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 Angeles. 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; its 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, 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 hair and 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, Leland Stanford and 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 slithered 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.