Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time
"Don't You Want to Be There" - Jackson Browne
Written by Jackson Browne
From The Naked Ride Home (Elektra, 2002)
This V-C-V first appeared in slightly different form on pcmunoz.com, June 14, 2005
In his speech inducting Jackson Browne into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bruce Springsteen coined a fitting term to describe Browne's music: "California Pop-Gospel". I like that description quite a bit, because not only does it distinctly locate Browne as a Californian artist, it also acknowledges a kind of spiritual component to his work. Like his musical soul-brother Bob Marley, Jackson Browne has often urged us to consider the state of our spiritual selves as well as our connectedness to others, concerns that are usually addressed in the liturgical realm. The fact that he writes about these concerns with probing self-doubt (and often self-indictment) is significant, and in my mind a major reason why his many admirers have such a strong, emotional bond with his work.
"Don't You Want to Be There" is primarily a meditation. Like a lot of Browne's best work, it will break your heart, call you to reflection, and inspire you to hopeful action, all in the span of one listen. It opens with a simple enough invitation: "Don't you want to be there / Don't you want to go / Where the light is breaking / And the cold clear winds blow?" Around the middle, that invitation softly becomes an encouraging challenge: "Don't you want to be there? / Don't you want to cry / When you see how far you've got to go / To be where forgiveness rules / Instead of where you are?" The last line of the last verse then contains the most potent variation of the titular question, one that no listener can escape: "Don't you want to be where there's strength and love / In the place of fear?"
Browne's soulful vocal here is partially backed by a mini-choir throughout the song, and the ethereal, slow-paced R&B groove adds one more layer of emotional poignancy. True to form, there are also unique lyrical and structural touches in "Don't You Want to Be There." Because of his deft, nuanced poetic touch, it's natural to focus on Jackson Browne's lyrical gifts, but the fact is, Browne has also been very adventurous in terms of songforms, musical settings, and collaborators. I can think of only a handful of artists of Browne's stature who have truly collaborated with as diverse an array of folks (traditional Irish musicians, a Nueva Canción ensemble, Native American spoken-word, and San Francisco funk, just to name a few) as Browne has. Fittingly, the form here reveals itself in a slow building, Lanois-like atmospheric vibe. The gestalt of "Don't You Want to Be There" is enhanced by the dream-like spaciousness of the arrangement, which lets the words ease their way into the listener's consciousness. My favorite lines are marked by a subtle syntactical turn that could only be executed by a master: "And those you have wronged, you know / You need to let them know some way / And those who have wronged you, know / You'll have to let them go someday / Don't you want to be there?"
Those lines get me every time. I've often set this song on repeat for many listens, and it never fails to move me. After each listen, I feel like I'm ready to live, to love, to attempt to be there.
California Pop-Gospel, dude.
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In 2006, Fred Martin & The Levite Camp, an L.A.-based gospel group associated with Jackson Browne, released a record called Some Bridges which featured gospel/R&B arrangements of a number of Jackson Browne tunes, including "Don't You Want to Be There." Hugh Masekela, Keb' Mo', and Ozomatli also pop by. Check it on iTunes here.
I had the great pleasure of having Jackson Browne sing on my song "California" a few years back. Check it on iTunes here.