American singer-songwriter Jackson Browne began writing songs in the mid-60s, at the tender age of 16. Since then, he has released 14 studio albums as well as live performance collections and many single recordings. Downhill from Everywhere is his first new album in six years.
Here, in his Letter to My Younger Self, he reflects on his introduction to politics, music and the hippie movement. He was a naive and trusting teenager but he still believes that you can’t know everything from day one and that life is designed to give you lessons along the way.
At 16, music was already my main interest. That and girls.This was the point where I became more interested in music than surfing. When I got a licence to drive, at 16, I was allowed to take my car and just disappear with my friends for days. So I was hanging around at the beach with people older than me. Everybody was full of adventures, full of experimenting. I remember the first joint I ever smoked – I wound up watching the sun go down, listening to Ray Charles for an enormously long time! It changed everything. Time was changed, the music was changed, and I was changed. I was already into playing and writing songs, so that just intensified everything.
When I look back, I like my younger self – he had a lot to learn, but was on the right tracks. Getting a driving licence gave me freedom to go where I wanted to go and in some ways I’m still that person. I’m always looking for something new and wanting to uncover the world. I look back at my writing and think I was trying to describe the world as it was – but actually I was describing the world as I wanted it to be.
When I was growing up, listening to music was a very creative act. Before videos, the imagery in the songs was up to you. I remember my sister saying, “Don’t interpret Bob Dylan to me, I’ve got my own interpretation.” Dylan singing “He who is not busy being born, is busy dying” is a very powerful statement about how to live your life. It describes the most important part of life – what you discover and what you commit yourself to. It says so much in so few words. I grew up on songs like that or The Beatles singing Strawberry Fields Forever. They meant so much, and because they were so open to interpretation, you almost became the co-author of these songs.
My political education began when I was eight. I was mentored by a former LA Times Boys’ Club counsellor who had been expelled during the McCarthy era for having liberal leftist views, especially on Cuba. He dug Fidel Castro. He took us to the library and literally put the books in our hands about the true history of the United States, the wars of subjugation and the annihilation of American Indians. And my parents acquainted me with the concept of prejudice. When we were in the civil rights movement or marching against the Vietnam War, my understanding was from the books I read as a kid – about America’s broken treaties and relentless expansion. It is built into our country’s DNA that our promises will be broken.
My first thought that I could do music as a career happened in a high school biology class.I was not interested in what we were studying so I looked at these lyrics I was working on, thinking, if I open my book it will look like I’m reading along with the class. I wanted to be a songwriter so I wouldn’t have to be anywhere in particular, wouldn’t have to show up anywhere, I could go where I want to go. I wanted to be a writer who travels.
On stage in Amsterdam with Elliot Roberts and Joni Mitchell
Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
You want to know what I would have told myself as a 16-year-old who wanted to sing better? Take a fucking lesson. I didn’t have a thought to singing the songs myself until I heard my friends start to sing them and thought: ‘It’s gonna have to be better than that!’ So I began singing in clubs.
I would tell my teenage self to have more than $50 in his pocket when he travels across the country. It took us three-and-a-half days to drive to New York. We stayed on the floor of a guy I knew from our hometown who was a songwriter. I wasn’t dressed for the cold of a New York winter. I had a thin corduroy jacket and loafers on and looked like I had been beamed across from southern California. But I had everything I needed – we spent a lot of time just playing guitar, walking around wide-eyed.
I was hired to play with Nico thanks to Tim Buckley. We went to see Tim play this gig with Nico at a bar called the Dom, where Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey played these loops of film – one was Lou Reed eating a candy bar and glowering, another was a skydiver that was always falling. It was that Exploding Plastic Inevitable environment Andy had installed in that bar, with Nico singing. I had to play electric guitar because they didn’t want to seem folky.
If I was to give myself some advice for that time, I would say, ‘Stay in New York and put a band together.’ It would have been a blast. Instead, the first time I played with a drummer was making my first record [1972’s Jackson Browne]. Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar, who became my rhythm section, were so good at playing with people who weren’t sure how to arrange their songs.
There was an energy that came out of shifts in public awareness about civil rights, racial equality and peace. We were examining our society and our role in it. People began to commit themselves to a freer way of living. Hippy began as an affectionate term but became a pejorative to bemoan people just wearing the uniform. It was about breaking through boundaries – sexual revolution, chemical revolution, spiritual revolution, as well as resisting the war and the mechanisms of the society. That struggle is still with us.
Joining a musical movement that was breaking boundaries
Photo: PR supplied
My songs are a record of my encounters with ideas. I was at the demonstrations and manifestations of the environmental movement from the start. I don’t know if Before The Deluge was the first environmental protest song, but it was an apocalyptic song about where we are heading. It was a warning. And I wrote a song on my last record saying if I could be anywhere in time, I would want to be here right now – because of the importance of what will be decided by this generation. It’ll determine how successive generations live. Writing a song is quite a faulty way of communicating – but they’re great rallying cries for people who already have the information.
I believe in participatory democracy. I believe we have an obligation to take part. We have the freedom to disagree, but we shouldn’t be allowed to not participate otherwise democracy is too easily hijacked. We now have a party that knows its policies are unpopular, that they are not the will of the majority, so they try to win elections by making it impossible for the opposition to vote. That’s where we are at. We don’t really have a true democracy.
I always had a deep distrust of fame. I knew that it was a lot of horseshit. But it was the logical result of becoming recognised for what you do, if your music is loved. Finding my way musically has been an incredible gift. It really took me a long time to develop any kind of discipline and I don’t have real work habits except I still love doing it. So I wind up doing it as much as I can.
When you’re young, you’re so vulnerable and don’t really have any protection around your heart. So you get your heart broken. I would tell my younger self, ‘Don’t assume that you will never fall in love again or that you will never feel that way about somebody else’. The best is always yet to come – those words were spoken to me over and over by a man from Belize named Harold who worked for my grandmother in the yard.
Back in the studio perfecting his new album with his sound engineer
Photo: PR supplied
If I could talk to my first wife… [Browne’s first wife, actress Phyllis Major, took her own life in 1976]. I’m not gonna tell you what I would say, but it’s a conversation that I have in my head all the time. It comes to mind when you think of what you might have done for someone whose life doesn’t quite work, doesn’t quite make sense to them. I think it is actually healthy to assess what did happen and what you would rather have happened, and to put into words what you would have said if you’d known.
It is part of the design that you don’t learn things until later. What causes your life to be fulfilling in later years is that you cover new ground and uncover new things about your life and about others. There are certainly relationships I shouldn’t have been in. But it is valuable to assess your mistakes. I think you can hear that through my songs. Like, on These Days: ‘Don’t confront me with my failures / I have not forgotten them’. And it is true. You don’t forget.