My Playlist: Jackson Browne

“…The Pretender, These Days, For Every Man, I’m Alive, Fountain of Sorrow, Running On Empty, For a Dancer, Before the Deluge. Now, I know the Eagles got in first; but let’s face it it – and I think Don Henley would agree with me – these are the songs they wish they had written. I wish I had written them myself, along with Like a Rolling Stone and Satisfaction…”

The above words were spoken by Bruce Springsteen in 2004 as part of his Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction speech for Jackson Browne. Springsteen also recalled when he first met Browne in New York City at The Bitter End, a storied Greenwich Village performance venue, he knew the singer-songwriter from California was “simply one of the best”. Coming from somebody who has written so many great songs himself and during that same speech also admitted to be “a little competitive”, I think these remarks speak volumes.

The first Jackson Browne record I listened to in its entirety was what I still consider a true ’70s gem: Running On Empty. If I recall it correctly, my brother-in-law had it on vinyl, and I initially copied it on music cassette. I was spending countless hours at the time taping music from records, CDs and certain radio programs. I still have hundreds of tapes floating around. While it’s safe to assume the quality of most is less than stellar at this time, I just cannot throw them out!

Back to Browne with whom I happen to share one fun fact: We were both born in Heidelberg, Germany, though close to 18 years apart. Browne’s dad was stationed in Germany, working for American military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Two of his three siblings were born there as well. In 1951 when Browne was three years old, his family relocated to Los Angeles.

During his teenage years, Browne started performing folk songs at local L.A. venues like The Ash Grove and The Troubador Club. After graduating from high school in 1966, he joined country rockers Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which would later record some of his songs. After a few months, Browne left and moved to New York City where he became a staff writer for Elektra Records’ publishing company Nina Music.

In 1967, Browne met and became romantically involved with singer Nico of The Velvet Underground. He became a significant contributor to her debut solo album Chelsea Girl. After they broke up in 1968, Browne returned to Los Angeles where he met Glenn Frey soon thereafter. Before he started recording his own songs, Browne’s music was recorded by other artists such as Tom Rush, Gregg Allman, Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and of course the aforementioned Nico and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

In 1971, Browne finally managed to get a deal with Asylum Records, and in January 1972, he released his eponymous debut album. Thirteen additional studio records have since appeared, as well as seven compilation and live albums and more than 40 singles. And this brings us to the most fun part of the post: Some of Browne’s music he has released during his close to 50-year recording career.

I’d like to kick things off with Song for Adam from Brown’s above noted eponymous debut album. The mournful memory of Adam Saylor, a friend of Browne who died in 1968 – possibly by suicide – was covered by various other artists, including Gregg Allman, who included a moving rendition with Browne singing harmony vocals on his final studio album Southern Blood from September 2017.

By the time Browne recorded Take It Easy for his sophomore album For Everyman, which appeared in October 1973, the Eagles had released the tune as their first single in May 1972. It gave them their first hit peaking at no. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and one of their signature songs. Originally, Browne began writing the tune for his eponymous debut album. But he got stuck with it, so played it to his friend Glenn Frey, who ended up finishing it. When Browne finally recorded the song, he also released it as a single, but it didn’t chart – perhaps it sounds pretty similar to the Eagles‘ version.

Fountain of Sorrow is a great track from Browne’s third studio Late for the Sky. Released in September 1974, it was his first top 20 record in the U.S., climbing to no. 14 on the Billboard 200. Like Take It Easy, the tune also appeared separately as a single but did not chart either.

In November 1976, Browne released The Pretender, his fourth studio album. It was his first major album chart success, climbing to no. 5 on the Billboard 200, and marking his first record to chart in the U.K., where it reached no. 26. Here’s the title track, which also became the second single. It did moderately well, reaching no. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100 – love that tune!

Next is the album that started my Jackson Browne journey: The amazing Running on Empty from December 1977. Frankly, I could list each tune on that record, so let’s go with one that is a less obvious choice: The Road, written by American singer-songwriter Danny O’Keefe. Themed around life on the road as a touring musician, Running on Empty was an unusual record featuring live recordings on stage and in other locations associated with touring, such as hotel rooms, tour buses or backstage. The first 2:28 minutes of The Road were captured in a hotel room in Columbia, Md., while the remainder was recorded live at Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J., which nowadays is known as PNC Bank Arts Center and a venue where I’ve seen many great shows.

In June 1980, Browne released Hold Out, his sixth studio album. While the record received poor reviews from music critics, ironically, it became his only no. 1 album in the U.S. It also was Browne’s second record to chart in the U.K. Here’s Of Missing Persons, a beautiful tribute to Little Feat co-founder Lowell George, a collaborator and longtime friend of Browne’s who had passed away the year before. The tune was specifically written for George’s then six-year-old daughter Inara George who since became a music artist as well.

For many years, Jackson Browne has been a political activist, e.g., speaking up against the use of nuclear power and supporting environmental causes. But it wasn’t until the ’80s that political themes starting to play a more dominant role in Browne’s lyrics. The album that comes to my mind first in that context is Lives in the Balance, which came out in February 1986. Here’s the catchy opener For America. It also became the lead single and reached no. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.

For the next tune, I’m jumping to the ’90s, specifically to February 1996 and Browne’s 11th studio album Looking East. Like many of his previous records, it featured various notable guests, such as Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby, Ry Cooder and Mike Campbell. Here is Baby How Long, for which Cooder provided a great slide guitar part and Raitt sang harmony vocals, together with Australian singer Renée Geyer.

Let’s do two more from the current millennium. First up: The title track from The Naked Ride Home, Browne’s 12th studio album from September 2002, which my streaming music provider served up as a listening suggestion that in turn triggered the idea to do this post.

The final song I’d like to highlight is from Browne’s most recent 14th studio album Standing in the Breach, which was released in October 2014. Here is the nice opener The Birds of St. Marks. Originally, Browne wrote that tune in 1967 after his breakup with Nico and return from New York to California. While first released on his 2005 live album Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1., it wasn’t until this 2014 studio album that Browne properly recorded the tune. “This is a song I always heard as a Byrds song, and that was even part of the writing of the song,” Brown told Rolling Stone in an August 2014 interview. Standing in the Breach became a remarkable late-stage career chart success, reaching no. 15 on the Billboard 200 and no. 31 in the U.K.

Earlier this year, in the wake of testing positive for COVID-19 (though luckily with relatively light symptoms), Browne released A Little Soon to Say, a song from his next studio album scheduled for October 9, which I featured in this previous Best of What’s New installment. To date Browne has sold more than 18 million albums in the U.S. alone. Apart from the above mentioned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, Browne has also been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June 2007. He is ranked at no. 37 in Rolling Stone’s 2015 list of 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; YouTube

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Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

This is the fifth installment of Best of What’s New. I’m starting to think this may become a weekly feature, which would make me happy and frankly is something I had not expected when I introduced it five weeks ago. Unlike the previous times, this installment mostly features new releases by well-established artists from Bob Dylan to Mavis Staples. Perhaps not surprisingly, four of the songs were released because of COVID-19, though three were written pre-pandemic. In one case, the lyrics were slightly tweaked, so the tune better fits the current situation. Let’s get to it!

Bob Dylan/I Contain Multitudes

What’s up with Robert Zimmerman? Last Friday, he released his second new song in three weeks. I Contain Multitudes, which took its title from the Walt Whitman poem Song of Myself, comes on the heels of the 17-minute Murder Most Foul centering on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While as a more casual Dylan listener, I would not dare to try and figure out what’s going on in his head, releasing a song about a traumatic event in 1963, followed by a tune with cheerful lines like The flowers are dyin’ like all things do or I sleep with life and death in the same bed doesn’t strike me as a coincidence during a global pandemic. It is also likely to fuel hope among Dylan fans that a new album may be in the making, though in perhaps typical fashion Mr. Zimmerman hasn’t made any comments in this regard.

Alicia Keys/Good Job

Earlier this week, I had caught a CNN announcement that Alicia Keys was going to debut a new song on the cable news channel last night. And she did: Good Job. While Keys recorded the powerful ballad last year for her next album ALICIA, the lyrics are a beautiful fit to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all folks who look after the sick and keep the country going during the pandemic, oftentimes by risking their own lives. The tune was co-written by Keys, her husband and producer Swizz Beatz, singer-songwriter The-Dream and songwriter, composer and producer Avery Chambliss. “Whether you’re on the frontlines at the hospitals, balancing work, family and homeschool teaching, delivering mail, packages, or food, or facing other personal difficulties because of COVID-19, I feel you. You are seen, loved and deeply appreciated,” said Keys. While I don’t necessarily dig each and every song by Keys, I believe she has an incredible voice and is a powerful performer. She also comes across as very genuine to me.

The Rolling Stones/Living in a Ghost Town

I’d like to give a shoutout to Hanspostcard who first brought this new tune by The Rolling Stones to my attention yesterday on his Slicethelife blog. Similar to Alicia Keys, Mick Jagger wrote Living in a Ghost Town prior to COVID-19. As reported by Rolling Stone, it’s the band’s first new original tune since their 2012 compilation GRRR!, which featured two new tracks, Doom and Gloom and One More Shot. To make it a better fit for the current situation, Jagger had to tweak some of the lyrics. The Rolling Stone story quoted him from an interview with Apple Music: “Keith Richards and I both had the idea that we should release it,” he said. “But I said, ‘Well I’ve got to rewrite it.’ Some of it is not going to work and some of it was a bit weird and a bit too dark. So I slightly rewrote it. I didn’t have to rewrite very much, to be honest. It’s very much how I originally did it.” The Rolling Stone piece also included this quote by Richards: “We’ve got another five or six tracks and there’s a lot of sort of soul feel about it for some reason without anybody intending to,” Richards said. “Obviously right now we’ve got nothing else to do but write some more songs, right?” Could this finally be a new Stones album, which has been rumored for some time?

Cowboy Junkies/Misery

I think the only time I had heard of this Canadian band, which Wikipedia classifies as alternative country and folk rock, was in the late ’80s – probably in connection with their sophomore album The Trinity Session from November 1988, which looks like their most successful release. It included a cover of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane, which became their highest-charting single the U.S., peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Well, it turns out Cowboy Junkies are still active, and on March 30, 2020, they released their latest album Ghosts. Three of their founding members, Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar, ukulele) and Peter Timmins (drums, percussion) – are siblings, and the album’s eight tracks are all related to the death of their mother Barbara, who passed away in 2018. The fourth member, Alan Anton (bass, keyboards), has also been part of the band since its formation in Toronto in 1985. I’ve listened to some of the album’s songs and like what I’ve heard so far. Here is Misery.

Ron Sexsmith/Dig Nation

Ron Sexsmith, a singer-songwriter from St. Catharines, Canada, is an artist I had not heard of before. According to Wikipedia, he has been a performing musician since 1978 and began releasing his own music in 1985. To date, he has issued 16 studio albums, the most recent of which is Hermitage that came out on April 17. Here’s Dig Nation. Really like the warm sound of that tune. And it’s quite catchy, too. Check it out!

Mavis Staples/All In It Together

Mavis Staples, who started her career in 1950 at the age of 11 as part of her family band The Staple Singers, needs no lengthy introduction. Since 1969, she has also performed as a solo artist and has released 14 solo albums to date. The most recent one, We Get By, came out in May 2019. The single All In It Together, which was released on April 2, 2020, is a collaboration with singer-songwriter Jeff Tweedy who is best known as the vocalist and guitarist of alternative rock band Wilco. “The song speaks to what we’re going through now – everyone is in this together, whether you like it or not,” Staples said in a statement, as reported by Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, what race or sex you are, where you live…it can still touch you…We will get through this but, we’re going to have to do it together. If this song is able to bring any happiness or relief to anyone out there in even the smallest way, I wanted to make sure that I helped to do that.” According to Staples’ website, proceeds from the song will be donated to My Block, My Hood, My City – a Chicago organization ensuring seniors have access to the essentials needed to fight COVID-19. Staples and Tweedy’s vocals nicely blend in this blues-oriented rock tune. I also like Tweedy’s slide guitar work.

Steve Forbert/Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues

Here’s another great new tune by a long-time artist I mostly know by name, and this needs to change: Steve Forbert. Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues is the lead single from Forbet’s covers album Early Morning Rain, which is set to come out next Friday, May 1. “I wish I could release this record as a magic wand, in order to renew people’s appreciation for the fine craftsmanship these songs represent,” Forbert writes on his website. “Early Morning Rain contains 11 of my favorites, with only one written later than 1973.” Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues was written by Danny O’Keefe who also first recorded the song in 1967 but did not release it at the time. Instead, it was a band named The Bards who first put out the tune in 1968 as a b-side to a single. O’Keefe first included the song on his eponymous debut album from 1970. A re-recorded version was released as a single in August 1972 and became his best-known song. “I think ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues’ will be really good to put out there right now,” Forbert told American Songwriter. “I’ve always had a kinship with this song.”

Jeff Beck & Johnny Depp/Isolation

While multi-talent Johnny Depp certainly is not a newcomer to music and has played with the likes of Joe Perry and Alice Cooper, teaming up with guitar legend Jeff Beck is intriguing. The first outcome of their collaboration is a great cover of the John Lennon tune Isolation, which appeared last Friday, April 16. Lennon included the song on his first official solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band from December 1970. According to a statement on Beck’s website, The musical soulmates have been working behind-the-scenes for the past few several years on new music. “Isolation” finds Beck in classic form on guitar with Depp on vocals, joined by long-time Beck collaborators Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Rhonda Smith on bass…“Johnny and I have been working on music together for a while now and we recorded this track during our time in the studio last year. We weren’t expecting to release it so soon but given all the hard days and true ‘isolation’ that people are going through in these challenging times, we decided now might be the right time to let you all hear it,” says Beck. “You’ll be hearing more from Johnny and me in a little while but until then we hope you find some comfort and solidarity in our take on this Lennon classic.” Johnny Depp adds, “…Lennon’s poetry – ‘We’re afraid of everyone. Afraid of the Sun!’ – seemed to Jeff and me especially profound right now, this song about isolation, fear, and existential risks to our world. So we wanted to give it to you, and hope it helps you make sense of the moment or just helps you pass the time as we endure isolation together.”

Sources: Wikipedia; CNN; Rolling Stone; Mavis Staples website; Steve Forbert website; American Songwriter; Jeff Beck website; YouTube