It was a rainy February day in a still-new millennium, and the middle school students enrolled in our oral history and philanthropy electives were arriving at my house in vans to interview my neighbor Jackson Browne. The Gaviota hills were green, the light was silvery, and there was the sound of rain in gentle percussion. "Maybe the most renewing thing is to be by myself up here," Jackson mused, "and to spend a few days just thinking. A friend of mine had a phrase for it. She said it's called leaning up against the cheek of God."
I'd never thought of it that way, but it did seem fitting for the way the sky held us, the tenderness of being here, the sense of nearness to what matters. “I bought a parcel here in 1978,” Jackson told us. “My business manager advised me not to. From his point of view, the idea was to invest, to build. He said, ‘You can’t just run out and buy something that’s only gonna sit there.’ I said, ‘Watch.’ It’s a great investment, in my opinion. Even when I was younger, I thought it would be great to go out and buy land and not do anything with it, because so much of the land is being developed. I thought ‘I’m gonna buy some land that no one will ever do anything with,’ and I found that people were basically doing that here––restricting its uses so it would stay in its natural state. It’s great…more than being neighbors, the people up here at the Ranch share a similar philosophy.”
“As a matter of fact,” he continued, “my grandfather and my dad used to camp in Gaviota Canyon… so when my dad saw where the Ranch was, and where I bought, he said, ‘This is where my father and I used to camp,’ and he told me that when he was about twelve years old, he called that area by the state park ‘Browne’s Pass’. So I have some family history of loving this part of the country, and I’d say the Ranch is my favorite place––it’s where I want to be an old guy surrounded by my kids and their kids.”
Someone asked Jackson if he was religious. “I’m not a member of an organized religion or faith…but the truth is, I am religious. I think I practice a kind of religion...the closest thing I belong to that’s like a church is a group of friends that over the course of twenty or thirty years have probably done hundreds and hundreds of benefit performances to raise funds for a variety of causes. There’s no name for us. We call ourselves ‘the usual suspects’ or funny names like ‘the bleeding hearts’ — we know about each other because we’re always asking each other to do things.”
"A friend of mine (Fred Martin) is director of the gospel choir at a high school in Los Angeles," he said. "He lets me come, and I love this music. They’re definitely singing the praises of God. But one time Fred wanted me to sing in church with them, and I said, ‘I’d be very happy to. I’d like to, but you know, Fred, I’m not really a Christian exactly.’ He goes, ‘That’s okay. That’s all right.’ So he gets me up there in front of the church, and I’m wearing a suit to perform one of the songs I perform with the choir, and he says, ‘Now Brother Jackson here says he’s not a Christian.’ There’s a big silence. Then he says, ’Yet!’ Everybody applauded."
"As a matter of fact," said Jackson, "if you could ever get Fred Martin and his kids to come to your school, any way to make it happen, I would try to help.” Glancing over at my colleagues Linda Smith and Lynne Castellanos, I saw the same spark in their eyes, and I knew that bringing the gospel choir to our school would be our next special project.
Meanwhile, I hoped that the kids were picking up on all this, the idea of a circle of friends who do things for others, the activist approach, finding ways to be constructively and compassionately alive in the world. And while Jackson’s life is admittedly extraordinary, he warned us not to underrate our own: “When you think about it, probably more than half of what’s on television is selling you some notion that there are some beautiful people someplace, and you can find out about them, and you can be like them if you tune in, and buy stuff that they buy, or go where they go…That’s all crap. That’s complete and utter crap. That’s to say that their lives are more valuable than yours.”
He urged the students to develop a sense of what is right and wrong and real, and never to underestimate what they might accomplish. “As much as I love the world,” he said, “there are fights out there. There are some fights that are coming your way. Don’t back down from what you know is right…and in the end, you are the one to decide.”
We talked for a good two hours. Now the light had dimmed, the rain continued, and it suddenly felt late. It was time to get the kids in the vans and back to campus. They descended the steps laughing and chatting and colorful as confetti, all that wonderful middle school energy…and I wonder, more than a decade later, how much they remember of their afternoon with Jackson Browne, whether they hear his songs differently, or if they have incorporated any of his advice into their thinking long term. You never know what sticks.
If you'd like to read the Jackson Browne interview, "Even More True Now" in its entirety go to this link.
But there was still the matter of the gospel choir. It wasn't easy, but a concert was arranged, and one morning the following May, a bus set out from South Central Los Angeles to the Santa Ynez Valley with Fred Martin, the Washington Preparatory High School gospel singers, and an assortment of instruments and equipment on board. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Los Olivos, with Father Stacey at the helm, had agreed to be the venue for an evening performance, but first there came an impromptu noon concert on the Dunn School campus, and no one who was there will ever forget it.
Fred charmed everyone, and the voices of the singers, among whom I particularly remember Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, were somehow both angelic and electrifying. They performed a bit of R & B and Motown, but mostly it was good old-fashioned gospel, and the spirit infused us all. Everyone––students, teachers, staff, even the little children who had come by from the nearby Family School––were clapping and dancing and singing along, making a joyful noise.
The magic resumed at the church later, and the house of God was a full one that night, and it seemed to me the building might have lifted off the ground. Friendships began, and all of us were giddy, and in my heart I felt a sense that really anything was possible. Was there a moon? I only know that there was light, and there was love: pure, uncomplicated, and inclusive. Jackson Browne was at the back of the church, smiling. Afterwards he drove back to Gaviota, where I imagine he leaned up against the cheek of God.