I’ve been a fan of Jackson Browne since I first saw him on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in May 1972, performing Jamaica Say You Will at the piano. I still have, and play, the old vinyl albums from the 70s – The Pretender, Late for the Sky and Running on Empty. I’ve seen him perform live on a number of occasions – the Royal Albert Hall concert in November in 2017 was particularly memorable, and I’d say it ranked with the best of the Bruce Springsteen gigs I’ve been to.
So I’m always pleased to see a new Jackson Browne album appear. In Downhill From Everywhere, the music is reliably good, with fine musicianship and song arrangements, featuring superb, less-is-more guitar work by Greg Leisz and Val McCullum, the excellent Bob Glaub on bass, and Mauricio Lewak and Russ Kunkel on drums.
The lyrical content, as always, is superbly crafted by a master songwriter. There’s often a nice synthesis of the personal and the political, where Browne manages to get you focused on some important issues without ever sounding preachy.
So it is with the ten tracks on Downhill from Everywhere, Browne’s first album since 2014’s Standing in the Breach (which I found a fine piece of work). He tackles the problems of immigrants to the US in The Dreamer and poverty in Haiti in the beautiful Love is Love. And there’s a thoughtful rumination on the idea of the American Dream in Until Justice is Real. It’s a song perhaps only someone in their 70s could write, with more of the road behind them than ahead. (I’m beginning to know the feeling, Jackson.)
“Time rolling away
Time like a river, time like a train
Time like a fuse burning shorter every day.”
It begs the inevitable question: “What is my purpose, what can I do?” I guess of we’re honest, particularly as the clock of life ticks on, that’s what we all want to know. Browne wants us to “put our shoulder to the wheel,” but wonders, “what would it look like?”
Perhaps something of the answer comes in A Human Touch, written and performed by Jackson Browne and Leslie Mendelson. The song appeared on the 2018 documentary film 5B, about the care given by doctors and nurses to people living with AIDS.
Singer-songwriter Leslie Mendelson and Steve McEwan came up with the song originally, and Browne says he only” added a few lines,” but nevertheless, “we really got into every line and nearly every word in depth to make sure it was what we wanted to say and convey in the song.”
The song addresses suffering, pain and loneliness, of which there is still far too much in the world:
“Everybody gets lonely
Feel like it’s all too much
Reaching out for some connections”
“all anybody needs
Is a human touch.”
Leslie Mendelson said of the song, “One of the most important things in life is human contact. To feel empathy or to experience a connection with someone is why we’re here. Without that we have nothing. At the end of the day, people want to connect and feel and be loved.”
My mother lived for many years after my dad had passed away, and, although she was a determined woman who just got on with things, she did find being on her own a challenge. She used to love it when I would give her a shoulder rub when I visited, and I know she appreciated that even when she eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s near the end of her life. “Sometimes all anybody needs is a human touch.”
Which brings us back to “what’s my purpose, what can I do?” Although in Europe and America we live in a culture where the individual is king, and you’re meant to make it on your own, that’s not the way humans are made.
Other non-Western cultures have something to teach us in this regard. In South Africa, the word Ubuntu describes a way of life where our dependence upon each other is recognized – “I am because we are.” We are all connected and can only achieve for ourselves as we seek the growth and progress of others. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Ubuntu was about being generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and compassionate. “You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.”
Our fast-paced, acquisitive, self-absorbed culture has largely forgotten this. But if we want to find our purpose, Unbuntu, the human touch is exactly where we find it – and ourselves. In giving the generosity, care and compassion that Tutu talked about.
Sometimes all we need is a human touch.