Activist/Artist Jackson Browne Headlines Benefit for Journalist Greg Palast
Comedienne Paula Poundstone, MSNBC’s Joy Reid, KPFK’s Jerry Quickley Participate
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar the Roman emperor may have been warned to “Beware the Ides of March,” but that didn’t stop hundreds of fans from attending a March 15 fundraiser for Rolling Stone reporter Greg Palast and his Investigative Fund, headlined by Jackson Browne. Commenting onstage about the size of the crowd gathered outdoors at a private home in Santa Monica, Browne, who exemplifies the socially committed rocker, remarked, “It’s not so astounding to be here tonight. It’s always delightful to play for like-minded people… But I’d do anything to support Greg’s work,” which since 2000’s Bush versus Gore debacle has focused on stolen elections and voter suppression that allegedly denies many minority citizens their right to cast ballots, which sways presidential elections in favor of Republicans.
The Palast Investigative Fund’s “purpose [for the fundraiser] is to expose and prevent the theft of the election of 2018—and the billionaires who have turned The White House into a profit center.” Since Palast – who projects a private eye persona as a journalistic scourge of the status quo – is viewed by supporters as a truth teller, it was appropriate that Browne opened with “Till I Go Down”, singing searing, defiant lyrics:
“I’m not gonna shut my eyes,
I’ve already seen the lies…
I’m not gonna shut my mouth
I’m for the truth to come out
About the leader with the iron will
And his allegiance to the dollar bill.”
Strumming an electric guitar, Jackson was accompanied by two young female vocalists, mellifluous Chavonne Morris and Alethia Mills. Between songs Browne said he’d first encountered them when they sang for the Gospel Choir at L.A.’s George Washington Preparatory High School. “I wanted to have the choir sing out at an antiwar demonstration. But I could only reach these two. So we sung it on the streets around the world,” Jackson told the appreciative audience. “Till I Go Down” is from his eighth album and Browne’s first explicitly political one, 1986’s “Lives in the Balance,” which boldly condemned U.S. foreign policy in Central America:
“There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who fan the flames
Of the wars that are fought in places
Where we can’t even say the names.”
The anti-interventionist vibe floated well with the lefty crowd who’d paid $100 per ticket to attend the performance/wine/buffet barn raiser for the Palast Investigative Fund. Switching to an acoustic guitar, Jackson and his duo of singers next launched into “Which Side?” from his latest completed album, 2014’s Standing in the Breach. The biting lyrics were also resonant with progressive donors seated on plastic chairs on the lawn at the event:
The corporations attacking
The natural world – drilling and fracking
All done with the backing of the craven and corrupt
Or the ones who fight
For the Earth with all their might
And in the name of all that’s right
Confront and disrupt.
“There’s a restlessness out in the street there’s a question in the air
How long if this theft goes on will our country still be here?
People know the game is rigged even as they play
They see their expectations slowly slip away
They’ve got subsidies for billionaires, there’s a bailout for the banks
A monopoly on medicine, and a sale on armored tanks
The whole damned country’s being sold – out that revolving door
Between Washington and Wall Street like it’s one big Dollar Store.”
With its urgent advocacy of taking a stand against the powers-that-be, Browne echoes “Which Side Are You On?”, that classic union hymn by Florence Reece, wife of a United Mine Workers organizer, written during Kentucky’s bitter class struggle dubbed the “Harlan County War.” Indeed, Browne’s rousing call to action can be considered a 21st century version of Reece’s 1931 ode to labor, and “Which Side?” elicited enthusiastic applause from the sold-out crowd.
Before Chavonne, Alethia and Jackson performed their next number the rocker took time out to thank and praise his crew for setting up the stage, amps and speakers hours before the Palast fundraiser began at 6:00 p.m. In keeping with his stance as a socially engaged artist, the labor and equipment were donated to the philanthropic event, just as Jackson’s performance was. The trio then played the wistful “Off Of Wonderland,” a song about “change in the air” from Browne’s 2008 album Time the Conqueror, hearkening back to sixties-style idealism, with lofty lyrics full of yearning:
“Didn’t we believe in love?
Didn’t we believe in giving it away?
That didn’t really leave us with the love
To find our way
After RFK and Martin Luther King.”
Switching back to his electric guitar for his set’s final song, as baskets were passed around for extra donations, Browne told the assembled ticket buyers, “We gave more than we were slated to give – just like you.” With that, the trio closed the concert playing Steven Van Zandt’s stirring “I Am a Patriot,” which Browne covered in his 2008 World in Motion album, singing:
“And I ain’t no communist
And I ain’t no capitalist
And I ain’t no socialist
And I ain’t no imperialist
And I ain’t no democrat
And I ain’t no republican
I only know one party
And it is freedom”
However, Jackson – who felt the Burn and supported democratic socialist candidate Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries – ad-libbed during his rendition, changing Little Steven’s lyric “And I ain’t no socialist.” Slyly smiling, Browne added, “Maybe I’m a socialist!” eliciting laughter from the left-leaning listeners. (In 2000 Jackson campaigned for Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. In 2008 he sued then-presidential candidate Senator John McCain and the Republican National Committee for unauthorized use of his hit Running on Empty.)
After Chavonne, Alethia and Jackson took their well-deserved bows, Rock Cellar Magazine caught up with Browne, asking, “Why are you here tonight?” The legendary singer/songwriter/ musician replied: “To play for Greg Palast. He asked me, so I moved some things around. Actually, I’m going back to the studio right now. I’ve got a session going.”
Although Browne is currently touring North America, he hasn’t dropped an album since 2014, so RCM inquired what he was en route to work on. “It’s a project of music that was recorded in Haiti,” Jackson explained. “A bunch of songwriters, we went down there together with some Haitian artists. It’s a project of the Artists for Peace and Justice,” a humanitarian non-profit organization that assists Haitians through the arts, which Browne sits on the advisory board). The stark Standing in the Breach album cover shows Haiti after 2010’s devastating earthquake.
Last November 27, Browne performed at the Stand in Solidarity With Standing Rock benefit concert to support the struggle by indigenous activists and other water protectors against the 1,200-mile long Dakota Access Pipeline, which would pump crude oil beneath the Missouri River and across Indian Country. RCM asked Jackson what he did at Fort Yates, North Dakota, and the 2004 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame answered: “I do what I always do – I sang. I went with Bonnie Raitt and Joel Rafael and John Trudell’s Bad Dog and we did a concert in support of the Winter Rising, the camp.” KLND-FM, a public radio station in Little Eagle, South Dakota, simulcast the concert.
Around that time, Browne told Rolling Stone: “Big surprise that the Army is in collusion with big business. This echoes Wounded Knee and the massacres of the last century. It’s a continuation of the Indian Wars, and I think that it’s everybody’s fight.” Ironically, last October Jackson signed an open letter to Energy Transfer Partners CEO Kelcy Warren, owner of DAPL. Warren also owns Music Road Records, a small music label, which previously released a Jackson Browne tribute album. Ever the pied piper of principle, Browne wrote, “I do not support the Dakota Access pipeline. I will be donating all of the money I have received from this album to date, and any money received in the future, to the tribes who are opposing the pipeline.”
Jackson wasn’t the only notable taking the stage during the Palast fundraiser, which was emceed by Pacifica Radio’s KPFK host and spoken word artist Jerry Quickley. Denouncing the Trump regime, the rabblerousing Quickley warned, “They’re coming for all of us! This is the resistance – fuelled by journalists like Greg Palast. Tonight we have one of the resisters: Paula Poundstone of NPR’s game show Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
As she stepped onstage in her trademark suit and tie to perform standup, the comedienne demurred, “I never felt so lazy in my entire life.” Poundstone proceeded to give Trump a pounding, which was music to the left-of-center fans’ ears. Reminding them of the snafu at the end of February’s Academy Awards ceremony, when the wrong movie was announced as the Best Picture Oscar winner, Poundstone asked: “Don’t you dream that happened on election night?” – when Hillary Clinton was declared to have lost the presidency to Trump, whom Paula joked “looks like a diabolical goldfish” with “mental health problems.”
Poundstone also poked fun at Melania Trump for taking the wife of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe on a tour of Florida’s Japanese Gardens. Imitating Akie Abe, she asked an imaginary First Lady, “Do you have any uniquely American things to show me? Where’s the meth lab?”
Perhaps out of deference to the evening’s musical headliner, the rib-tickling Paula went on to assert “there’s a bright side to nuclear proliferation. It’s to bring back folk music. Joan Baez is behind the whole thing.” (Indeed, Browne’s political commitment grew out of movements opposing nuclear arms and power. In 1979, shortly after the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania, Brown, Raitt, Graham Nash and activist Harvey Wasserman co-founded MUSE, Musicians United for Safe Energy. On June 12, 1982, 750,000 people marched for nuclear disarmament at Manhattan’s Central Park where Jackson, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen, Linda Ronstadt and – but of course! – Baez performed.)
Poundstone closed by thanking North Carolina authorities for not requiring her to show her birth certificate while using public bathrooms when Paula performed recently way down yonder in the land of cotton. Following her routine, MSNBC-TV’s Joy Reid appeared on a screen (which Palast’s documentary The Best Democracy Money Can Buy had been projected onto earlier). In a prerecorded interview with Palast (weather conditions prevented the AM Joy host from flying from New York to L.A. to appear in person at the fundraiser), they discussed Trump’s claim – without any evidence – that 3 million people illegally voted in the November election. Palast asserted the real electoral problem is not voter “fraud’, but rather, voter “suppression.” His investigations reveal that computerized programs, such as Crosscheck, take voters with similar last names – that are often ethnic-sounding, such as Gonzalez or Wong – and remove them from the voter rolls on the phony grounds that they’re casting their ballots multiple times, when in reality, it’s different voters with names that sound alike.
In some cases, Palast documents the deletion lists even identify citizens’ racial backgrounds.
Palast lamented to Reid that aside from Rolling Stone, few U.S. media outlets give him access to report on voter suppression that earmarks minorities. Reid replied that “Trump sucks up all the oxygen. Now that there’s no longer a Black president, there’s less interest in” African American issues. Asked why there’s little televised investigative reporting nowadays in the mold of Edward R. Murrow and early 60 Minutes, Reid responded this has to do with “budget, scant resources. That’s why it’s important to support independent journalists.”
When Palast appeared live onstage in his trademark fedora, the election scrutineer declared: “Trump didn’t win. It was a coup d’état by billionaires.” Greg told RCM that due to the fundraiser, the Palast Investigative Fund can, among other things, “launch our anti-Crosscheck drive with the NAACP and Civil Rights Law Center. And that”s what it’s all about.”
The Palast shindig was hosted by attorneys Jerry Manpearl and Jan Goodman – or, as Jackson might call them, “Lawyers in Love.” The married couple is renowned for offering, at no charge, their lovely Santa Monica home for progressive political gatherings and other worthy causes. The 200 or so guests supporting the Palast Investigative Fund included Ed Pearl, founder of the Ash Grove, a renowned folk music club – where a young troubadour named Jackson Browne played in the 1960s.
Raising money for Palast to continue his electoral detective work, the people-powered fundraiser proved, as Jackson Browne sang, “And the river opens for the righteous . . .”
SIDEBAR: Action Jackson
To paraphrase Gilbert and Sullivan, Jackson Browne is “the very model of a modern major musician/activist.” In addition to the causes already noted, Browne is an ardent environmentalist, who has also spoken out against plastics and for protecting our oceans. When Save Our Shores awarded Browne its Ocean Hero Award on February 23, 2011 Santa Cruz’s mayor proclaimed the date “Jackson Browne Day.”
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has also championed non-eco-causes. In 1984 Browne performed on the anti-Apartheid Sun City album along with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Cliff, Miles Davis and Run-D.M.C. Two years later, along with Joan Baez, Sting, Fela Kuti, Gabriel and others, Browne was part of the Conspiracy of Hope tour to benefit Amnesty International. In December, 2012, Our Man Jackson rocked out at the concert to “Bring Leonard Peltier Home” at Manhattan’s Beacon Theater, with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, etc., supporting freedom for the Native American longtime political prisoner.
Browne has also often played for charity. In 1992, Jackson performed with Bonnie Raitt, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Pahinui Brothers for Hurricane Iniki’s victims.
L.A.-based critic and film historian Ed Rampell is a repeat contributor to Rock Cellar Magazine and presenter/programmer of “10 Films That Shook the World”, a cinematic centennial celebration of the Russian Revolution at 7:30 p.m. on the fourth Friday of the month through November 2017, at the Los Angeles Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019.