Home = life
I grew up in a house that my grandfather — a printer — built in the early 1900s in Highland Park, California, out of river rock and cut granite. It's quite odd, a bit medieval, but gorgeous, with a chapel — which we recently restored — and a dungeon. Which I grew to realize was sort of a metaphor for human existence — below, you have the dungeon; above, the chapel. It was beautiful to grow up around the product of my grandfather's creativity — you're sort of instructed, you know?
I have great memories of my father and his friends playing music and gathering at the house. It was a perfect place for a party, with a big open patio, and he'd have these jam sessions, often playing Dixieland and the jazz of the ‘20s and ‘30s. The house would be filled with guys with horns, and the top of the piano would be filled with bottles. They'd be carrying on all day and into the night. He was a piano player but liked horns, walking around playing trumpet, cornet, French horn. If we were out playing — it stayed light until 9 p.m. in the summer — and it was time to come home, he'd go out on the front porch and play the Dragnet theme song on the trombone to call us in: Dum, da dum, dum!
Surf to rock
I was not popular in high school, but I had a good friend who was popular. So I got included in lots of stuff: I surfed with a bunch of guys — and we're all still friends — and I fell into a crowd of musicians. By the time I was about 15, I was writing songs. My brother and I shared a room, so I would write late at night at the kitchen table when everybody was asleep. It was something I could do by myself. I just never got it together enough to find other people to play in a band with. And I didn't want to go to college. I wanted to travel around and sing in clubs in Southern California, and I did that. You know, the Golden Bear, the Paradox, the Ash Grove, Troubadour. That was the thing that called to me — the freedom to travel and be self-sufficient. Now I kind of wish that I had been in a kids’ band with loud guitars playing “Gloria"! That would have been so much fun.
Nico and me
Most songwriters spend years trying to write songs and wonder if anybody will like them. But for me, right away people started recording them or playing them at clubs before I did. I didn't have a job, and through a friend I got a gig in New York to accompany Nico, the Velvet Underground singer. We did three of my songs — the first to be recorded and released. I played guitar; she sang. She was fantastic, and her stuff has stood the test of time.
When I was young, I had read these articles about the Beatles saying things like “Well, you know, they put us in this big room, and it had a bunch of great instruments in it.” And I thought, That's the job for me. Then to record my first record, I was suddenly in that kind of environment. I got to play with these really great studio musicians — Russ Kunkel, Lee Sklar, Craig Doerge — it's kind of the best thing that I could have ever discovered.
I remember coming home from a gig after my first album was released. The girl I was seeing at the time picked me up at the airport and said, “Check this out,” then reached over and turned on the radio. And “Doctor My Eyes” was on the radio! And she laughed and said, “I thought if I just turned it on, you'd be on. And there you are, you know?” And I thought, Far out.
Mastering his image
I tried to not make my appearance the center of what I was doing. In Laurel Canyon [in Los Angeles] I saw that bands were marketing their appeal as good-looking kids. Like Paul Revere and the Raiders, who were always in Tiger Beat magazine. I steered clear of that teen marketing stuff. We didn't even have my photo on the records — on my first album there was an illustration of me. It took, like, three albums before my record-company president finally asked, “Do you think we could put your photo on the cover?” And I thought, Yeah, OK. Maybe the back cover. My heroes were not handsome young dudes. They were gnarly old dudes.
It didn't really occur to me to use my music for that until I started being asked to play at benefits. My interest arose when I was really young and I read books about the Indian Wars and the subjugation of our Native American people. I had a mentor who took me to the library, directed me to the books that accurately portrayed their lives and told the truth about the broken treaties. That was really the beginning of my political education, because I saw that the government could be duplicitous. Now so many of the environmental things that we're fighting for have to do with health and equality, which is a major reason that Black people are succumbing to COVID-19 at a far, far greater rate than white people. Our environmental battles and battles for justice have really come together into one.
COVID-19 silver lining
I got the virus in New York in March 2020, at a benefit for the relief agency God's Love We Deliver. Ironically, they deliver meals to sick and convalescing people. Everybody distanced and was very, very careful. But back then we didn't understand the magnitude of the thing. Somebody had it, and five of us got sick. My case was mild, but one of my other friends got it really bad — it's spooky. The pandemic did have one upside. My album was mostly made, but the finishing was delayed until I could come back to work safely on it. So, I was able to really sit and listen to it and reassess it. And then when I got back together with my engineer, I made quite a few changes and enjoyed doing it that way.
Love of our children motivates us to work hard for a future where they'll be safe and nurtured and will flourish. You know, I tried. But I think I could have done a lot better — I have lots of regrets. It's very difficult to divide your time between the imperatives of a creative life and the awesome responsibility of guiding and caring for the life of a child. And some of the small mistakes are the most difficult to rectify — a seemingly little mistake, but a wrong turn. I don't want to unpack them here, but I'll just say that my relationships with my two boys are the most important relationships I have. So, yeah, I've been through years of self-examination about my role as a parent, and I tend to think that the measure of your love is the degree to which you continue to try. You never stop being a parent.
Life lessons from Warren Zevon
I first met him in 1968, but what I learned from Warren came much later, as he continued to make the most incredible records. And I guess the way I would sum it up is, never talk down to your audience, but keep your own very high standards, and never surrender to the popular ideas of what you're supposed to be, who you're supposed to be or what you're supposed to do. And don't forget that we are entertainers. “If you're not entertaining,” he said to me, “you're not doing anything."
Fave flick tune
Mine is “Late for the Sky” in Taxi Driver, which was such a surreal use of my song. Because Travis Bickle, De Niro's character, is watching television. And he's kind of got this gun to his temple, just resting his head on the barrel of this huge .44 Magnum revolver. And on TV is American Bandstand, but like no episode you've ever seen: They're all dancing in slow motion and you're hearing “Late for the Sky” — just unreal.
Songwriting in your 70s
It's harder and harder to write, because your standards plague you. You wind up trying to write something as good as this other song that you wrote. That's just death. You basically have to forget everything you've ever done and write something that's true for you now. That's the only way to get anything good. You can't get down the highway by just looking in your rearview mirror.
Tuning in to health
I feel pretty good at 72. I do yoga. I eat well. And I pay really close attention: If I have an ache or pain, I try to find out what it is. You shouldn't get laid low by something because you're not paying attention. When you're young, your body can withstand all kinds of things you can't do when you're older.
'Downhill From Everywhere'
The title of the new album came from a remark made by an oceanographer, Captain Charles Moore. He's the guy who discovered the great Pacific garbage patch. He was pointing out that the ocean receives everything that humankind produces. It's the last resting place for all of our junk — downhill from everywhere. And my point is, we're not just up to the edge of the cliff. We're actually in free fall in terms of climate and what we're doing to the planet, but also in a sort of downward spiral for society, you know?
I really miss contact with an audience. I've done six or seven virtual shows. And I always think, right up to the moment when I'm supposed to stream from my house, that I'm going to be with these people, that I'm going to be on the stage performing to a live audience. And literally, I can't get used to not thinking in those terms. I recently went to a drive-in performance of the band Dawes, who did a fantastic show. But it was just as weird as can be to be in your car or to be seated next to your car on a lawn chair. It's good to know that this thing that we love, live music, is waiting for us when we get through this, that it's on the other side of this quarantine.
— As told to Craig Rosen
Jackson Browne's new album, Downhill From Everywhere, will be out in July. The Library of Congress recently selected his album Late for the Sky for the National Recording Registry. Browne's rescheduled U.S. tour with James Taylor kicks off in July, if COVID-19 restrictions allow.