No one is more emblematic of the singer-songwriter movement than Jackson Browne. For most of the Seventies, Browne provided the soundtrack for the Baby Boom generation’s growth into adulthood, his music acting as both its personal and political conscience. In his life as in his songs, Browne managed to retain his essential ideals as he evolved in an increasingly chaotic world.
Browne’s reputation as a songwriter preceded his legacy as a mainstream star. While still in his late teens and early twenties, he provided songs for some of the 1960s most influential artists, including the Byrds, Linda Rondstadt and Nico. After securing a deal with fledgling Asylum Records on the basis of a demo, Browne released three masterpieces in succession: Jackson Browne, For Everyman, and Late for the Sky. Literate and insightful, his music provided a mirror for the children of the Sixties as they grappled with the fallout of the Vietnam era, the cynicism of the new decade and their own maturation amidst it all. With such songs as “Running On Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby,” Browne achieved his greatest commercial success in the late Seventies and early Eighties — despite the fact that his music was reflecting his growing involvement with political and social causes. By the Reagan era, he was as renowned for his vocal opposition to nuclear energy as he was for his chart-scaling hits.
Throughout the Nineties, Browne continued juggling recording and social activism. His 2002 release, The Naked Ride Home, revisited the socio-political tone of his earlier work while expanding his trademark sound, and this year brings a the career-spanning retrospective, The Very Best of Jackson Browne. Browne has sat down with Rolling Stone many times over his career. Below are excerpts from two of our most recent chats:
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What is your reaction to entering the Hall of Fame?
Wow, for once I just don’t know what to say. I’m really honored. It’s great to be recognized and to be given this validation. There was no Hall of Fame when I started writing songs. That kind of recognition is a big extra. You don’t grow up thinking about it. But as the institution, the museum was founded, and as it grew it’s become a question that imposes itself. Does your work [qualify]? So to be inducted, to be chosen, and to be honored in this way is significant. It really feels great. It’s not something I let myself think too much about though. I’ve been nominated I think at least once before, and I’ve always had a very deep ambivalence about fame anyway, because so much of the great music has been made without any thought to that. In the end, it’s a person’s work that has to speak for itself. But it feels great. It wasn’t until I started to explain to my young nephew, who’s just thirteen, who all is in there — then I really started to get giddy and happy.
There’s so many! But it’s because they’re people he knows. My nephew knows that Tom Petty was inducted, so he said, “You’re in there with Tom?” And I said, “Yeah, and the Beatles!” And I started listing off the top of my head: the Beatles and the Stones, and Ike and Tina. I was trying to think of people he knows. There’s not that many — he’s just thirteen. Anyway, I think the museum is a great thing.
Did you ever attend an induction ceremony?
I did. Before they were being televised I went to a couple of them. I went when the Byrds were inducted, and when Sly and the Family Stone and Cream were inducted in L.A. I’ve gone a couple times, and the thing about those ceremonies was I got to hear really long induction speeches, which I’m not sure really make it onto the TV presentation. I think that’s something that gets edited. I’m hoping they just do it by editing it later because it would be a shame to lose those long rambling accounts by artists about other artists.
Is that going to be you rambling?
No, no, no. Actually I’m thinking of the really long induction that Little Steven got to do of the Rascals. Or [Ralph] Bass, who was the A&R man who signed James Brown and the Famous Flames to their recording contract. He told a long story about being snuck into a southern town where they were playing because the sheriff was the brother of a rival record company owner. It was a great story.
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 Velvet’s 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.”