As a kid growing up in Fullerton, Jackson Browne used to like nothing more than to get in his car and drive, until the tank was running on empty. He would sail down 101, past the orange groves of Orange County to one of his treasured surfing spots.
“Del Mar . . . a great place to surf,” Browne said. “Now the drive kind of saddens me. It used to be miles and miles of orange groves. Now it’s industry. And development. And a nuclear power plant. But the surf is still great.”
Jackson Browne will be in San Diego tonight, but he won’t be surfing. He’ll perform at the Civic Theatre at 8 o’clock, behind the rather auspicious warm-up act of Graham Nash and David Crosby.
Crosby, Nash and Browne are here to benefit the Christic Institute, an interfaith law firm now suing key Iran-Contra figures over a 1984 terrorist bombing that left a cluster of people dead or wounded in Nicaragua.
Why has Browne chosen San Diego County as a place to spread the message? It is, after all, home of both Navy and Marine installations and a region that
figures to vote heavily for someone he regards as one of the shakers of “Contragate,” Vice President George Bush.
San Diego, Browne said, “is on the frontier of a fight. Immigration, growth issues. . . . There’s a lot happening down there.”
Browne’s tour has taken him, in a month, from Philadelphia (home of Tony Avirgan, the free-lance journalist and plaintiff wounded at the La Penca, Nicaragua, press conference) to Boston and Seattle and a dozen stops in between.
Reviews have been decidedly positive. Rolling Stone labeled its rave, “No longer running on empty,” a double-entendre aimed at the live album that stood at the top of the charts for most of 1977. Browne hasn’t known the same success since, but look at what’s happened--not the least of which was a cocaine addiction that he recently acknowledged.
He isn’t playing Madison Square Garden or the San Diego Sports Arena any more. It’s either L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium (where the tour closes Sunday night) or the Civic Theatre, the kind of intimate, plush, resonant venue he’s always preferred.
The current tour is an opportunity to showcase material from a forthcoming album called “Anything Can Happen.” The title song, as he puts it, addresses the “seeming impossibility . . . of falling in love” in a country clouded by war. “Enough of the Night” answers the need to settle down after years of fast-lane reverie and riotous protest. “The Word Justice” could be a tour anthem--a plea to move beyond the shadowy dealings of a secret government.
Browne has endorsed neither presidential candidate this year, even though actress Daryl Hannah, his longtime girlfriend, recently campaigned for Michael Dukakis.
Browne’s recent work has been praised by Bill Moyers, who featured a video of “Lives in the Balance,” the title track of his 1986 album, on the PBS documentary, “The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis.” “Lives in the Balance” is a musical benediction of the singer’s feelings about the current administration and others like it that may have imposed a secret policy.
It has been said that Jackson Browne is a symbol of a generation, someone whose songs of love and loss, in the midst of war and “the struggle for the legal tender,” are best understood by the “thirtysomething” crowd. Browne could be a character on the show.
He’s a single father whose son was two when Browne’s first wife, Phyllis Major, committed suicide. That boy is now a teen-ager. Browne has another son from a second marriage, which ended in divorce. He has had numerous friends die and sings about it in “Song for Adam” and “For a Dancer.” A lot of fans think it is these songs that focus his true power, not his essays on politics. Even so, that’s the direction he’s moving in--political.
A year ago, he stood outside the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas, looking up at a moonlit sky. He said he’d never felt better. He had just promoted the successful tour of a brother-sister duo, Katia and Salvador Cardenal, whose uncle, Ernesto Cardenal, is the Nicaraguan minister of culture. After that night, it was back to the studio. A perfectionist by nature, Browne worked for months on the new album--which still isn’t finished. He took time out for the tour, in the meantime marking his 40th birthday.
The current tour contains hits from Browne’s string of mid-'70s albums, which are still the ones the crowd yearns to hear--usually by shouting out the song titles. He appears to like this about as much as he likes laryngitis. But in a show in Santa Barbara last Saturday night, clearly the most powerful part of the evening was Browne standing alone on stage, singing “For a Dancer,” “Jamaica Say You Will” and “Late for the Sky,” to his own piano solo.
The reason for the good vibrations, both behind the footlights and in front of them, may have to do with being drug-free. In ’77, Browne recorded a version of the old black blues song “Cocaine” (by the Rev. Gary Davis) that he said later “sounded like an ad for coke.” He’s turned the song around once again, this time as a wry but convincing anti-coke hymn:
Cocaine runnin’ all ‘round my brain .
There was damage to the body
Damage to the soul
Damage to the quality of the rock ‘n’ roll
Of course, Crosby’s troubles with cocaine have been far more publicized than Browne’s. Now one of music’s more passionate anti-drug spokesmen, Crosby “got clean” at the Texas state prison in Huntsville.
Since that time, he’s recorded a solo album and a reunion LP with Nash, Stephen Stills and Neil Young, as in Crosby Stills Nash & Young. He’s written a bunch of new songs. Ironically, it was Nash and Browne--whom he calls his closest friends--who tried to accomplish what, in the end, only prison could.
In his just-published autobiography, “Long Time Gone,” co-written with Carl Gottlieb, Crosby tells of how Nash and Browne spearheaded an effort to free him of drugs. It consisted of a houseful of friends encircling him, angrily, tearfully, in what drug counselors call “crisis intervention.”
At the urging of Nash and Browne, Crosby agreed to be admitted to the drug-treatment program at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. Nash wrote out a $35,000 check to cover his uninsured care. Browne paid for a chartered flight from San Francisco to Palomar Airport in Carlsbad after Crosby balked at taking a commercial flight. Crosby and co-user Jan Dance (whom he recently married) were admitted to Scripps and confined to separate quarters, which didn’t matter anyway. They checked themselves out of the program several days later and disappeared. Not long afterward, Crosby was busted.
“After the intervention, it was clear that we did everything we could,” Browne says in the book. “That was when I realized I was double-parked with my own family and I could be towed away. I didn’t have the time to spend indefinitely with somebody who really didn’t have the desire to change. You begin to write somebody off and say, ‘This is a terrible waste, but I can’t invest any more hope or belief. It’s too painful to stand around, hoping that he gets his act together.’ No matter how much we talked, we’d come to the same place: ‘Well, you know, like, what more can anyone do?’ All I could do was be angry because my deepest feelings of friendship were being turned away.”
Crosby, Nash and Browne have shared more than a little pain together. The three have made an indelible contribution to one another’s music--Crosby and Nash singing harmony on Browne’s 1972 debut album, which Browne said made it a hit. Through literal arm-twisting, Browne made Crosby sit down and finish the brilliant “Delta,” the only song he did finish during his addiction.
The trio say that appearing together now is like a victory--not just for friends who’ve weathered a storm and been wasted on the way, but for the high Browne says can only come if you’re really clean:
Look at me now
Sharp as a tack .
Except for several million brain cells
I’d like to have back.