest songwriter ever of relationships! I just can’t believe how good he is at putting emotions into words that mean so much to so many of us! I’m at a loss to say anything profound! It will be a very sad day for all of us when his day is done! Thank you for posting this interview! It was so so good to hear this side of him! He means so much to so many people! I have often said that every United States Senator & Congressmen should be required to listen to his two songs, “Lives in the Balance” and “Drums of War”! Nobody makes you sit up in your seat and take notice of what we should be “really paying attention too” better than Jackson Browne!

  15. Joanne says:

    I love this interview of my favorite singer/songwriter of all time. He is such a soulful human being, so warm and with such a good sense of humor. It was so interesting to hear the sad story behind For A Dancer, one of my favorite JB songs…and Late For the Sky. Like so many others who have commented, I’ve been listening to JB since the early 70’s and his music shaped my life. Thank you for this amazing interview.

  16. Judy says:

    I really enjoyed reading this interview with Jackson Browne. I hope I can say I’m a good fan. I’ve been listening to Jackson since the early 1970’s and have always found his music to be the perfect balm for my soul. If I am going through a tough or a sad or lonely time, the effect of Jackson’s poetry and voice combined with beautiful piano and guitar calms me down. He’s very humble, and I wonder if he realizes the effect he has on so many of us. Thanks, Jackson for the years of music. Keep it going. Late for the Sky is my all time favorite album ever –besides Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run –both men are incredible poets.

  17. Michael Morgenbesser says:

    Great interview! Been a fan since the 70’s. 66 now. Now listen to this. My wife & I had a music duo. We performed 20 years, mostly in Greenwich Village. We’d only been performing for a few years. It was a quiet night. Sunday I think. This guy was sitting at a table for a long time. He came up to me after we finished and said he enjoyed our music but we didn’t play any Jackson Brown. I said I wasn’t into Jackson Brown. Then I qualified that & said “actually I wasn’t actually very familiar with his work. He gave me a tip & said do me a favor and get a Jackson Brown album and listen to it. I think you’ll really like his music. Then he handed me a note that said “if you’d like to get in touch with Jackson Brown call this number.” His table left the club. A girl came up to me a few minutes later & said “you know that guy you were talking to, that was Jackson Brown.” I didn’t believe her. Tried calling the number a few days later and the guy who answered said “he’s not here.” I figured it was bull and forgot about it. Some time later “Running on Empty” came out. After hearing a few songs I really liked, I bought the album. When I saw his picture I realized I had met Jackson. I started playing his music, and became known, locally, for his material I performed. Going to the Tanglewood concert next week. Would love to be able to speak with him again.

  18. kate says:

    What a great story (above). Traveled from Chicago to see his show with a good friend in LA at the Greek a couple of weeks ago, and it was sublime. I had trouble believing people could sit in their seats without weeping; I am always so moved by his lyrics. I think I could pretty much die happy if I heard “Tender Is the Night” live. There is no real point to this comment, because his music and lyrics create an other-world for me that I can’t quite pin down and reduce to description.

  19. Richard says:

    Great interview. I first saw Jackson in 74′ and feel his songs have really withstood the test of time and are still meaningful and fresh.
    Living in LA I have many friends who know him, have worked at his studio etc… But I have never seen him in town… But that changed a few years ago when I was waiting for a car to park in LA and ending up pulling in next to that car , I leaned forward to wave at the driver and accept his thanks for being patient and the next thing that happened was a Hello Jackson coming from My mouth. He came over and said hello to my kids and was very gracious. Of course I told him I was a huge fan and had seen him several times. Very cool!

  20. John Spence says:

    For awhile now I haven’t been able to get For a Dancer out of my mind. Three years ago today we received the dreaded cancer diagnosis for my wife and the oncologist only gave us an estimated six months, which actually turned out to be shorter than that. She was a great dancer so that song and the lyrics hit hard. The beauty and special meaning of this song, and a lot of Jackson Browne’s work, is pure genius.

  21. James Stevenson says:

    Thanks so much for preserving and sharing this interview. I was searching on “the story behind Jackson Browne’s for a dancer”, and got that plus a wealth of other wonderful insights. Very enjoyable and thought-provoking. My favorite JB memory is an outdoor concert on a hillside below Arcosanti in Arizona. What a fine day!

  22. Ann Holt says:

    I am so grateful that you shared this wonderful interview. Thank you. I could echo so many comments others have made. ” ’65 he was 17 “. I was 18. And so it goes. His words, his music, his kindnesses in the world have made such an impact on me during the best of times, and the worst of times. Than you, Jackson, for the positive impact you’ve had on our world and my life.

  23. Dave says:

    Wow! So happy to stumbled upon this old interview with some middle school kids in CA…was just looking for some insights for his song For A Dancer, and got so much more!
    Can’t say enough about what he has done for me in my life…musically and lyrically, he has got me through so many tough times…

  24. Tori says:

    Thanks for this interview. I feel the same way about his music and lyrics as many of you. The seventies were hard for me but his music pulled me through. I never knew anyone else who had the same experience with his songs. It’s great to find so many of you are out there. I’ll always be grateful for Jackson Browne!

    • cynthia says:

      Thanks for coming by, Tori. I’m glad you found this. It’s an old one, but in Jackson’s words, “Even more true now”….

  25. Wayne says:

    I just joined a JB group on Facebook and found a link to this interview, provided by Sasha Lauren. THANKS to you and to her !
    I go back to 1972, seeing Jackson and Joni at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music.
    The more I learn about him, the more I admire him.
    I thought you’d like to know that his words and your work are still reaching appreciative audiences.

    • cynthia says:

      Thanks, Wayne. That’s good to know. There’s no one else quite like Jackson, and there was something about this interview that was really magical.

  26. Maureen says:

    A lovely moment, this interview, in time so fleeting.
    Reading it was like being at one of his concerts, personal, heartfelt, real.

    I’m grateful to have his music to experience on earth, as it helps me to my dear ones who have passed through the veil, and to the spiritual realm where I pray lovingly for humanity.

    Thank you 😉

  27. Kathy says:

    Thank you for the inciteful interview. Jackson’s music and commitment to social justice played a large role in my becoming a civil rights attorney. I hope he understands the ripple effect his life has had. So many people have found comfort and hope through his music, and the causes he has embraced have not only benefitted from his direct commitment, but from the work of so many others who found their own passion and inspiration from his example. My own life has been greatly influenced by Jackson’s art and activism, and I am filled with gratitude for this kind and generous soul.

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