This review is either very late or just in time. You can decide.
Jackson Browne is my favorite musical artist and has been for many years. I have “flings” with a few others.
(I thought U2 was going to be a lasting love, but they left me sometime between Zooropa and Pop–though we tried again for a while after All that You Can’t Leave Behind. Nick Cave seemed promising, but was way too dark. We didn’t last. All the rest were harmless flirtations–though, Au4 still makes my heart go aflutter).
But Browne has been a constant for many years, and his 1989 World in Motion album was, to me, his best, least appreciated effort. Coming at the tail end of the Reagan era with the Cold War still raging, it was an album that offered a pretty systematic critique of what America had become in those years.
Remember Reagan’s “Morning in America?” Well, the title track (and first song) gets right to it:
Sun going down in the USA
Down on main, there’s a family sleeping in a doorway
Around the corner you can hear the sound
People dancing around the golden calf
Those who have not those who have
On the billboards and the t.v. screens
They got food and cars and toys and trucks and jeans
Like a homeless child’s fitful dreams
Smiling faces free from wanting
Life’s abundances beyond counting.
And we are off… Packed into that intro is a pretty apt description of what “morning in America” really meant. Is that 31 years ago? Is that today? Reminds of the title of that old Homer Price story: Eversomuchmoreso.
Keep in mind that the proxy wars that characterized the Cold War era but about which most Americans had and have not a clue were mostly focused in Central America at that time. It was a time when America dealt surreptitiously with sworn enemy Iran to arm contras in Nicaragua.
It was illegal and led Browne to write in The Word Justice:
A man stands up before God and country
Raises his right hand and takes an oath
Swears he has acted in the line of duty
And he more than anyone wants to tell the truth
But there is a need to keep some things a secret
Some weapons shipments–some private wars
In the future democracy will be defended
Behind closed doors
Later in the same song, he adds:
And there is a need to keep some things a secret
The names of some countries–the terms of some deals
And above all the sound of the screams of the innocent
Beneath our wheels
And flash forward. Is he talking about Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen? Yeah, people still getting crushed beneath those wheels and illegal arms deals are de rigueur under the current administration too. Plus ca change…
But Browne is not taking down just the powerful. He is asking all of us some pretty hard questions. And though BLM, and SNAP reductions, and sending kids to school amid a raging pandemic could not have been on his mind, he still asks all of us (in How Long)
When you look into a child’s face
And you’re seeing the human race
And the endless possibilities there
Where so much can come true
And you think of the beautiful things
A child can do
How long would the child survive
How long if it was up to you?
Are we going to answer that question? Because the next stanza drives home the challenge.
When you think about the money spent
On defense by a government
And the weapons of destruction we’ve built
We’re so sure that we need
And you think of the millions and millions
That money could feed
And that particular challenge is staring us in the face as we remind ourselves that just two weeks ago both the House and the Senate dutifully passed their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act.
$740 billion (with a “b”).
Reminder: $600 per week benefits for families devastated by COVID-19 have expired, and states and cities devasted by the crisis are set to receive nothing in the Senate version of the bill. And while the House passed a comprehensive bill, the Senate seems to content to do nothing while going all-in on “defense.”
Browne, writing today, might add: “And you think of the millions and millions of tests that money could buy.”
Are we taking a long look in the mirror yet, or is Browne’s How Long question merely a dated remnant of the last endless war? Perhaps we should remind ourselves that budgets will always be moral documents, and each one requires our full attention.
And if you are angry after all of this, and want to strike out (as I do), Browne has some thoughts on that too. Returning to Central America, and a song adapted from a poem by a combattant in those conflicts, Browne channels a way forward in My Personal Revenge. Living in what I hope is the twilight of the current destructive regime, I want to take it to heart:
My personal revenge will be the right
Of our children in the schools and in the gardens
My personal revenge will be to give you
This song which has flourished without panic…
My personal revenge will be to tell you “good morning”
On a street without beggars or homeless
When instead of jailing you I suggest
You shake away the sadness there that blinds you.
This is what we are fighting for: the right of our children to live in security.
Finally, if your cynicism has led you down the path of hopelessness that this kind of change can ever come, Browne wrote about hope for change–before that change finally came. Let’s remember…
And I come here to praise Mandela
And to bring this message to his jailer
Your walls may hold the man inside
But they’ll never ever hold back the tide
‘Cause in the years you’ve shut him away
A generation has grown where he stood
They’re gonna see the day
When the walls have begun to crumble
When the laws have begun to burn
When the wind is singing freedom
When the stone begins to turn
(When the Stone Begins to Turn)
I listened to World in Motion again as I wrote this, and the current relevance of the injustice Browne called out then made me realize that he stands as a prophet for our time.
Maybe it’s time to pull out some other old albums.