'Like Opening A Book In The Middle': Jackson Browne Returns To An Old Song The singer and songwriter wrote "The Birds Of St. Marks" about the singer Nico in the '60s. In revisiting it, he remembers a particular New York scene — and a younger version of himself.
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'Like Opening A Book In The Middle': Jackson Browne Returns To An Old Song

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'Like Opening A Book In The Middle': Jackson Browne Returns To An Old Song

'Like Opening A Book In The Middle': Jackson Browne Returns To An Old Song

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A spin through the catalog of Jackson Browne begins in the late 1960s with a song he wrote when he was just 16.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THESE DAYS")

JACKSON BROWNE: (Singing) Well, I've been out walking. I don't do that much talking these days, these days.

BLOCK: For many of us - and count me in that number - Jackson Browne's songs are musical touchstones - road songs, political songs and, of course, songs of fugitive love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOUNTAIN OF SORROW")

BROWNE: Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light. You've known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight.

BLOCK: When Jackson Browne came by our studios recently, I asked him about an old interview I'd found in Rolling Stone magazine from 1974. He would have been 25. He was already a star. And in that interview, he'd been thinking back to when he first started out making music as a teenager in Southern California.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLOCK: You said, I loved the whole beneath the trellis with the guitar number.

BROWNE: (Laughter).

BLOCK: Sound about right?

BROWNE: There was something about playing a song for a girl. Yeah. I did - I did like that. I mean, yeah, the trellis - I think there was a bit of self-satire in my calling it the trellis.

BLOCK: You'd like to think so.

BROWNE: Yeah, it was not - it was not seriously ever standing beneath anybody's window, strumming a guitar and singing in the moonlight. No. And I think I was kind of, like, making fun of myself for enjoying singing for girls.

BLOCK: Yeah.

And Jackson Browne opens his new album with the song to a girl. He's gone back to something he wrote in 1967, when he was 18 and living briefly in New York. It's called "The Birds Of St. Mark's."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIRDS OF ST. MARK'S")

BROWNE: (Singing) Oh, how sad they sound - the songs. The queen must sing of dying. The prisoner...

BLOCK: Jackson Browne told me he wrote this song about Nico, the beautiful singer, actress and iconic Andy Warhol muse. Back then, he was accompanying Nico on guitar on a club in St. Mark's Place in the East Village.

BROWNE: I'd come there with my friends. We drove across the country. And I lucked into this job playing for Nico. And she had been in the Velvet Underground and was going off to - you know, to play on her own. And it was great 'cause I had no money. I'd come to New York with $50. That job was fascinating because it was a bar that Andy's retinue would come hang out in.

BLOCK: Andy Warhol?

BROWNE: Yeah. But as I left New York, I wrote this song, and it was kind of a portrait of Nico - just a little song for her.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIRDS OF ST. MARK'S")

BROWNE: (Singing) If she could see her mirror now, she would be free of those who bow and scrape the ground beneath her feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWNE: She was a big fan of The Byrds. She would say, can you play something like Jim McGuinn? And I'd go, well, no.

BLOCK: So what inspired you to go back to this song that you wrote so many years ago?

BROWNE: I guess I thought the song wasn't really finished, but when I dusted it off, it seemed fine. It seemed - matter of fact, there was something about it being something from a long time ago that gave it a quality that I liked. It was, you know, like a picture from an earlier time in my life. But I'd never done it the way I intended it to be when I wrote it, so I realized I could do it like The Byrds.

BLOCK: The sound of The Byrds meaning the jangly guitar, lots of...

BROWNE: The twelve-string, the high harmony...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIRDS OF ST. MARK'S")

BROWNE: (Singing) And all my frozen words agree and say, it's time to call back all the birds I sent to fly behind her castle walls.

BLOCK: The imagery in this song - the dying midnight roses and the queen behind castle walls...

BROWNE: (Laughter).

BLOCK: You're laughing.

BROWNE: That was a part that I thought for quite a few years I needed to revise. Come on. Dying midnight roses - it's so extreme, but that's what I began to like about it. It's just, like - it's a young song. It really is for my 18-year-old eyes, looking wide-eyed at this Andy Warhol scene in New York.

BLOCK: I've been wondering about that. I mean, what it's like for you to summon that 18-year-old up as much as you can when you sing this song now.

BROWNE: Well, that's the thing about songs. You don't have to. I mean, it's written into the song. There's something about playing a song 20, 40 years after you wrote it that is kind of exhilarating because it's really just like opening a book in the middle - looking back at a time that was captured then and actually may mean something different each time you revisit it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIRDS OF ST. MARK'S")

BROWNE: (Singing) Maybe we found what we had lost when we've unwound so many crossed, entangling misunderstandings.

BLOCK: Jackson Browne, thanks so much for coming in.

BROWNE: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Jackson Browne's new album is title "Standing In The Breach." You can watch him performing a Tiny Desk Concert here at NPR. That's at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BIRDS OF ST. MARK'S")

BROWNE: (Singing) All the birds I sent to fly behind her castle walls. And I'm weary of the nighttime scene inside these empty halls.

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