Grateful Child is a self-described elderly hippy living in Connecticut who pings all of us at Greenpeace with love every now and again. He sends encouraging messages when we save whales. He made up mugs and mousemats for the web team to say thanks for the web site. He chats with our supporter services folks about this and that. He makes tribute websites to our ships crew.
A while back, he sent me links to a couple Jackson Browne videos. Out of the blue. And somehow he plucked the string of some Jungian synchronicity wave or something, and watching them made me reflect on exactly how much Jackson had to do with me getting on a path that led to Greenpeace.
Are we sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.
In 1972 I was 14 years old. Nixon was in the Whitehouse. I had no politics, no idea where my life was going to go, no formed opinions about much of anything. But I had this little transistor radio (SOLID STATE!) and I’d obsessively scan the AM airwaves at night for signals from far off places like Chicago and Detroit so I could listen to scratchy static-filled songs which would fade in and out on ionospheric waves. My musical exposure up to then had been pretty limited to the few items my parents had on 33rpm albums: Herb Alpert and the Tiajuana Brass, the Ray Conniff Singers, Glenn Campbell.
And one night I heard “Rock me on the Water.” For whatever reason, I wanted to know who wrote that song. OK, maybe that gospel anthemic quality spoke to an alternative catholocism or something in me. Indeed, the only stand I’d ever taken was about this time, when I told my father I felt like a hypocrite going to church and I didn’t want to go anymore. He told me I was too young to know what a hyporcrite was, and I was going to church. Then suddenly the whole family stopped going to church. Hmmm…
“Oh people, look around you. The signs are everywhere.
You’ve left it to someone other than you,
to be the one to care.”
Now what the heck made me think “Here was a teacher. Here was wisdom?” I haven’t a clue. But here was somebody with something to say that made you pause in your gum chewing. And when I subsequently heard “Doctor my Eyes” and “For a Dancer” I was completely pulled in.
Throughout highschool and University I collected Jackson’s lyrics and songs and scrutinized them. I dug the poetry. I didn’t get the politics. I could relate to “Before the Deluge” at a kind of sci-fi level — it was entertaining fiction, nothing more. As late as my sophmore year at Georgetown, when a literature professor had me reading George Luckas, I still didn’t get, really, what politics had to do with literature or anything outside the electoral process.
But I knew I didn’t like something there at the school that spawned Joe McCarthy and where Henry Kissenger later became a professor. I didn’t fit with the economics of the place. I didn’t fit with what I experienced as the rote learning, no-thinking methods in the School of Foreign Service (I was unlucky — there were excellent, thought-provoking professors there, but I largely missed them). I wasn’t a yuppy and I couldn’t play with yuppies. I fell in with a crowd of reprobate musician nonconformist poets. And one day one of them said we should head down to this thing, some concert on the mall where Jackson Browne and a bunch of other cool cats were going to be. It was for some cause, and it was called “No Nukes.”
Well, I suddenly found my context. I listened to what I was hearing there, I felt the unity, I felt the buzz of the power of numbers. And what had been a white noise of news about the dangers of nuclear power and Three Mile Island and the Diablo Canyon reactor all suddenly came into focus as something I ought to care about — and suddenly did care about. Laurie Anderson would impress me years later by describing artists as the radar of society: they amplify these weak signals that are coming in and make them visible, audible, get them talked about.
All the politics in those songs suddenly fell into place. It was politics, sure, but it was bound up in poetry, in the tradition of the Romantics or Emerson and Thoreau — it was all about a small group of people who shared a common light trying to make that light shine brighter, to share it, to fire the imaginations of others with it. It was about making the world more like a place we’d feel at home in. It was about respecting the power of nature and favoring that over the pursuit of money. And all of the sudden I realised that what I’d thought of as “politics” was a pretty thin slice of the spectrum. I started reading Wendell Berry, Saul Alinsky, Edward Abby. I began to see how deeply politics is ingrained with every choice we make every day — how every time we buy something we vote for a certain vision of what the world should be, how every time we agree or disagree with someone we’re saying something about our idea of what’s right and what’s wrong.
Before I knew it, I was camped out at ground zero at the Nevada Test site, trying to stop a nuclear weapons detonation. I was in jail in Boston for protesting the seal hunt. I was getting chased down a driveway by an NRA member with a shotgun. I was sailing on the Rainbow Warrior. I was on a path.
Thanks, Jackson. The wind be with you now.