Sunday, 23 May 2010

Something Fine


I recently felt the urge to listen to Jackson Browne again. It's funny, how much the relationships we make with music are like the friendships we make, especially those we made in our youth. They seem so much a part of who we are that -- whether we cultivate them, abandon them, take them for granted, or simply forget about them -- it is a shock one day to discover that they are no longer what we thought they were, and have been utterly transformed by the simple passage of time. Even though not a note or word has changed, songs that once seemed as profound and as beautifully wrought as a Shakespeare sonnet have become clunkingly adolescent, amusingly maudlin, or simply plain bad. They have not changed, but you have.

So, at first I dismissed that urge to listen to Jackson Browne. After all, it had been so long since I listened to those albums -- perhaps 30 years -- that I only had them on vinyl. It was obvious this would be an error of judgement similar to attending a school reunion or trying to squeeze into an old pair of jeans. I don't need more ways to feel middle-aged.

But then one of my work colleagues said she was going to Morocco, which made me smile, and the song "Something Fine" flooded back into my mind. I got a strong feeling that, in the words of the song, there might still be something there for me. Given I now have access to Spotify, there seemed no harm in it. So I gave in, and did it.

Once I'd got over the instant rush of nostalgia -- 30 years is a long time, after all, and it was rather like opening a long-forgotten photo album -- I was struck by several things. The first thing was how intimately I could recall these songs, as soon as the opening notes of each sounded. Once upon a time, it quickly became apparent, these songs had been more important to me than I now realised. Like a favourite coat I used to wear in all weathers, or my tobacco tin. My, how I used to love to smoke!

The second thing was what a good guitarist Browne is, in an understated but effective way -- if I'd paid more attention back then, I might be a better guitarist now. And what a clever wordsmith: "The world outside is tugging like a beggar at my sleeve / Ah, that's much too old a story to believe". That's good writing.

But what really struck me was how world-weary, how glum some of the best songs on Browne's first two albums are. Obviously, he'd packed a lot of living into his second decade, but he was only 25 when For Everyman came out, and at times he sounds at least 60. Or, at least, he does to my 56-year-old ears; to my 18-year-old ears he sounded plangent, worldly and wise. It's an odd feeling, revisiting a youthful enthusiasm, only to find middle-aged regrets were lying in wait for you all along. "So, you finally showed up. Where have you been all this time?"

But "Something Fine" is a stand-out song. Its mood of wistful, vicarious pleasure is the mood of a parent seeing a child off on a big adventure. To hear it in the live, solo acoustic version recorded in 2005 is best. Browne's age finally matches the age of the song, his voice has matured, his timing is impeccable, and I'd love to know where I can get one of those guitars. Of course, in 1971 in Britain you couldn't name Morocco without invoking "Moroccan", that ubiquitous khaki-yellow cannabis resin that must have been smuggled into the country daily by the ton. "Something fine"? Well, hardly. But by 2005 the knowing smirk has gone, and the innocence of the song shines through.
But you said "Morocco" and you made me smile
And it hasn't been that easy for a long, long while
And looking back into your eyes I saw them really shine
Giving me a taste of something fine.


They've just had a taste of something fine
(Blenheim Palace 1974; photo: Fiona Thompson)

18 comments:

Dave Leeke said...

I came to Jackson Browne quite late. I've owned a vinyl copy of "Running On Empty" since it came out (1977) but have only really got into him in recent years. I've never seen him live but will be next month at The Albert Hall. He's touring with David Lindley so I'm expecting great things. Perhaps I needed to get older to appreciate him.

What guitars are you referring to in your blog?

Anyway, the photo of you is just how you looked last time I saw you. Still, take it easy.

Mike C. said...

That's something to look forward to, Dave -- those "Solo Acoustic" albums do sound very good. Unfortunately, my slight deafness and tinnitus make concerts an unattractive prospect, these days. Ironic, I suppose, as it may have been noisy concerts that triggered the condition in the first place -- one day, there'll be a class action for damages against Hawkwind, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin et al. "When I said the music gave me a buzz this not what I had in mind..."

I meant whatever guitar he's playing on that album -- very sweet. My own instrument is a battered and home-repaired Kasuga bought in 1973. I don't deserve anything better...

In my mind, I still look like that, 28" waist and all. Sigh...

Mike

Mike C. said...

Actually, I forgot to say, the best performance I ever heard of a JB song was Nick Hearman singing and playing "Song for Adam" on a visit to see Sandie at UEA not long after Andy Haig drowned in the Thames at the 72 (or 73?) Reading Festival -- incredible, not a dry eye, etc.

Mike

Martin H. said...

I must check out the 'Solo Acoustic' albums.

Maybe it is just the time of year, or maybe it's the time of man, but I've been rummaging through my music collection in recent weeks, looking to rediscover a few gems. Then, out the blue, BBC Four screened the Carole King and James Taylor reunion at the Troubadour on Friday evening. Now I'm rummaging with more purpose.

Love the photograph. Reminds me of a similar moment of mine, mid-winter, high up on Stiperstones in Shropshire. Funny, we didn't feel at all cold.

Mike C. said...

I think we're all just turning into nostalgic old geezers, Martin...

But, as I say, the surprise is how middle-aged sounding a lot of that music actually is. It's easy to forget that Britain was relatively late into the "counter-cultural" game that had been going on in the US since the late 50s -- a lot of Americans had earned their world-weariness by 1970.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

Browne is always photographed playing vintage Gibsons - of course, as the album covers show, he has a huge range of guitars!

The new cd with Lindley recorded live in Spain is good, too. It's called "Love is Strange".

The Reading Festival you refer to was 1973 - I was sitting by the river with Nick when Andy's body was pulled out of the water. The upshot of that was Bob Harris played "Keep Yourself Alive" on his Monday radio show which always seemed a bit hamfisted to me.Perhaps he thought he was being clever.

Mike C. said...

Good Grief, Dave, I had no idea you were there -- sorry to bring up bad memories :(

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

It's okay - I'd only just met the bloke! Don't forget I was younger than most of you - I got involved with Rob and co. at college. I went to college straight after the fifth year (now Y11 of course) after Mr Burridge wandered up to me after my last exam and said, "We won't be seeing you next year will we, Leeke?"
I replied, "Well sir, I had thought . . " Only to be cut short by him glaring at me and saying, "We won't be seeing you next year, WILL WE, Leeke?"

I got the message.

Mike C. said...

Even so, Nick was traumatised... It can't have been fun to witness. I vividly remember sitting in Sandie's front room in Knebworth when they returned from Reading -- it was a very weird scene, like being in a play and having forgotten your lines.

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

Yes, I went straight down to St Ives for an organised holiday and unbeknown to me, several members of the party were friends of Andy's so I had the dubious honour of delivering the bad news. This meant that they were all upset for the whole two weeks.

Ah well, it's all in the past now. We've all lost a few fellow travellers along the way.

Mike C. said...

Indeed. At least these days I know enough to go and put the kettle on and not talk gibberish...

Mike

Anonymous said...

Mike,

Well written yourself, if I'm not intruding. (Americans) Doing some similar ramblings through my gloriously misspent youth. UK may have been late, though they certainly helped fuel it; Clapton, Plant, Lennon, et al, and with mods and rockers, etc., not sure, about late.

Might I mention some that have held up ... "Once I was" by a fallen wayfarer, Tim Buckley, and the dark, dangerous, and brooding LATE Doors, anthem music for the ruiner of that golden counter culture age, Vietnam.

Bron

Mike C. said...

Bron,

I tried Tim Buckley from your previous mention, but it didn't quite speak to me -- I don't think Buckley was ever as big in the UK as he was in the US, and I'd literally never (knowingly) heard any.

Funny how that happens -- I imagine the likes of Nick Drake never really exported in the other direction at the time. I don't myself think of British 50s/60s youth cults like Teds and Mods as "counter culture" -- but that's the subject of an upcoming post.

Talking of Vietnam, though, I was recently trying to work out whether I would have been old enough to get drafted in the US, and discovered the last draft was born in 1953, the year before me -- as so often, just too late for classic Boomer experiences (not that I'm complaining).

Athough the war was still fizzling on, it had completely dropped off the "activists' agenda" when I reached college -- a year late -- in '73. But I do remember hitching round Europe in 1971 and 72 and being prodded awake in places like Frankfurt station by American MPs looking for deserters.

Mike

Bronislaus Janulis said...

An aside from the interwebs; Jackson Browne was briefly a member of Tim Buckley"s band.

It's probably just that one song, and WHEN it came out.

Bron

Dave Leeke said...

Okay, here goes:

I remember Mark and Paul Trotman (American citizens at Alleynes) having to sort out draft notices while they were still at school, so 1972, I think.

I saw Tim Buckley at the first Knebworth Festival (the one with Allman Brothers, Van Morrison, The Doobies, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Alex Harvey) which I got paid £5 for being on "Security" that day - I worked at the Park in those days. Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid. His son Jeff played at Stevenage Red Lion in the High Street before he became famous. Actually, that's a bit obvious as his fame was posthumous.

My eldest daughter (25) loves both of them. Perhaps they were both ahead of their time?

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Some comments. Tim Buckley was limited by dying very young. That particular album, Goodbye and Hello, came out at a time that was very serious for me personally; madly in love with a young lady, married and a mother, questioning my course as regards the draft, hating the thought of going to school just to avoid the draft, very opposed to the war (I'm probably on several FBI lists, something I'm starting to check on). Couple all that angst, add in that I was a complete "wild child", totally at odds with any body in authority, and in spite of being the family "ner-do-well", when something responsible, difficult and painful needed to be done, I was the one, like sitting death watch for relatives, or taking care of the elderly.

PFUI, I think my point was that, like Mike, we had a powerful response to a particular song, that has carried. Just that one song, for me, Once I was.

Mike C. said...

Bron,

That combination of "wild child" and "family backstop" chimes... One of the things that has changed (vanished, really) is the moral dimension of 60s/70s hedonism. It was an era (esp. so in the States, I think) when to refuse to participate in society's predestined paths (not necessarily "drop out") was a progressive act.

You used to meet the best people "down there" (but not any more) -- the trouble was it left the field clear for some of the worst. Look at what happened to our politicians...

Mike

Dave Leeke said...

As a way of bringing some closure to where this started, Bud Scoppa who, incidentally reviewed JB's first album for "Rolling Stone" has just reviewed the new JB & DL album (I'll keep using the term) for "Uncut" magazine and it is well worth a read. I won't quote at any length but suffice to say that he hits the nail reasonably on its head:

"The LP (sic) enables the veteran singer/songwriter to take care of some long-unfinished business, to get things lined up properly. This is what closure sounds like."

Having listened to Roger Waters on Radio 4 this morning try to justify going out YET AGAIN to perform "The Wall" at 66, I personally feel much more aligned to Browne's growing old gracefully.

And I do mean gracefully. I have mentioned previously that I came to JB late in life but I am happy to accept him as a spokesman (if that's the right way to look at this) for me than a twisted - to use the modern term - mentalist.

I can't ever forget standing at some godawful out-of-town shopping mall in Virginia waiting for a lift and, thank *(*insert deity here), my lift turned up. The only lyrics going through my mind was "standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona . . .". this wasn't nostalgia - it's part of a soundtrack to a life. A long-running theme of mine, maybe, but music is a motivating force and easily as capable of whizzing us back there to the moment than any smell, tv programme, Madelaine cake or anything else we could mention.

Browne is one of the few American songwriters willing to stand against public opinion (after all he supported Bruce Cockburn for years). Perhaps he's now an elder statesman but I'm currently quite happy to "leaf through (his) songbook backwards and forwards" - his words - and "find the resonances".