Looking East

1

It’s 91 degrees in Santa Monica today.

Live in Southern California long enough and you forget that elsewhere the seasons change. That as I sit here writing this the leaves in Vermont might be already past their peak. Actually, there was a dusting of snow last week atop Mammoth Mountain, only three hundred miles away. But, despite the webcam picture, that’s hard to comprehend. Here it’s endless, well, not exactly summer, it rarely ever gets this hot in Santa Monica in the middle of July, but spring. You never hunker in the bunker. You never go into endurance mode like the emperor penguins. You just keep going forward. You get caught up in the progress, you forget that life is not endless, that time is running out.

In the middle of the night last week I caught Scott McKenzie singing his sole hit, "San Francisco", from some station in Orange County. I’ll let you in on a secret, despite television’s fixation with our neighbor to the south, we pay not a whit of attention to what’s going on down there. Hell, we don’t even go anymore, you can’t, traffic’s just that bad. I was under the illusion that this channel, KOCE, was the "Orange County Register"-style right wing outlet that used to host the antics of Rebecca DeMornay’s father Wally George. But, it turns out I was wrong. My O.C. ignorance shone through. This was the PBS station. I knew it when they hit the pledge break.

Scott could still hit most of the notes. But his ponytail was white, and underneath his hippie shirt he sported a paunch. It wasn’t creepy as much as eye-opening. This guy had survived. A very long time.

It’s almost impossible to make it. It takes a weird alchemy of talent, desire and luck. Some people only make it for a minute. They tour the country for a year or two and then settle into day jobs. Even some minor household names have done this. Then there are the superstars, Paul McCartney, Elton, they’ve made the music their life, they’ve got careers that still pay dividends as rich as thirty years ago. And then there are those in the middle. Who had JUST ENOUGH success to not give up. Like so many of the acts on this show. Gary Brooker. Rob Grill of the Grass Roots. John Kay. Watching these has-beens I got freaked out. Was I wasting my life. Some day I’d be sixty. Would I still be sitting in front of my computer tapping away in this same house, living the same lifestyle?

That sounded terrible. Like a missed opportunity. On life.

Then the Association appeared.

Now we know they’re a lightweight act. But their very first single was sheer credibility. The marijuana ditty "Along Comes Mary" was both catchy and edgy. All sung in a rush. The group members looked terrible, like retired Rotarians, and their voices weren’t perfect. But they were singing the hell out of this song. And it registered.

And I started to reflect. I remember hearing the song in my mother’s station wagon on the way to visit her parents in Massachusetts as it was ascending the chart.

And from there my mind coursed through the sixties. When everything was new. When we felt alive. When the whole country was about personal development, as part of society. Yes, JFK asked us what we could do for our country, and his successor, LBJ, spoke of a Great Society. We had dreams.

Now dreamers are losers.

And feeling good about that bygone era I realized I couldn’t tell anyone. For fear of being lumped into that same barrel with my parents. An elder reminiscing about the good old days. But they were my days. Where did I want to live, back there, or here.

2

It’s the passage of time that’s freaky. Brian Wilson came back only thirteen years after he started. Kurt Cobain began further back than that. When you’re a kid five years seems an eternity. The difference between high school and middle school. You don’t even want to OWN anything that old. Whereas I still think of my stereo amplifier as new, even though I bought it in the summer of ’99. It replaced the high-end Sansui I bought back in ’76, when I started law school.

I’d drive downtown every day listening to the radio. I could just twist the dial ever so slightly on my preset-less Blaupunkt and travel between KMET and KLOS, hearing the best of the day’s rock. Back when rock still ruled. When rock still counted.

And the big record that fall was "The Pretender". Jackson Browne’s musing about his generation, my generation, the baby boomers.

I’m going to rent myself a house
In the shade of the freeway
I’m going to pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day

Artists, real artists, are always one step ahead of the game. Jackson’s fans back then saw this life as death. They were going to be different, making a difference. Now, they’re worse offenders than their parents. At least their parents made peace with growing old, didn’t dress like teenagers, didn’t think they still ruled. The baby boomers wanted change, they believed in the greater good, now they’re just endlessly struggling for the legal tender. Is it any wonder that Jackson Browne has been forgotten?

If you listen to the moguls, they say that everybody’s evanescent, everybody’s got their time, and then they’re done. Like it’s a giant sausage factory and the old wieners are overripe, rotten. The execs don’t care about artistry, which makes it difficult if you’re an artist.

Those acts playing the oldies shows… They’re not artists.

And I’m not even sure if Elton and Paul McCartney are artists anymore either. They’re showmen. Oh, they put out new albums, but they’re meaningless. And meaning used to be the only thing.

Some artists ossify, some calcify, then there are others that lose their way. Jackson Browne lost his way. First he thought he was a rocker. Then he thought he was a political activist. He veered so far off the mark that he almost dared the audience to give up on him. And when he finally delivered again, in 1993, with "I’m Alive", nobody was paying attention. Then again, maybe the Daryl Hannah affair turned off his core constituency. It’s so hard to separate the art from the man.

So Jackson went back to the rock. And, in an era where rock is marginal and there are few radio stations that play the kind of music he makes, Jackson’s deal with Elektra expired and wasn’t renewed.

I can see the label’s perspective. Jackson still thinks he needs that much money. And they’ve got no way of getting that money back. Then again, you’ve got to give Warner props for re-signing Neil Young. If the business is only about trendy acts then it’s got no center. We all hope it returns to the center. And it’s the old credible acts that are going to make this happen. They serve as a guiding light, a lighthouse, showing the youngsters how to do it. Maybe their new records aren’t as good, but the promotion and the marketing, it keeps the still trying greats in the public eye, where people can see them.

But they won’t see Jackson Browne. He falls short of the legendary status of Mr. Young. So, Jackson went indie. He’s formed his own label. And is releasing what most people would consider a cheap shot, a solo acoustic album of his greatest hits.

3

The highlight of "Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1" is the intro to "Fountain Of Sorrow". Wherein Jackson tells the story of playing an audience request, "Peaceful Easy Feeling", which he didn’t write. Actually, the EAGLES didn’t even write "Peaceful Easy Feeling", Jack Tempchin did. But the audience…here in Palm Desert, where even fans of seventies rock have now retired, it has all run together, it’s a blur. But, the best part of the tale is that Jackson actually PLAYS IT! But, the audience groans because he gets some minor words wrong. You see, underneath it all, despite the trappings, despite the half-dead appearance, the baby boomers still remember. Music still counts to them. That’s why they go to see the Eagles and the Stones. They want to relive those days.

But, the question is, are those days still here?

Listening to "Fountain Of Sorrow", "For Everyman" and "These Days" one hears not nostalgia, but insights just as prescient as the day they were birthed. And the intimacy of the record, it enraptures you.

But the highlight is not one of the well-known tracks. The highlight is the title track from Jackson’s 1996 album, "Looking East".

The original is a ROCKER! It shoots out of the gate like a greyhound. It’s energetic, it’s full of optimism and belief. Whereas this acoustic version verges on maudlin. It barely starts. Jackson is displaying guitar chops you didn’t even know he possessed. And the lyrics, instead of emanating from a whippersnapper they seem to be coming from a curmudgeon on his couch. Well, maybe not a curmudgeon as much as a true believer. Alone at home. Wondering where it’s all gone. If there’s any hope left.

Standing in the ocean with the sun burning low in the west
Like a fire in the cavernous darkness at the heart of the beast
With my beliefs and possessions, stopped at the frontier in my chest
At the edge of my country, my back to the sea, looking east

That’s why we live in California. We don’t want to be associated with the rest of the country, we don’t want to belong. We’re three hours behind and we LIKE IT! As long as you would just leave us alone. But you don’t.

We want to clean our air. The government, influenced by the automakers who pay for politicians’ campaigns, sues to strike down California’s more stringent laws. Out of state money comes in to prop up the faltering Arnold Schwarzenegger regime. But, as much as the rest of the country hates us, we serve a purpose. We embody their hopes and dreams. We’re where change begins. We’re where you go to start over. We’re the GOLDEN STATE!

All the thinking is done in the east. We’re airheads out getting a tan. But maybe conventional wisdom is wrong. Maybe all those freaks looking for answers out here demonstrate a will to live, to EXPLORE as opposed to their east coast brethren caught up in the old ways. Getting up and doing it all over again for the legal tender.

Not that we don’t have that type in California either, but it’s a much more complex society. Races and religions mix together like nowhere else. Despite the greed and the crime, there’s still some thinking going on. We used to respect our thinkers, we looked to them to lead us, today we look to chumps like Trump, only money matters. But listening to "Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1" you won’t think that way.

Where the search for the truth is conducted with a wink and a nod
And where power and position are equated with the grace of God
These times are famine for the soul while for the senses it’s a feast
From the edge of my country, as far as you see, looking east

Tom DeLay has been indicted. Bill Frist is being investigated. Meanwhile, Congress gives Brownie a pass. There’s no search for truth. Hell, there’s only one clear truth, it’s the BIBLE!

I recognize my country not at all. When I was in college everybody was a Democrat, now that’s a dirty word. The entertainment purveyed…it’s got no meaning, it’s purely an opiate for the uneducated masses. We went to college, got graduate degrees, fought against an unjust war, worked to stop discrimination and poverty and now things are WORSE?

Today it’s all about personal responsibility. Everyone’s a survivalist. Everybody’s watching out for himself.

We used to watch out for each other.

And we learned this from our parents, from our schools, from our communities, but mostly from the MUSIC!

We can’t believe in broad strokes anymore. The government can’t come through for us and the Red Cross hemorrhages donations.

Change isn’t going to come from Washington, D.C. Those guys are bought and paid for. As are what passes for today’s artists. They’re tools of the corporation. Even the aforementioned Sir Paul, who’s got endorsement deals with Fidelity AND Lexus and STILL charges over a hundred dollars a ticket, like he’s starving, like he can’t make ends meet.

Artists exist outside the system. Today artists have to do it for themselves, to remain unsullied by corrupt influences.

On one hand, Jackson Browne looks like a loser. Starting anew at the bottom.

But we’ve all got to start at the bottom. That’s the only way to get back to the top.

You’ve got to find your own way. You’ve got to come to your own conclusions. But "Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1" will help you, will light a fire within, a spark, which will ignite your hope.

The record isn’t about hits. It’s not about airplay. It’s to be listened to like an album, from beginning to end. Put it on not at a dinner party, but when you’re alone. Reading on a Saturday afternoon, on a fall drive. It’ll bring back who you used to be. And who we used to be is better than who we are now.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.

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