Few performers epitomized the 1970s singer-songwriter ideal than Grammy nominee Jackson Browne, who explored issues of lost innocence, interpersonal turmoil and the fall of Woodstock Nation principles in such popular songs as "Doctor My Eyes," "These Days," "Running On Empty" and "Somebody's Baby." A teenaged wunderkind who began writing songs professionally before his 18th birthday, Browne's folk-inflected songs became favorites of such artists as The Eagles, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Rondstat and others before he began his own recording career in 1973. He enjoyed cult status before breaking into the mainstream with 1976's The Pretender. Browne used his newfound fame to highlight political causes he favored, which in turned colored his work in the 1980s. Fans of his early, soul-searching songs stayed away from these records, but Browne rebounded in the early 1990s and new millennium with music that blended his passion for the personal and the political. His induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 solidified the notion that Browne was one of the late 20th century's most talented and observant songwriters.
Born Clyde Jackson Browne in Heidelberg, West Germany on Oct. 8, 1948, he was the second oldest of four children by Clyde Jack Browne, an American serviceman who worked for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes, and teacher Beatrice Amanda Dahl. Browne moved with his family to the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Highland Park in 1951, where Browne absorbed his first musical influences from his father, a former musician who had played with such jazz greats as Django Reinhardt and Jack Teagarden. His first instrument was the trumpet, but he took up guitar after the family moved to Orange County, where he attended Sunny Hills High School. There, he met fellow students who shared an interest in music, especially the growing folk scene of the early 1960s, which helped inspire Browne to soon play and write his own songs.
Browne became a staple of '60s folk clubs like the Ash Grove and The Troubadour, and through that circuit, he met and briefly joined The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a country-influenced folk act that recorded a number of his songs after his 1966 departure. He then signed on as a staff writer for Elektra Records' publishing company, Nina Music, and traveled to New York City to perform with fellow up-and-coming singer-songwriters like Tim Buckley and Velvet Underground muse Nico, with whom Browne would become romantically involved. He contributed several songs to her solo debut album, including the wistful "These Days," which would find favor with a number of artists over the next four decades, including Gregg Allman, Jennifer Warnes and Elliot Smith.
Browne attempted to launch his own music career in the late '60s, first as part of a group called the Baby Browning, and later as a solo act. He found greater success during this period as a songwriter, with acts like The Byrds and Bonnie Raitt covering his material, and as a live performer at the Troubadour, which had become a mecca for singer-songwriter types. In 1971, his widely circulated demo tape made its way to David Geffen, who signed Browne to his upstart label, Asylum Records. He completed his self-titled solo debut in the summer of 1971, but Geffen held back the release until early 1972 in order to avoid competition from other holiday releases. The album's lead single, a propulsive folk-rocker called "Doctor My Eyes," shot to the Top 10 on the singles chart, and set the tone for much of Browne's subsequent work with its thoughtful, literary-minded lyrics that sought to balance youthful ambition with the darker reality of the world at large. A second single, "Rock Me on the Water," broke the Top 50, and both songs generated heavy radio airplay and critical acclaim. Browne took to the road with Joni Mitchell to promote the album throughout much of 1972 while working on a follow-up release.
That same year, an unfinished song by Browne called "Take It Easy" became a Top 20 hit for The Eagles, which furthered cemented him as one of the decade's leading songwriters. He would record his own version of the song for his second album, For Everyman (1973), as well as his own take on "These Days." The album was noted more for its contributors, which included David Crosby and Elton John, as well as a versatile multi-instrumentalist named David Lindley, who would form the backbone of Browne's recorded and live output for decades. The following year, Browne released what was largely considered to be his best album, 1974's Late for the Sky. Browne had recently become a father to son Ethan with his wife, Phyllis Major, and the themes that ran throughout - love and loss, one's sense of place and purpose - were explored with greater depth and sensitivity on tracks like "For a Dancer" and the title track, which was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976). Listeners sent the album to No. 14 on the album charts, where it would remain for 29 weeks.
Browne toured ceaselessly behind the new album throughout 1975, then immediately headed into the studio to produce the self-titled sophomore album for irascible genius Warren Zevon. Plans were set in place for Browne's fourth album when tragedy struck: wife Phyllis Major committed suicide in 1976, just a few short months after the birth of their son. Despite his devastation, Browne headed back into the studio to complete The Pretender (1976). The emotional turmoil of his personal life seeped into the album's songs, most notably "Here Comes Those Tears Again," a song he wrote about his wife with her mother, and the title track, which explored the lonely existence of a person who had traded their dreams for material success. The song was not a hit, but the album itself rose to No. 5 on the Pop Album charts, and sent Browne back on the road to promote the album.
While on tour, Browne began recording material for a live album. The result was Running on Empty (1977), an unconventional tour document that featured all previously unreleased material, some recorded on stage, while others captured in studios and buses en route to concerts. The title track summed up the album's focus - the highs and lows of a life spent on the road - while "The Load-Out/Stay" both paid tribute to Browne's tireless road crew while luring the audience back for a finale with a gorgeous three-part harmony take on Maurice Williams' oldie featuring Browne, Lindley and singer Rosemary Butler. Both songs broke the Top 20, and The Pretender netted two Grammy nominations. Browne had finally made it into the mainstream rock industry.
Browne's increased profile allowed him to focus some of the attention showered on him by the press towards social issues, most notably nuclear power. He became a familiar face at protests, and in 1979, helped to form Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) with Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and singer-turned-politician John Hall. That year, the group launched a series of five concerts under the "No Nukes" banner in New York City that attracted the likes of Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Carly Simon and Tom Petty. The performances were captured on an album and film, both titled No Nukes (1980). The year also saw Browne return to recording with Hold Out, which immediately shot to No. 1 upon its release. He would maintain his grasp upon the recording industry with the poppy "Somebody's Baby," a No. 7 single from the "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) soundtrack, and his 1983 album Lawyers in Love, which chronicled the rise of the yuppie in the title track and the single "Tender is the Night." During this period, he also married girlfriend Lynne Sweeney, with whom he had his second child, son Ryan, in 1982. Their happiness, however, was short-lived; by 1983, they had divorced, and Browne took a few years off to recover while developing a relationship with actress Daryl Hannah.
Browne resurfaced briefly in 1985 to record "You're a Friend of Mine," a frothy pop song with E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons that reached No. 18 on the Billboard singles chart. The following year, he returned with Lives in the Balance (1986), his most overtly political album to date, with songs addressing U.S. policy in Central America. Its content prevented the record from reaching a wide audience, but Browne's core fans helped to earn it gold sales status. He would become a fixture of concerts supporting liberal causes throughout the decade, including Farm Aid and Amnesty International. However, a second political album, World in Motion (1989), failed to repeat the success of its predecessor, and Browne retreated from the public eye for several years. Fallout from a painful public breakup with Hannah, which culminated in a 1992 accusation that Browne had physically assaulted the actress, helped to send him further out of the limelight.
In 1993, he resurfaced with I'm Alive, which hewed closer to his early confessional material than his recent political efforts. The Hannah controversy was directly addressed in two songs: "All Good Things" and "Too Many Angels," while "Sky Blue and Black" focused on the trials of love and heartbreak. Despite scoring no hit singles, I'm Alive broke the Top 20 on the Album Rock chart and spawned a major tour that encompassed most of 1993 and 1994. However, a 1996 follow-up, Looking East, failed to match its success, though 2002's The Naked Ride Home fared somewhat better. In 2004, longtime friend Bruce Springsteen inducted Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The honor touched off a modest retrospective of Browne's early work, with Rolling Stone magazine selecting For Everyman, Late for the Sky and The Pretender for its list of 500 best albums of all time, and Rhino releasing the two-disc Very Best of Jackson Browne in 2004. The year was capped with the ASCAP Founders Award, which was given to influential songwriters, and a 33-city tour for Rock the Vote with the Dixie Chicks, Dave Matthews, R.E.M., Pearl Jam and others.
During this busy period, Browne also toured extensively on his own, and eventually culled recordings from several performances for the 2005 album Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1, which he released on his own label, Inside Recordings. The CD generated a Grammy nomination in 2007, as well as a 2008 follow-up, Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2. That same year, he released Time the Conqueror, his first new album of new material since The Naked Ride Home. Though Browne sported a full grey beard on its cover, the record showed that he had lost none of his passion for subjects both personal and political, as shown by the track "Where Were You," which took the George W. Bush administration to task for its handling of Hurricane Katrina. Time the Conqueror shot to No. 20 on the Billboard charts, making it his first album to do so since Lawyers in Love. His political fervor also generated a high-profile 2008 lawsuit against the Republican Party and its presidential nominee, John McCain, for using "Running on Empty" in an attack ad against Barack Obama without his permission. The matter was settled out of court for an unspecified sum and an apology from McCain's camp. In 2010, Browne released Love is Strange, a two-CD set that compiled live recordings from a tour of Spain he completed with David Lindley in 2006. He continued to lend his name to major social causes, most notably Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit and a benefit concert in Arizona for the victims of the January 2011 shooting that critically wounded U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
By Paul Gaita