SAN DIEGO COUNTY : Jackson Browne, Hit by Sagging Album Sales, Faces Litmus Test

Times Staff Writer

Jackson Browne said that, in writing "Enough of the Night," he had pictured "this imaginary woman," before he realized "the person I was writing to was me ."

"You've had enough of the night to fill the street with tears," the song goes. "You've had enough of those empty hours to last a thousand years."

Browne, who turned 40 last year, said that he was writing about a way of life that included drugs, especially cocaine, which he and his nose have left behind.

He said he wasn't writing about giving up political commitment, the need for which is the theme of his new album, "World in Motion," which contains "Enough of the Night."

Judging by disappointing sales of "World in Motion," he hopes that an otherwise loyal following has not had enough of Browne.

He'll get a litmus test tonight at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre and Sunday night at the Open Air Theatre at San Diego State University, where he closes his national tour.

Browne's ninth album, "World in Motion," took three years to complete. The tour that followed its release has been a three-month marathon plagued, in some cities, by bad weather and bad sales. Almost everywhere he went, however, Browne's show, which features his reunion with alter ego David Lindley, drew praise from critics.

Browne used the album to make familiar statements about nuclear disarmament, hunger, racism and the "secret" government that gave rise to Oliver North and the Iran-Contra scandal. For whatever reason, many critics didn't bite. Some wrote that Browne is better off as a composer of beautiful ballads than as a political theoretician. It must have seemed like a bit of a backhanded compliment when "The New Rolling Stone Record Guide" labeled him "the most accomplished lyricist of the Seventies." "I'm amazed that some of the things I talk about on the album are controversial," Browne said backstage before one of his recent shows. "People don't have to feel personally attacked when someone raises these questions, when someone suggests that things have got to change.

"But the thing that amazes me the most is that this album is not limited to social issues, even though some critics think it is. I'm writing about peace, not only in the context of international relations but in relationships, in love. I think there's a stunning parallel between peace in our own lives and peace outside our doors. I wanted to make a record that explored the connection between these things. I wasn't trying to fix anything."

Browne said he was disillusioned with media that seem more concerned with trivia--such as his relationship with actress Daryl Hannah, or whether he's listed in "The Andy Warhol Diaries" (he is, on page 23)--than with the workings of a shadow government.

He said his expectations for the album were "out there," and he was less than thrilled with its initial reception. He sounded ruffled at Elektra Records for having "no desire" to release "The Word Justice," the album's most blatantly political song, as a single. The album's title song was released as a single but did not do well, and the album reached a peak of No. 45 on the Billboard magazine album chart a month ago before dropping to 73, 80, and this week to 85.

Nevertheless, Thomas Noonan, album chart manager for Billboard, said he expects "World in Motion" to turn around before the end of the year. He said the album's bad luck says as much about the record industry as it does about Browne.

"He didn't get off the mark with the right single, and the single is what drives the album in a promotional sense," Noonan said. "Even so, the album has sold more than 360,000 copies, and 500,000 is a gold record. It's not a bomb album, by any stretch. Trust me, it will go gold."

But all of Browne's previous albums have gone platinum (more than 1 million copies sold), so even if "World in Motion" goes gold, it would be considered a qualified success.

Noonan said any album has to be played by radio stations--and played repeatedly in its opening weeks--to be a success. He said the gray area that Browne and many artists who appeal to the "thirtysomething" generation fall into is that radio stations "don't quite know where to put them."

They're not Hard Rock, and they're hardly Easy Listening or Country, so what, exactly, are they? Despite the gray, peers and long-time friends of Browne such as Bonnie Raitt, Don Henley and Phoebe Snow, own albums that have climbed near the top of the charts in recent weeks.

No matter the age of the artists or the category they fall into, Noonan said videos go a long way toward selling records in the 1980s. It doesn't matter whether they're on MTV or its yuppie counterpart, Video Hits 1, videos sell , Noonan said. Browne's first from the new album--"Anything Can Happen," about the perils of falling in love in a country beset by war--won't be released until next week . . . if then.

Browne, who's known as a perfectionist, "hasn't approved the video yet," Noonan said.

Television has helped Browne in other ways, as it will any artist who falls into radio's gray area. Lisa Millman, a spokeswoman for Elektra, said that sales of "World in Motion" were boosted by Browne's recent appearances on "Late Night With David Letterman" and "The Arsenio Hall Show."

One of the curious problems facing Browne and other artists who are roughly his age--and who appeal to crowds in their 30s and 40s--is that a mob of them is touring the country this year, pushing new albums. A partial list includes Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, The Who, Carole King, Chicago, the Beach Boys, Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones. Much of their appeal seems geared to nostalgia, reunions among band members or both.

Some of that exists with Browne and Lindley--"Running on Empty," Browne's biggest-selling album, was one of the hottest of 1977. Some of the songs from that album are among the most popular of the current tour.

Browne and Lindley say they don't foresee performing together in a live show with a full band any time soon after this tour. Lindley's fiddle and lap steel guitar were essentials on every Browne album, from his debut effort in 1972 through "Hold Out" in 1980. Some critics feel that Browne's efforts have not been as solid since Lindley embarked on a solo career. It is their unusual chemistry--Browne's passionate singing fueled by Lindley's instrumentation--that led Rolling Stone to label the live show "a guaranteed killer."

For Browne, tonight's outing at Irvine Meadows will be something of a homecoming. He grew up in Fullerton, graduated from Sunny Hills High School and cut his musical teeth at the Orange County folk club, the Paradox. Despite "Enough of the Night," he remembers nights at the Paradox "as if they were yesterday."

As for critics who don't appreciate his "World," he said with a smile, "This is what I've served up. It doesn't mean you have to come to dinner . . . although I'd like it if you would."

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