As I have mentioned before in these posts this ‘lockdown’ period is providing plenty of time to sort things out – photos, assorted papers, magazines that were kept for some sort of eventuality that never arose. In a box next to my desk are many such magazines, along with about 20 or so vinyl records that I have replaced with CD’s but kept because of their sentimental value (included here are several albums by Bruce Cockburn that I got from his management in Canada when he was a virtual unknown here!!). Among them are three records by Jackson Browne including his 1976 masterpiece ‘The Pretender’.
I have written before about this music (‘Jackson Browne and the lure of nostalgia’), but ‘The Pretender’ had such an impact on me this morning that I had to write something about it. I have celebrated the first track ‘The Fuse’ in that previous post, and to that I would add Lowell George’s slide playing on ‘You Bright Baby Blues’ (David Lindley is his usual revelatory self on this record as well, as on other key songs in this repertoire), the beautiful harp on ‘Linda Paloma’ (nice to see Van Dyke Parks get a mention here). The next three tracks (‘Here Come Those Tears Again’, ‘The Only Child’ and ‘Daddy’s Tune’) move up mixing bare emotions and hard won optimism. Here’s a sample of Browne’s words to the last track;
“Somewhere something went wrong/ Or maybe we forgot the song/ Make room for my forty – fives/ Along beside your seventy eights/ Nothing survives -/ But the way we live our lives”.
Those words always speak to me eloquently about my relationship to my own father and its ups and downs. The album closes out with two marvellous songs, the deep and dark reflection on loss ‘Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate’ and the title track ‘The Pretender’ which I always saw as a ‘rite of passage’ song, the narrator passing from the innocent optimism of the 1960’s (?) and the harder realities of everyday life;
“I want to know what became of the changes/ We waited for love to bring/ Were they only the fitful dreams/ Of some greater awakening”.
The song ends movingly with the narrator “struggling for the legal tender” and seeking prayer for the inevitable surrender to the everyday. Perhaps it is a bit pessimistic but I have always seen hope in these words and a return to one of the abiding concerns of this writer; the importance and durability of love.
I can’t finish this without reference to my other favourite Jackson Browne songs. ‘The Rebel Jesus’ was originally recorded with The Chieftains and it appears on a 1997 ‘best of’. Despite what some say on the ‘web about this song I always find it incredibly moving, and the reference in the final verse to being on the side of the rebel Jesus reminds me of words attributed to Jesus in Mark’s gospel “whoever is not against us is for us”. Then there is the track that follows this on that ‘best of’; ‘The Next Voice You Hear’. This song is remarkable for its departure from Browne’s usual music, Jon Hassell’s trumpet and the loops combine to summon up a feel of the Middle East which I think perfectly complements the lyric;
“Gather your deeds and your possessions/ Whatever certainty you’ve known/ Forget your heroes/ You don’t really need those last few lessons/ Stand in the open/ The next voice you hear will be your own”
Once again, I find myself returning to music I valued immensely when it was brand new and finding new and lasting resonances there. I read recently that Mr Browne has tested positively for the COVID 19 virus and is, in the term we have come to know, ‘self isolating’. This post comes with hope that he and the rest of us keep well and remember the important things in life, or as another singer has it (following the Bible) “strengthen the things that remain”.