A couple of years ago I was interviewing Francis Jocky, a singer/songwriter from The Cameroon in Africa, and was rather taken aback by his answer to my question about early his musical influences. “I started being interested in music when I was eight years old, and I was listening to Bob Marley, Randy Newman and Jackson Browne”. While it’s pretty typical for a kid from Africa to have been listening to Marley, and the fact he was listening to Newman was surprising, what really shocked me was he had heard of Jackson Browne let alone had listened to him in The Cameroon. While I’ve been listening to Browne’s music since somewhere in the 1970s, it’s always seemed to me that he’s some sort of well kept secret. For a guy who has been playing professionally since he was 17 and released more records than I can remember off the top of my head, it’s remarkable how many people I’ve met seem to have either never, or only vaguely, heard of him.
Part of that is due to the nature of the music industry, with its “you’re only as well known as your last hit record” attitude, and part of that is due to the fact you weren’t going to hear any of Browne’s music on mainstream radio at any time through the 1980s or 1990s. Long before it was popular, or safe, to be writing and recording music critical of American foreign policy, Browne was one of the few mainstream musicians who put aside his career ambitions to write a series of albums containing songs openly critical of the Reagan administration and American imperialism in general. Writing songs critical of Oliver North, and all the other right wing heroes of the day, quickly assured your songs wouldn’t receive radio play during either the Reagan or Bush Sr. years. So, by the time that decade had ended the man who had written “Taking It Easy”, “Late For The Sky”, “Doctor My Eyes” and “Running On Empty” – FM radio hits throughout the 1970s – had disappeared off most people’s radar.
I often wonder if the Disney Channel knew exactly who Browne was back in 1994 when they presented Jackson Browne: Going Home, now being re-issued on DVD by Eagle Rock Entertainment, to television audiences. Maybe they thought they were presenting the heartwarming story of somebody’s comeback or something, because I can’t see them knowingly giving a 90-minute special to somebody as politically outspoken as Browne. However it managed to get on the air, Going Home is a fascinating mix of documentary and performance footage summarizing Browne’s career to that point, giving fans an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of the man and his work and those unfamiliar with him a chance to see why his influence has been felt halfway around in the world in The Cameroon.
Interviews with Browne and others, including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, and David Lindley, not only tell the story of Browne’s life but allow the viewer to understand this guy isn’t your standard issue rock star. We learn from Browne about his jazz-playing father and how he grew up in that rarest of things in 20th century America, a fully integrated household, as his father would often rehearse his multi-racial band at home. Not only would that influence him musically, but it would also help shape his social conscience and his way of looking at the world. For as we quickly discover from the conversations with others, even in the days before he was writing “political” songs, he was participating in, and promoting, benefit concerts for various causes.
While there are plenty of pop stars who seem more than willing to lend their names to causes or appear at events, it’s quickly obvious that Browne doesn’t just view them as photo opportunities to salve his conscience like so many others do. One of the most telling scenes in the documentary is a clip of him having a very serious conversation about the pros and cons of nuclear power with one of the arena staff where one of these events took place. Not only does he genuinely engage and listen to the person he’s talking to, he treats him and his opinions as equals. How many pop music stars can you think of who would not only take the time to have that conversation but treat the person with that amount of respect?
However, while it’s fascinating to learn about how Browne helped the Eagles launch their career when they all lived within a block of each other or that he started out his career when he was 17 at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York City, my favourite parts of the movie are those when he’s filmed hanging out with his old friend, multi-instrumentalist David Lindley. For those who don’t know Lindley, he’s one of those folk who seem to be able to pick up any stringed instrument and make it sing. Yet according to Browne what truly distinguishes Lindley is his love of polyester. Lindley wears some of the most god-awful, eye-watering, and nausea-inducing polyester clothes made while performing. Browne takes an almost perverse delight in commenting on Lindley’s wardrobe, and in the process reveals his wonderful sense of the absurd.
Then there’s the music. The movie contains 21 of Jackson Browne’s songs performed everywhere from him sitting in the back of a car travelling with his son, a rehearsal hall with his band as they prepare for an upcoming tour, a recording studio, and finally in front of a studio audience specially brought together for the taping of this special. It’s during the latter that he’s joined by special guests Nash, Crosby, Lindley, and Jennifer Warrens. The songs span his career to that point from early classics like “Before The Deluge” and “Doctor My Eyes” to “Lives In The Balance” and “I’m Alive” from albums released in the 1980s.
To be perfectly honest I wasn’t a big fan of most of Browne’s contemporaries in the Southern California soft-rock/country scene as I found it mainly insipid and emotionally vapid. So much of it seemed to combine the mawkish sentimentality of the worst country music with boring, middle of the road pop — think The Eagles “You Can’t Hide Those Lying Eyes” and you’ll get the picture. All you have to do is listen to any song of Browne’s and you immediately hear the difference. Not only are they far more musically complex and interesting than anything done by those he supposedly influenced, lyrically he has the ability to take highly personal material, with the potential for being self-serving and cliched, and create something that speaks to people on a universal level. We can listen to a song he sings about his own experiences and recognize something of ourselves in it no matter what the topic.
As far as production values go you really couldn’t ask for anything better considering the date of the original recording. With DTS Digital sound and the option of either Dolby 5.1 surround or Dolby Digital stereo the audio quality on the DVD is excellent and the video, 4:3 format, is of equally good quality. While some might be disappointed by the lack of special features, the movie itself contains more than sufficient musical and biographical content to keep even the most ardent fan satisfied. While you may wonder at the value of a 16-year-old film, because of the insights it gives the viewer into Jackson Browne and what makes him tick combined with the amount of music included, it remains a valuable addition to any serious music fan’s collection. Whether you’re a long-time fan of Browne’s work or know little or nothing about him, Going Home will go a long way towards explaining its appeal to an eight-year-old boy in The Cameroon.