An hour onstage with Jackson Browne

Adding transparency to the critical process

Give musicians a bit of annuity by including their names in the music publishing, says Jackson Browne, who is looking for a new vehicle to financially reward band members who make crucial contributions to recordings.

Arrangers from the decades prior to Browne’s arrival would have loved to heard that way of thinking, too: Then as now, studio wizards get paid by the job and don’t share in the wealth generated when a record becomes a hit. Browne was sharing thoughts on composing, collaborators, revisiting the past and the effects of technology on albums during an interview at ASCAP’s I Create Music conference in Hollywood. I was the lucky journalist interviewing him.

I say lucky and honestly mean it: my high school years were filled with endless playings of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” Neil Young’s “Zuma,” Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” and Browne’s “Late for the Sky.” Those albums felt like novels alerting me to adulthood; tough to understand as a 15-year-old, “Late for the Sky” was obviously the most personal and yet it felt simultaneously the most universal. For that reason alone, I felt honored to be the one nervously asking the questions in front of several hundred people.

By focusing on the questions, I didn’t get to concentrate on scribbling the answers. And Jackson was great at answering everything and anything in an open and frank manner.

One honest admission: The learning curve involved in becoming a producer meant some of his records – especially those from the 1980s – now sound dated and it can to something as simple as the way the drum is recorded. His piano style, especially on “Doctor My Eyes,” is so rudimentary that when a trained pianist attempts to perform it, they find it difficult to re-create the mistakes and absence of learned technique. The studio is foremost a workshop and he has never started an album with completed songs. Of all of the people has tossed around ideas on songwriting with, he seems to be most affected by the influence of the late Lowell George of Little Feat, who was great at guiding a songwriter as they crafted a song, but the composer had to be willing to let George interrupt and toss out ideas when they came to him. ( He said he asks other songwriters how they work and has found that the arrive-fully-prepared methods of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen will not work for him).

The good side of technology – specifically when Nakamichi invented a high quality cassette recorder in the late ’70s – spawned the ideas that would manifest themselves in “Running on Empty,” his one mega-hit. Technology, too, allows him to easily record his solo acoustic shows – he has released two volumes to date – and rather than just re-visit the popular songs, he has included numbers that were released as recently as 2002 on “The Naked Ride Home,” a superb album that he says nobody heard.

The solo shows – tour winds up with two Northern California dates this week – are done with no set list, no written introductions to the songs and a risk that shouted requests will piss him off. At their core, he says, the shows are “about revealing the architecture of a song.”

A new album with his band is being recorded, which has him thinking about how to get musicians such as keyboardist Jeff Young compensated down the road. He calls it a “classic American rock sound – like the way Dylan or Booker T. & the MG’s would make a record in the ’60s” – with just guitar, keyboards, bass and drums.

Two things I didn’t get to say – and maybe it’s better that way. Proof of bias at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which does not care for artists from the early ’70s nor non-New Yorkers: The number of Southern California singer-songwriter inductees who were never in a band is two, Browne and Ricky Nelson.

On a more personal note, during my college days, I played bass – an upright formerly owned by L.A.’s finest, Lee Sklar – in a Delta blues duo that specialized in the songs of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. Naturally, some of our versions were third-hand – we did “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” Hot Tuna-style and regularly referenced Dave Van Ronk and Doc Watson. When Browne released his acoustic version of “Cocaine” we naively thought, “hey with Jackson exposing people to this music, maybe we’ll get some better bookings.” Yea right. All it meant was that during every gig someone would yell “Play ‘Cocaine’.” I understand why he doesn’t like song titles being shouted at him.

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