Questions of the day
Veteran US man-with-a-guitar Jackson Browne talks music
and politics ahead of this week's solo acoustic tour.
Not only has Jackson Browne written million-selling hits,
he's also been published in the op-ed section of The
New York Times. Just a week before this interview was conducted
at the end of March, the Times published Browne's letter
to the editor, ''Songs of Cuba, Silenced in America.''
The piece took issue with the recent denials of US visas to
Cuban musicians, including among others, Browne's friend,
the singer-songwriter Carlos Varela. "In essence, the
government says that if Carlos Varela plays concerts in Cuba,
the money he makes would go to Fidel Castro," Browne
wrote. "The Bush administration used the same reasoning
to keep Ibrahim Ferrer, of the Buena Vista Social Club, and
Manuel Galban from attending the Grammy Award ceremony..."
Speaking by phone from his Santa Monica home, Browne, 55,
explains that the impetus for the op-ed piece grew out of
a visit to Cuba with a group called Music Bridges, who introduced
him to Varela. "He was very hospitable and threw a
party for me, so I was looking forward to him being [in the
US] at the Hall of Fame. I had a seat reserved for him at
my table, which is not easy to get, and I was upset but not
entirely surprised when they rejected his visa application.
A friend whose work it is to accompany politicians to Cuba
suggested that if I simply wrote an op-ed and sent it in,
it would get printed."
In a sign of the enduring influence of a singer whose hits
remain synonymous with the easygoing soft rock of 1970s California,
The Times published the piece. Does Browne expect any results?
Unlikely, he says. "The views of this administration
are very entrenched, but I would hope they would come to their
senses and let Carlos Varela come on the merits of his music
and his criticism of the Cuban government. He's not
a dissident per se, but his songs are perceived as being critical
because they talk about what life is really like in Cuba."
While many of Browne's indelible songs, like "Running
On Empty," deal with intensely personal questions,
such as the loss of innocence, he's also well known
for a political outspokenness that dates back to his involvement
in the antinuclear movement of the late '70s and early
'80s. "When so many efforts at human rights
and the environment began to run aground on American foreign
and corporate policy, we began to see that being right doesn't
always carry the day," he recalls. "I was politicized
then by the nuclear industry's free ride that they
got from government, and also by our government's policy
in Central America, which trampled people's human rights."
Browne's latest album, The Naked Ride Home (Elektra)
is no exception, with songs that depict emotional landscapes
like the title track, but also political tracts such as "Casino
Nation," which begins with a line describing "a
weapons producing nation under Jesus."
But as Browne explains, the genesis of even a political song
must be natural to in order to work. "You don't
sit down with a pad and paper and think, 'I'll
write a song about human rights in Latin America,'
" he says.
"People who are used to expressing the concerns of
their whole lives, and maybe heretofore were confronting issues
that were very personal, become politicized because the times
have brought it alive in them." He cites as an example
Marvin Gaye's anti-Vietnam war song "What's
Going On," penned by an artist more accustomed to writing
Browne believes that now is such a time. "I think a
lot of people are being politicized by what's going
on. People are suddenly waking up, asking how did we get here,
and are being called upon by their own consciences to do something."
To follow Browne's train of thought, one artist who
recently visited Japan, Rickie Lee Jones, for example, took
up politics for the first time in three decades of music on
her new album The Evening of My Best Day. But at the same
time, another artist recently interviewed in these pages,
Iggy Pop, derided songwriters who get their material from
the morning newspaper.
The question of whether politics belongs in music is one Browne
clearly struggles with. "There have been times when
people have called my songs more political speeches than songs;
this is a criticism the LA Times made of me," he admits.
"There is always a certain amount of contention about
whether politics should go into songs."
But warming to his subject, Browne notes that even songs one
might not think of as overtly political often have a political
subtext. "A lot of people don't think about
it, but blues came out of a highly charged political situation,
which was slavery. A blues song that says, 'I asked
for water, she gave me gasoline,' might not sound political,
but it's not really about a woman, it's about
a slave driver standing over a black man as he toils in the
field. So the music became a mode of expression for much more
than just that man's misery, it became the thing that
sustained him, and an expression of his dignity and humanity,
and that's a very political act."
Does the well-known liberal Browne worry about preaching to
the converted? "It's a risk you take, and that's
always the question: How well do you make your point to people
who don't really know what you know?"
But he's optimistic that songs can also reach beyond
established constituencies. "It all comes down to how
you do it, and how well you do it." That, he concludes,
is where the power of rock 'n' roll comes into
play. "Music talks to things that you know, like desire
or the search to find out about yourself, but it can also
make you want to know more. You need to talk to people that
don't agree with you-that's where the
fun and exuberance and freedom-bearing virus of rock 'n'
roll comes in."
Jackson Browne plays Bunkamura Orchard
Hall on April 22-23. See concert listings for details.
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