Most Likely to Secede : If Nothing Else, Jackson Browne’s Orange County Days Gave Him a place to Move Away From
Jackson Browne arrived reluctantly in Fullerton at age 12, and left eagerly at 17.
In between, he earned a superfluous diploma, class of 1966, while nursing a general, but not absolute, loathing for Sunny Hills High School.
In the eyes of Clyde J. Browne, as he is listed in a yearbook that notes no clubs, no activities, no honors, nothing at all beneath his name, the conservative, affluent school was being run to stifle the ‘60s, to keep out any whiff of the excitement and change that the era’s most aware and creative teen-agers strained to sniff. Sunny Hills’ purpose, he felt, was to uphold a tidy Orange County vision of clean-cut appearances and straight, unquestioning right-thinking--something it accomplished with considerable success.
But Browne, who ranks with James Taylor and Joni Mitchell as one of leaders of the ‘70s singer-songwriter movement, also found what he needed during his Orange County days, and they were things that young artists acquire early in life only if they are lucky.
There was a close circle of creative, supportive friends and family, who inspired him to become a songwriter at age 15, and who remain his friends today. There were clubs, the famous Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, but especially the Paradox, a tiny but adventurously run coffeehouse in Orange, where he could listen to touring folk music heroes and step on stage to develop his own songs and gather experience and confidence as he pursued a calling that he knew by his mid-teens would be his career. And there was Sunny Hills High School, and all the conservative suburban expanse around it. A young artist needs something to rebel against, and in that regard, Fullerton proved to be just the right place for Jackson Browne.
“I had an attitude about that school, and I could still work up an attitude about the kind of education I got there,” Browne said last week in a phone interview. He was in a hotel in Dallas on a tour that brings him to Irvine Meadows on Saturday. “I thought it was close-minded and oppressive, and they missed the opportunity to teach.”
But as he looked back on his Orange County days, Browne was not inclined to work up an attitude. At 45, he is more likely to chuckle over his school days than to rail about them. Frequently punctuating his talk with laughter, he viewed his Orange County days with equanimity, and confessed that he now feels a certain fondness when he remembers people he once scorned.
Browne says he hated it when his parents, Jack and Bea Browne, moved their three children from the old Los Angeles suburb of Highland Park to a house on the edge of the new Sunny Hills subdivision.
“I was popped down in a sort of very sterile tract-home community. I sort of had contempt for the entire decision to move there. They sort of bamboozled me by saying it was near Disneyland, but I didn’t have any choice in the matter.”
The typically suburban house on Brookdale Place was no match for the Browne family’s previous digs: a remarkable homestead of adobe, brick and stone that Browne’s grandfather had built with his own hands and dubbed the Abbey San Encino. (The future singing star was named Clyde after his grandfather, but was known from boyhood by his middle name, Jackson.) The house, which still remains in the family, was patterned after an old Spanish mission and featured an inner courtyard with a fountain that Browne used as the setting for the cover of his second album, “For Everyman.”
It was partly Browne’s own doing that his parents decided to abandon the character of Highland Park for the security of Fullerton. Browne says they were worried that he and his older sister, Roberta (known as Berbie to family and friends), were getting caught up in a rough, gang-oriented crowd.
“For two or three years before moving to Orange County, I was hanging around the public playgrounds and underneath the railroad trestle hearing tales about the California Youth Authority and the penal system,” Browne recalled. “I met guys all the time that probably came out of juvenile programs (and) from Y.A. (that) Highland Park was almost like a no-man’s land, a battle ground between the Chicano gangs and the white gangs. Me and my friends were (racially) mixed, but the prevailing neighborhood style and attitudes were Chicano. We weren’t gang members, but nearly everybody we knew were in gangs.”
Browne’s younger brother, Severin, remembers one show of street credibility by Jackson: when some older kids from Jackson’s junior high school picked on Severin, he went to his brother, who apparently engaged in some big-stick schoolboy diplomacy. Severin says that the next time the bigger kids saw him, they apologized profusely for any previous misunderstanding.
Jackson Browne says the family moved soon after his father found that he had been carrying around some of the implements of street combat, a dog chain and a straight-edge razor. “They were doing the straight-arrow thing to keep us from becoming . . . I guess they thought we were at risk,” Browne said.
He carried one indelible sign of his L.A. County street days with him to Orange County: shortly before the move, he used a needle and ink to cut a tattoo of a dagger into his arm. “I have a tattoo artist friend in New York who wants to cover it with something (more artistic),” Browne said with a laugh. “But it’s almost like a birthmark. It’s me, and it’s not bad, as a matter of fact.”
Browne enrolled in the eighth grade at Fullerton’s Wilshire Junior High School in 1961, and soon made his first friend: Erich Brown, with whom he shared a homonymous name and new-kid status--Erich had just moved to Fullerton from Anaheim.
“Everybody pretty much looked the same except for him,” recalled Brown, now an architect in Santa Barbara County. “He was still dressed like a kid from East L.A. He had khaki chino pants, and his hair in a ‘do. Everyone else was pretty conservative.”
The friendship centered on surfing, a new sport for Browne that he took to readily, and playing the guitar, something he had begun to dabble in back in Highland Park. Browne had also taken three years of trumpet lessons and played in school orchestras in Highland Park. He had wanted to switch to the piano, but his father refused. Jack Browne, a pianist who played Dixieland jazz in his spare time, felt that his son had promise as a trumpet player and insisted that he stick to that (the elder Browne made his living as a printer and a high school English and journalism teacher--including a year at Sunny Hills in 1961-62, the year before Jackson enrolled).
During his first few years in Fullerton, Browne in some ways lived the life of a typical, early-'60s Orange County kid. With his friend Erich, he would work out the guitar licks to surf-rock classics like Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and “Pipeline” by the Chantays. Together, they would go to the local surf-dances at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, the Fullerton Teen Center, and Harmony Park in Anaheim. As a freshman, Browne joined the Sunny Hills wrestling team, competing at about 100 pounds.
The next year, “in a fantastic display of bad judgment, I went out for football. It was a sort of heavy lesson. I had no appreciation for the game, no desire to be there, and I began cutting practice right away. The joke is that I loved the coach. Coach (Wayne) Payne was really a good guy, less a sort of barking sergeant. He was built like a fireplug, but he was nice, he had a humane streak in him.” Browne would round out his schoolboy athletic career by running on the cross-country team. But the sophomore year that had begun with a feeble attempt at football ended with him having committed himself to a lasting vocation as a singer-songwriter.
Browne’s musical mentors were Steve Noonan and Greg Copeland, Sunny Hills students two years ahead of him. Noonan, who went on to record an album for Elektra in 1968, was a charismatic performer and sharp guitar player, and the acknowledged leader of a small coterie of Sunny Hills folk musicians. Copeland was his lyricist partner, a big man on campus who shocked the Sunny Hills Establishment by turning in his senior year from a jacket-and-tie-sporting student body leader and conservative polemicist for the debate team into a full-on lefty writing protest songs like “Progress,” in praise of social activism, and “The Ballad of Rosa Parks,” an ode to the first heroine of the civil rights movement.
Browne’s own earliest efforts tended to be about his girlfriends (friends say he had no steady flame during high school). He remembers a song called “Renee” as being possibly his first; “Marianne” was another in that mode.
Everyone around him in those days attests that his maturity and artistic intensity as a teen-aged songwriter was remarkable.
“He was so single-minded and focused,” recalls Erich Brown. “He knew that he wanted to be a singer-songwriter and make his mark, and he went after that with a ferociousness and dedication way beyond his years.”
“He very much got into the discipline of absorbing certain styles for his music and taking it seriously and being devoted to it,” said Joe Romeo, a member of Browne’s high school circle who now is a science professor and AIDS researcher at San Francisco State. “With a lot of the people I knew then, myself included, there would be a Dylan approach, or I remember at one point trying to sound like the New Lost City Ramblers, or trying to play just like Mississippi John Hurt. But Jackson had a center even then. He had some sort of inner idea, an inner ear he was trying to satisfy.”
Browne says he would write songs mainly at his kitchen table, late at night, or in his bedroom. One that popped out was “These Days,” a world-weary song of regrets that remains one of his finest. Browne says he wrote it at 16--a mighty precocious age to write a lyric bearing as much weight of responsibility as the song’s concluding line: “Don’t confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them.”
Browne said he had been reading “Lust For Life,” Irving Stone’s novel based on the life of Vincent van Gogh, in which the tormented painter was said to be seeking a place where he would not be confronted with his failures. “That had a resonance with me, and it found its way into my song.”
Browne’s friend Noonan led him into public performance. His first gigs were at the Aware, an informal Long Beach hangout run by Noonan’s father, where Browne played primarily for an audience of his friends. Browne cites the Paradox as the most important venue in his early development (it also was the club where the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band first gathered a following; Browne was a member for several months during 1966, playing washtub bass, guitar and kazoo in a lighthearted jug-band format before moving to L.A. to launch his professional songwriting career).
“It was a really unusual club, next to a 7-11, no bigger than a medium-sized pet shop,” Browne recalled, contrasting the musically ambitious Paradox with commercial coffeehouses of the time that would book slick Kingston Trio knockoffs or trivial folkie-comedians.
“Their little ad in the paper and their little card said, ‘Traditional music for contemporary minds.’ (Owners Bob Sheffer and Hank Fischer) were both music freaks. They’d book Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Hoyt Axton (the club also booked comedians Steve Martin and Pat Paulsen, and the soon-to-be-acclaimed Orange County singer, Tim Buckley). I became part of a scene on Thursday nights where people were standing up and singing their own music. We sort of filtered down through all the (bull) of what we considered a sort of plastic and superficial kind of culture and sifted down to the real thing, blues and folk music, and people singing songs about what mattered.”
Fischer, now a businessman in Yorba Linda, recalls that Browne needed some extra prodding before his first gig: “He was sitting in what we called the warm-up room, kind of behind the stage, out of view, and he was getting cold feet: ‘I can’t do it, I just can’t do it.’ I’m about six-foot-two, and I just kind of intimidated him. I kind of glared at him, and he did it. He did just fine, and there was never any more trouble after that.”
“In the beginning he was a shy kid, not a dynamic performer,” recalls Noonan, now a stockbroker in Los Angeles. “But people would wait around for Jackson’s new song.”
Joe Romeo remembers that Browne, during his earliest days, “definitely got very tense before concerts. At the Aware, there would be the quaver in the voice, he would just be tight. Jackson can be just really funny. He’s got a natural sense of humor, and had great timing, even then. We’d get each other in hysterics. But when Jackson would get up on stage, the timing was off and he would be a little stiff. It took him a while to get used to playing in front of crowds. It’s something he had to learn.”
Perhaps the most important havens and nurturing grounds for the small group of Sunny Hills folkies and political activists were the Browne family’s houses--first the Brookdale Place home, then a more modest one on Orange Avenue, behind a Lucky’s market. Jack and Bea Browne separated when Jackson was 14, and Bea Browne, who taught English at Buena Park High School, moved with her kids to humbler quarters (Browne’s parents both died in the late 1980s).
“Bea was everybody’s mom, a cross between a mom and a hotelier,” recalls Copeland, who recorded a well-received 1982 album produced by Browne, “Revenge Will Come,” but is now a securities lawyer in Los Angeles. “It was a real open house. They were the quintessential outsider family. There was an acceptance there that was very hard to find in other houses--acceptance of teen-agers going through whatever teen-agers go through.”
Drug experimentation was part of what Browne and his friends went through, although they tried to hide that ‘60s rite of passage from his mother.
“It was not just wild and crazy times at Ridgemont High or anything like that,” recalled Romeo. "(Mrs. Browne) was tolerant of curiosity, experimentation and an open outlook on things, even if she didn’t agree with (something) herself. There was a sense of freedom that was unique. You felt you were dealing with somebody reasonable and intelligent.”
In class, Browne frequently found himself chafing at what he saw as a lack of those qualities. The outspokenness that would later make him known as one of pop’s most active backers of liberal causes (from no-nukes protests to opposing U.S. policy in Central America) was already evident during his years at Sunny Hills High.
“I remember getting in big arguments and philosophical discussions with my teachers about the Free Speech Movement (the radical student movement at UC Berkeley that ignited a national wave of ‘60s campus protest). I had a big (verbal) fight, I got myself thrown out of a social studies class in which the teacher was simply saying, ‘To begin with, they’re crazy.’ He was talking about Mario Savio, the firebrand of that movement, and I raised my hand and said, ‘Well, why do you say that, Mr. Vanderbilt?’ He said, ‘Well, just look at him,’ and he got really kind of aggravated: ‘Just look at him!’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, what about it?’ He began to condemn him for having a problem with his hair and for what amounted to being impassioned. In a way, I shut my books, and just said, ‘If you’re going to try to tell me that these people are simply insane, and that’s the full extent of your explanation about what’s happening in Berkeley, then I can’t take your word about any of this other stuff.’ ”
In another class, Browne found himself having to defend the civil rights movement. “The community was racist. I had these stand-up debates in class about racism. And it would come down to, ‘OK, Jackson, it’s all very well for you to espouse these liberal viewpoints about civil rights, but what if your sister went out with one?’ ” At this, Browne would rebut his incredulous debate opponent by saying that she did. Along with Browne’s friend, Greg Copeland, Berbie Browne had enrolled at San Francisco State in 1964, and was dating a black musician. Jackson and his friends back in Orange County began making regular hitchhiking treks and vacation excursions to San Francisco, with its social and political tumult.
Browne particularly bridled at Sunny Hills’ strict dress code, with its limits on hair length and penalties for such infractions as an untucked shirt.
“I wrote a poem for the school newspaper about the dress code being too restrictive. It was not abrasive or anything, but it didn’t get printed. It was such a rigged thing. It was a particularly repressive and restrictive mentality in that school. Nonetheless, half a dozen teachers that I remember were absolutely great. Wanda Jacobs, Mrs. Randolph, and there was quite a good art teacher too, I can’t remember his name. I had a speech class, one of the coolest classes you could take, because the teacher, Mr. Wood, was a total hipster in disguise. You look at them now, and they were human beings who were all trying to figure out how to pass something of importance on. So I liked about half my teachers, but disagreed with the structure of things.”
Browne says he was not the sort of rebel who would go out of his way to break rules and defy the structure. “I thought that was a waste of time, to sit there and talk with the boys’ vice principal. It’s funny, I have a kind of tender spot for all these people now. At the time, I just didn’t have any patience for it. But I just thought there were better things to do than argue about it.”
Browne’s friend, Joe Romeo, says their circle became branded as outcasts: “We were not a popular little clique at Sunny Hills. I think we were actually a little notorious for being malcontents. We had much-inflated reputations for being involved in shady activities. Looking back, we were so wholesome, but we thought we were being such rebels. Our schoolmates saw us as being involved in dangerous activities.”
There were some consequences. Copeland’s socialite girlfriend dumped him when she learned he’d been singing protest songs in a park with Noonan, Browne and the rest of their set. And Romeo says that a Fullerton judge warned his girlfriend’s mother “that she was in danger being involved with me, because I was hanging out with Jackson Browne, and his house was a hotbed of hippie activity, and his house was being watched by the police.” Romeo said that bit of information only made him “more fascinating” to his girlfriend, and they later were married. (They’ve since divorced.)
Erich Brown remembers his friend Jackson being unfazed by pressures to conform.
“I was pulled over a number of times by the police with him. We used to get hassled all the time because our hair was long. He just wasn’t afraid of them or the situation. He seemed pretty fearless about most things. It was a combination of his drive to have a career and the street sense he picked up (in Highland Park).”
Browne left Orange County soon after graduating from high school, although he would return often during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to play at clubs like the Golden Bear and the Four Muses in San Clemente. He says it was less a matter of hating Orange County than of knowing that Los Angeles (and, for a time in 1967, New York) was the place to launch a songwriter’s career.
“I liked Orange County,” Browne said. “But maybe there was a prevalent attitude of ‘Get me out of here.’ We joked about the ‘Orange Curtain,’ about how bereft of any kind of culture Orange County was. Nonetheless, I have fond memories of people there, and I think there’s some surprising things beneath the surface of every place. I think to be a progressive person in Orange County took more commitment. We were talking about getting freaked, of having long hair or espousing radical political beliefs, and it took more commitment in Orange County than, say, in Hollywood. At the same time, I began going to Hollywood (to perform) in my senior year and probably spent every weekend there and met new friends. I got a manager the summer after high school, and got a publishing deal with a record company. Most of what was going on in terms of the music business was in Hollywood.”
By 1968, Browne was getting attention as artists such as Tom Rush, Nico and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began covering his material. When he emerged, in 1972, with his own album, “Saturate Before Using,” he was instantly recognized as one of the era’s preeminent singer-songwriters.
After Browne had become prominent in the ‘70s via such widely heard songs as “Doctor My Eyes,” “Rock Me on the Water,” “Take It Easy” and “Redneck Friend,” Julie Ritner Simpson, a Sunny Hills English teacher who had been one of his favorites, made a tentative approach to bring him back to the school for a performance.
Simpson, who still teaches at Sunny Hills, got the impression that “he didn’t want to have anything to do with Sunny Hills.” Around that time, she says, she took an entire honors class to see Browne play at a local college. “I recall him making some kind of disparaging remarks about high school and Fullerton.”
“I think somebody might have sounded me out about coming and doing an assembly or something,” Browne said. “I remember thinking that it wasn’t something I wanted to do at the time.”
In 1986, Sunny Hills began to honor distinguished alumni by placing their names on plaques set in a “Walk of Fame” outside the campus administration building. “I think I submitted (Browne’s) name,” Simpson recalls, “but he didn’t get elected.”
Is there any lasting lore about Jackson Browne at Sunny Hills High?
“No, unfortunately,” Simpson said. A few years ago, when an alumnus from the ‘60s was visiting her class, “In talking to the kids, he said something about Jackson Browne. They had typical blank looks on their faces. They had no idea who he was, which was really disheartening to me. It’s not like Gary Carter (the former baseball star, Sunny Hills ’72, who is among the 10 alumni honored with plaques at the school).”
Browne says he doesn’t crave recognition by his old school. But as the years went by, he said, he always wanted to attend the reunions of the Class of 1966.
“I don’t hold the people I went to school with responsible for the kind of school it was,” he said. “I was interested in seeing and meeting the people I hadn’t seen in many years.” Musical commitments always got in the way, Browne said, until 1991, when he turned up at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim for his 25-year reunion.
“I had a great time. Some people I considered to be in opposing camps culturally and politically seemed to me to have really grown and matured. Everybody grows. Everybody has a chance to, anyway.”
IN SAN JUAN: ME’SHELL NDEGEOCELLO
This versatile singer-songwriter-bassist has drawn attention for her politicized merger of hip-hop and funk played with real instruments, and for her duet with John Mellencamp on the Van Morrison oldie, “Wild Night.” She’s at the Coach House on Sunday, Aug. 28. (714) 496-8930.
IN IRVINE: TORI AMOS
No demure balladeer, Amos hit big with her 1992 solo debut, “Little Earthquakes,” demonstrating a diva’s flair for the dramatic. Her latest is “Under the Pink.” She plays at UC Irvine’s Crawford Hall on Saturday, Aug. 27, with singer-songwriter Bill Miller opening. (714) 856-5000.
IN FULLERTON: FEELING KIND OF PUNK
Agent Orange, whose front man Mike Palm was a key influence for the Offspring, heads up a strong bill of punk and post-punk rock Friday, Aug. 26, at Club 369, with One Hit Wonder, Burnin’ Groove and Just Plain Big also on tap. (714) 572-1781.
* Who: Jackson Browne.
* When: Saturday, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m. With John Hiatt.
* Where: Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, 8800 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine.
* Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Irvine Center Drive exit. Turn left at the end of the ramp if you’re coming from the south, right if you’re coming from the north.
* Wherewithal: $37.50, $29 and $25.
* Where to call: (714) 855-6111 (venue information) or (714) 740-2000 (Ticketmaster).