Retrofit Guide Special: Jackson Browne Tribute – "For Everyman"

“For Everyman” (1973): Two words: David Lindley. The hippie-freaky-super-accomplished multi-instrumentalist (slide guitar, violin, bazouki, etc.) joined JB’s band just before the sessions for his second release, and what a terrific match it was: Now the maestro’s romanto-solipsisto yearning came with unexpected filigrees and skronky, drone-like textures; a raw lyricism that acknowledged more than Jackson’s measured words would ever say on their own.

The album kicks off with Jackson’s dusty take on his own “Take It Easy,” already a smash hit for the super-slick Hollywood cowboy   Eagles, but here the emphasis is on dirt roads and a yearning for escape that seems far less plausible than it could in the freon-cooled studio world of the Eagles. The journey ends – or detours into – the dreamy  desert ballad “Our Lady of the Well,” which moves back through time (months? centuries?) to describes a romance with Maria, who transcends time in some mysterious and yet viscerally captivating way. “There is a dance we do in silence/far below this morning sun,” JB begins, introducing us to a primoridal love affair that is both far removed from (“Here we stand and without speaking/Draw the water from the well…“) and a direct result of modern society’s failures (“Across my home has grown the shadow/Of a cruel and senseless hand...”)

Christ! It was like Jackson Browne knew my high school’s principal! By the time I picked up this one (thank you Cellophone Square, and quite possibly its star salesman, Scott McCaughey) I was the editor of the Garfield Messenger, thus a leader among young men, and more than eager to strap on my own backpack and do some water dancing beneath the sun with Maria or anyone who would find me in the shade wide awake or in a dream (it’s hard to tell). These worlds existed, not just in “Our Lady…” but also in “Colors of the Sun,” the even moodier and more cryptic primo-eco-mordial tune that comes next. “Awake to understand you are not dreaming,” JB begins, amid a swirling organ, a meandering bass and dueling, occasionally harmonizing acoustic guitars. I’d read about peyote somewhere. I had to imagine its effects sounded a bit like this: lost, but lovely; floating through time and space in pursuit of some undefined transcendence that was immediately available. . . but only if you weren’t looking for it. “Leave me where I am, I am not losing/If I am choosing not to plan my life. . .” All that, plus a great tan (all that sun), wandering tribal chicks and a spelt-rich diet of natural grains, wild honey and home-dried peyote buttons.

Or on second thought, there’s the right-there-in-front-of-me love piano ballad “I Thought I was a Child” (“...til you turned and smiled“), the adolescent existentialism of “These Days” (one of Nico’s faves, revived by Gregg Allman’s shuffling blues arrangement) and the unlikely companion pieces “Red Neck Friend” (raunchy barroom rock, in which JB celebrates, at least by longstanding gossip, his own not-so-little Jackson) and the ruefully funny, if alarmingly sexist my-chick’s-having-a-baby ballad “Ready Or Not.” First he had trouble getting in to her jeans, dig, but now SHE can’t get into the same jeans ’cause he knocked her up! Har. Funnier still: a one-line synopsis of how These Chicks Do You When You GIve Them An Inch (or eleven, if you believe “Red Neck Friend”) “….next thing I remember she was all moved in/And I was buyin’ her a washing machine.” Oh, snap. the full Westinghouse.

So sure, you can sense the flaws in JB’s aesthetic/philosophical foundation. But then, we’re talking about a spokesman for a generation here, and if said generation (see also: Boom, Baby) has its own issues with solipsistic lifeways (see also: hits radio, classic) dude is merely channeling what he’s been put here to channel.
And did I mention JB’s gift for writing simple, yet lyrical melodies? Or his growing ability to weave personal experience into the larger cultural fabric? Take those ingredients, leaven with Lindley’s scrabbly fiddles and snarling slide guitar leads, and suddenly the eroto-transcendent pillowtalk in “The Times You’ve Come” sounds closer to sweet than silly. Though that may also have something to do with Bonnie Raitt’s backing harmonies, too.

Move onward to the climactic medley of “SIng My Songs to Me” and “For Everyman,” a two-song illustration of how lightly JB can pivot from navel gazing (he needs us to sing his own words back to him, dig, because…”it seems to me/there may never be/a better chance to see who I am/come timelessly dancing.”  It occurs to me now that I have never had, and still can’t claim, a single idea as to what that means. But does the literal meaning of the words matter as much as the spirit of the piece (meditative and welcoming, even despite the Buddha’s Voice pose the singer assumes). And as the chords build to a tom-roll suddenly we’re in the middle of a revelation: “For Everyman,” and its visions of a society unified, finally, by a shared pursuit of transendence. Everyone’s waiting for God to return, you see. And though no one can honestly say what the answer is, or even if a hint is forthcoming (“…don’t ask me, I don’t know,” JB shrugs, in a rare moment of self-doubt) what matters is the pursuit itself; that even if God doesn’t exist, faith definitely does, and that in and of itself is enough to make life worth living.

I really loved this record when I was 18. And when I hear it again, as I am this very moment, it all comes bubbling up again: the sweetness, the post-adolescent narcissism, the yearning for a more evolved, spiritually and sexually affirming existence. Am I admitting something shameful here? Did the subsequent decades of listening to the Clash, the Replacements, Loudon Wainwright, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon and all the other razor-wielding singer/songwriter/asskickers teach me nothing? Arguably. But if I finally make it to that place beneath the sun where the people work the land and the chicks find you in the shade, bearing water from the well and peyote from wherever they get that, I won’t be coming back. For a while, anyway.