Retrofit Special: Jackson Browne Through the Years – "Jackson Browne"

Sad, sweet, smart, sulky, sexy, and full of spelt.

To start this week-long exami-blog on the charms and failures of California’s uber-singer/songwriter of the 1970’s, if not beyond, we’ll do the appropriate thing and start with a confession: It was the fall of 1978, another damp night in Seattle, and I was sulking in the corner of high school party. Kids dancing, kids laughing, kids flirting and having so much fun that none of it made sense to me. So I grabbed my coat, slunk out the door and made for the safety of home, and  “Late for the Sky.”

“How long have I been sleeping?/How long have I been drifting alone through the night?”

I was 15 years old, and every word of this, every cry of the slide guitar, every simple, stately chord on the piano, rang with truth and beauty.

“How long have I been dreaming I could make it right/If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might to be the one you need?”

Could loneliness ever sound more thoughtful? Could melancholy ever sound more romantic?

With the headphones clamped to my ears those elegantly composed confessionals of Jackson Browne (so handsome, dark-eyed and shy on the back of the album cover) filling my head I had access to a whole new world, peopled by the moody, the sensitive, the smart. And sexy chicks, too. Sigh. I wanted to go to there. I still do.

This is crazy talk, I know. But I’ve been listening to all those old Jackson Browne albums again, and wondering again if my affection for them — my love, really — is a matter of nostalgia, aesthetic wrongheadedness or. . .just maybe . . . because they actually deserve it on their own terms.

We’ll work chronologically, starting with “Jackson Browne,” the auteur’s debut album. So dig into your old vinyl collection. Blow the dust off your turntable and consult the optometrist (Doctor, my eyes….)

“Jackson Browne” (a/k/a “Saturate Before Using,” 1972): Check out that funky cover art, in which the cover resembles nothing more (or less) than a burlap sack full of what I’ve always imagined as some hippie-era whole grain. Kashi? Spelt? Definitely something you’d eat with a wooden spoon while sitting on a hillside, watching the sun fall into the ocean. Spin the record and the songs sound exactly the same way: melodic but musically spare, melancholy and yet full of possibility.

For all his youthful yearning and beanpole-in-torn-jeans vibe, JB was already something of an underground superstar: physically annointed by the Velvet Underground’s Nico (who bedded him when he was a teen and covered three of his songs), celebrated loudly by a height-of-his-influence David Crosby (who sings backup on most of the album) and on the ground floor of the Eagles/Rondstadt/CSN reign that would dominate the pop world throughout the ’70s, he arrived fully formed: a living, breathing personaification of the funky-chic-California confessional songwriter.

So spin the disc and feel how beautiful melancholy can sound.

The piano ballad “Jamaica Say You Will” kicks off the first side with memories of a bittersweet, teenaged love affair the singer enjoyed while residing in some kind of seaside orphanage (?) with a lovely named Jamaica, whose father sailed the rolling sea (her mom has GOT to be Brandy, what a fine girl, but apparently not much of a good wife after all). She’s waiting for captain dad to return, rendering herself emotionally absent even as Jackson regards her as a “comfort and a mercy through and through.” Eventually Captain dad returns and JB/we are left to ponder the sea alone, musing on the mysterious death/suicide of an old traveling companion (the somber, guitar ballad “Song for Adam”); mourn lost innocence (“Looking Into You”,) and eventually shake off  the bonds of mortal consciousness with the college boy gospel of “Rock Me On the Water,” a socio-cultural trespass thoroughly saved by Craig Doerge’s straight-up funky piano playing. From which point the words ‘Jackson Browne’ and “funky” would never, ever be uttered in the same sentence.

No matter, “Doctor My Eyes” delivers as the lead-off single (and a mid-sized hit, at that) from the troubador’s troubador: Bouncy, hummable and full of hard-won wisdom. Even at 23, the boy has come so far and seen so much he’s on the verge of some kind of collapse: his empathy is on overload. “I hear their cries,” he wails to the aforementioned health care professional, “Just say if it’s too late for me.”

Are you puzzling over how the cries of the unnamed “they” (I’m guessing some combination of the poor, the hungry, and etc) pales in comparison to the singer’s own angst? It’s easy to skip over that part. . . the melody and the congas and the nicely stripped-down lead guitar are what really carry this tune. . . but still. Remember it. It’s what we call dramatic foreshadowing.

“From Silver Lake,” “Something Fine,” on and on, “JB” is peopled richly with mysterious wanderers, poignant departures (He wanted just to be/On his way across the sea no man will measure/He won’t be back/The sun may find him sleeping in the dust of some ruin far away. . .) and the requisitely beautiful, yet sad ladies who will never truly calm their men’s wanderlust.

It sounds sillier in print than it does set to music. Or maybe it’s set to my own nostalgia for the period in my life when all this romantic yearning described my own melancholic fantasies of the beautiful sorrows that lay ahead.

Either way, “JB” is a kind of masterpiece: an unfiltered portrait of late adolescence/early adulthood, viewed through the eyes of a starry-eyed rogue with one peeper focused on the world and the other locked on the mirror. Or, as he puts it in his fragile, wonderfully melodic finale, “My Opening Farewell,” with its missing lovers, vanished children and departing friends: There’s a world, you know/You’ve got a ways to go/And I’ll soon be leaving, that’s just as well…

Pass the spelt, baby, I feel a new song coming on!