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Jackson Browne: 'We could have a society in which justice is real'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: It's been 50 years since Jackson Browne's first hit, "Doctor My Eyes," a song in which the world's troubles caused the singer's tear ducts to run dry. Fifteen albums, eight Grammy nominations, countless benefit performances, and a slew of humanitarian awards later, Browne has just issued his first new recording in seven years.

Special Correspondent Tom Casciato visited Browne in Los Angeles to discuss his new work, and the themes and subjects he often returns to on his songwriting journey.

Tom Casciato: It's no surprise to learn from Jackson Browne that his new album begins with his telling listeners he's on a quest.

Jackson Browne (singing):

I'm still looking for something

I'm out here under the streetlight

Still looking for something in the night

Jackson Browne: The songs are about personal experience and about a search.

Tom Casciato: Searching is one of several themes he has pursued throughout more than half a century as a singer songwriter. Though in one of his biggest hits, "Running On Empty," he professed to be uncertain what he was looking for.

Jackson Browne (singing):

I'm don't even know what I'm hoping to find

Tom Casciato: Many decades ago you sang, "I don't know what I'm hoping to find." And then you start off this record saying, "I'm still looking for something." So there is a relationship between Jackson of several decades ago and Jackson of today.

Jackson Browne: I think so. I think it's the same. I think in that in that respect, I'm still I'm more than ever trying to do what I was trying to do then, and differentiate between the world I'm imagining and the world I'm in.

Tom Casciato: His themes range widely. On his early albums for example he wrote a series of songs seeking meaning in the passing of friends.

Jackson Browne [singing]:

I don't know what happens when people die

I can't seem to grasp it as hard as I try

Jackson Browne: I mean, there was a review at one point, I think it might have been my third or fourth record and the reviewer started the review by saying, "Has there ever been a Jackson Browne record where somebody doesn't die?"

Tom Casciato: His new album is called "Downhill From Everywhere," and it's filled with fresh takes on familiar subjects.

Jackson Browne (singing):

But I will no longer need to tell them apart.

Tom Casciato: The man who once sang "Doctor My Eyes" now sings about his "Cleveland Heart."

Jackson Browne (singing):

… my Cleveland heart

Tom Casciato: Inspired by an actual Ohio plant that makes artificial hearts, the singer imagines replacing his own vulnerable heart with one of those that can withstand the worst.

Jackson Browne (singing):

They never break,

They don't even beat

And they don't ache

Tom Casciato: You know, you write in the first person a lot. And your songs, I think, lead one to believe you are the "I" in the songs.

Jackson Browne: Sometimes I sing "you" and it's still "I." You know, it depends on if I'm talking to myself, I suppose, or about myself, whether it's a "you" or an "I." But I think, I think that's, I think that's true. The songs are about personal experience and about a search that is not just my own search. You have to interrogate yourself to get to the end of the song,

Tom Casciato: Browne has long put his lyrics where his beliefs are, singing on behalf of a myriad of causes from Native American rights to Haitian earthquake relief. And he's also an avowed patriot.

Jackson Browne (singing):

I have prayed for America

I was made for America

Tom Casciato: He is, as well, a sharp critic of his country. In the 80s for example he notably opposed US intervention in Central America.

Jackson Browne (singing):

There are lives in the balance

There are people under fire

Tom Casciato: He's also a longtime advocate for clean oceans and against plastic pollution. The new album's title song asks that we consider our seas.

Jackson Browne (sings):

Do you think of the ocean as yours?

Because you need the ocean to breathe

Jackson Browne: Plastic is now completely clogging our waterways and filling up the ocean and and also invading our bodies, newborn babies are born with the chemicals that are plastic in their systems; it's in the placenta, it's in the blood. So that's what I'm talking about changing, in time to do something,

Tom Casciato: In your writing, time is a theme. I don't know you well enough to say it's a preoccupation of yours, but you seem to have figured out very young that this game is rigged and you only get so much time.

Tom Casciato: Indeed, time fuels a sense of urgency in a '70s song called "The Fuse."

Jackson Browne (singing):

Through every dead and living thing

Time runs like a fuse

And the fuse is burning

Tom Casciato: In the title song from a 2008 album, he sings "time may heal all wounds" but also "time will steal you blind."

Jackson Browne (singing):

Time the conqueror

Tom Casciato: And then in your song "Black and White," you're literally finishing the song and the record saying "time is running out, time is running out."

Jackson Browne (singing):

Time is running out

Time is running out

Jackson Browne: Maybe you could call it a preoccupation, I guess. I guess you could. It comes up a lot.

Tom Casciato: Time collides with another favorite Browne theme, justice, on a song echoing America's current moment of protest and the activist group Color of Change. It's called "Until Justice Is Real."

Jackson Browne (singing):

What is the color, the color of change?

What is the reason these times are so strange?

Tom Casciato: And I just want to quote one of your lyrics. "Time like a river, time like a train, time like a fuse, burning shorter every day." What do you, in your lifetime -- what do you think you're going to see in terms of the kind of justice you've been singing about these last decades, and desiring?

Jackson Browne: Many of us believed that we were on a track going forward, that civil rights have have improved. But nothing could be more obvious than that is really not actually the case. We're still, we're still settling the Civil War. We're still we're still talking to people who believe in white supremacy. They want to go backwards and -- see, I don't know quite how to say this. All the while I was thinking that we were getting somewhere, people were being ground up in the wheels of our society and police were killing Black motorists. There were injustices that went on and on and on and on. And that's what I'm saying. We don't have the time for these to go on and be swept aside. That's what the song is talking about.

Tom Casciato: Is justice going to win this race?

Jackson Browne: We could have a society in which justice is real. Yeah. We have an opportunity to solve some of the problems that have beset our society and our country since its inception. The clock really is ticking and we really have to, you know, we have to join together to do that.

Jackson Browne (singing):

Time like a river

Time like a train

Time like a fuse

Burning shorter every day.

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