In November 1973, I was midway through my stint as Melody Maker’s man in LA, a six-moth sojourn that ended when it became clear that the distance from London and an eight-hour time change made it less practical than NY as a base for the paper’s US correspondent. It was a productive period though, and I immersed myself as best I could in the LA rock scene of the period. Among the many I interviewed there was Jackson Browne, though it wasn’t until his great 1976 album, The Pretender, that I became a real fan of his music. Then, contrary to critical opinion, I went on to love his eighties albums Lawyers In Love and Lives In The Balance.
Here’s my 1973 interview with Jackson, in two parts.
Jackson Browne arrived half an hour late. He’d been figuring out how to repair the plumbing at his house, and had finally succeeded in getting the water flowing freely again.
An irrelevant story? Far from it – for it reflects this man’s attitude to the whole business of music – do it yourself. With few exceptions, Jackson will try his hand at anything rather than get someone over to help. He’s alway learning.
Right now, Jackson Browne is on the brink of becoming very big indeed. His first album, released a couple of years ago, was received with critical acclaim everywhere and his second, For Everyman, was released a month ago in the US and is more than emphasising Jackson’s potential.
Jackson belongs firmly in the school of California singer-songwriters, having been brought up in the Troubador, rubbing shoulders with what has now become the hierarchy of West Coast music. He’s also managed by the “supergroup” office of Elliott Roberts and David Geffen, who largely control the interests of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Joni Mitchell and countless others.
Jackson was born in Heidleberg, Germany, but raised in Los Angeles where his American family relocated when he was three. His only formal musical training was trumpet lessons at school, but that, he says, was like learning maths or history. “It was a studious trip,” he says in a relaxed Californian accent. “It never got to the point where it was fun.
“My father was encouraging me to play it but there was nothing social about a trumpet. I was hanging around with a whole load more juvenile delinquents, vandalising cars and things, and I could never imagine bringing my trumpet to a party for anything.”
It wasn’t until Jackson reached 15 that the radio brought him folk music in the form of Joan Baez and Dylan, who, he says, opened everything right up for him. “Right around that time there were the blues players, too, like Dave Van Ronk, Jack Elliott, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, a whole bunch of blues players. I didn’t get into all that as a social thing, but as something I could do all by myself.
“I’d dig the records at home because I didn’t make it at some things. I didn’t dress very well, I didn’t have a car. The one thing I loved to do was surf and in the winter months, it got too cold for that. I was really skinny, too. I’d get carried in real easy.”
It was on the beach that Jackson first picked up a guitar. “Everybody plays on the beach. Everybody I knew seemed to know how to play the guitar a little, just enough to have fun. The first couple of years I could play I never had a guitar of my own. I’d borrow one and when the owner wanted it back, I’d just go and borrow another. My brother played and he gave me his old one when he bought an electric.”
Jackson’s recording debut was on a sampler for Elektra, a sort of music workshop album which involved four or five singer/songwriters who had stayed together in California and who were supposed to represent the music that Elektra stood for.
It wasn’t successful. “They were a very image-minded company in those days and they wanted this to demonstrate what they were up to, but the people involved ought to have been able to make their own albums.
“As an album it was very unsuccessful because we didn’t have time to get to know each other, and, to be honest, I was terrible. Even if I’d made my own album, it would have been awful. It takes a long time to become a musician, and I hadn’t been able to learn everything at all.”
At this time – 1968/9 – Jackson was playing regularly at the Troubador Hoot nights, Monday evening shows when whoever turns up has an opportunity to play.
Whereas today the Hoots are more organised, five years ago singers who turned up around 5 p.m. and waited would get to go on stage at the prime time. “I’d go on sixth which was the best time, before people left and after they’d been there a while so they’d gotten into it.
“That’s always been a strange audience because they tend to ignore you, but if you catch their attention or be outrageous or something, they’ll cheer you on and go for it. I used to do it every week, five times in a row, but now you can’t do that. They limit you. After a while I started to get a positive reaction there, but it was tough.
“Most concerts I do I like to wander around the town and visit the record store, or a guitar shop or a restaurant, just to meet someone who will be at the show, and know them. They’re so many robots in America, people who just say ‘have a nice day’ and do it automatically without meaning it.”
The first offer that came along for Jackson was the Elektra sampler and he admits he jumped at it without realising all the implications. He realised there was more to being a singer than just singing his heart out as often as possible, so a period of travelling, learning and self-organised club appearances followed.
“Around the time I started to get hungry, I decided I’d have to get a little more serious about it. My whole attitude was so relaxed, but I knew one of these days I’d make a record.
“I did a week at the Troubadour and they passed on my option because I hadn’t taken up any record-offers that came in so they thought I wasn’t interested. [Troubadour owner] Doug Weston, who’s been very helpful to me really, was disgusted and didn’t hire me, but I knew I needed a manager, and a friend told me about David Geffen. I had the impression that you needed an audition to get through to him, and an introduction, but I made a demo tape and sent it to him.
“I did ‘Jamaica’ and did it all wrong. I got John David Souther on drums, and Glen Frey, Ned Doheney and David Jackson and it was all back to front and it sounded terrible. I sent it off, though, and left town for a while. When I got back I was really surprised to learn Geffen had been trying to get in touch with me. He told me to relax and enjoy myself and that he’d figure something out after a while. And he did just that.
“I wasn’t one of those people who could go to a record company, get a deal and go into the studio the following week, spend a month making a record and have it out. I don’t know how to go about making a record; I was no musician, though I’m getting to be one now.
“There was talk about me getting some big superstar to produce my record, but I figured it would end up sounding like his records and be a hype, so I didn’t want that.”
Tomorrow: Success beckons, and so does Nico.