He played "Free Bird".
I could have missed it. Too many gigs with Jackson and his band playing the same arrangements of too many lame new songs had my desire flagging. Not that Jackson is unable to do anything good new, just listen to "Never Stop" from "The Naked Ride Home". It's just that when he works with the band it ends up being too much about the music and not enough about the lyrics, and what makes Jackson so great is what he has to say.
And he's been focusing on that recently. Doing acoustic shows. Alone. And with his old sidekick David Lindley.
And that's how I first saw him. In December 1970, solo, opening for David Geffen's other management client, Laura Nyro, and then with Lindley at the Bitter End eighteen months later, after his debut solo album had finally been released, before "Doctor My Eyes" became a radio staple, when he was still a cult item. We went down early, to sit in the second row, and were mesmerized. And I've seen Jackson in every incarnation since.
But Friday night was something special. Unanticipated. What music is about. It rekindled my belief in...LIFE!
We got there early because it was Rena's birthday. We had to celebrate. And unlike so many shows, she insisted we get to our seats early, she didn't want to miss a note.
Now rock and roll was meant for nighttime. Headliners won't go out on stage before the sun goes down. Just ask Kanye (is he rock and roll?) But it being the middle of summer, Jackson and David took the stage in the fading daylight, the sun was behind the hills, but it was still bright. And they sat down with their guitars and played.
First a Zevon cover. Then one by Springsteen.
And then they played "Looking East".
The return to form was 1992's "I'm Alive". In the wake of the Daryl Hannah escapade, Jackson stripped down his sound and spoke from the heart. It was a bookend to his seventies masterpieces. Seek it out. Age hasn't hurt it, it works.
But with the relative failure of that opus, Jackson went back to the band sound and cut 1996's "Looking East", which had even less impact. Still, this was better than "World In Motion"... "Looking East" could compete with "Hold Out" and the other rock albums. "The Barricades Of Heaven", I'm The Cat", "Some Bridges", check them out. But my favorite cut starts the album. Yes, the title track, "Looking East".
It rocks. It's got that "Running On Empty" feel. The guitars wail, the chorus is catchy, the bridge hooks you and whenever Jackson drops down and sings "looking east" at the end of the verses, you're enraptured, you're willing to stop the mail, put your belongings in a rucksack and hit the road.
And then, ten years later Jackson goes out on the road and sings this same song in a slowed-down, rearranged version, and turns it into a masterpiece which can be heard on "Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1".
Instead of driving headlong west on the 10, out to the Santa Monica Pier and on into the stratosphere, this reworked acoustic version looks in the other direction, towards the mountains. Suddenly, stripped down, the song has majesty. You envision looking down upon the landscape from a perch high atop the metropolis. In the electric take, we're all in it together. In the acoustic, you're alone. Just you and the music. Contemplating.
And it's this acoustic rearrangement that Jackson and David played Friday night.
They have a funny way of starting songs. It's like an orchestra tuning up, they're trying to lock into the groove.
But then they do...
"Standing in the ocean with the sun burning low in the west"
I know we live in one giant melting pot, that modern communication unites us in one big behemoth.
Only it doesn't.
You don't know what it's like to live in SoCal unless you do.
You can't get it if you visit. It's a shitty tourist town. You can go to the museums, eat some great Mexican food, but still...you've got to live here to understand it.
Maybe you were born here and it's all you know.
Still others packed up and came, because they knew instinctively, it was the only place they could call home. Where your CV is irrelevant, who your parents are, what school you went to don't count, it's just about who you are. Right now.
And SoCal has its patron saints. Brian Wilson, of course. And transplants Don Henley and Glenn Frey. And Jackson Browne.
But unlike the Eagles, Jackson grew up here. Started in Orange County. Went to Silver Lake. Moved out west, and informed us Friday night he'd come back...to midtown.
We know what he's talking about. Every neighborhood is different, there is no center. We're all part of this undulating mass, testing limits while enjoying the lifestyle.
And to sit in the fading sunlight listening to one of our poets singing our story was beyond mesmerizing, it was UTTERLYFUCKINGFANTASTIC!
Jackson's laying down the melody, David's dancing all over the tune and we're sitting there thinking THIS IS THE ESSENCE OF LIFE! OUT ON A SUMMER NIGHT LISTENING TO MUSIC!
It wasn't a show. There was no backdrop. No dancing. It was a combination of something you felt and you heard. It touched you in the head and heart. It snuck up and surprised you, tugged on your sleeve like your heart's desire in a bar.
CAT FISH SANDWICHES
I wish the whole show had just been Jackson and David.
But after doing "Looking East", Jackson walked off and left the stage to his cohort. Who broke down the wall between performer and audience, talked to us like we were in a room together, as if we could respond, and ultimately played the outrageous "Cat Food Sandwiches".
Yes, there's a recorded version. Even one you can see on YouTube. But this was not a rendition of what had come before, it was like Lindley was performing it for the very first time. It unfolded chapter by chapter, it was like listening to Spalding Gray, if he performed in your living room instead of on a stage, and he was still alive.
Even those who had no idea who this muttonchopped polyester-clad chap was were ultimately hooked. It's so sad when the boomers talk. But they do. As if paying the fare allows you to disrespect the performer. But Lindley soldiered on until he had everybody in the grasp of his hand.
And he didn't squeeze them. Rather he twisted and turned them, jumbled them up like jacks. Singing about a backstage concoction so foul it was funny. Telling us that he couldn't get the image out of his brain, and now we couldn't either.
YOUR BRIGHT BABY BLUES
The second half started off inauspiciously. The entire band playing "Time The Conqueror"...I'd seen this show just eighteen months ago. It was such a let down after the opening segment.
And then came "Your Bright Baby Blues"...
"I'm sitting down by the highway
Down by that highway side
Everybody's going somewhere
Riding just as fast as they can ride
I guess they've got a lot to do
Before they can rest assured
Their lives are justified"
There you have it. The difference between the seventies and now. The difference between classic rock and today's music.
Today it's about being in the mainstream, tying in with corporations, showing us that you're a winner... Whereas musicians used to be outsiders, reflecting on the rat race.
Not that the rockers of yore didn't have desires...
"No matter where I am
I can't help feeling I'm just a day away
From where I want to be"
This is what kept me going. Jackson put words to my feelings, my hopes, my heart's desire.
I've been trying. And sometimes it's hard to keep going, you feel like you're spinning your wheels. But you know...in a moment, the door could open, you could get pulled through.
Now on the original, Lowell George plays the slide. But after the perfunctory band numbers, David Lindley sat atop the riser and added this part. And those he was on originally.
FOR A DANCER
"Keep a fire burnin' in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be comin' down"
I've got so much shit wrong with me it freaks me out.
But then I look around and see it's typical of my generation. We've reached that age...where so many are no longer with us, we've all got foibles, but we keep on keepin' on.
"Just do the steps that you've been shown
By everyone you've ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours
Another's steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone"
Ain't that the truth. Our parents mold us.
Then they die.
We thought they'd live forever. And now we're on the bubble.
We didn't run from the womb, we were pushed. And then we got married. And divorced. There's a wake of disarray behind us. But we can't stop, we can't cry, we've got to keep moving forward.
"Don't let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound"
And that's what Jackson was doing. With Lindley playing the fiddle part he made famous, the story was sad, but the sound was joyous. We'd survived. We couldn't forget the past, but the music made us smile.
"I'm going to rent myself a house in the shade of the freeway"
Actually, I had a hard time finding my first apartment in Los Angeles.
I just couldn't afford the rent.
My budget was x. The price was y.
I ended up in a single. Downstairs in West L.A. The sun never shined into my single room, but my domicile had one feature that made my life survivable. The stereo.
And one of the fist records I bought after I moved in was "The Pretender". And then, during the Thanksgiving break, I went to the Shrine to see Jackson Browne.
How lonely can it get?
Have you ever been alone during the holidays? You can't wait until they're over, when everybody goes back to work, you need routine. And until you get it, you're on the edge.
That was decades ago. Literally the last century. That was before I had my first live-in girlfriend, never mind the ones who followed.
I thought about that long ago gig on Friday night.
You see that's what connects us. The music. We all listened. Our experiences may be different, but with the music, they're the same. We went to the gig. And connected.
And it was just like that Friday night.
This was no paint-by-number dream. I couldn't have tolerated rote renditions of the studio takes. It's too creepy. I've moved on. Can't the performers too?
Does everybody have to get plastic surgery?
You may look young.
But we're old.
But we lived through the Renaissance. When music was everything, when it drove the culture. And too often I won't go to see the old acts, because they're about recreating then as opposed to living in the now. Give Bob Dylan credit. He's younger than yesterday, he knows once you start looking back, you're done.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
Oh, Jackson played this. And "Doctor My Eyes" too. And although I always liked these cuts, they were never my favorites. But "Doctor My Eyes" was a revelation Friday night. It was like we threaded a needle back from 2010 to 1972, and laughed about how much we'd changed, but how we were still the same, still loved to go to the gig and lose ourselves in the music.
And "Rock Me On The Water" was just as good.
But "Running On Empty" resonated in a way it never did. And I've seen Jackson perform it many times before. But this time it wasn't a snapshot of who we were, but a warning, that we can't become complacent, that we've got to buckle down, get up off the couch and embrace life. After all, it doesn't last long.
"Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty-five I was seventeen and running up one-o-one
I don't know where I'm running now, I'm just running on"
Your car might come with Nav, it might not be held together with chewing gum, but it'll still take you to the edge. The sixties seem like a century ago, like they're sealed in amber. You don't have to go to Bonnaroo to look hip. But leave the highway, explore some dirt roads, feel alive.
"Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too"
I'd like to tell you I can make sense of it all. That not only do I know where the music business is going, but music too. Instead, I'm overwhelmed. I'm criticized, told to step aside and get out of the way. But I'm just trying to figure it out. Hell, if you're confident, if you're sure where you're going, what's happening, I just know you haven't lived enough.
"I'd love to stick around but I'm running behind
You know I don't even know what I'm hoping to find
Running into the sun but I'm running behind"
I used to believe it was about leaving your mark.
Then I realized no one would be remembered. Maybe the Beatles. But a couple of thousand years from now, will anybody even know Michelangelo?
Then I thought it was about family. Building your own little cult. Viewing life through the eyes of your progeny.
But that ship seems to have sailed. I was married once, but by time I was done living my own life to the fullest, by time I was ready to truly settle down and have kids, she was gone, in pursuit of her own dream.
It's both the best of times and the worst of times. That loneliness has been lessened by the Internet. But modern media leaves me overwhelmed. I'm ready to run, but where?
"If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me
For I must be traveling on now
"Cause there's too many places I've got to see"
Fans were imploring Jackson to play their favorites. And then, some dude down front yelled out this 70's chestnut. But rather than be insulted, Jackson realized it was yelled out in humor. So he played "Free Bird".
When rock and roll is done right, it's not inert. It's a bond between performer and fan, between player and audience. Which is why all the excitement is now at the gig. Live is where you can feel the humanity. When the band plays, takes chances, makes mistakes.
And that's what life is about... Playing, taking chances, making mistakes.
I'm trying every day not to be scared. As the sun sets on my time on this planet. Could be forty years, could be tomorrow. There are so many places I want to see, I don't want to die with any regrets.
And I want to follow the news, go skiing, eat some fabulous food... But Friday night I realized music was number one. Only music can soothe me, poke me, have me asking so many questions and smiling at the same time.
Friday night was not a show. Certainly not a performance. It was a celebration. Of who we were and who we still can be.
Rip those songs to your iPod. Put on those headphones. Then put one foot in front of the other. You're the star of your own movie. Doesn't matter if anybody else ever sees it. Just matters that you enjoy it, that you're fulfilled.
Go. Really. Start with baby steps. Know that we're behind you. That you've got a music support network that will keep you buoyant in times of stress, depression and jubilation.
Sure, address the bigger issues. Global warming. Poverty. The national debt. But don't give up your personal journey. Don't get calcified. If Jackson Browne and David Lindley can stay invigorated, can keep reinventing themselves, can keep on keepin' on, so can you.