Monday, 8 December 2014

Album Review: "Standing in the Breach" by Jackson Browne

"You don't know why, but you still try
For the world you wish to see ..."

I've been a big fan of Jackson Browne going way back. His first album, Jackson Browne, was released by Asylum Records back in January, 1972. I listened to it constantly at home; and it got played a lot at get-togethers and parties. Later that year I was lucky to see him play live at The Riverboat Coffeehouse in Toronto. Accompanying him that night was David Lindley (guitar and fiddle). Lindley would become a long-time collaborator of Browne's. I saw Browne recently, too, playing solo at Hamilton Place. One highlight of that show was the sight of the hand-made, wooden rack set up just behind him - cradling seventeen different acoustic guitars (he played five of them during that concert).

Jackson Browne was one of a clutch of superlative singer-songwriters I was following through the 1970s: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot, Van Morrison, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, John Prine and Bruce Cockburn. Each had their special gifts; each presented a particular persona on stage; and each brought their own unique set of musical influences and political interests to the songs they were writing and performing. As time passed, it was interesting to see how their careers evolved, and fascinating to follow the development of their music.

Jackson Browne - despite embodying the laid-back, hippy ethos of southern California - began to make his name in the New York City music-scene of the late sixties. When he first arrived in NYC in 1966 he became a member briefly of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In 1967 he worked as an accompanist with Tim Buckley and made a major contribution to Marble Index - Nico's first solo album. He and Nico were romantically involved at the time. She recorded three of his songs for Marble Index; and he played guitar on five of its tracks. But it was as a songwriter, rather than a performer, that Jackson Browne first came to prominence. His songs were covered by the likes of Tom Rush, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Noonan, Joan Baez, The Byrds, and The Eagles. 

Browne eventually came under the wing of music-manager David Geffen in the late 60s. Geffen had already had some success managing Laura Nyro and Crosby, Stills and Nash. When he was having trouble getting Jackson a recording contract, Ahmet Ertegün - the founder of Atlantic Records - suggested he set up his own record label. Geffen decided to do just that. With his friend Elliot Roberts - a like-minded music manager, who would also work with many of southern California's top musicians - he created Asylum Records in 1971. Browne's debut album emerged soon afterwards, in January, 1972. 

Browne went on to release a string of excellent albums into the late-seventies - virtually one a year. But by the 80s he seemed to have lost his touch, and my interest in his work waned substantially. The releases were more sporadic by then - one every three years. And in the last two decades, he's only managed a new studio album every six years, or so. I started to pay attention again to his work after hearing I'm Alive (1993). That album was a unified set of songs dealing with the break-up of his nine-year relationship with actress and fellow environmental activist Darryl Hannah. It included the stand-out song "Sky Blue and Black".

Jackson Browne's musical qualities aren't hard to fathom: he is an excellent songwriter; he creates memorable melodies; he delivers them with his distinctive baritone voice; and he accompanies himself well on both guitar and piano. But it's the lyrics of the songs that set him apart from other singer-songwriters of his ilk. The man really knows how to communicate. And he has always had something interesting to say - something that many listeners could make common cause with.

In the early years, Browne wrote about things that touched the hearts of his youthful audience: the travails of romantic entanglement, the yearning for freedom, and the deep need to escape from a humdrum existence. He tapped into the hippy ethos of communal life. He wrote about utopian longings; and then, when those hopes seemed dashed, he countered with anxious ruminations about dystopian apocalypse. He liked to write epic treatments on these themes: "For Everyman" ('73), "Before The Deluge" ('74), and "The Pretender" ('76). His writing was sensitive, carefully crafted, and - on occasion - perhaps just a little bit too literate; in some ways, his strengths - paradoxically - can also become weaknesses. But there's no doubt that he regularly hit home-runs: "Fountain of Sorrow", for example; and "For a Dancer", both brilliant songs from Late For The Sky (1974).

In the 1980s, Browne got deeply involved with environmental issues and political activism. And he worked on behalf of many different charities and causes. His albums began to include songs with overtly political sentiments (especially about what the U.S. government was up to down in Central America). This shift began with Lawyers in Love ('83) and continued with Lives in the Balance ('86) and World in Motion ('89). Unlike the romantic, utopian stuff - which was full of clever metaphor, and other poetic tropes - Browne's political material tended to be didactic and preachy, alienating some former fans because of its "narrower" perspective. But ever since then, he has continued to look for a way to balance both types of songs and both kinds of expression.

Standing in the Breach is Jackson Browne's 14th. studio album. It was released on October 7, 2014 - a six-year gap since Time the Conqueror (issued in September, 2008). This new one was co-produced by Paul Dieter and Browne. It has ten tracks and clocks in at 55:07. There are folk-rock, country and rockabilly sounds here, but everything is done in a retro-roots, guitar-rock sound that seems to be the thing these days - whether it's Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, or Eric Burdon. The tracks usually have two or three lead guitar parts - featuring Val McCallum and Greg Leisz, who both played on the new Lucinda Williams album I reviewed recently. Benmont Tench, keyboard player for Tom Petty's band The Heartbreakers, adds some momentum to "If I Could be Anywhere". 

It's a mixed bag of songs. Most of them were written by Browne. "You Know the Night" is a tune Browne and Rob Wasserman wrote to accompany lyrics written by Woody Guthrie back in 1943. "Walls and Doors" features Browne's own English translation of a song by Cuban songwriter Carlos Varela. The first track - "The Birds of St. Mark's" - is a song that dates way back to the mid-60s. There are other hints of the past: "Leaving Winslow" references the town of Winslow, Arizona, mentioned in the first line of "Take it Easy"; and "The Long Way Around" begins with the complaint:

"I don't know what to say about these days;
I'm seeing people changing in the strangest ways."

Which reminds me of one of his earlier songs, "These Days" - Nico recorded it for the afore-mentioned Marble Index album, and Jackson released it himself on his second album For Everyman ('73):

"Well I've been out walking;
I don't do that much talking these days".

Of the songs here solely penned by Jackson Browne, there is the usual mix of romantic angst and political protest. Of the political tracks, "Which Side?" - featuring the old union refrain, "Which side are you on?" - is the most didactic. "Standing in the Breach" is a more oblique approach to the same theme, and it recalls the apocalyptic tone of "Before the Deluge". "If I Could Be Anywhere", on the other hand, alternates between a litany of problems and a simple affirmation of his continuing engagement with the tasks at hand:

"If I could be anywhere;
If I could be anywhere in time;
If I could be anywhere and change things,
It would have to be now."

It reminds me of "Alive in the World" from Looking East (1999):

"I want to live in the world, not inside my head;
I want to live in the world, I want to stand and be counted."

Of all the politically-charged songs, "The Long Way Around" is the most effective, because it adopts a more personal and reflective tone. The last verse raises the issue of gun-ownership, and presents the social dangers it poses with these wonderful lines (note the exquisite ambiguity in the final line):

"It's never been that hard to buy a gun;
Now they'll sell a Glock 19 to just about anyone;
The seeds of tragedy are there,
In what we feel we have the right to bear;
To watch our children come to harm,
There in the safety of our arms."

It's telling, though, that the very best thing on this album is the simplest - three brief verses, describing in an indirect, but evocative, way a numbing sense of loss. It's the final track on the album, called "Here". Is it about the end of a relationship? Is it about the death of a loved one? We're not sure. But he gives us that intense feel for the moment that comes at the beginning of that loss.

"You're sitting there staring into the distance,
Like you're putting up some kind of resistance;
But you barely see the dawn;
It's like this river that you're on;
Here where the sorrows flow,
And all you will never know about her.

You're here"

It's decorated with a simple accompaniment: two guitars, a lap steel, bass and drums, and a lovely harmony vocal. This is Jackson at his best - understated, reflective, heart-breaking.

Standing at the Breach is a good album. It's far from his best, but it's a fine collection of songs that are given all of Browne's inimitable touches: attractive melodies, distinctive singing, and upbeat country-tinged rock 'n' roll. It will satisfy both the casual listener and the long-standing fan.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Photo Essay: The Grave of James Joyce in Zurich

At the Joyce grave (James, Norah and George are interred here)

I discovered the great Irish writer James Joyce in my late teens. I read first his autobiographical novel The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man (published in 1916). This künstlerroman (a novel tracing the intellectual, religious and philosophical development of its young protagonist Stephen Dedalus) had a huge impact on me, because of its critical account of a young man's Catholic education. The shift Dedalus undergoes from religious ardour to complete rejection of the Church mirrored my own teenage development. Just as impressive as this first modernist novel of his was Joyce's earlier book of short stories, Dubliners (1914). I have re-read both of these works several times - and found more to admire in them on each occasion. And I have even managed, recently, to get all the way through Ulysses (1922), his long and difficult modernist masterpiece.

Milton Hebald's distinctive sculpture of Joyce - cigarette in one hand; book in the other

When my wife Barbara and I were in Zurich in July 2013, I made a point of visiting the grave of James Joyce. How did Joyce - all of whose work was focused obsessively on his homeland - end up dead and buried in Zurich? Well, the short answer is that he made the conscious decision in 1904 (at the age of 22) to exile himself permanently from Ireland, and to pursue the life of a writer in Continental Europe. For the next fifteen-odd years, James and his wife Nora lived in Italy (primarily Rome and Trieste from 1904-1915) and Switzerland (in Zurich from 1915-1920). In 1920 the American poet Ezra Pound invited Joyce to make a week-long visit to Paris - so that he could mingle with the burgeoning literary scene there, replete with hordes of American and British writers enjoying the artistic, bohemian lifestyle and taking advantage of the cheap cost of living. James and Nora liked the situation in the French capital and decided to settle there. They spent 20 years in Paris - finally leaving in late 1940 to escape the Nazi occupation.  

Soon after returning to Zurich (Switzerland's largest city), Joyce became seriously ill. He was eventually diagnosed as suffering from a perforated duodenal ulcer. He underwent surgery on January 11th., 1941. The procedure seemed to have been successful; he rallied briefly, but then suffered a relapse, which required several blood transfusions. He fell into a coma. He awoke at 2 a.m. on January 13th., and asked to see his wife and son George. He died 15 minutes later, as the pair were on their way to the hospital. Joyce was 58 years old.

The headstone at the Joyce family grave

Two days later, the body of James Joyce was taken to the Friedhof Fluntern (Fluntern Cemetery). A Catholic priest had tried to persuade Joyce's wife, Nora, to hold a funeral mass for her husband. Her reply: "Oh, I couldn't do that to him." A service was held at the cemetery in the Friedhofkapelle. Speeches were made by Lord Derwent, the British Minister to Bern, by poet Max Geilinger, on behalf of the Swiss Society of Authors, and by Professor Heinrich Straumann. The Swiss tenor Max Meili sang "Addio terra, addio ciele" ("Farewell earth; farewell sky") from Monteverdi's opera L'Orfeo.

Norah Joyce attempted to have James Joyce's remains repatriated to Ireland, but the Irish government refused. Norah died in Zurich in 1951 and she was buried beside her husband. In 1966 they were moved to a permanent plot at the back of the cemetery. The body of their son George ("Georgio") joined them, following his death in 1976. A wonderful sculpture of Joyce by Milton Hebald was dedicated and placed beside their grave in 1981.

The centre of Zurich is on either side of the River Limmat, which flows north-west out of Lake Zurich (Zürichsee); Joyce's grave is at the Friedhof Fluntern - shown near the top-right of this Google Earth image

Friedhof Fluntern is on the eastern outskirts of the city, right next to the zoo. The Joyces used to visit there - James particularly liked standing at the lion cage. It was a comfort to Norah, therefore, that her husband was buried next to the zoo: "He was awfully fond of the lions," she said, "I like to think of him lying there and listening to them roar".

You take the #6 tram from the centre of Zurich to get to Friedhof Fluntern

To get to Friedhof Fluntern is quite easy. You catch the #6 tram in the city centre and take it to the end of the line. The terminus is called the Zoo stop. The front gate to the cemetery is just 100 metres from the tram stop. The cemetery itself is a very attractive and well-maintained place. The headstones and gravesite sculptures are generally more interesting than your average home of the dead - we saw many fascinating and creative memorials there - including Milton Hebald's unique sculpture of Joyce.

Entrance into Friedhof Fluntern

Front door of James Joyce Foundation

There are other Joycean locations to visit in Zurich. There must be about half-a-dozen former apartments in the centre of the city that were once residences for the Joyce family: a few are near the university, and about four of them are clustered together in the oldest part of the city - on the east bank of the Limmat river. 

There is also The James Joyce Foundation, founded in 1985. It is located at #9 Augustinergasse. The Foundation organizes regular readings and seminars. And its library has a very impressive collection of over 5,000 volumes - many first editions of Joyce works, and other books about the great man. 

James Joyce Foundation is at #9 Augustinergasse

Also worth a visit is the James Joyce Pub. It can be found at #8 Pelikanstrasse. In the early 1970s, Swiss fans of Joyce raised enough money to enable them to buy the interior of Jury's Antique Bar in Dublin, which was slated for demolition. The interior was dismantled and moved to Zurich. I have to say I didn't particularly like the ambience of the James Joyce Pub - it felt more like an upscale wine bar, than a down-to-earth Irish pub. Its location in the financial and shopping district around Bahnhofstrasse doesn't help. But you might want to visit just to tick it off on your list of James Joyce sites in Zurich!

The turn-around at the Zoo terminus of the #6 tram

Photographs © Clive W. Baugh
(using a Nikon D7000 with a Nikkor 18-105 mm zoom lens)

Resource: James Joyce (1959) by Richard Ellmann (revised edition published in 1982). This is probably the best - and most comprehensive - biography of James Joyce.