Somewhere in the New York palace hotel, the Rolling Stones are sleeping off the previous night’s Madison Square Garden show. As for Jackson Browne, he’s already awake at 10 a.m., more eager to talk about the Stones gig than he is to talk about The Naked Ride Home, his first studio album since 1996’s Looking East. “It was the best I’ve ever seen them,” he says. “During ‘Brown Sugar,’ the entire place is going, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, whooo!‘ with their arms up in the air. It was, like, 20,000 people joined at the groove.” The fifty-four-year-old songwriter found his groove on The Naked Ride Home thanks to some “great accidents.” He says, “With this record, I began to not say anything to the band. I stopped leading and trying to make it go anywhere at all. Music is so much more a complete form of communication than words. Words are so rudimentary.”
Do you think music works in the same way that our sense of smell does?
Yeah. You automatically associate a song with what you were going through at the time. You go see the Stones when you’re sixteen, and you see these panties go sailing through the air. Ruffled pantaloons were the big thing among surfer girls in Orange County when I was fifteen or sixteen, and somebody wrapped their panties around an ashtray so they had weight, and they flew through the air and hit Keith. The girl I was with was just losing her mind, and I thought, “That would be a good job to have.”
Certain experiences become cardinal points in your compass. We’re formed by entertainments. If people watch an endless stream of these shows where the whole point is to imitate someone else, it’s a pursuit of mediocrity.
What do you mean?
I enjoy the Cinderella quality of this little girl getting to be her idol, Shakira, for a day. But I wonder where the contests are in which Shakira actually mentors some kid. TV is rarely a venue for that. Have you ever seen Liz Phair on television? What’s up with that? Here’s one of the most original musicians, and you never see her on television.
What songs do you remember hearing around the time you started writing?
Stuff like “Everyday People” — that really high note. And “Walk Away Renee,” when they say, “The empty sidewalks on my block are not the same.” I remember the first time I heard a record that reminded me of the past. I was eighteen, and somebody put on Another Side of Bob Dylan — I was flooded with memories.
Oh, certain friends and a house where we all used to hang out. There were these older girls — one would have a job and a house where everybody could party. I don’t listen to music the same way anymore. If you live communally, sharing a house, records are being played all the time. I’ll never hear a record as often as I heard Highway 61 Revisited or Van Morrison’s Blowin’ Your Mind, because every time it stopped playing, somebody would just turn it back on.
Do certain songs remind you of when you lived in New York?
The songs on the jukebox at the Dom, where I played accompanying Nico: “Penny Lane,” “Strawberry Fields,” “River Deep, Mountain High.” The Dom was Andy Warhol’s club most nights, but then there was one night that it was a black disco, and so the jukebox had some great R&B. And the Velvets stuff.
Who are your musical heroes?
My real hero is my little brother, who taught me to play piano. He loved the Byrds, and I remember hearing the Byrds coming through my bedroom wall at all hours. Or my friend Greg Copeland, who I wrote “The Fairest of the Seasons” with. He’s a hero of mine because he never wanted to get rich. There was this one writer who used to be a doorman at the Troubador. One time he said to me, “You ever wonder how Humphrey Bogart became Humphrey Bogart? Like, he probably had an uncle who talked that way.” These are the people who really enrich your life. The idea is not to hero-worship. For instance, if you’ve ever met Bob Dylan, you know that there’s very little revealed anyway [laughs]. You could say, “I got to meet Bob Dylan,” or you could say, “I got his music.”
True, but most people would still want to meet him.
Our world is so bent on marketing celebrity, and some access you presume is real access. I guess you could call it death by envy. You let this camera in this rock star’s home, and he’s gonna show you his crib. It’s interesting to see what horrendous taste some of these people have in home furnishings. They may have all the money in the world, but you say to yourself, “I can’t believe the guy would live with that couch.”