My MRI, and Reflections on America through a 1973 Album by Jackson Browne

Recently, I was scheduled for yet another MRI scan for my lingering leg/back problems. If you have never had an MRI, my brother best described the experience: “they put you in a coffin and have midgets pound on it with clubs.” An MRI machine is creepy, narrow and loud, and can make you claustrophobic. The previous MRI left me feeling anxious; so this time I decided to prepare myself by listening to some music from my past, so that I could escape to another place and time in my mind. You can’t wear ear buds in an MRI machine — no metal allowed because it emits powerful magnetic waves — so I played some tunes at home to keep in my mind during the scan.

Sitting at my desk, I skimmed my oldest albums in iTunes, and for whatever reason, selected Jackson Browne’s For Everyman, released in 1973. I put on my ear buds and started the first song, and I was quickly transported back to that year long ago; and over the next 43 minutes, I relived one of the most formative periods of my life.

In the process, I discovered some remarkable parallels with, and lessons for, today.

Living in Paradise, and Finding a Job There

In February, 1973, 45 years ago, I was trying to complete a Masters degree at UC Davis by auditing classes at UC Berkeley. That didn’t work out, mostly for lack of money. By June, I was living in Santa Cruz with some friends, students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in a cozy house a block from the Pacific Ocean, and with a full view of the lighthouse on West Cliff Drive, about 2 miles away in a direct line of sight from the back of our house. On a rainy day, we’d watch the sun set in a blaze of color over the lighthouse and the ocean. It was an amazing and beautiful place, and we loved living there. But we needed income to pay the rent.

The Lighthouse on West Cliff Drive. Our view was a bit more distant, and wider.

In June, we began working at the University of California, Santa Cruz campus on a university-funded summer job for students, trimming trees and clearing brush.

The UCSC campus is spread out over grazing fields and deep redwood forest, which requires a lot of grounds maintenance. Each day, about 20 of us gathered at 8 am, sleepy and groggy, and loaded ourselves into pickup trucks to drive a mile up a paved road, then off on a dirt trail, called Chinquapin Road, back in the upper woods of the campus. It was often foggy and cool in the morning, due to cool damp air from the nearby Pacific Ocean. We’d usually be driven, shivering, up to some preselected area that had a lot of fallen trees, or overgrowth of manzanita and madrone, that we would set about cutting, chipping and clearing, using mostly hand tools, a couple of Husqvarna chainsaws, and a big wood chipper.

Chinquapin Road, UC Santa Cruz campus, early morning fog.

We were called the “tree crew” by the manager, a wonderfully wizened old Alabaman with a tough manner and big heart named Tom Hair. Tom taught us alot about physical labor, working smart, and how to plan our work day — things most of us college students knew little about. And he would sometimes go out fishing at 4 am to bring us fresh salmon in a cooler when we started at 8 am, which he sold to us for $1.00 per pound ($6.00 less than the market value in those days). As the day went on and the sun came out and the air got warmer, we got sweaty, and covered in dirt, sawdust and poison oak. We broke for lunch by noon, took a brief break in the shade then started up again when it was really sunny and hot. By 4 pm Tom would let us go, so we drove home, jogged two blocks down the street, and dove in the ocean to body surf and scrub off the poison oak. Refreshed, we’d then wander home and fry some fresh salmon for dinner. It was a wonderful, idyllic time; only meant to be brief — it was just a summer job — but unforgettable. I met some remarkable people on the job, some of whom who remain lifelong friends.

Outside in the Larger World, Trouble Was Looming

That summer of 1973, the Vietnam War dragged on, well into its eighth year; we had lost friends and seen others come home in grief and despair, some facing hostility and resentment. Richard Nixon was in his second term as president; inflation was rising, the U.S. dollar was dropping, and Nixon shocked the world by traveling to Communist China. At the same time, first stories about the Watergate scandal began to appear, and Congress began holding hearings about a break-in related to the release of the Pentagon Papers, exposing the true and often sinister background of U.S. decisions regarding our involvement in the Vietnam war.

For me, and for many of my friends and family, living in liberal Northern California, Nixon seemed a hostile and dangerous president. We saw him as a reactionary who wanted to crush anyone who opposed him — and he had done just that in the election the previous year, winning re-election in a landslide. Nixon was ruthless, smart and crafty; he knew Washington well and seemed capable of getting his way. He was clearly favored by the Wall Street banks and big corporations, who looked like the enemy to those of us who were liberal, broke and without financial prospects.

In September, a political crisis in Chile turned into a bloody military coup that overthrew the socialist Allende government, with US government assistance. In October, the Yom Kippur war, between Israel and Egypt and its allies, erupted in the Sinai peninsula; the Suez canal was a threatened choke point for oil shipments from the Middle East, where the U.S. got most of its petroleum. The first global oil crisis soon followed, and the cost of gas and other goods skyrocketed, and world plunged into a recession.

Maybe Just Drop Out and Escape?

For a person in their twenties, with unclear prospects, occasional work as a laborer, no savings, and not much of a plan, the uncertainty, rising costs and bewildering chaos in Washington and around the world made for a scary and depressing time. And none of my friends really knew what to do… or where to go.

For Everyman by Jackson Browne

Jackson Browne was part of the Los Angeles wave of musicians who were blending the styles of rock, country and sixties folk into a new and exciting genre. Browne’s second album, For Everyman, came out at that time, was well received, and someone in our house bought it. It’s wonderfully crafted album, with lyrical guitar by David Lindley, and harmonies with Bonnie Raitt and Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Elton John, and studio musicians who were among the best in the business. I remember listening first for the musicality; many songs are light and fun, but a few have a grim and threatened sound that typified that time and place.

The second song, Lady of the Well, begins:

Across my home has grown the shadow 
Of a cruel and senseless hand 
Though in some strong hearts 
The love and truth remain 
And it has taken me this distance 
And a woman’s smile to learn 
That my heart remains among them 
And to them I must return.

This verse set a tone that I remember seeing on the faces of my friends; we all felt it, and we all knew what it meant. It was a difficult and threatening time.

The final, title song explains this mood in greater detail, and it became a sort of anthem for many of us:

Everybody I talk to is ready to leave
With the light of the morning
They’ve seen the end coming down
Long enough to believe
That they’ve heard their last warning
Standing alone
Each has his own ticket in his hand
And as the evening descends
I sit thinking about Everyman.

We were young, struggling, without clear prospects, without much direction, in a world that seemed to be unravelling. Sound familiar? How about a presidency in crisis, a world economy in disruption, endless war raging in far-off places, costs soaring, jobs hard to find? I remember feeling that, perhaps, America was losing its commitment to freedom, fairness and justice.

It was tempting just to want to escape:

Seems like I’ve always been
Looking for some other place
To get it together
Where with a few of my friends
I could give up the race
And maybe find something better.

Yes, there are alternatives; perhaps the strong and wise Patriarch can guide us:

Everybody’s just waiting to hear from the one
Who can give them the answers
And lead them back to that place
In the warmth of the sun
Where sweet childhood still dances
Who’ll come along
And hold out that strong
That gentle father’s hand

Then, like today, some turn to that kind of leadership that brings back the sense of security and trust that we had when we were children.

But: can leaders really solve our problems? Or do they just leave us with our images of them, rather than real answers:

I’m not trying to tell you
That I’ve seen the plan
Turn and walk away if you think I am
But don’t think too badly
Of one who’s left holding sand
He’s just another dreamer
Dreaming ‘bout Everyman

To his credit, Browne, all of 25 years old, saw the futility of running away or giving up, though he still didn’t have a solution:

But all my fine dreams
Well though out schemes
To gain the motherland
Have all eventually come down
To waiting for Everyman
Waiting here for Everyman
Make it on your own if you think you can
If you see somewhere to go I understand
Waiting here for Everyman
Don’t ask me if he’ll show, baby I don’t know…

In the end, he realizes we can’t go it alone — we need to work together and get along with one another. And stick it out through the hard times. At least, that’s how I understood the meaning of the song back then.

The Tide Turns, and a Presidency Ends

Meanwhile, across the continent in our nation’s Capitol, the Senate special investigating committee hearings on Watergate had opened in May, 1973. The hearings exposed and examined the break-in of the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., by agents working on behalf of President Nixon, and the subsequent cover-up. The hearings went on for months; 85% of American households watched them, and within a year, a seven-volume report was issued, condemning the Administration for supporting criminal activity, including “political espionage and illegal campaign finance practices.”

During our tree crew lunch breaks, we would sometimes drive ten minutes down the dirt road to the lunch cafeteria at Crown College, one of the UCSC campuses, where they had a small black & white television mounted up in a corner. We’d sit some times with our $1.50 sandwiches and drinks and watch the hearings. Over the course of the Summer, it became evident that something far more dramatic was unfolding. By June the following year, when the Senate report was published, it had become clear that the Watergate event was bringing about the end of a Presidency. The White House team fought it; but in August, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned under pressure from his own party.

If you don’t know the story, it’s well documented in the best-seller All the President’s Men by Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who initially uncovered the break-story story and pursued it, despite fierce opposition from the White House.

The book that launched the Senate investigation that brought down a Presidency.

I will always remember the strange feeling I had, sitting in that little college cafeteria, watching the blurry grey images of stout senators investigating witnesses, discussing legal issues, and speaking in press conferences about the progress of the hearings. At first, I thought, “Oh no, more nonsense, smoke and mirrors from Congress.” But by the end of the summer, I remember having the feeling: “Maybe things aren’t hopeless? If we can remove a crooked president, through legal, peaceful means, perhaps anything is possible? Maybe America isn’t finished, after all?”

Getting Through It, Again

I got through my MRI without any difficulty; it’s often worse in anticipation than in reality. And I know the music that I played in my head during the scan was helpful. What’s more, I came away with a new perspective on how to look at things, thanks in large part to the Jackson Browne album, which brought me memories that I hadn’t thought about in years. Even when the world seems threatening and hostile, it’s your attitude and willingness to continue that matter most. Music can help with that.

Today, we have a situation that feels very similar for those of us who lived through Watergate: a combative, reactionary, aggressive president who targets segments of society as enemies, who is favored by the Wall Street banks and big corporations, who is clearly hostile to the poor, immigrants, the disenfranchised, and anyone outside his tight circle of supporters. And like Nixon, our current President is facing a Special Counsel investigation, Congressional hearings, and withering criticism for his passive approach to activity that clearly involves criminality. Several members of his senior staff have already pleaded guilty to charges related to his campaign for President. Russian hackers who aided the campaign have already been indicted, and more legal action is sure to come.

But history doesn’t always repeat itself. The current Congressional hearings are not the Watergate hearings, and the results may be very different. It’s too soon to tell; it’s like that summer we spent watching the TV, and wondering what was really going on in Washington, so far away and yet so important to all our lives… and what would happen next?

My point is simply that a crisis isn’t terminal, unless and until it is; these issues are painful for everyone, but it’s a process. As long as the process continues, there is hope for resolution and perhaps, justice and even reconciliation. If the process stops, or is blocked, then we face a true crisis. Then is the time to wonder if the evening is descending, and if we have to start looking for that way out.

We aren’t there yet.

So find some music that reminds you of a special time, listen to it, and let it calm your nerves and soothe your soul.

Then make sure you are registered to vote.