After the deluge: Jackson Browne plays at the Waikiki shell

Place Waikiki
Text Umi Perkins
Thread music

On Friday, the singer-songwriter Jackson Browne will be performing in Honolulu. Browne is widely recognized as one of the greatest songwriters of the 1970s, if not the 20th century. Of Browne’s 2005 album Solo Acoustic vol. 1, the music critic Thom Jurek wrote: “the music here speaks for itself. [Browne’s] gift as a songwriter is enigmatic, unassailable and singular.”

His impact can perhaps best be seen in the 2014 album Looking Into You, a tribute album to Browne, on which luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley and Bonnie Raitt, and popular artists like Ben Harper, Lyle Lovett, and Shawn Colvin all perform Browne’s songs, composed over a 40-year career. But it is the lesser-known artists like Bob Schneider, who does a poignant, slowed down version of “Running on Empty,” and Venice’s version of “For a Dancer,” and their thoughts on his music, captured in the liner notes, that show his deep effect on three generations of musicians.

Browne grew up in the Abbey San Jacinto, a stone, church-like building built by his grandfather. Music was played in this house as he grew up …The lyric “As I chose to be gone from the house of my father” from “A Child in these Hills,” refers to this house. Browne was an emancipated Youth, leaving home at 16, and this often figures, nostalgically, into the creation of his own mythical backstory.

Browne fell in with the folk- and country-rock “Troubador” scene in LA. The folk singer Karla Bonoff said of this period:

I first started hanging around The Troubadour Club in Hollywood when I was around 17. At that time Jackson was playing [there] regularly. I have a vivid memory of standing in the balcony and hearing him play ʻMy Opening Farewell’ for the first time. It was so inspiring to me and such a pivotal moment in my life where I can clearly remember knowing that I would dedicate my life to being a songwriter, and hopefully write something as brilliant.

With her song “Falling Star” Bonoff nearly did, and showed Browne’s influence on this generation of songwriters. As Browne put it, that was a time when the songwriter mattered, when the song mattered.

Browne fell in with what became The Eagles, living in a basement below them. Glen Frey said that Browne would work on a verse and then play it thirty times—it could be heard through their floor. This incessant practice may be what allows him to inhabit his songs like no one else can. What is surprising about Looking Into You is how few of the songs sound better than Browne’s own version, especially when he has noted that he had no particular vocal talent in the beginning.

One can't help wondering what kind of music would have been created if Browne had simply joined The Eagles (who at one point sold a million albums a month for 18 consecutive months), but the fact is that Browne made it first. His self-titled album, which is often mistakenly called Saturate Before Using, appeared in 1972. He did famously co-write ”Take It Easy,” and plays it on his 1973 album For Everyman. On his solo acoustic album he jokes, with undertones of bitterness, that he's sometimes asked in concerts to play “Peaceful Easy Feeling.”

The Eagles Hawaiʻi connection is in the song “The Last Resort.” Being from Maui I would be thrilled to hear them singing about how missionaries "sailed to Lahaina," and how they "even brought a neon sign/said ʻJesus is Coming'" (it actually says "Jesus Coming Soon"). Browne's Hawaiʻi connection is more subtle. He partnered with Jack Johnson on the Kokua Festival.

The music critic Thom Jurek wrote that, of the iconic “Troubadour” singer-songwriters of that period—James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne—it was Browne, of the three, who captured the spirit of their generation best. The singer Eliza Gilkyson, who sings “Before the Deluge” on Looking Into You, said:

I don’t think anyone has ever told the story of our generation—our ideals, illusions and spectacular fall from grace—better than Jackson does in “Before the Deluge.” It is forgiving and tender, sad and hopeful, and ultimately prophetic as we now face the very future he predicted when he wrote it in 1974. I wish he had gotten in wrong.

No doubt Browne wishes he was wrong too. In just a few lines Browne sums up the boomer “sell out” of their wild dreams to the mandates of the capitalist system they despised, and he did so as it was still happening:

And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love's bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge

I first knew of Browne in the 1980s, thanks to the few hits on the Lawyers in Love album, which got some play on radio and MTV. But it wasn't until 1993 (I was near the end of college) that I came to the deep appreciation for him that came to border on reverence.

I bought his new album, and when I told a friend, he said “Jackson Browne? I thought he was dead.” I responded “No, the album’s called I'm Alive!” The ‘90s marked a renaissance for Browne, a time when his music could again be appreciated as it was, rather than through his awkward adaptation to ‘80s hubris. This was thanks to shows like MTV’s Unplugged and the commercial success of folkies Suzanne Vega and the Indigo Girls (who, incidentally, do a heartbreakingly disappointing version of what is perhaps Browne's best song of all, “Fountain of Sorrow,” on Looking Into You).

His next album, 1996’s Looking East, has perhaps his best song post-heyday, “Barricades of Heaven,” which again eulogizes his emancipated youth: “Running down the towns along the shore/ I was 16 and on my own/ I couldnʻt tell you what the hell those brakes were for/ I was just trying to hear my song.”

Some, like the psychologist Wayne Dyer, felt that Browne had captured not just the spirit of a generation, but “the thing itself:”

Just do the steps that you've been shown
By everyone you've ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another's steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you'll never know

Browne was inducted into the Rock ʻn Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. He will perform on April 6 at the Waikiki Shell at 7 p.m.


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