An Interview with Jackson Browne

An Interview with Jackson Browne

The legendary songwriter about his politics, his fourteenth studio album and what it was like the first time he saw Springsteen perform.


Jackson Browne just dropped his fourteenth studio album, Standing in the Breach, Tuesday, and the reviews so far have been stellar. “Ringing peals of guitar herald the coming of a great new Jackson Browne release, “ said Mojo. It “sounds both familiar and utterly new…. His words perhaps more prosaic (certainly more ardently brazen), are just as transportive—just as likely to take us back to another time, too. A time of innocence and lost love. A time of youth,” said Something Else Reviews. Jackson is marking the occasion with two shows at the Beacon Theatre tonight and tomorrow night—the second, previously unscheduled one, was added due to ticket demand. Katrina and I sat down with Jackson at the Hotel Beacon one afternoon last week and talked about politics and music. Below, thanks to the expert taping and typing abilities of Nation intern Edward Hart, is an edited version of what we said, with a few sentences clarified and a whole bunch taken out. Hope you enjoy it. —ERA

Katrina vanden Heuvel: So, thank you for taking the time.

Jackson Browne: Oh, no. Thank you for asking—for wanting to do this. I’m thrilled.

KVH: You’re carrying The New York Times.

JB: I get The New York Times every day that I’m touring actually and at home. And then John gets it for me wherever we are and whatever the local paper is, but this is—so this is—it’s always interesting to—you know—well, it’s not interesting, but it’s always notable to note the difference in the coverage.

KVH: I was listening to Lives in the Balance and—a lot of questions about that—but you have a great line in there, which I’m not going to get right, but about the media—about talk radio, talk shows and what they kind of peddle. And I’m just wondering: we’re living in a different time, but many of the issues you’ve written about, have sung about—you know, war, lack of humanity, lies government tells—I’m wondering how you see the media right now.

JB: Well, certainly the media’s complicit in everything the government does. Of course, the broadest comment I would make is that you—as informed as you try to be, you can’t—you have to know that it’s what they’re leaving out. But the great thing is that there’s the Internet…. I think we live in a really open society but that—and that there are many freedoms, including the freedom to completely deceive and to—and to sell—and so buyer beware. You know, you can buy a bottle that has—that says glacier water or spring water on it and has a picture of a mountain on it, and it comes from a tap in New Jersey.

You know, it’s like there’s no law against that. I think it’s really hard to raise any issues about, you know, the policy that—the policies that our government does without being considered disloyal, you know. Because here we are like fighting this—this enemy—this—But never is there much of an examination of the historical conditions that led to the conflagration in the first place.

Eric Alterman: Sounds like you could write for The Nation.

JB: If I could write, I could write for The Nation.

EA: I’ve been listening to the new album. I love the production of it. I love the long fade-outs and the guitar work. I don’t know most the musicians on it, but I’m really impressed by that. But I’m surprised at how specific you are politically in the lyrics. It’s very unusual for any artist to do it. I mean you wrote about Central America rather specifically and the environment a bit, but this you’re really going after direct issues in a way that an artist of your stature rarely, rarely does. It’s much more of a punk-young-band-Internet kind of thing.

JB: I think you’re probably talking about “Which Side,” Right?

EA: It’s on a few different songs. But it’s not every song, obviously. It’s not the Woody Guthrie song—

JB: Well, that is one—that’s a wonderful song.

EA: Yeah, I know. I love the long version you did of that. It like goes on for half an hour.

JB: Well, fifteen minutes, but—

EA: No, that really long one? It’s like twenty-two minutes—

JB: I’ve never played that song where people didn’t check their watches. Even me.

EA: It’s like an Allman Brothers song.

JB: The musicians I was working with—and you mentioned that you don’t really know them—but they’re great, great players, and they’re kind of long-celebrated studio musicians in Los Angeles: Val McCallum and Greg Leisz. And, you know, Greg Leisz has, you know, played with a lot of people: Bill Frisell and Eric Clapton and k.d. lang and Lucinda Williams. And Val’s played with Lucinda too. And Val is this great, really great guitar player. And he played with me a while back, a few years ago. And he was—he’d be like the guitar player on somebody’s whole—like some band’s whole record—but he’s so tall that they, you know, it would just kind of stop short of him joining the band because there’d be like these, you know, five people my size and then this giant thing. No, but Val is the most like David Lindley—that is like a real musical foil, so all the solos are his solos and all of them are, all of them pretty much just happened through the course of making the record.

EA: They sound kind of like the band on Running on Empty. Isn’t that Lindley? They have that feeling where they could go on forever.

JB: Yeah, and in some cases they’re edited down, like in the live record. we were able to shorten things. But people in my band, they normally—they like to stretch out at the end of songs and in these cases I couldn’t really see—I can’t see fading them, and I would—any attempts at sort of editing them shorter didn’t seem good at all so what I like is on the songs that have the long fades that they’re songs that I don’t mind if you’ll have to think a little bit about what you were listening to. And, Greg Leisz also is a real disciple of David Lindley…. When we did “Which Side,” I thought, “Oh my God. You sound just like—“ And I looked at him, and he’s playing same old Rickenbacker that David used to play and hasn’t played for years. So yeah, there’s some ways in which David’s seminal influence on those guys has really come back around and really inhabited this record.

I didn’t really finish all these songs all at once. Some of them were finished a couple years ago, and some of them were finished right at the end. One of them I wrote when I was 18. I mean, I started a long time ago, and I could never really come up with the goods on the end of the last verse. I just couldn’t come up with what I felt needed to be said in the song until now. And that was very much inspired by getting to play with Taylor Goldsmith and Griffin Goldsmith on various gigs and sit-ins in LA. And I really did key a lot into the way that people play. The reason I thought I could do this sort of Byrds homage was that Greg can play like that. It’s just that simple—like, oh there’s a guy that I can get to do this and it would—I mean—and it’s fun, too. He’s also—Greg Leisz is this mysterious guy. He plays pedal steel and lapsed steel and all kinds of mandolins and Dobros and guitars. He’s as steeped in The Byrds music as anybody ever has been. So it’s great having these guys come together. That was just luck that they were available.

EA: You know, Jackson, most people—like I think of Bob Dylan as the ultimate example—they start out young and political, and then they get less political and more psychological and spiritual, and you, you’re kind of zigging and zagging. But now you’re more political than ever. So what is that about you? It’s unusual.

JB: I think Bruce Springsteen does, and I think—

EA: Yeah, we’re going to get to Bruce—

JB: You know more about Bruce than I do, but I’m not the only one here. And Dave Marsh said that very same thing, “You know he sort of has Dylan’s career in reverse.” Thing is—okay, well I used to play all these rallies and benefits and stuff, and I had these songs that were just vaguely optimistic about the—about humanity, and so it took a long time to be able to write the way I wanted to write about these issues. And then when I did, it was made a big deal out of here in the United States. In England it wasn’t that big of deal.

I’m interested in history. I haven’t studied history, but I keep gravitating to books that—where you find out that, “Oh, that was the summer that I was, you know, living this hippie dream, you know, and meanwhile the CIA was doing this.” You don’t even know whether things are getting worse or they’re doing more of it than ever. But, I mean, human rights issues are more on the forefront than ever.

KVH: Well, I wanted to ask you because I think in one of your songs you write about a generation’s, I think, “blank stare,” right? There’s sort of an anger about apathy. It’s a moment—it seems to me now, but how do you think about it—but there are lots of social movements. There’s a lot, you know—there were close to 400,000 people in the streets here a few days ago around climate.

JB: I think there’s a great sort of awakening. There are people demonstrating for democracy in Hong Kong as well. In a way it’s the same—it’s about being represented. It’s about representational government there and here: Why aren’t we doing anything about climate change? Why is the United States the biggest foot dragger when it comes to, you know, the environmental—global environmental accords. I mean, it’s because they’re beholden to business. I mean, the government is beholden to big business. And you have like Germany who is like now at 30 percent of alternative energy for their energy needs and have set aside for 2020 to phase out all the nuclear plants. Meanwhile Japan, which has an ongoing leak disaster, is back to like bludgeoning its citizens and to not talking about it—don’t mention it. You can go to jail for mentioning the problem. And they’re going back to starting it all back up again, you know. So these are—these are the forces that are really kind of vying for control.

The United States has a very different method of blending or a very different method than China has of controlling the situation. And you can imagine these world leaders getting together and saying—looking at the United States and saying, “You got to go through all that? You got to go through all that just to, you have to like create the illusion that these people have a voice, just so you can go do what you want to do anyway?”

KVH: But do you think a next generation—I mean, you’re playing with younger songwriters all the time—Dawes I’d never heard—do they have the chance to write political music, to do political things in the ways you have? The music, you’re talking about business, I mean, in light of the music business and the ways it’s been—

JB: Sure. Sure. If their interest takes them there, if they’re interested, you know. They’re pretty sharp guys. They’re really sharp. But to be a musician is to really care more about that than anything else, and, in a way, we’re as bought off as anybody. Really, the room it takes to make music, the kind of space it takes in your life—new musicians become isolated because they have so many people taking care of that space for them and making sure that they get the room to be creative. There are notable exceptions to that—people who, like, really make sure that they wind up—like Steve Earle and Tom Morello

EA: So then the secret is to be managed by Danny Goldberg—

JB: Danny Goldberg is a great—you know, he’s another exception. Well, he’s a great exception to all the BS. Everything you could say about rock and roll is just equally untrue in his case. You know, he’s really, very very committed and very knowledgeable and—I mean, well, I always thought it was really cool when he managed Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. I thought, that was great.

EA: Could we talk about your career a bit? I’ve been going to see you now for nearly forty years. Most people don’t know that you started out at like 16 or 17 in New York. You weren’t always this laid-back California hippie type. You were in New York. Did you hang out with the Velvet Underground when you were with Nico?

JB: Not really. I did get to meet Lou Reed on the occasion of the sessions for the Chelsea Girl album—the day of sessions. It was, Tom Wilson in the studio just like putting one song after another of Nico.

EA: And you were 17 or so?

JB: I was 18. And I had become her accompanist because before that, as she left the Velvets, they would each take turns backing her up at this club gig that she had at Andy Warhol’s place, which had been a Polish bar on St. Mark’s Place. He’d put up some films on the wall and he had Nico singing. One night it would be Sterling Morrison and the next night it’d be Lou Reed or so I was told. The night I saw, it was Sterling Morrison, but very shortly after that I got a call from Tim Buckley, who had been on this bill with her, saying that she was looking for an accompanist and do you want this job. So I took that job. But I had only been in town for like two weeks and that only lasted a couple months. You said I got my start in New York. It’s true. That was my first sort of professional work where I got paid.

EA: And then you lived with Gregg Allman? That sounds like a crazy thing to do. How old were you then?

JB: Let me try to put the timeline together. Yeah, it was after I got back—

EA: It was before the Allman Brothers.

JB: Well, it was when they were in a band called Hour Glass, which was, I think—I don’t know if it was post– or pre–Allman Joys—this guy Johnny Sandlin was the, like, the bass player and later became the producer of his album Laid Back. So he learned some of my songs then, and I didn’t really see him again for a long time, and when I did, the Allman Brothers were sort of on their—like really taking off, and they remembered some of those songs. Of course, he remembered them a little better than they were.

EA: Well they still play “These Days” beautifully.

JB: Oh yeah. Better than it was written. Nico, too. You know, you’re not going to believe this shit: I’m going to play you something that just got sent to me yesterday. Do you know who Ab-Soul is?

EA: Let me call my daughter, maybe she knows who Ab-Soul is—

JB:He did “These Days,” a version of “These Days.” So fucking great. You know—I had the greatest conversation with my son about this—see, because “These Days” is very popular especially among sort of you know indie or people like—people walk up to you saying, “Fucking right, you’re the guy that played on that Nico record?” And I’m like, “Right, that’s me. That’s me.” You know, I drew a compliment from Jack White, once who said, “Yeah, man, that record was so great. I love that record and your song.” So she did three of my songs—but the point is that to play “These Days,” for Nico to sing it, even though her voice was low, you had to play the capo up high, and then I’d play this finger-picking thing on the guitar. And that is what—that’s been used a lot. But my son said—my son lived in New York, and he was making beats and doing hip hop and stuff, and he said a lot of guys will take that, you know, and they’ll sample that and put that on top and put a hip hop beat on the bottom. And I thought, “Oh, that’s a great idea. So that is how “The Long Way Around,” got started. “The Long Way Around” was just started with the music, the idea that the music—but I had to write in a different melody. You know what I mean? The melody is a lower part of the scale than the—And if I sang it in that key, it would be very high.

EA: So I was thinking, watching the Eagles last week at the Garden, how come you weren’t in The Eagles?

JB: Oh, yeah, well the short answer—I mean, I would’ve loved to be in the Eagles, but I don’t have the skills—besides the fact that they didn’t ask me to be in the Eagles?

EA: No, but you were sort of an Eagle. You were like half an Eagle, kind of. You and J. D. Souther—

JB: Right, we were kind of like—well, in the very beginning we all hung around together, like Glenn and Don and J. D. and I hung around quite a bit. Glenn had already been in a band with J. D., so I mean—and I was just, I didn’t sing well enough, I don’t think. And, I think also, I probably wouldn’t have been very good at being in the band, as much as I would’ve like to—

EA: Well, you’ve never really been in a band, right?

JB: I was in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

EA: Yeah, when you were like 12.

JB: And when playing other songs. Not 12, but when I was—and we were playing jug band music, and that was fun. It was easy to allow consensus to sort of, you know—but when it came to my own songs, it was like, I always sort of avoided situations where I didn’t have control.

EA: When they became the biggest thing in the world, was that at all alienating? Because it’s hard—nobody can really handle that level of stardom at, you know, so young.

JB: You know what’s great? It’s when your friends become your heroes. Like they’re already like—they kept growing and they kept like taking on more and more of the—they just challenged themselves and took on more and more terrain. I think that they you know grew musically as well as lyrically and you know they went—I was, just for the record, I was always sort of against them stopping writing with everybody else and sort of just doing their own songs. I mean I just sort of said, “You guys sing other people’s songs so well; why would you not avail yourself of these great songs? I mean, you did that great version of ‘Ol’ 55’ by Tom Waits.” And they just said, “No, we just want to write—

EA: Which Tom Waits hated—

JB: “We only want to write our own songs, and we just want to do our songs.” But it, you know, it was also—it was kind of an ambition. They knew that’s how you make money, as well. And if they were going to succeed, they were going to succeed with their own material. They demanded it of themselves, and the songs got really good. I thought the songs got—I mean, they’re so memorable and so—and they did continue to write with J. D. I think the time I sat down with them in their writing style, where everybody sits down and they’re like—it looks a lot like a poker game but it’s really, they’re sitting—I couldn’t keep up. I was just slow. I’m slow. I’m a slow writer. And I’d be thinking about the line, and I’d go, “Okay, I got it.” And I’d come up out of my meditative little pause, and they’d have moved on. They’d say, “Oh no, no, no. We got that. Now we’re over on this part of the song.” And I’m thinking, “This kind of writing’s not for me.” But a lot of the songs that are collaborations aren’t really that kind of collaboration—

EA: Right, I know you had “Take It Easy” sitting around for a long time—

JB: Not a long time, no. I had just started it, and I played if for Glenn and sang it for him walking down the street, actually. And then he said, “Are you going to it on your own record.” And I said, “No, I don’t think so.” I was finishing my record, but I had a ways to go on the song. And they were about to start theirs. So he said, “Well, if you get it done, we’d like to do it.” He called me right away and said, “Well is this done?” like a week later. And I said, “No, man. I told you I’m not going to—I’m working on—I’m trying to finish these other songs.” And then a couple weeks later he asked me again, and he said, “You want me to finish it?” And I said, “You finish it.” At that point the song, I mean, I can’t even imagine what I would’ve said in that, you know, I took it up to “Standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona.”

EA: Yeah.

JB: Only Glenn would’ve had the girl slowing down to take a look at him.

EA: In a flat-bed Ford. So you were an early Bruce booster, true? From the beginning?

JB: Well, I got to do a show with him—well, actually I met him at The Bitter End, where he came and did a guest set. In those days, somebody could just get put on before you for twenty minutes or something or in between the sets, and David Blue brought him in and said you got to hear this guy. And he’d heard him play at Max’s Kansas City, I guess with his band. But then he came up and did this thing acoustically—

EA: He usually played at Max’s by himself. He would just take the bus in and play and go home. There’s a poster at Max’s of Bruce and Bob Marley. That was their show that night.

JB: Amazing.

EA: Sorry, go ahead.

JB: Well, I mean. He was—his songs were incredible and he was just, you know, like he was—So I get to hear him then, and then I did a show with him—same guy that had brought him in to like play a guest set at the, you know… And it was, the guest set—I guess I was playing there. I don’t know if it was the time I played there with Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention, but—anyway, I told David Blue I was going to do this gig with Bruce in Villanova. He says, “Okay, you going to open for him?” And I said, No. He said, “Oh, man, I don’t know.” I said, “Really?” Pissed me off a little. I thought, “Really? You think I’ll have trouble following this guy?” And of course it was ridiculous. It was the most incredible show I’d ever seen and it was—something so mysterious about his abandon and his lack of regard for the actual technical—I mean, he had a guitar he was playing. It wasn’t plugged in. And it was like, it wasn’t an electric guitar. He was playing an acoustic guitar. And he was all over the place—nowhere near the mic. I mean it was so compelling. It was unbelievable. And that was when David Sancious was in the band and—and so, yeah, we followed him. It was a good night but, you know—and I had a good band. You know, David Lindley. But it was, you know.

When he came to California and it was sort of like he—he just sort of killed it, you know. He played both the Santa Monica Civic and the Roxy. He did a couple nights at the Roxy. I guess I thought I was going to see him do the same thing—

EA: In ’75, you talking about? After Born to Run?

JB: Yeah, yeah. When it came out. So he played at the Roxy and all the Illuminati came out to see him, you know—

EA: Gregg and Cher—

JB: Maybe Cher before Gregg. I remember seeing the Eagles. I was sitting watching them. But I expected him to kind of do the same thing I’d heard the night before—completely different thing. Completely different songs, and I realized these guys had this incredible vocabulary. He just had this incredible backlog of songs and any number of things that they could call on. I watched them like a hawk. It was really kind of like a master class in, you know, what rock and roll could be if you mixed it with an enormous amount of hard work and just an enormous amount of imagination. The thing that you dream it was supposed to be. That gets sort of beaten out of you.

EA: But still, what Bruce has become—this symbol of everything good about America—you were there for all that to some degree. I guess I’m asking to what degree are you surprised by what he became?

JB: Well, with Bruce you’re surprised all along the way, you know? You’re surprised again and again. I mean, I think “41 Shots” is one of the most surprising songs written because it’s not—when you realize it’s not about Amadou Diallo. I mean, it’s inspired by that event, but when he goes into this verse about a woman getting her son ready for school, and it’s Charles—It’s not Amadou. It’s not about Amadou when Amadou was a boy. Of all the writers, you know, you can think most of them would have gone into his early life or what he was doing in the United States. And Bruce, he’s just got kind of a scope, a sense of how to bring it home to us, you know. He’s describing what a mother just warning her child how to be around the police—how to be—how never to run, how to always be polite. And the heartbreaking, you know, “And promise momma you’ll always keep your hands in sight.” Oh my God. It’ll bring you to tears.

At the same time, what’s mysterious to me is how, when he sang that song for the first time, it was live and during the course of the song every cop—the cops in the auditorium came to the front of the stage, some of them, you know, defiantly flipping him off. But that’s how—that’s a testament to how well the songs read. It was their defensiveness. It was nothing in the song that was accusing the police.

EA: No, there’s a verse that’s sympathetic to the cop who shot him—

JB: It’s a question. Well, you’re praying for his—you’re leaning over him in the vestibule praying for his life. There’s been a mistake, but forty-one shots? That is the question, and it’s a question about the overkill in law enforcement, and for that matter—now with Ferguson and the questions about how the war-grade weapons have found their way into our municipal police departments—that’s a good question we could all ask ourselves. Like, how much do we need to be policed on this level and to what degree do—is it just a product of the pride men take in their armaments, you know? And I mean, it’s really a very human issue. But those police were defensive. We should be asking these questions for ourselves. But that’s how great a writer he is. He gets to the heart of things in very surprising ways. And during the time of the MUSE concerts because—I didn’t ask him to do those concerts, by the way. He came to one of my shows and somebody who I was working with in these anti-nuclear shows asked him, and he said yeah. I said, really. Yeah, I wouldn’t have thought that he would want to.

EA: No, it was weird, though, because I still have the program from those MUSE shows, and Bruce—

JB: He’s not in the program.

EA: His picture is, but he says nothing. He wasn’t ready yet to articulate anything. Now he’s very articulate.

JB: The quote I read about that, not even that long ago, was that Landau responded to the organizers saying, “I think Bruce is more comfortable just, like, with what’s said in the songs.” And I think that’s always been true—I mean, the songs have to say it.

EA: Do you own the MUSE shows? Because somebody needs to release the movie again.

JB: Oh, I know. There’s a project to do that.

EA: Oh, great. I’m glad to hear that. I took my mom to the movie, like to show her what this was all about. It was very exciting.

JB: Oh, somebody recently said that Landau answered the question—but it’s just about—you’re just very careful not to get, you know, recruited to be part of, to say something that isn’t really, you know, himself. But the best of, you know, rock and roll is that you talk about what you know. I remember being—Little Steven said like, “Why are we doing this? What is it about this? Why are we doing this?” Because he didn’t know. And then another big surprise is that Steven became one of the most, you know, astute assessors of US policy and our role in the world. I mean, he like—he just became really interested. But that’s what guides us: people’s interests. But if they’re sort of stupefied by their entertainments.

EA: There’s one other relationship I want to ask you about and then I’ll give it back to Katrina. And that’s Warren Zevon. You were responsible for Warren.

JB: I was responsible for getting him recorded at that moment in time. I mean, like, I didn’t—I didn’t discover him. He was not in any way any kind of a—

EA: But you did discover him—

JB: No. I mean, if you want to know, one of the Beach Boys discovered him—

EA: I have the bootleg where you tell the audience, “Remember the name Z-E-V-O-N,” when you sang “Werewolves of Greater Philly.”

JB: Right. Well, I was certainly telling people about him. And I stopped playing his songs when he was available to go out and play them. I still play them because he’s not available to play them. But he—I think at a certain point it had to chafe at the continually being described in those days as some sort of—my protégé—

EA: Like Southside Johnny—

JB: Or my discovery, you know? Because we were good friends.

EA: But wasn’t he like the most difficult person? I read Crystal’s oral history of him. He sounded really difficult.

JB: Yeah, well, he could be. He could be hard to handle. But—and for the most part that wasn’t the case, especially working on music. I mean, I got to play with him. We got to play and make music together—

EA: So you stayed close throughout his life?

JB: No, we had a huge falling out actually. When I was at the memorial, I mean, I asked, “Is there anybody in the room that never had a falling out with Warren Zevon?” and the whole place just fucking went off. And in the end—there was only one guy in the end. In his eulogies, Jorge Calderon said, “I probably am the only person here that never had a falling out with Warren.” No, but it wasn’t like he was difficult all the time, just at some certain point, you know—like sometimes. I mean, I thought that he was kind of—I thought he was contriving a kind of character, a very self-destructive character. I didn’t realize how self-destructive he actually was. And I—reading that book, there were quite a few things that I realized for the first time that I didn’t know at the time, even though I was present. The night I went over to their house because Crystal called and said he’s pulled the banister off the stairwell, and I went over there and when I got there, everything was okay, and we sat down and wrote a song.

EA: What song?

JB: “Tenderness on the Block.” And I passed out because I don’t drink like that, but he kept going. When I woke up, the song was finished. He wrote most of it. I started it, and he finished it. But he was that—that whole two-fisted drinker thing was something that he really cared about, and I didn’t care about it. He delighted in describing it, you know. He would be taken to his room on the luggage cart, you know. He loved that. At a record company party celebrating his release in England, you know he’d throw up into the atrium off the balcony. I mean, all these great people were there, you know, and he just would just kind of foul the commons there. I didn’t understand what an alcoholic he was. We made two albums. I made two albums for the two that he made. I made four albums back-to-back, and I needed to just go out and play.

EA: That was when you did The Pretender?

JB: So I wasn’t available to do his next record, and what I found out later was—reading the book, for instance—he didn’t want me to make the next record with him anyway. But it was understood.

KVH: I just wanted to ask, Central America was such a big part of your life, maybe—I mean, I know you’re still involved with Haiti after the earthquake, but I’m just curious, when you look back at where Nicaragua was, where Central America was, when you were involved in the ’80s, and you look today at that region, do you see some hope?

JB: No, I see—I see that the United States has had its way. Like that the same military infrastructure that is present in Honduras is there, and you have all these refugees from Honduras trying to get into the United States. It always felt to me like the people fleeing Central America for the United States were like people who were, you know, hugging some giant around the knees, you know, to stop killing them, to stop beating them. How the US triumphed in Nicaragua was to actually demonstrate to the Nicaraguan people that if you vote for the coalition that we say to vote for, we’ll stop killing you. So that’s not a triumph for democracy. What surprises me is that nobody really talks about how we were supposedly fighting communism in Latin America so that there wouldn’t be communism—like, meanwhile we’re all over ourselves trying to trade with Red China. It’s just about whether or not you do it with us when we want to do it. It’s about the control and not really about the ideological—

EA: But you have to settle an argument. I say, you really did want to be a happy idiot and struggle for the legal tender. He says, no you’re not supposed to relate to the song on that one—because I really would’ve have liked to have been a “happy idiot.” I think happy idiots are happy.

JB: Well, there are many versions of that escape clause—I feel like one of them is just, “Jackson, what you really need is like a nice drug habit. You need something.” People would excuse you if you were also a drug addict. Whatever else is wrong with your life, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, he’s hopelessly addicted.”

EA: But did you mean that plaintively, like wouldn’t it be nice to be able to be a happy idiot? Or were you being nasty?

KVH: I thought there was a struggle between love and the legal tender—

JB: Yeah, between the longing for love. Yeah, you’re both right. It’s the longing for life to be simple and also for those dreams to—you know, it’s really, even when you say that, you’re parting with that dream for the greater awakening in the second verse, when you say, like, “I want to know what became of the changes we waited for love to bring.”

EA: Right, but we never get that greater awakening—

JB: Oh, I think there might be actually—that might be like happening right now—

EA: Yeah, you’re a more optimistic fellow than I am—

JB: Sometimes I am—not optimistic, but hopeful. Think about this writer Paul Hawken. He wrote the book Blessed Unrest, in which he says how the largest movement in the history of humanity went undetected because it’s called by so many names. Something fundamental has to happen to people, and whether it’s brought about by mass starvation or, you know, climate change or some sort of epiphany, you know, is yet to be seen. You have a huge amount of people who give their passion and their hope for the future to a particular, you know—a particular goal. And if you put them all together, really, it is a movement to improve the lives of people everywhere and to save the environment. I mean, it’s inescapable. If you work with people who are trying to save the ocean and people who are trying to address global warming, it’s really the same problem. And same with human rights—the biggest enemy of human rights is business. It’s corruption and people treating other people as if they’re expendable. And the word that gets thrown around all the time in our—“American interests.” You can say anything as long as I’m “defending American interests.” What the hell are they? What the hell are our interests if not to have a safe environment and prosperity for everybody? And that’s why I get specific in some of these songs.

EA: Nice. You brought the arc back.

JB: Thanks for wanting to talk with me. I appreciate it.


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