It’s a long way Jackson Browne has come —– from his whining days at the Paradox in Orange, at the Dom in the Village, and at Troubadour hoots in Hollywood. No longer the high-schooler/songwriter with the unharnessed voice, Jackson has become a shiny, if not perfectly polished performer. With two successful albums –— and even a hit single –— behind him, he is a recording star. And, most recently, the man with the forever-young face has become a father.
But tonight, backstage at the Berkeley Community Theater, where he has just headlined, he is nervously shifting his weight from foot to foot, surveying the dressing-room cluster of old friends like a bashful birthday boy at his own surprise party. The faces from his past now drinking champagne from plastic cups are the people that have inspired and populated many of his songs.
He doesn’t seem to believe their praises, to be able to absorb the backpats. The midpoint in his first major tour on top of the bill (with Linda Ronstadt as opener), the Berkeley show had been painfully mediocre. Jackson had seemed preoccupied between numbers and let his between-song stories wander pointlessly, spaced ellipses that led to nowhere.
In the end, the music triumphed and the audience forgot the spoken words. But he had tried too hard. Perhaps it was nervousness before his Orange County friends, but probably it was the disconcerting fact that he had suddenly been left in charge of his baby boy, Ethan, then eight weeks old. The baby’s mother, Phyllis (the model, actress and star of the bar-fight/knock-up adventure described in Jackson’s song, “Ready Or Not”), had taken ill and flown home to Browne’s Highland Park mini-villa that afternoon. Only later, at a pizza parlor with high-school buddies Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland, and with fellow singers Paul Pena and Pamela Polland, among others, would Jackson finally relax. Saying good-night, he began wandering around in circles, until a circle of friends formed, joined hands and swayed through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” each old friend taking a turn with a verse.
The next night, an out-of-the-way gig at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo had to be better. In fact, it was brilliant. With Jackson editing his stories down and alternating between guitar and piano, while the band (Doug Haywood on bass and perfect harmony, Larry Zack on drums, and David Lindley on violin, banjo and guitars) sounded superb, adding both depth and electricity to songs that before last spring had relied only on Jackson for instrumentation.
Back in his hotel room after the show, Jackson played with his baby for a moment, pushed aside the debris of past diaper-changing episodes, and fell into an easy chair. Last night was on his mind. “That was the first time most of those people had been together in the same room in God knows how long,” he said. “I’ll tell you, we used to sing freedom songs by the hundreds. It wasn’t that we were such dedicated civil rights workers; it was just that we wanted to get it on. We’d stay up all night raising hell.
“There’s a distance, a film between us now. Everybody’s essentially the same; it’s just the situations that have changed. I mean, I love those people, but I spend my time differently now. Anyway, those things are always very awkward at first.” Ethan yawned squeakily.
JACKSON BROWNE RETURNED last year to the house in which he was raised from the time he was three to just before he became a teenager. Today the house is all baby and music, in a setting dreamt up and built a half-century ago by his grandfather, Clyde Browne.
There is no other house around like this one in Highland Park. But Clyde Browne, a printer who was considered by his disapproving wife to be an eccentric, was bent on recreating a California mission to be his home. He spent 12 years on it, beginning in 1915, called it “Abbey San Encino,” and it would become home to his son, and then to his grandson, Jackson.
And now, on the parsons table in the living room, there is the birth certificate for Ethan Browne, born November 2nd, 1973, at 6:40 AM at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and there are the proud Polaroids —– the kind that develop before your eyes —– of Jackson and Phyllis taking turns holding the baby.
Boxes of Wipe Dipe are in both the living room and the adjoining bedroom, where the baby’s crib sits at the foot of his parents’ tattered-quilt-covered bed. On one shelf, tucked back against a wall, is an unopened box of It’s a boy! Roi-Tan cigars. Outside, across the patio that serves as the cover of For Everyman, past the well and under the bambooed eaves of one walkway, a voice sings a lullaby in a foreign tongue. It is the housekeeper, a woman from San Salvador, and she is in the kitchen, cradling Ethan in her arms while his father is out shopping.
Down along the other side of the patio is the chapel, used by grandfather Browne as a print shop, but equipped with a 14-pipe Angeles organ that takes up the entire end wall. Wrapped around the bases of the four central pipes is a banner declaring: “Golden Notes from Leaden Throats.”
Jackson uses the chapel as a rehearsal room, and these days, between tours, he is writing songs into an accounting record book propped up against the grand piano. He’s on about page 105, at work on another song of retrospection, of the man looking back at the child: “In my early years I hid my tears and passed my days alone/Adrift on an ocean of loneliness/My dreams like nets were thrown …”