An evening with Jackson Browne

I attended a Jackson Browne concert in Hanford, California last weekend. I have loved his music since I was introduced to it in high school. I have followed his career and music over the years, attending concerts along the way, when I could afford it and when our paths crossed. The Hanford concert was in a wonderful small venue (and reasonably priced,) so I spent what was billed as “an evening with Jackson Browne.” Throughout the concert (and for days afterward,) I was thinking about my photography, his music and why I felt such an affinity for his work.

Going to the actual concert was a bit of a “Running on Empty” moment in itself, that is, if you know his album by the same name. I was in the midst of a West coast “tour” dividing my time between workshop teaching and photographing foreclosed houses. I was briefly living the life of the traveling artist that Browne explored so well in that same album. On the day of the concert, I woke up in the southern part of the state of California, taught a class further south in San Diego and then drove five hours north, to Hanford, in the middle of the state. I arrived at the concert just ten minutes after it started.

As I listened to him play (and talk to the audience,) I enjoyed getting to “know him” a bit better. I also noted how his life and process as a musician resonated with my own life and work as a photographer. In no particular order:

• He clearly preferred playing his newer work, while the concert audience wanted him to play his older work. Fans screamed out the names of the songs they wanted him to play, routinely interrupting the silence in between songs. To date, no one has screamed out the names of old images that they want to see when I am doing my talk/slide shows. Still, most people who see my presentations are in fact more drawn to the older work, which is clearly more refined and tightly edited. My older projects have been defined and resolved, to the point that audiences easily “get” them. As a result, that work does not interest me as much. I am more interested in the work I am doing now since it is still “in process.” I mean that both in terms of the image-making and the complex process of defining and refining the message, a process that is at the core of really any good body of creative work. While Jackson Browne had repertoire of what he wanted to play (and a larger list of what he was prepared to play) he chose what to actually play in response to his audience. He was pretty talkative about the tug-of-war between fans expectations and his own interests, while being fairly open to requests.

• Jackson Browne is pretty structured in the technology he uses in creating his art (music.) He had at least eight different guitars on the stage and he picked up a different one for each song he played, clearly knowing which guitar could make which type of sound. His eight guitars make my the three cameras I carry when I am working seem like small potatoes.

• Having seen him play in other venues as part of previous shows, he clearly enjoys tweaking each of his older songs in a slightly different way when performs them live. While he wanted to give the audience the song they wanted, he clearly was also going to put his own stamp of interpretation on the songs as he played them. It reminded me of a certain magazine photographer who tried to put his stamp of authorship on each image he made for a publication.

• What I loved about his best work (that night and in the past) is the way he successfully uses the sounds he creates with musical instruments to echo, even emphasize, the mood he is trying to create with his words. His tracks start with great lyrics (almost poetry) and then he adds the sounds of the instruments, bringing a non-verbal, yet highly emotional component to the song, so the final track is more than the sum of the parts. If you listen to songs from the album “Running on Empty,” you will appreciate that the songs start with great lyrics/poetry and then he uses sound (musical and ambient) to echo and expand the power of the lyrics.

• This plays into an idea I have about how we experience our memory of something, for example how I remember the songs of Jackson Browne (or how others remember my pictures.) The memory is often stronger, cleaner and more emotionally compelling than the actual image or song. To really appreciate this look at an important photo or listen to an important song years after that was burned into your memory and you may be a bit disappointed.

• During the show in Hanford, I noted how, while he has made songs requiring very complex arrangements and the back up of many other musicians, much of his best work succeeds when he pares back to a rather minimal style. That is an important lesson for me (or any photographer.)

• Jackson Browne is much better than I will EVER be at putting his emotions into his creations, putting his heart into the stories that he wants to tell through his songs. He is best at stories that explore the sweet spot between the individual and the universal. In a song he talks about a moment with a lover but we hear the same song and experience the story as if it was about all relationships (especially our own.) My best essays evoke an emotion and even convey my point of view. But the idea of me making a photo-essay about the pain of my divorce or the love I have for my daughter that would be almost impossible. Not that I would not want to do it, but rather I doubt I have the kind of emotional accessibility he has, nor do I have the talent to take my ideas and put them out there for the world to see in the form of photographs (at least ones that were visually compelling.)

• While I was tempted to record some of the songs with my iPhone, I did not do so, out of respect for his copyright. I certainly would hope future image thieves would similarly respect my copyright, but I have my doubts.

• Looking back over the many albums Jackson Browne created, I would argue that each album has been built on a different aesthetic and informational approach to the idea that he was exploring. This parallels what I have done with my various projects, where I experiment with different techniques (photographic and narrative) as I explore the informational and the aesthetic issues of a given body of work, which will eventually coalesce into the structure for a project.

• Having seen some of his various tours over the years, but not all of them, I now think of those tours as experiments where he was testing out ideas/ styles. I do virtually the same thing in the first couple exhibitions of a given project in order to get feedback from outside viewers.

• Similarly, I have see how he seems to find a guitar riff or chord sequence that he likes and then he works it over and over, refining it to build a song around it. I certainly do that when I grab onto an idea or strategy for an project that I keep “working” till I get it right.

• I always felt some connection to his career arc since his visibility/career success waxed and waned in a vaguely similar way to how mine did (though his worked on a much different scale.) Another thing that drew me to Jackson Browne was how, though he had his share of hits on the pop charts, most of his music was the antithesis of the packaged, slick and meaningless pop music that I grew up with.

• In listening to his words, I actually was prompted to later read Jackson Browne’s lyrics, some of which are all but poetry. So much so that if you encounter the best of them, without the music, they still are moving. Realizing that lead me to thinking about really good photography, in the sense that any image, especially digital ones, has a core, both in terms of the digital information and the image composition. A good digital image file may be enhanced by post- production work, like Photoshop, but the best images are those that need little enhancement, like the best lyrics. Badly done base material, be that a digital image file or a song lyric cannot be saved by any addition, be that loud music in the case of a song or Photoshop in the case of an image.

One of my favorite lyrics from a Jackson Browne song expresses everything that needs to be said, whether talking about life, music, love or photography. In “Fountain of Sorrow” he wrote (and sang) “And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.”

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