Jackson Browne, Far from Running on Empty

By | August 22, 2002 at 12:00 AM

Jackson Browne has spent a fair amount of the past several years trying to heed his own advice and take it easy.

He’s still got a world of trouble on his mind, dismayed by the poverty and politics of the United States, concerned about his relationships with friends and family.

But he is also full of enthusiasm for, among other things, the band he is on the road again with this summer and for Spain, a country he reckons has found the secret of life.

This fall Browne will release his first album since 1996, titled “The Naked Ride Home.” That is a long wait for fans of the singer-songwriter who many critics consider to be among the most eloquent of his generation.

“I think in a way the whole examination of the making of my life in the last six or seven years has to do with how to live, how to live with certain facts, such as the geopolitical scene, how to live with the developments of the recent years and in a more general sense how to spend your time, what to do with your life,” Browne said.

“I wouldn’t have thought I’d be trying to figure that out in my 50s but I don’t think you ever stop trying to figure out a better way to spend your time,” he told Reuters in an interview backstage before a recent show in Florida.

Now aged 53, Browne could be the Dorian Gray of rock, his looks hardly changed from those of the young man who emerged as a leading light of the California scene of the 1970s.

Hits like “Doctor My Eyes,” also covered by the Jackson 5, and “Take it Easy,” by his friends the Eagles, put his songs in the charts. He won acclaim with a string of soul-searching albums such as “Late for the Sky,” “The Pretender” and the big-selling “Running on Empty,” moving through the years from acoustic troubadour to electric rocker.

Despite an image as laid-back, his songs often dealt with lost love, death, and fears for the future.

The 1980s saw his work take a political tilt with “Lives in the Balance” as he opposed the U.S. intervention in the Central American wars. He was also a busy campaigner for a number of liberal causes, from combating nuclear waste to supporting human rights groups.

AMERICA HIJACKED BY RIGHT

Browne is still pretty angry about U.S. government policy and the turn it has taken in light of world events.

“I think America’s been hijacked by the right-wing,” he said, needing little prompting to talk on the subject.

“In response to terror by fundamentalists we have a fundamentalist-leaning government that has made use of the adversarial conditions in the world to advance their agenda.”

“… those people want to make it so they can take you away without having any kind of proof.”

More money should be spent on social programs and alleviating poverty and less on weapons, he said.

“Do you want prosperity to include high walls that keep the poor out?… I really think we are fundamentally decent and honorable people but that for a long time our government has acted in a very cynical way in the services of the very few.”

That concern will be reflected only up to a point in the songs on the new album. One song “Walking Town” is through the eyes of someone living on the street. Another, “Casino Nation,” is about the United States, popular culture and weapons.

But they are not polemical, he said.

“I don’t feel so engaged in terms of my music as I was, say, in efforts with the solidarity movement in Central America. I had the idea there was an urgency and chance to really influence people’s participation in the debate.”

“It was like if you tell Americans what’s happening, they’ll do something positive. Unfortunately the lessons of that period of time, it proved exactly the opposite.”

Many of the new songs concern love and relationships – and surviving them -a vein that will please fans of Browne’s more introspective work.

“It’s always been hard to say in so many words what the songs are about because they exist on a number of levels.”

The first release “The Night Inside Me, is about a former relationship.

“Then there’s another song about recovering, then there’s another song about the relationship I’ve been in for the past eight, nine years. It was important to me that I didn’t end with a look to the past.”

His band (keyboard player Jeff Young, guitarist Mark Goldenberg, drummer Mauricio Lewak, bassist Kevin McCormick and new recruit Val McCallum also on guitar) have been key in shaping the songs, he said.

“This is probably the third record we’ve made together in some combination or another. We’d begin to record and I’d go back and write based on what they were doing. So I think that really made a difference.”

It has also been fun hitting the road again with the band, he said. This summer he has been special guest on a tour with fellow veterans Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Not that Browne has been a stranger to live work over the past several years. He has toured regularly on his own playing just acoustic guitar and piano, with long, intimate concerts where he would happily respond to requests from the audience for songs from his back pages.

They have reflected the passing of the years – “the old favorite “Cocaine” was reworked as a cautionary tale. Browne would also perform Steven Van Zandt’s “I am a Patriot” – a reminder that questioning a government does not equate to lack of love of country.

“I feel really, really fortunate that that body of songs still sustains me, that I can still sing them with real contact with what they’re about,” he said.

At the same time “This band has breathed a lot of life into my songs. Songs that you listened to on my recordings – they’re dated.”

THE SPANISH WAYS

Like many travelers and artists before him, Browne’s outlook on life has also been influenced by Spain. He started spending a lot of time there about six years ago, particularly in Barcelona and Sevilla.

Flamenco music has become a passion and he’s working on a project which will involve flamenco and North African music.

“There’s a kind of need for achievement (in the United States) that can result in missing out on the best parts of life… like the Spanish think ‘why would you spend the best part of the day working, you know. And that became very important, taking the time to be with your friends and particularly with your family,” said Browne, who has two sons.

“Back to the siesta, back to eating lunch with your family in the middle of the day. My friends in Spain will say it’s true we don’t have the economy that Germany has but who would like to live like a German? They respect the Germans for their industriousness but really, that’s OK, we’ll take three hours for lunch and we’ll make it somehow.”

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