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Say A Prayer For The Pretender: Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne, the singer-songwriter's singer-songwriter, turns 60 on October 8th — a birthday marked by the release of the fittingly-titled Time The Conqueror. Late in '76 Jackson was at the peak of his acclaim, with the bestselling masterpiece The Pretender just out. But it was also the most traumatic period of his life, shadowed by the suicide of his wife Phyllis. Mitchell Cohen caught up with Laurel Canyon's own Adonis that year as the Browne tour bus stopped off in Virginia. "That was some tense interview, let me tell you," Cohen recalls. "It was the tour he did not long after his wife's suicide, and it probably would have been wise not to subject him to press interrogation. But PRM sent me to one of his college dates, and he granted me some time after the show, and well, not fun. In retrospect, I could have handled the situation more tactfully, but really, he was in no mood to open up, and I can't really blame him." -- Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

JACKSON BROWNE sat in a locker room beneath a domed hall at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It had been a particularly successful college date; by all accounts the best so far on this still-young concert tour.

Following the second encore, guitarist David Lindley was positively jubilant. "Does everybody remember what they played on 'Walking Slow'? Because that was it!" Down in the depths, Jackson seemed to be both exhilarated and exhausted.

After a two-year lay-off--probably the most traumatic yet eventful period of his life--Jackson Browne is apparently ready for the big numbers now. His latest album, The Pretender is the one that they've been waiting for.

Even though his songs are self-revelatory, and the top-ten notwithstanding, the core of Jackson Browne remains elusive. Sometimes he seems like a fatalistic prince with an inherited curse hanging over him. A heartbreak Casanova with the quintessential features of the sensitive singer-songwriter: the lean blue-jeaned physique, the wide eyes and almost pretty face. His main concern as articulated in his songs is how to reconcile his romanticism with his instinct for disaster. The elements, the realities of his daily world seem to be conspiring against him. But where did this conflict come from and how did he become so attuned to it?

He has rarely spoken of his childhood or early adolescence, so to draw him into his early years, I requested that he respond to a quote by filmmaker Francois Truffaut, who said, "One works with what happens in the first 12 years of life, and this base is inexhaustible."

Jackson paused for a few moments, then answered, speaking in quiet, measured tones. "I'd make this one annotation to that--and I really dig Francois Truffaut's work--I'd just say that most people go on living the first 12, or maybe 15, years of their life. When they're 40 and talking about something, it could just as easily be about something that happened to them when they were 10. In literal terms, though, I've never talked about anything that happened to me before I was 14 or 15. I've answered questions about myself for years, answering every question that was put to me, but the fact is that most of them don't apply. Most of them aren't very illuminating. I don't avoid anything. In my songs I just choose to talk about certain things, and so yeah, there are some aspects of my character and personality that don't come out."

The last time Jackson played the University of Virginia, it was in a little campus club with wooden walls and a door barely wide enough to get the equipment through. Tonight there were thousands of students looking down at him, and Jackson, lit by amber and lavender spots--sitting at his piano or standing behind his microphone--sang his songs about elements in turmoil. It hasn't really happened yet for Jackson Browne. Although he is among the most acclaimed recording artists of our time, and a consistent earner of gold records, somehow he never made that final step. After Late For The Sky, instead of cashing in, knocking the last runner home, he retreated.

But The Pretender will probably be for Jackson Browne what previous albums have been for his Asylum stable-mates; his Court And Spark, One Of These Nights, Heart Like A Wheel--the one to bring him a mass audience.

The Pretender is filled with threads that have run through Browne's work. "The Fuse" is a natural culmination of the apocalyptic themes from his earlier albums. "Your Bright Baby Blues" is an explicit mining of his R&B roots. "Here Come Those Tears Again," written with his mother-in-law, sounds like a hit single. And the four songs that make up side two of the LP form a nakedly personal suite about subjects close to Jackson: his son, his father, his wife, his own doomed romanticism.

"The whole album is a cycle. Because more happens on the second side it's more obvious that there's a continuity. That's only because the first side is preparatory. Like, without having 'Your Bright Baby Blues' where it is, then 'Sleep's Dark And Silent Gate' wouldn't mean as much if you didn't have it there. The things discussed on the first side really come to a head on the second side, so it appears as if the second side is more connected, but it's not really. If you turn the record after 'The Pretender,' 'The Fuse' happens naturally."

***

There are subjects that Jackson would, perhaps understandably, prefer not to be queried on. Some because he's talked about them too much in the past and doesn't feel he can shed any new light on them, some because they're too personal. Despite at least two questions designed to lead tactfully into a discussion of his wife Phyllis' recent suicide, he never picked up the cue, referring to the matter only once in the most oblique terms as one reason for the new album's delay. With a clumsily transparent ploy, I tried to get him to talk about his oft-rumored romances at an early age with some of music's more luminous belles, his rep as a flaxen-haired teenage Lothario. Jackson, being no fool, didn't fall for it, and expressed his displeasure unequivocally.

"You've opened up a whole topic and I'm just gonna skip it. I'll just say that Warren Beatty is rumored to have said once that fame is a collection of misunderstandings which surround a person. And that would be one of them."

The Charlottesville concert was supposed to finish with rock and roll, the leave-'em-on-their-feet songs like "The Road And The Sky" and "Doctor My Eyes." Another song was demanded, however--foot-stomping and a semi-circle of flickering matches--so the band filed back on stage. The last number was the new album's title cut, a song that finds its hero "caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender." And the crowd was stilled as they heard about a person who "started out so young and strong, only to surrender." "Say a prayer," Jackson sang, "for the Pretender." You could almost hear a collective "Amen" as the house lights came on.

Read dozens more Jackson Browne interviews and reviews at www.rocksbackpages.com. Over 13,000 articles by the greatest writers from the finest rock publications of the last 40 years.

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