The NOISE at the Santa Monica Pier was deafening -- the screech of metal cars on the roller coaster, the laughter of teenagers, the tinny symphony of bells, whistles and buzzers from the boardwalk booths and bass-heavy pop songs blaring from unseen speakers. Above it all, a serene Jackson Browne sat in a slowly swaying gondola atop the Ferris wheel and looked out on the Pacific and the past.
“I used to come down here a lot when I was a kid. I grew up in Highland Park until I was about 13. It was a long way on a city bus, a couple of hours. It was the early 1960s and a lot of the vatos would be here from South Central. I tried to win teddy bears and talk to girls. I lost my father’s straight-edge razor once on the roller coaster. It slipped out of my tanker jacket pocket. I used to carry the razor, a dog chain, a pack of Lucky Strikes. A tough guy, huh?”
Browne, perhaps the prettiest of pretty boys on the Southern California songwriter scene in the 1970s, chuckled at the memory. He is now a year shy of 60 and just released his first studio album in six years, which has the sobering title of “Time the Conqueror” and a black-and-white cover photo of Browne with a silver beard and menacing expression. This biker version of Browne, in fact, looks like he might be packing a blade again.
Atop the Ferris wheel, Browne (who has shaved the beard) is neither threatening nor especially maudlin about the passage of time. The album title is no great message. “It’s just a line from a song, but it has to hang out there. I use the title of songs as the title of the album, I always have, and when you pick a song title, nobody thinks you’re saying something. They think it’s a thematic statement. But when you make it the album title, then they try to read into it. I just like that song.”
There are many songs that Browne likes on this 10-track album. Critics, who love when an artist with a distinguished songbook delivers new material that has urgency to it, have praised the album. J. Freedom du Lac of the Washington Post, for instance, said the new material has a “terrific touch” and described it as contemplative, vividly drawn, soaring, echoing and atmospheric -- and that was in just one paragraph.
Browne is familiar with critical acclaim but he’s also accustomed to falling out of favor. The same artist who was hailed in the 1970s for the soul-searching masterpieces of “The Pretender,” “Late for the Sky” and “Running on Empty” found a chillier reception in the 19'80s as his music became much more overtly political. Some people said his songwriting seemed to have too much to say and too little to feel, as if he was crafting a soundtrack to a civics lesson.
Spending a couple of hours with Browne, it’s easy to see how he might err on the side of jamming too many ideas between the choruses. He is an avid reader and student of culture and his casual conversation is a bit breathless; in a matter of minutes he waxed on about the photography of Bruce Weber, the new hillbilly noir of Ry Cooder, the sublime purity of the Allman Brothers, the prose of Gretel Ehrlich and the cultural deductions of Eduardo Galeano.
Browne is a thinking man, but he is also a romantic. Pausing on an overpass above Pacific Coast Highway, he pulled off his sunglasses and talked about family trips he took as a kid.
“My first pangs of real love and longing were at campsites,” he said. “Your family would go and you’d be there for weeks and there was enough time to get into really serious infatuation, that sort of crushing longing. You never really forget that. I used to sing about that a lot. I guess everybody does.”
Browne hasn’t set aside politics on the new album. The third track, “The Drums of War,” speaks for itself -- it’s a bitter attack on the Bush administration -- and the album closes with “Far From the Arms of Hunger,” while “Where Were You?” paints a portrait of a callous government leaving the victims of Hurricane Katrina to die and suffer. The latter was inspired in part by a Weber photograph, he said.
“After all I had read, after all that was being said about Katrina, there was this one photograph of this flag that was probably in the marketplace somewhere. It had some words written on it, which I think might be from an old spiritual song: ‘If ever I cease to love.’ Think of that. ‘If ever I cease to love.’ If we did, what would become of us? And, really, isn’t that the problem in the first place? If you can’t love, it’s over. We’ll all go down.”
Seeing red -- and blue
Political songs don’t always win over crowds, Browne noted with a wry chuckle, but he said he can’t really see any other way to sing about his passions without going into the bright-color differences between blue and red states.
A few weeks ago, his attorneys filed a lawsuit against John McCain and Republican campaign groups after “Running on Empty” popped up as a soundtrack to some commercials in Ohio and on the Internet. Browne is also one of the most active of music stars in political efforts and charity work. Walking on the beach bicycle path, he shrugged when asked if celebrity culture has become a sour, polarizing factor in the national discourse. Then a young woman in a bikini top skated by, her shoulders doing a nightclub shimmy. “That’s why they hate California. That’s what Buffalo holds against us. They always will.”
Browne was born as a military brat in Heidelberg, Germany. His father was a journalist in the Army, writing about music mostly, rubbing shoulders with jazz greats and hosting parties with Django Reinhardt performing. As a kid in the 1960s, Browne scoffed at his father’s uniform.
“My dad used to say the time he spent in the Army was the happiest time in his life because he didn’t have to think. I didn’t appreciate at the time what he really meant by that. I was horrified at the time, I thought it was confirmation of everything I deeply suspected about my parents and the military. He was saying it from the confidence and comfort of a person who spent his life with books. He was an educated guy. I think he just enjoyed the simplicity of being told where he was going to be next. That frees you up to think about all kinds of things and have your own inner life.”
Browne idolized Bob Dylan and, as young man, he played with Tim Buckley a bit and later with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was in Los Angeles, at the side of emerging stars such as Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles and his dear, late friend Warren Zevon that Browne became a plaintive voice singing restless but beautiful songs.
Told that he has often seemed like an earnest man in ironic age, Browne wasn’t sure if it was a compliment. “I can’t seem to write an abstract song, I know that,” he said. “I do think there’s plenty of irony in my music. No one wants to look too earnest. But if your main concern is to get at things that matter, you will occasionally be caught being earnest.”
Browne is performing Thursday at UCLA’s Royce Hall event to honor the 50th anniversary of McCabe’s Guitar Shop, then has a show at the Orpheum Theatre next Sunday before heading out for a European tour. If form holds, he will do some of the old favorites before playfully apologizing and performing the new songs. It’s an interesting exercise for a man who considers nostalgia a hazardous habit.
“They are all leavened with the time that’s past,” Browne said. “The fact that they were listened to for all these years from a record that was fixed in time and associated with a point in the listener’s life, it sort of carries the life experience of everyone involved. Not just me, everyone in the room. I wrote ‘These Days’ when I was 16, but there’s more than the words and music to it now. The songs and what they mean, that’s not up to me. You can’t take credit for that, and you really shouldn’t.”