Jackson Browne is the first to admit he didn’t watch some of his past music videos that often. Like 1983’s “Lawyers in Love,” a dig at yuppie culture and U.S.-Soviet Union gamesmanship, complete with extraterrestrial children? “Oh God,” he half-laughs and half-groans. “It was really ineptly done. There are some good ideas there. I like the briefcase dance scene. But I don’t think people expected a satirical song from me. It might have helped to let people know it was kind of a spoof. I’ve made a few [videos] I like, but generally what it showed me was that you stand a good chance of diminishing and reducing a song by giving it specific images.”
Browne’s spare and striking new video for “Minutes to Downtown” leaves little room for misinterpretation. Directed by his son Ryan, it simply features Browne tooling around Los Angeles, with no beginning, middle or end. “The song is about wanting to be somewhere else, but for whatever reasons, you’re tied to the place where you live and the things you do,” he says of the Downhill From Everywhere track. “So I wanted it to be me driving around. To me, the video has a distinctive feature, which is that nothing happens. You don’t arrive anywhere, right?” He isn’t even seen lip-synching the tune: “We tried some versions of that, but now it’s as if I’m hearing the song as I drive around.”
Browne admits the filming, which took place over two days in various neighborhoods, had its challenges. “Being on camera, I couldn’t be talking,” he says. “As we drove all around L.A., I wanted to tell Ryan and the crew about different places we were driving through, because I’ve lived here my whole life. And he would say, ‘Tell us later, dad.’” And then there was the chosen vehicle itself, which was appropriately retro. “Fucking car was a stick,” he says. “It could have been a problem, but it wasn’t. All that stuff comes back. It’s very different from driving an electric car.”
On his summer tour, which starts Friday in St. Louis, Browne will be playing “Minutes to Downtown” for the first time onstage, along with more songs from Downhill from Everywhere. He’s also promising rarely heard deep-catalog tracks, like “Sky Blue and Black” — one of a few dozen songs he will rotate in and out of the set.
In the past, Browne and his band would have rehearsed those tunes beforehand, but the pandemic messed with those plans. During his recently wrapped spring shows with James Taylor, Browne and his crew were largely spared the virus, thanks to regular testing. But right after they arrived home, Browne says his entire band and crew tested positive. (Browne himself contracted the virus two years ago.) As a result, warmup time for the summer shows was cut back, which means he and the band will be working up some of those rarities during soundchecks, and he’ll be, he says, “just calling out songs that people haven’t really rehearsed. But it’ll be fun.”
Browne still isn’t sure what happened at the end of the Taylor tour. “We were really good at the protocol,” he says. “We tested every day. It really costs a lot to do it, but it was how we were able to keep going.” He admits that it crossed his mind that band members could fall by the wayside, leaving him to rejigger some gigs at the last minute. “You like to think that if you were the last one standing, you could still do a set,” he muses. “But it would turn into a very different show.”
Under normal circumstances, Browne would be fairly pumped about gearing up for a tour, especially since these will be first headlining shows in a while. But in light of the ongoing pandemic and the recent, horrific spate of shootings around the country, he admits the mood feels different this season. “I’ve never felt this way, going out on the road,” he says. “You worry about the safety of the people you’re with. It can happen going to the store, right? I’m in a biracial band. One time I had a death threat from a crackpot. He said I was a ‘race traitor.’ It just means you’ve got to take all kind of security precautions.
“It’s a heartbreaking time,” he says with an audible sigh. “It’s just so far-reaching, the implications of what’s going on with mass shootings so frequently, the polarization of our country around ideology. It’s hard to lift your eyes up above all of that and see the enduring qualities we believe in. What makes it worthwhile is getting on stage and playing. That’s still a thrill.”