Browne says he would write songs mainly at his kitchen table, late at night, or in his bedroom. One that popped out was "These Days," a world-weary song of regrets that remains one of his finest. Browne says he wrote it at 16--a mighty precocious age to write a lyric bearing as much weight of responsibility as the song's concluding line: "Don't confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them."
Browne said he had been reading "Lust For Life," Irving Stone's novel based on the life of Vincent van Gogh, in which the tormented painter was said to be seeking a place where he would not be confronted with his failures. "That had a resonance with me, and it found its way into my song."
Browne's friend Noonan led him into public performance. His first gigs were at the Aware, an informal Long Beach hangout run by Noonan's father, where Browne played primarily for an audience of his friends. Browne cites the Paradox as the most important venue in his early development (it also was the club where the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band first gathered a following; Browne was a member for several months during 1966, playing washtub bass, guitar and kazoo in a lighthearted jug-band format before moving to L.A. to launch his professional songwriting career).
"It was a really unusual club, next to a 7-11, no bigger than a medium-sized pet shop," Browne recalled, contrasting the musically ambitious Paradox with commercial coffeehouses of the time that would book slick Kingston Trio knockoffs or trivial folkie-comedians.
"Their little ad in the paper and their little card said, 'Traditional music for contemporary minds.' (Owners Bob Sheffer and Hank Fischer) were both music freaks. They'd book Jack Elliott, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Hoyt Axton (the club also booked comedians Steve Martin and Pat Paulsen, and the soon-to-be-acclaimed Orange County singer, Tim Buckley). I became part of a scene on Thursday nights where people were standing up and singing their own music. We sort of filtered down through all the (bull) of what we considered a sort of plastic and superficial kind of culture and sifted down to the real thing, blues and folk music, and people singing songs about what mattered."
Fischer, now a businessman in Yorba Linda, recalls that Browne needed some extra prodding before his first gig: "He was sitting in what we called the warm-up room, kind of behind the stage, out of view, and he was getting cold feet: 'I can't do it, I just can't do it.' I'm about six-foot-two, and I just kind of intimidated him. I kind of glared at him, and he did it. He did just fine, and there was never any more trouble after that."
"In the beginning he was a shy kid, not a dynamic performer," recalls Noonan, now a stockbroker in Los Angeles. "But people would wait around for Jackson's new song."
Joe Romeo remembers that Browne, during his earliest days, "definitely got very tense before concerts. At the Aware, there would be the quaver in the voice, he would just be tight. Jackson can be just really funny. He's got a natural sense of humor, and had great timing, even then. We'd get each other in hysterics. But when Jackson would get up on stage, the timing was off and he would be a little stiff. It took him a while to get used to playing in front of crowds. It's something he had to learn."
Perhaps the most important havens and nurturing grounds for the small group of Sunny Hills folkies and political activists were the Browne family's houses--first the Brookdale Place home, then a more modest one on Orange Avenue, behind a Lucky's market. Jack and Bea Browne separated when Jackson was 14, and Bea Browne, who taught English at Buena Park High School, moved with her kids to humbler quarters (Browne's parents both died in the late 1980s).
"Bea was everybody's mom, a cross between a mom and a hotelier," recalls Copeland, who recorded a well-received 1982 album produced by Browne, "Revenge Will Come," but is now a securities lawyer in Los Angeles. "It was a real open house. They were the quintessential outsider family. There was an acceptance there that was very hard to find in other houses--acceptance of teen-agers going through whatever teen-agers go through."
Drug experimentation was part of what Browne and his friends went through, although they tried to hide that '60s rite of passage from his mother.
"It was not just wild and crazy times at Ridgemont High or anything like that," recalled Romeo. "(Mrs. Browne) was tolerant of curiosity, experimentation and an open outlook on things, even if she didn't agree with (something) herself. There was a sense of freedom that was unique. You felt you were dealing with somebody reasonable and intelligent."