There is a fine line between Rock and Roll, Motherfuckers (! Whoo hoo New Jersey! Lemme hear it! We are gonna rock you!!)…and Rock-and-Roll-Motherfuckers. Usually, it’s white, stimulating, and makes its way from the fields of South America, to the hovering noses of fiends and party people across the globe. Hero of the counter culture, the true and only living gentleman pirate, Keith Richards, paid homage to Merck pharmaceutical cocaine in his autobiography, Life, with a murky but cutely cottage core, almost wholesome story of keeping junkies at the bottom of the garden, like little coke-fairies, putting them up in a nice house on his grounds in order to farm them for their coke allowance, which had been prescribed to them by the compassionate and workable, yet dying days of the British System, which had junkies prescribed heroin ‘jacks’ and an equal amount of vials of Merck cocaine.
From Neil’s cocaine booger which had to be special-effected out of that Helpless scene in 1978’s Last Waltz, Neil gurning manically, a hunchback bell swinger, while Joni lays on the soaring emotion boundaries to helplessness with chains barring doors, all the way to Dylan’s sunscreen smeared face and wild staring eyes throughout the Rolling Thunder Tour, where rumors abounded of artists and workers on the tour being paying in cocaine, just as clowns used to be paid in booze. Even Joni Mitchell commented that she asked to be paid in cocaine “because everybody was out of their minds.”
David Crosby’s well-documented spiral into the depths of cocaine paranoia ended up in prison, as he said: “Prison is a very effective tool for getting your attention. When I went in, I was a junkie and a freebaser – as far down the drug totem pole as you can go. And I was psychotic. Eventually, you wake up from that nightmare you put yourself in and remember who you are.” Crosby had the drug-crazed cokehead kudos…but he had to share it with another sweet voiced singer of the era: Jackson Browne
Jackson had a reportedly huge cocaine problem which he documented in his twin songs Cocaine, and Cocaine, the Rehab Version. Jackson Browne is neither a rock-and-roll-motherfucker, nor is he prone to the posturing, Jackson B. is real. Full disclosure, I love Jackson Browne in a way that is almost perverse and illogical – he was cool in a sweet puppy dog boyish manner, but not in a flashy neon butterfly rock and roll animal kind of way. I know such favoritism is unbecoming, but I can’t help it. Jackson is like a gypsy moth, fluttering around the candlestick he is burning at both ends.
I can be turning up Metal Machine Music to 11, headphones on, drowning in noise, when I get caught by a strong desire to listen to Jackson, caught by the thought in a net of “What I really want to listen to right now is For Everyman, or Running on Empty, or more often the sublime capturing of youth and nascent adulthood which is preserved in the amber of his debut. Jackson B. is like the anti-Lou-Reed, though they probably did equal amounts of drugs: Jackson B. is gentle, soft, yielding, sincere, empathic, sensitive, and comforting. If there is an antidote to the greasy burlesque pool of suffering that is Reed’s Berlin, it is Jackson Browne’s debut, Saturate Before Using (yeah I know it’s not the title, but it is written right across the cover, and that is how I have thought of it over the last heaven knows how many years since I first heard it).
Jackson Browne is like a James Taylor minus the smack: a little less whiny, a little more melancholy somehow, a more attractive stripped back sound, minus the embellishment excesses of some of his peers, and so much the better for it. What more do we need from any artist than the expression of the contents of their soul? Which in Jackson’s case appears to be a goofball boyishness, a delicate, sweet-voiced man trying to navigate his way through a world that is not so gentle, nor kind, or funny or even fathomable. He is a master at writing honestly about the shifting sands of time and personal growth. Oh what else is a young man in the music industry of the 1970s, who possesses a highly developed sensitive edge to do, apart from more cocaine! A pharmaceutically inflated sense of self, powdered confidence must be useful when faced with fame, fortune, shows, albums that need recording, groupies that want attention, and roadies that can never behave themselves. There is no brute force to Browne, he had to buy some, I suppose. I can’t blame him, besides he survived, and I respect survival.
That first album was not hugely well received by the usual critical hordes. Accusations of lyrical and musical blandness were hurled towards it, which I fail to see. Ok, so it isn’t grab you by the hair and shake your eyeballs out stuff, instead more of a sensitive autobiographical rendering of the days between childhood and adult life. Those Sugar Mountain days that Neil Young sang about, where “you can’t be twenty’ are detailed so sweetly in songs such as Child In These Hills and From Silver Lake. Not every emotion has to be forceful to be powerful. Not every song has to be Dylan-metaphysical, or Pink Floyd challenging, it is ok to be beautiful and heartfelt and gorgeous. The beauty of that blossoming of the flower moment, looking for water from the hills of childhood, coming to the metaphorical river that carries us away from the houses and circles our parents, is captured by Browne with an unassuming gracefulness to rival anything Young or Mitchell wrote on the matter.
The gypsy moth out of the chrysalis snapshot of time that looked back on, as our own children grow and move away skips beyond maudlin sentimentality, and captures that feeling of the transient perfection and uncertainty of a life just starting. The album is full of brothers who have outgrown their hometown and their families, only visiting to say they won’t be back. This is an album of songs of youth and love, friendship, first times and last times that come along far too quickly, too early in life. It is a collection of longing and sadness, hope and self-aware sensitivity. Jackson Browne was the boyfriend I wished I could have fooled around with – all fine artistic hands, and floppy hair, with some serious folk guitar chops. Jackson almost gives cokeheads a better reputation than they deserve! Like with all drugs, they cannot make a person someone they are not, they augment what is there already, exaggerate some traits, and suppress others, but drugs can only work with the material of the soul of the person who is experimenting with their consciousness.
Nothing illustrates Jackson’s sensitivity better than his song Cocaine, and his later rehab version of the same. The typical druggie complaint is twisted on its head “you take sally, I’ll take sue, ain’t no difference between the two..’ – I’ll have that line, you have this one usually ends up with both parties wanting the same line, which just looks a little fatter. Jackson doesn’t have it in him to argue about “sally and sue” or left and righty, nor this line or that, instead he remains reasonable and sensible, at least in the song. His dealers are not in big straw hats and Dior shoes, Jackson is buying off cute blonde girls. His frailty, his concerned doctor, the tiredness in his voice are hardly the balls out baying of Zevon and his band on a run. Not even the coke could truly make Jackson Browne into an asshole. The lonesome wail of the fiddle, the spoken lyrics, sweet ragtime folk guitar picking (he ain’t Libby Cotten, but he ain’t no slouch neither), combine for the most lyrical sweet cocaine song ever written.
This isn’t Clapton with his Cocaine posturing, nor Townes with his hound dog grouching about connections to his Mama. Jackson is most elegantly wasted, so quietly fucked up, so beautifully little-boy funny, giggling at his friends rocking the tourbus having some fun while our Kid, looking for the river realizes there is no more money in his billfold to buy more blow, and what was left is running round his head already, while his friends try to find out where it has all gone: up Jackson’s cute little nose. This is no Crosby on a crack party freebase shit show, this is a kid, a kid I felt I knew. I’ve known plenty of sweet boys like Mr Browne, some even played guitar. It is just that Jackson never let me down….I can’t ever imagine Mr Browne telling me that I am small and he is big and he should have the bigger line. I like him so well I would even hold his puke bucket (ok, not as rock and roll scumbag as Lester Bang’s offer to Lou Reed, but holds the same respect and affection), and that is saying something, there are very few people in this world that I care enough about, and even fewer that have chosen coke as their drug of choice. I was always a bit soft for funny boys who play the guitar. “Where’s the cocaine?” he sings… “Its running all around my brain”….at least he is honest! Having been in a band with an asshole who did ALL the drugs whenever possible, leaving none for the rest of us, that line makes me want to give Jackson an award for the sweetest druggie in the music industry. I would do a line or two with him anytime, and not even complain about which was mine…except Jackson has gone straight.
I was fumbling around youtube trying to find the above performance of Cocaine, when I came across the rehab version, which I have never heard before. Pressing play and listening to an older and wiser, but just as sweet Jackson Browne perform an updated version of the song, clearly been told he had better stop singing about cocaine like it is his best friend, sadly (sorry Jackson, the original is better, but not worth your sobriety, I know…). The rehab version is the most honest, self aware, funny, self-deprecating, caring but not boring or lecturing drug recovery song I can think of. It is not patting himself on the back, like his buddy Zevon in Detox Mansion, nor does it have the sense of looking down on other druggies while fuzzing over his own drug issues of Young’s AWFUL Needle and the Damage Done.
Jackson has retained his sense of humor, and stays clear of eulogizing his own actions. It is this honesty which is so refreshing. No “I am Roger Waters and only did acid once. Maybe twice” for Jackson. No Patti singing about poppies and anal cavities, then swearing blind she only smoked a little hashish for creative purposes. I’ve never respected Dylan more than when he copped to his smack addiction. It is Browne’s intimacy, his openness, his silly sense of humor, the fact that he is willing to talk to us about the damage to his soul, the damage to the music, to creativity, the loss of his friends, the fact he felt like shit and still missed it when he was clean. All this is well and good, but it is the fact that the sweet and gentle Jackson took on Nancy and Ron Regan and that “just say no” bullshit, with all of it’s mindlessness and hypocrisy, defunding hot lunches to pay for tanks that kill people, not to mention a little brave dig towards the Iran Contra Affair and whatever grubby alphabet people fuelled ….the cocaine trade to pay for…more tanks? Who knows…not my world, and not my bag, but I know rock and roll, and Jackson did good. He rewrote his classic working of the folk standard, which to me, if not the definitive version, is utterly wonderful and it certainly cost him enough to feel it enough to perform it, to turn it into something entirely of his own experience.
Jackson is touring this summer and fall, with multiple dates across the country. I hope it is a resounding success, and that I might be able to go see the San Franciscan show in October. Jackson might not be the coolest rock and roll motherfucker, but he is authentically himself, which is more than a lot of the survivors can say about themselves. Browne ain’t putting himself up on a pedestal, isn’t saying he is above the drug scene, nor is he reveling in it, instead offering his own experiences of life, throughout the years in a way we all can listen to and feel and empathize with, and that is something very rare and special indeed.