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The Poet at the Far Horizon. Notes on Jackson Browne.

I never knew if he was telling the truth or not. In the end I believed him but that was in spite of what he told me. He wasn’t a very convincing liar and after a while I stopped caring.

Once he stole food from me, and he did it in a manner that was so obvious that his attempt to be slick, was really rather amusing and terribly sad.

He claimed to be ill; terminally and yet he never seemed to decline or change much, and I added that to the list of things about his life that I didn’t believe.

And yet amid the lies and half-truths there were stories that made sense. The first time you heard them you thought it was more of the same but then, like a patch of faint sunlight coming through on a winter day, it felt true.

He was from Georgia. He and his mother had come out to San Francisco in 1964. By 1966 he was renting a room in an old Victorian at Haight and Page. His rent was maybe 75 a month, and he said if you couldn’t raise seventy five bucks in a month, you weren’t trying.

He had answered an ad in the Chronicle and when he got to the house, he said he heard music.

There was this girl there, he said, listening to Satie.

He moved in and she was more or less the landlord or manager, and soon he was working different odd jobs and they were together. She was using heroin (or to be more accurate, it was using her) and he was in love with her and working waiting tables at the Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, and selling copies of some street paper, and bartering this for that and then he joined the SF Mime Troupe.

Bill Graham was the man in charge and back then it was the Meeme Troupe and he met all the people you’d expect – people who all became famous.

He never did. He always turned down the chance. He was offered jobs in television and singing back up and he turned them all down.

He said one night at a party, he met Mavis Staples and she said baby come on tour with us, and he turned that down as well.

But the story that he told that matters here, is this:

One day the woman he was living with, took a call and after she said to him: Hey my kid brother is coming up from Los Aangeles. He wants to crash here for a while; has this crazy idea he’s going to be a rock star.

He said sure. The city was full of people with ideas about who and what they were going to become.

That, he said, was Jackson Browne.

That was Browne’s sister (or one of them) and he came up and crashed on their couch and he told me stories about it.

Fountain of Sorrow, he said – I caught your childish laughter by surprise…the children solemnly wait for the ice cream vendor…

I was the ice cream vendor, he said. I was the one who turned and he took my photograph with a camera I had given him, and that night he said he was leaving; hitting the road.

I’d been listening to Jackson for years by then.

He had been there for years and yet it was not until I was older that I understood what he was saying.

I think the best summation of his life and work I’ve yet heard is Springsteen’s speech inducting him into the hall of fame. The subtle allusions to the grief he’s endured for publically aligning himself with causes that others consider evil, or immoral or unpatriotic. The discussion of the enduring pain of being a romantic. If you haven’t listened to it, or at least not for a while look it up. Pay attention to what Springsteen says about one of Browne’s masterpieces – Late for the Sky.

Browne floats. But he is solid like the hum of the earth’s rotation; it’ true north.

He has a weight, a presence, a moral certainty and yet like a romantic poet from 200 years ago, there is something ethereal to him and not in the sense of being without substance but rather something you feel on the wind and in the sky, or when the breeze moves the leaves on a tree and dusts the crest of a wave.

It’s almost all heartbreak and the thin chains of love gone wrong.

Browne never preaches, exactly. He’s not a preacher in the manner of Springsteen.  There is a refined and gentle elegance to his work. Springsteen said that when he first saw him in Los Angeles some time in the early 70s, he thought that he didn’t have much of a show. It was, said Bruce, just Jackson and his floppy sincere SoCal surfer persona. But, he said, I noticed that the audience was full of women, who were enthralled.

Sincerity can not be faked, The brutal truth of how love goes wrong can’t be faked, because you either have the scars and burn marks, or you don’t.

Dylan is so completely inside the persona of Dylan that he is and is not the music and the lyrics. Define him as this or that and like some form of anti-matter he vanishes and reforms as something else. Springsteen is a raw live wire that powers the church of rock and roll. The closest comparison for Browne would probably be Paul Simon the other great lyric craftsman – the other poet of the delicate and the sublime. Of course as always, feel free to make your own list and do not assume my list is meant to be definitive. If I haven’t mentioned someone you revere don’t take it personally. These categories are provisional if also paradoxically certain.

But there is in Browne something quintessentially of California and especially Southern California as there is something one connects to Simon with New York. There is of course the banal truism of repeating the easy slogans but there is also a truth to it. Again, as Springsteen says about Late for the Sky, what you hear in those songs is in part, the bitter slow fade, as the 60s were crushed and the refugees sought shelter.

This goes beyond the facts of certain associations – Browne and The Eagles and the different ways the marketing goons try to sell what they define as the truth. The “Southern California sound”. It’s true but not really because of course the sound is the human sound – the voices we recognize as our own regardless of where we live.

There is however space in Browne’s lyrics; that particular shade of blue where the California sky seems both infinite and hemmed in by rolling brown hills and the failure of ideas that all promised escape, and conversely in escape the solidity of being found.

The best thing about California is also the worst. In California no one cares what you’re doing. This indifference cuts both ways. Do as you please, be as you are, allows for an old American ideal – the idea that the individual is to be left alone. Of course then there is the indifference; the cold indifference that is shallow and fuels the endless loops of narcissism .

The liar, who may have been terminally ill, or not, told me that all the people he knew back in the day, had broken his heart. He didn’t say that exactly but that’s what he meant. They told me, he said, that there was going to be a revolution. And after the revolution, everything would be different.

San Francisco is a small town that punches above its weight. You can walk from Ocean Beach to the Embarcadero in an hour. That is, from windmills and the cool pale hum of the mist at the end of Golden Gate Park, to Justin Herman Plaza; the vast nothing and everything; to the center of the banks and the cool grey love of money. No matter how much cultural heft the city claims, it will always be defined by what A.J. Liebling said about it: It’s a three day town. There are from time to time, flashes of genius in those few days but the city remains an idea of what it failed to achieve.

John D. MacDonald paraphrasing the late Herb Caen had it right; the city pretty much was pimped to money, and a handful of people got rich off the sale, and whatever had made the place unique was tarnished, packaged and sold. There’s nothing new in that of course – Mark Hopkins, Leyland Stanford amd Crocker were the first of many who became King Pimp in their time and like plenty of others bought respectability.

Standing outside a shop South of the Slot* during the first tech boom, I watched in both awe and fear as a stagnated heard of cars slither towards freeway onramps. The air was heated and tight, the dystopian metaphors sat huddled in knots along the sidewalk waiting for their number to be called, and tech lords stuttered by like spent leaves who didn’t know their hour had already come and gone.

It happens like that. The tide rolls in and then it rolls out and the wreckage bobs and drifts on the surface.

The liar faded away and for reasons to numerous to detail here, I was cast out and fled for the East Coast. The crash came and went and the cocaine prices for apartments soared then flatlined, and then rose again.

There’s a novel called Waiting for the Earthquake. No one read it but it wasn’t bad and it took as its central theme the idea that as the title makes clear, there is in California, always a sense of waiting for the catastrophe. The apocalypse is your best friend but you both know, one of you is well and truly screwed.

In the face of that, in the shadow of the freeways, and the pimps selling god and love and joy, there’s a poet. Love rarely works out but amid the wreckage there’s a kind of wisdom. It’s something that can’t really be defined and because of that it can’t be turned into a product. That is a kind of sword and shield. It is nostalgic for something it can’t define and reflects something that upon closer examination, turns out to be worthless. But only to those whose sense of value has been taken off the shelf at a box store. And the box store of course stands on the ground where once there was a community. For everyone else it’s a hard won wisdom.

I forget about Jackson for a time and then run into him somewhere and it’s as if nothing has changed. That’s how it always goes with artists who have tapped a timeless vein. What was true in 1973 is true today. When love goes wrong it doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel or itself. The promises that weren’t kept aren’t just those that left an impression in a pillow you shared in a bed, that was a country with two citizens. They are the reflections of promises that weren’t kept between a nation and its ideals. One reflects the other. The feckless lover is no different than the men who sell wars. And yet the romantic endures. The definition of a romantic of course is someone who expects to be disappointed but who accepts that as the price of being in the business of telling the truth, and knowing that love is as much a burden as it is a pleasure.

Late for the Sky. Fountain of Sorrow. The Pretender. Running on Empty. Hold Out. Lawyers in Love.

I’m listening to Song for Adam and the eternal wraps itself in and around his lyrics.

Now amid this vortex of the absurd and the evil of mendacity, and the blowback of imperial corruption, I’m listening to the poet at the far horizon, who never surrendered.

 

*South of the Slot is what “SOMA” was called before the marketing pimps decided they needed a different name to sell an idea.

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10 comments on “The Poet at the Far Horizon. Notes on Jackson Browne.

  1. I’ve only been to Caifornia once. It was on a visit with my parents. We crossed the Southwest and then worked our way up the coast. It was fascinating to see a place I only knew from books and movies. What hit me most was the deep history of the place with Spanish buildings older than the United States.

    My grandmother, after the divorce when my dad was a teenager, moved to the Bay Area and remained on the West Coast (where having given up her Southern Baptist roots she became a New Age acolyte, which is how I ended up being raised in Science of Mind and Unity Church). I have a cousin who is a tech big shot in the Bay Area as well, along with a cousin once removed down near infamous Orange County, Nixon’s home (and surrounded by Southerners Nixon developed the Southern Strategy). There were some older generations on my grandmother’s Texas side of the family that moved to California earlier last century when it was more known for its agriculture.

    That state does seem to draw people for some reason. There were several mass waves of migrations that shaped California. With my Southern heritage, I always look on that side of American history. Southern California was shaped by the South as large numbers of Southerners moved there from mid 19th century to the mid-20th century, the last big wave following the military industry. The Civil War almost erupted in California with the same North/South divide as in the East.

    The remnants of that history remain in the mega-churches and televangelists that were spawned there, California’s gift to the world. Though I might note that (as with Reagan, other Hollywood cowboy actors, and the mythological Scandinavian-blonde surfer) some of those televangelists such as Robert Schuller came from the Midwest. That is how Midwestern Standard English became the lingua franca of Hollywood and mass media.

    Even Northern California was shaped by religion. It was the Puritan-minded New Englanders who built the little islands of college towns as refuges in the wilderness in hopes of converting and civilizing the natives. But along with them came the dirty masses of Scots-Irish who surrounded those hubs of Enlightenment.

    When visiting California, I could feel the tension and burden of the place. It’s not a place of sanity, although maybe I’m biased by my perception of the state being filtered through Philip K. Dick’s insanity. It’s the same insanity that led his friend Bishop Pike to wander off into the Dead Sea where he died.

    California has a presence in the American psyche, no doubt about that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. rauldukeblog says:

      Fascinating.

      In no particular order: James Elroy who is one of those people who writes badly but remains effective has a lengthy piece in the intro to one of his books, where he details the origins of the LAPD. They are the decedents of the confederate troopers who fled the collapse and headed west with their bosses who built haciendas to replicate their lost plantations.

      The ex-soldiers became “sheriffs” and the LA county sheriff’s Department of the early 1900s were ex-Confederates. They in turn were split off into the first iteration of the LAPD.

      All subsequent issues with systemic brutality and bigotry trace their origin to the Old South.

      Browne is part Hispanic/Native American. If you haven’t seen it do check out Springsteen’s intro to the HOF for him. He really nails it.

      I grew up in the SF Bay Area. there are overlaps between the North and South but they are distinct. The weather is the most obvious and important difference. It creates a different atmosphere and culture.

      You are absolutely correct about the Midwest in California. It has been part of the transformation of S.F. – there is an odd Midwestern sameness and conservativism that catches the unsuspecting by surprise as they are thinking in tourist terms and can’t understand why they aren’t seeing “hippies” and instead are seeing Borg Tech Drones.

      Nixon and Reagan’s roots in California are a vast topic. There’s a book about Nixon – called I think – Nixon in Californialand – that I’ve been eyeballing at the local library.

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      1. About replicating slave plantations, there is an interesting piece of family history. My grandmother descended from the Peebles family on the maternal side. It was her uncle and aunt Peebles that left Texas and went to California, as my grandmother too was born in Texas before eventually moving there.

        The Peebles are a big name in Texas and across the South, their having been prolific. My Peebles family owned slaves from the time of the early Virginia colony to the Civil War. The particular lineage I descend from kept moving West, first heading further into the Deep South and then across the Cotton Belt to Texas. Looking for white man’s liberty, I suppose.

        Before marrying and starting her family in Indiana, my grandmother lived near Tulsa when the race war happened and lived in a center of the Klan in the South. In Indiana, she moved her young family to a sundown town that had a sign going into town explicitly stating it was a sundown town. Yet my liberal new agey grandmother, as far as I know and as far as my dad remembers, never discussed race or racism. Then after California, she spent the last years of her life in Oregon, the only state that was entirely sundown.

        The West Coast is where many people go to pretend that problems of the Eastern US don’t exist or that they aren’t their personal problems. It’s probably harder for blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans on the West Coast to forget, though. That hypocrisy of it all would be more apparent in places like LA, but I’m sure there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around.

        Out of curiosity, how did your family end up in California? Where did your parents or grandparents grow up? And if you don’t mind my asking, what is your ancestry? The two lines of my family that ended up in California are largely Deep Southern Scottish-American (Peebles) and Kentuckiana German-American (Clouse).

        Nixon’s ancestry is mostly Scots-Irish, German, English, and Welsh that in all lines was in the Mid-Atlantic during the colonial era and in Ohio by the mid-1800s with his parents having left for California. One side of Reagan’s family was Irish that came through Canada in the 1940s but the other side was Scottish and English that had been in Illinois since the mid-1800s. So, Nixon and Reagan were Midwestern Californians.

        I just watched a video of Springsteen introducing Browne. It makes want to listen to some of his music. I had never given any thought to Browne’s music. And it never occurred to me consider the Californian context.

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/scottish-emigrants-indentured-servants-and-slaves/

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/deep-roots-in-dark-soil/

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/ku-klux-klan-and-the-lost-generation/

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/06/26/the-californian-confusion-of-okies-context-is-everything/

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/fascism-corporatism-and-big-ag/

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/the-right-wing-new-age/

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      2. rauldukeblog says:

        A detailed answer shortly:-)

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      3. rauldukeblog says:

        Interesting.

        Sundown towns are one of those things that gets elided from the national debate vis generational traumas and legacies and the ongoing blowback from years of systemic apartheid.

        I agree about CA. There is in many respects a culture of amnesia. Though the state also has a long history of tortured confrontations. Often very violent battles occurred. I read a bio of Tina Mondotti recently and was surprised to learn she had lived in S.F. and Los Angeles – speaking of lefties and fraught relations.

        San Francisco of course swings from radical to corporate and back again like the tide rolling in and out. But over all of it there is a lotus eater energy.

        Re: family. epic long story short – working for the VA required various moves. But it’s far more complicated than that. There’s a whole load of archetypal issues involving government spooks and the aforementioned radicals. A lot of classic California in the 60s stuff.

        Am at work on a novel that makes use of a lot of it but publishing being what it is who knows if it ever sees the light of day.

        Background beyond that is also standard in many ways. East European Jews – Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Iran/Turkey and Poland on the other side.

        Here’s a whopper: Related by marriage to Stalin’s right hand man, Lazar Kaganovitch.

        Lazar was OB – Original Bolshevik – survived the revolution, the civil war, the purges, the second war, and was pensioned off by Khrushchev even though Lazar had been in charge of the genocide in the Ukraine and almost had Khrushchev executed just to fill out a quota.

        Lazar died in the early 90s and lived to be in his 90s. No regrets. As a psychopath that’s not surprising.

        Anyhow his brother or nephew (it’s not clear and fairly mysterious) married one of my aunts.

        That in turn set off a chain reaction as you might imagine – New York lefty Jews in the post ’45 era and into the 50s. Lots of spooky shit.

        Thanks for the links – I’ll check them out.

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      4. rauldukeblog says:

        I forgot to mention: Browne is interesting to say the least. Not everything is a masterpiece but when he’s got his mojo working he’s brilliant.

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      5. It’s easy to forget how recent is this racist history. Even eugenics was still being practiced by state governments in the US these past decades. And of course many sundown towns were still effectively being enforced with de facto segregation well into my youth.

        I spent part of my childhood in Deerfield, a sundown suburb of Chicago. Before we moved there, blacks had been intentionally excluded through city planning, i.e., what was and was not allowed to be built. The place also had a strong element of classism. I wrote a bit about it at the end of the following post:

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/aspergers-and-chunking/

        That suburb was an ethnic enclave. It originally was mostly Jewish and now includes some other ethnic groups, including Asians, but the black population remains low. In places like Indiana it was different, though.

        Most sundown towns not only excluded blacks. Ethnic, Catholic and immigrant whites also found themselves unwelcome and threatened. A state like Indiana has a strong WASP identity and it was intentionally constructed and defended. Also, sundown towns tend to ostracize and demonize anyone who is different: sexually, ideologically, etc.

        Have you read James W. Loewen?

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/tag/james-w-loewen/

        He is the scholar who brought attention to sundown towns. His book on the topic is quite informative, not just about that single topic but about American history and society more broadly. He also has some other nice books on American history.

        One point Loewen makes is the social and psychological impact of sundown towns on whites. Even ignoring my time in the Deep South, I can’t help thinking that had my family remained in Deerfield I’d likely be a very different kind of person today.

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/liberty-freedom-and-fairness/

        “Maybe the trick isn’t lack of diversity in and of itself. Sundown towns tend to lack ethnic diversity, but that also makes them insular and so less well assimilated to the larger American culture. Cultures of trust don’t seem to fit well into insular communities. Sundown towns are often so insular as to be antagonistic to anything new and different. It reminds one of how the Nazis took over Germany, and Loewen does point out that Germany experienced a similar thing with towns putting up signs forbidding Jews.”

        https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/what-kind-of-trust-and-to-what-end/

        Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism
        by James W. Loewen
        pp. 360-2

        “In addition to discouraging new people, hypersegregation may also discourage new ideas. Urban theorist Jane Jacobs has long held that the mix of peoples and cultures found in successful cities prompts creativity. An interesting study by sociologist William Whyte shows that sundown suburbs may discourage out-of-the-box thinking. By the 1970s, some executives had grown weary of the long commutes with which they had saddled themselves so they could raise their families in elite sundown suburbs. Rather than move their families back to the city, they moved their corporate headquarters out to the suburbs. Whyte studied 38 companies that left New York City in the 1970s and ’80s, allegedly “to better [the] quality-of-life needs of their employees.” Actually, they moved close to the homes of their CEOs, cutting their average commute to eight miles; 31 moved to the Greenwich-Stamford, Connecticut, area. These are not sundown towns, but adjacent Darien was, and Greenwich and Stamford have extensive formerly sundown neighborhoods that are also highly segregated on the basis of social class. Whyte then compared those 38 companies to 36 randomly chosen comparable companies that stayed in New York City. Judged by stock price, the standard way to measure how well a company is doing, the suburbanized companies showed less than half the stock appreciation of the companies that chose to remain in the city.7 […]

        “Research suggests that gay men are also important members of what Richard Florida calls “the creative class”—those who come up with or welcome new ideas and help drive an area economically.11 Metropolitan areas with the most sundown suburbs also show the lowest tolerance for homosexuality and have the lowest concentrations of “out” gays and lesbians, according to Gary Gates of the Urban Institute. He lists Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh as examples. Recently, some cities—including Detroit—have recognized the important role that gay residents can play in helping to revive problematic inner-city neighborhoods, and now welcome them.12 The distancing from African Americans embodied by all-white suburbs intensifies another urban problem: sprawl, the tendency for cities to become more spread out and less dense. Sprawl can decrease creativity and quality of life throughout the metropolitan area by making it harder for people to get together for all the human activities—from think tanks to complex commercial transactions to opera—that cities make possible in the first place. Asked in 2000, “What is the most important problem facing the community where you live?” 18% of Americans replied sprawl and traffic, tied for first with crime and violence. Moreover, unlike crime, sprawl is increasing. Some hypersegregated metropolitan areas like Detroit and Cleveland are growing larger geographically while actually losing population.13”

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      6. rauldukeblog says:

        Very interesting. I’ll add Loewen to my list. The comments about urban/suburban are timely as I just finished reading, Not in my Neighborhood, by Antero Pietila,(the source for the story about Agnew). It’s a history of housing/bigotry/corruption in Baltimore and there’s a great deal about organized construction of the burbs – the “white flight” and everything connected to it including how the burbs distorted everything from tax revenue to the growth/success of schools and businesses.

        The legacy of these things – like sundown towns – is deliberately obscured so that current frictions are framed as having only the causes that suit the agenda/narrative of the power centers. What goes missing is not just how far back these things go but the connections between things – the multiple causes and effects.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Have you written any posts or articles about your family history?

        There is plenty of opportunity to connect to broader history, such as the Lazar Kaganovitch angle along with the other stuff you mention. Also, your Eastern European ancestry connects to the Russian Empire that at one point reached partway into California.

        What got me more intrigued in ancestry was when I could see how it helped expand and ground my sense of history, especially as it played out in specific places.

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      8. rauldukeblog says:

        I haven’t. I’ve been working on a novel about all of that and related material. It’s so vast, complex and convoluted that a blog post wouldn’t work – at least in my head and how it sounds. I don’t rule it out but at the moment it’s not likely.

        Your points are valid though. there’s a park/museum that was once a Russian settlement and there are family connections to at least one of the major modern quintessential California moments – the People’s Temple, Jim Jones and the mass suicide – the infamous “drink the Kool Aide” event.

        The short version is that half a dozen kids from my High School left for Jonestown the year before I started and died there. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

        Once you start digging and excavating you find incredible stories. I enjoy some of the shows about this – the celebrity selling aside – though the one with Skip Gates and Bernie Sanders being one of Larry David’s cousins was both funny and interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

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