JUNE 9, 2014
WHERE IS THE late-career renaissance of Clyde Jackson Browne? Shouldn’t he have had one of those by now? For a songwriter his age — Browne will turn 66 in October — the late-career surge has practically become a rite of passage. Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson all got calls from Rick Rubin or Jack White or Daniel Lanois. Those collaborations led to new records and critical reassessments. Maybe more importantly, they led to hipster reclamation, that strange process of cultural mining where artists once thought past their primes find new currency with younger, cooler fans.
Jackson Browne’s connection to ’70s Southern California — he went to high school in Fullerton and came of age as a songwriter in Laurel Canyon — would also seem to prime him for this kind of comeback. By now, ’70s Los Angeles has been extensively plundered and appropriated: Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Joan Didion, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon. Through the ’70s and ’80s Jackson Browne was in Los Angeles with all these artists, collaborating with many of them. But while it’s easy to find young people willing to voice their love for Tusk or Excitable Boy, it’s harder to find similar levels of nostalgic revivalism for The Pretender or Lives in the Balance.I wonder how many people under 50 even know about Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne,a double album of covers that came out quietly in April; the fact that USA Today was streaming it hints perhaps at the record’s intended demographic.
The allure of mid-’70s Fleetwood Mac stems partly from the band’s dysfunction and tumult. Didion, Nicks, and Ronstadt embody a resonant feminist cool. Dylan is Dylan. Warren Zevon’s continued appeal resides in his hard living and baroque archness — the way his songs, even at their most desperate, face chaos with dark laughter.
Usually, if I put on Jackson Browne when people are over, the conversation doesn’t drift to dysfunction or feminist cool or archness or chaos; it turns to dads. As the intro to “Running on Empty” builds, or as Browne moves into his live cover of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’s “Stay,” the response arrives automatically, almost always with a little scorn: “This sounds like something my dad would listen to.”
“Dad rock,” as a genre designation, has been around since the mid-’90s. The term continues to be popular chiefly because it’s so malleable; everything from Jackson Browne to Billy Joel to Pearl Jam to The National has found a spot under the dad rock umbrella. This is because the genre isn’t about specific musical conventions: it’s really about what kind of person the listener is. Flavorwire’s “20 Dad-Rock Albums You Should Learn to Love” describes it as “music played by dads.” Another article last year reverts to a similar circularity: “What is dad rock? Picture your dad, in the car driving somewhere, loudly singing along to something and banging his hand on the steering wheel for extra emphasis. Whatever song he’s listening to is dad rock.”
Dad rock’s exact definition is purposefully elusive; that’s the key to the term’s charm. But we know dad rock when we hear it, and that’s good enough for the label to work as an all-purpose dismissal, a sure sign that a band’s youth and recklessness — rock’s critical potencies — have evaporated. Jeff Tweedy, whose own band’s later records have been accused of turning the dad rock curve (and of sounding a lot like Jackson Browne), has tried confronting the label head on. But even in his plaintive defense, voiced in Men’s Journal no less, you can hear the Dad’s aging echo, that voice hoping to convince you of something you know just isn’t true: “I don’t find anything undignified about being a dad or being rocking, you know?”
When we think about Jackson Browne’s lack of a late-career resurgence, or note younger fans’ hesitation to reclaim him from the cultural attic of the ’70s and ’80s, we have to note the dad-ness of his art, the exact ways his music signifies lameness and age. Other artists have suited the whims of hipster nostalgia. The resistance to Browne (and other dad rock artists like Glenn Frey, Stephen Stills, or The Eagles) remains. Like everything about the Dad now, the music seems like it will be old forever, just another cheesy artifact frozen in amber.
In 1971 David Geffen founded Asylum Records largely because he wanted to showcase Jackson Browne’s talent. Other artists had performed and recorded Browne’s songs before that, but his self-titled debut put those songs in one place, revealing a songwriter with remarkable melodic gifts. His two subsequent albums — For Everyman (1973) and Late for the Sky (1974) — only got better, fusing incredible melody with a penetrating and cohesive artistic vision. Browne’s songwriting on these two records is focused and intense; he’s thinking about the difficulties of growing up, the way the decisions we make at our most vulnerable are often the most lasting, and he’s anxious about the possibility of finding communal meaning in a world soured by abject individualism.
Browne’s albums from this era often get grouped with the Laurel Canyon scene’s lighter fare, but these records have a dark, sometimes even apocalyptic, bent; beneath the catchy melodies lurks genuine unease. For Everyman begins in the personal, but branches out to become a chronicle of mass cultural loss: “Across my home has grown the shadow / of a cruel and senseless hand,” Browne sings on “Our Lady of the Well.” The album ends with evening’s descent, as Browne sits wondering if his eponymous hero will ever show up. Late for the Sky’s images of loneliness, belatedness, and the inexpressible revisit similar ground. The album ends not with nightfall, but an encroaching flood; nakedness and resignation pervade “Before the Deluge,” leaving us with an ominous sense of living on borrowed time: “And when the sand was gone and the time arrived / In the naked dawn only a few survived.”
I love these two Jackson Browne records deeply. They’re alive both in terms of Browne’s incredible craftsmanship and the types of things — the sacrifices the artistic life requires, meaning’s elusiveness, the endless attempts to catch up with your own life — he sings about so beautifully. The songs are delicate and vulnerable, and behind them is an artist who desperately wants to connect.
Even on Jackson Browne’s most brilliant albums, though, a latent dad-ness lurks. You can hear it every time Browne name checks another automobile or opts for another cross-fade or mentions a desire to “hotwire reality.” It’s in the obvious double entendre of calling his dick his “Red Neck Friend” and in the domestic cluelessness that opens “Ready or Not”: “Someone’s gonna have to explain it to me, I’m not sure what it means / My baby’s feeling funny in the morning, she’s having trouble getting into her jeans.”
These two early albums reach their daddest, though, with their strange stance of earnest nostalgia, the way they’re always reflectively looking back, even when there’s not really all that much to look back at.One of the oddest things about early Jackson Browne is how his songs always seem older than he is. He wrote “These Days,” a lament about missed chances (“Don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them”), when he was 16. When Dylan sang about jilted love at 24, his songs snarled with the pettiness and anger we expect from young heartbreak. There is no pettiness setting on the Jackson Browne machine. His edges are always already softened, tempered by what seems to be years and years of experience. “In my early years I hid my tears / And passed my days alone,” he sings on Late for the Sky’s“Farther On,” which he recorded at 25. I close my eyes and sing along, but I also wonder just what early years he’s talking about exactly.
The dark unease of Browne’s songwriting in the early ’70s ultimately redeems any stray moments of dad-ness on these records. But once he hits the ’80s, with albums like Lives in the Balance and World in Motion, Brownegives in to that era’s most predictable and excessive rock tropes and turns full-on dad. The apocalyptic flood closing Late for the Sky becomes self-parody with the “Disco Apocalypse” opening 1980’s Hold Out.Throughout the decade an unsettling number of Browne’s songs feature him walking down either a “boulevard” or an “avenue.” Speak-singing becomes a regular strategy. And there’s lots of gated reverb on the drums.
1983’s Lawyers in Love includes Cold War paranoia, the arrival of aliens who offer an outsider’s perspective on human absurdity, the distinct pleasures of going “downtown,” allusions to doo-wop, and lots and lots of obligatory key changes. Apocalypse appears on the title track, but again it’s completely sterile, taking on a HuffPo-like sanctimony that overshadows any vestige of self-reflection: “Among the human beings / In their designer jeans, / Am I the only one who hears the screams / And the strangled cries of lawyers in love?” Lawyers in Love could lay claim to being one of the daddest albums of the 1980s, a perfectly dated musical distillation of Boomer self-righteousness and bravado. When I listen to it I can’t help but imagine Maureen Dowd and Aaron Sorkin bonding over it on a first date.
One of the daddest moments on Lawyers in Love comes as Browne details city life in “Downtown,” a place where thankfully, as he tells us in an overdone rhyme, you never “gotta turn the sound down.” It’s a quick hit list of everything he sees and hears, punctuated with a requisite melodramatic flourish: “The Bible screamer, the plasma donor, / Buses, car horns, ghetto blasters / The shouts and cries of the human disasters.”
We roll our eyes. That is, we roll them if we’ve made it that far into the album.
I mean, Come on, Dad, we get it.
Over the last 10 years, the Dad has become a full-blown American archetype. He’s the perennial butt of kind-hearted mockery, and the patriarch whose cheesiness and obviousness defines him. Fathers have always been uncool and out of touch, but the Dad formalizes that lack of hipness with perfect economy, symbolizing fading youth, sexless authority, and ridiculous patriarchal bluster (if anybody’s even listening). “Dad,” informal and short, conveys our exasperation, but also our affection. We might rail against our fathers. We just roll our eyes at Dad.
Now you encounter the Dad everywhere. In the last presidential election, Vanity Fair’s “Dad-Wear Fashion Faceoff” pitted Romney’s loose-fitting jeans against Obama’s double-pleated khakis. The short-lived sitcom Dads (produced by Seth MacFarlane, who also created American Dad!) featured two unemployed hapless patriarchs who move in with their sons. Every month, the culture blog The Toastreleases its newest cover of Dad Magazine; headlines include “White Socks with Dress Shoes: Come On, Nobody Will Notice” and “Conference Calls: Wow!” and “You Voted: 2013’s Artist of the Year Is: Oh, Steely Dan Again.”
The “dad joke” has also become a genre of its own, with a dedicated subreddit and popular hashtag. Dad humor often works through persistent repetition, where the funniness of a joke theoretically increases the longer it’s run into the ground; every time my dad’s driven past a cemetery for the past 25 years he’s said, “People are dying to get in.” A quick look at Buzzfeed’s “The 28 Greatest Dad Jokes of All Time” or @baddadjokes also reveals the genre’s reliance on obvious kinds of polysemy or terrible puns:
Like the pairing of socks with sandals, the dad joke lacks any subtlety. Its energy depends on exploiting the most obvious disconnections between form and meaning. As the easiest joke possible, it aims to cringe — it’s the perfect joke for the entirely unhip.
What’s interesting about all these iterations of the Dad is how widespread and instantly recognizable they are. Yes, we think, dads love their pleats! They make terrible jokes! And they still crank Steely Dan and Jackson Browne and CCR as they’re firing up the charcoal! There’s comfort in these repetitions; dads remain a totally predictable entity, as if they all were culturally constructed in the same lab specializing in Jerry Bruckheimer movies, overexplaining, and fond stories about first convertibles.
But the Dad, by and large, isn’t universal. More often than not when he appears in popular culture he’s white and upper middle class, a beneficiary of Reagan-era economics and patriarchal privilege. And one of the deep ironies at the heart of the Dad is that his squareness — a sign of his paltry social capital — exists because, more than anyone in America, the Dad can afford to be square. His power is so entrenched that he can forego cool. In the form follows function ethos of the CEO who comes to work in sweatpants or the Dad who wears dark socks with Reeboks is an implicit assumption of power. And though we laugh relentlessly at the Dad, the barbs about uncoolness don’t really faze him. You can laugh all you want, the Dad still makes the rules.
Subtle power negotiations are at work here; authentic Oedipal drama resides in the Dad who embarrasses his kid with an awful joke and the kid who later mocks him online. “Meme Dad” originated when a son photographed his dad discovering and visibly loving internet memes for the very first time. It pokes fun at the Dad’s online ineptitude and hyperliteral sense of humor, but as meta-meme (and then meta-meta-meme), it also vigilantly reinforces the Dad’s perpetual belatedness; the instant he finally comes around to being in on the joke, he’s turned into the joke himself:
“Old Economy Steve” (how perfectly dad-like the name “Steve” is) elegantly captures both the Dad’s rosy nostalgia about the old days and the ways that nostalgia distorts his current ideas about the economic realities of the present. The meme is funny, but also illuminating; in its humorous critique of the Dad’s obtuseness lurks a genuine generational resentment:
Like the dad joke, Old Economy Steve relies on a fundamental split between form and meaning. The Dad’s lack of self-awareness — built and bolstered by an economy that doesn’t exist anymore — makes him duplicitous. And as the Boomers age and continue their hold on power, Old Economy Steve and other iterations of the Dad exist as a way for younger people to voice their dissatisfaction about an American reality that hasn’t lived up to its billing.
But the Dad also serves as a site where young people articulate anxieties they have about themselves. Because as much as kids might complain about the Dad, those same kids know they’re not going to stay young forever. The demands of responsibility are strong and impossible to avoid. And assimilation still pays. As Gen-Xers and Millennials become parents themselves, they’re facing the reality of their own encroaching uncoolness, of becoming the very thing they’ve ridiculed. On Twitter, it’s telling how often the #dadjoke hashtag is used ironically. It becomes a type of preemptive guard, allowing people to do something uncool while simultaneously nodding that they know it’s uncool. In this self-deprecation is a defense against the inevitability of age, a safeguard against that very first moment you try to say something funny or interesting and everyone in the room who’s younger than you rolls their eyes. That moment will arrive, and when young people ironically assume the mantle of the Dad, the hope is to beat it.
Despite the utter dad-ness of Jackson Browne’s music, it’s hard to argue he’s given in to the more duplicitous aspects of the aging Boomer. In the aftermath of Three Mile Island, Browne co-founded Musicians United for Safe Energy along with Bonnie Raitt and Graham Nash. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he sued John McCain for using “Running on Empty” in an attack ad against Obama. Now his tour buses run on bio-fuel, and he has strict “no plastic backstage” rules.
In 2011, he played for the Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park, a show of solidarity with young people in a generational fight. One of the songs he played that afternoon was “Casino Nation,” from 2002’s The Naked Ride Home. Like all of Browne’s post-1980 work, it reeks of dad rock. “Out beyond the Ethernet the spectrum spreads / DC to daylight, the cowboy mogul rides,” he sings at one point. Browne’s work will probably never pull away from its dad rock impulses — those forces are strong — but I hope when I’m his age I have that kind of idealism left.
On August 19, Jackson Browne will play the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, New Hampshire. I have tickets, and I suspect I’ll be one of the youngest people there. Browne’s playlist will most likely favor his earliest, best songs. The place will thrum with nostalgia, all the dads in the audience nodding knowingly when Browne gets to “Running on Empty” and sings, “In ’69 I was 21 and I called the road my own. / I don’t know when that road turned onto the road I’m on.”
I’ll sit there with them, in love with the music and resentful about the dads’ idolizing of the old days, for the stability of their Social Security and Medicare. On stage, Browne, the quintessential dad rocker, will have finally caught up in age to the wistful voice in his songs.
They’ll be looking back, but I’ll be looking forward, feeling myself getting older as Browne plays “The Pretender” or “Fountain of Sorrow.” In that sea of dads, that’ll be me, thinking about the thing I’m aging into and wondering what my future children will eventually say about me.