The fuel that fires Jackson Browne’s green activism
Jackson Browne has never been one to stay quiet. As introspective poet or volatile protester, he’s emblematic of the singer-songwriter that doubles as a sign of the ever-changing times. At 61, while he’s a classic when it comes to California folk rock troubadours that emerged in the prolific ’60s, he continues to modify his lyrics and his life to accommodate some cutting-edge concerns. So don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the solo sound and Gibson acoustic guitar he’s bringing to the Santa Cruz Civic this Wednesday, Feb. 23, because the man is clearly plugged in.
These days the staunch environmentalist is driving a new Chevy Volt electric car, and he certainly doesn’t “Take It Easy” when it comes to taking political and green-minded stands. When GT catches up with the founder of Musicians United for Safe Energy, and Nukefree.org, his thoughts are preoccupied with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—and the plastic that feeds it.
“When you see a photo of a decomposed bird body, and in the center is a handful of bottles, cigarette lighters and pens that they were fed, it’s such a disruption of what is sacred about nature,” Browne says from his Santa Monica studio. “Plastic is supposed to be convenient, but I don’t know what’s convenient about having birth defects in our children, or having an epidemic of cancer that attacks people in the prime of their lives.”
The singer, who owns a house in Aptos and says he’s excited to start his tour here because “it’s like home ground for me and my friends,” believes it’s the little things that matter when solving big issues. “I’m going to contact this peanut butter company and ask them why they don’t use glass jars,” he states. “For instance, Newman’s Own uses some glass and some plastic, but why not make it all glass?”
With Save Our Shores tabling at his local show, which will see him alone helming an intimate acoustic guitar and piano set-up, Browne will perform songs spanning his career. Here, he talks about what inspires him both off- and onstage.
GOOD TIMES: You have a “No Plastic Backstage” policy. How did that come about?
JACKSON BROWNE: It goes back to when I started working off the grid and installing solar and wind power on my ranch in Santa Barbara, and it turned out not to be very hard. In the case of plastic it’s a little more involved because everything we consume comes in plastic. On the bus on tour I’d get so disgusted after I’d finish eating a meal; I’d look and there’d be an enormous amount of plastic packaging everywhere. Everything is meant to be used once. It raises the question: Why would you make something that’s meant to be used once and then thrown away, out of material that lasts forever? … Recycling bins themselves are made out of plastic, but there has to be a way to make them so they don’t re-enter the environment in a harmful way. We think the ocean is infinite but it’s filling up with plastic. It’s not infinite at all. For us it was an attempt to bring our touring into step with the ecological realities and the efforts being made globally.
How have your environmental concerns informed your songs?
I wrote a song recently that began as a song about surfing, which is a wonderful metaphor for being in the moment and being in the right place at the right time. That idea was covered in one verse while I was on a boat in the Galápagos Islands with all these incredible oceanographers last April, and they were talking abut all that’s threatening the ocean. The song then became about referring to what’s happening to the ocean, trying to summon the idea of being at the right point in history at the right time to make a difference. The song is called “If I Could Be Anywhere.” It’s sort of a rock essay, but the subject commands that sort of response: “What are you going to do about it?” I had read that Bob Dylan would read the newspaper and write songs, but I never thought about myself as a topical songwriter. I have no wish to repeat myself, although that’s unavoidable because there are only a few major themes.
Do you still surf?
Yes, not like the Malloys or Kelly Slater, of course. Nobody surfs like Slater! But I grew up surfing and always had a connection with the ocean. The ocean is also a symbol of infinite renewal, of birth and creation, but that’s nothing short of under fire. We are damaging its ability to renew itself. Humanity has got to limit its use of certain things just to stay here. What kind of planet we leave our children has been with me since I had my kids, and my son is now 37. But I don’t think you have to have kids to care about this. I know kids that are the most in tune out of all. Kids get that there is a battle to be waged for what’s good.
Does touring solo acoustic feel like going home?
Yes. It’s a kind of source for me, a way of playing that’s infinitely interesting to me and I’m emotionally connected. … Now it’s back to the most fundamental way of playing, totally alone, and in that way of playing it’s really about the writing and the audience connection with the songs. People who come to these shows know the songs really well. After three or four songs someone always yells for “Running on Empty” and I always try to get to it. … That’s the special component of the evening. Someone might call for a song and that song might get done. There’s a possibility to the evening that all sorts of stuff tends to happen. And I can only do that when I play solo.
Jackson Browne performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb 23., at the Santa Cruz Civic, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $53.50 and $64.50. For more information, call 420-5260.