Jackson Browne, ‘The Barricades of Heaven’

by June 30, 20111 comment

Above is a YouTube video of Jackson Browne performing “The Barricades of Heaven” at the Glastonbury Festival in southwest England in June of 2010. The song — originally released on Browne’s 1996 album Looking East — has been my constant earworm for several days running.

This earworm began when I saw a post from the Martin Guitar Facebook page: “Who first made you want a Martin?”

I’m pretty sure I first decided I must have a Martin D-1 guitar after reading somewhere (maybe in the Rich Wiseman’s biography of Jackson Browne?) that Browne played a Martin D-1 in his very early days.

Googling around for confirmation led to this video, Part 2 of a press conference unveiling Gibson’s Jackson Browne Signature guitar this past January. The video immediately made me want that guitar — which, including electronics, retails for $5,999. It also made me pick up my Martin D-1 to learn “These Days,” which Browne plays very briefly in the clip, and can be heard in full on his Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 album.

Over at MusicPlayer.com, there’s a feature about Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 [since deleted]. In it, Paul Dieter explains that the 2005 live album was culled from more than 100 shows, and that some of the songs are edited together from two or three different nights.

Also in the story, Jackson Browne discusses the various guitars he uses, including the 1930s Gibson Roy Smeck model upon which his own signature guitar is based. He says the guitar’s “neck is like the deck of an aircraft carrier … really wide.” It’s scaled like a classical guitar, with only a 12-fret neck, but the body is much bigger than a classical, and so the sound is too.

The Roy Smeck model is the guitar he used on the acoustic album’s opening track, “Barricades of Heaven.” After “These Days,” I started learning that one too.
Because it’s just one guy playing one guitar or piano, Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 is a good album to practice along with, free of the confusion of other instruments and production effects. It does require a minor adjustment though, because Browne is fond of tuning down a half step to E flat — a tuning which can also compensate for “morning voice” when you need to sing earlier in the day than you usually might. “Barricades of Heaven” is performed in this lower tuning.
The song is based on a hypnotic pattern of chords — E minor, C, G, D — used often in pop music (the Cranberries’ “Zombie” is another example) which really lodges itself in your head. So do the transitional notes ringing out from Browne’s strings as he cycles through the chords over and over again. The lyrics of “Barricades of Heaven” reflect on Browne’s earliest years as a musician, with the first lines echoing images from his previous hit, “Running on Empty”:

Running down around the towns along the shore
When I was sixteen and on my own
No, I couldn’t tell you what the hell those brakes were for
I was just trying to hear my song

Friends from those days are a main theme. In the second verse, “Jimmy found his own sweet sound and won that free guitar / We’d all get in the van and play.” I don’t know who Jimmy is, but Jackson Browne was in the earliest lineup of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and can be seen on the official Nitty Gritty Dirt Band history page, second from left in his 1920’s pinstripe suit. The band also included Jimmie Fadden on guitar, harmonica, washtub bass, jug, and vocals.

That verse (altered in the Glastonbury performance) also names “the Paradox, the Bear, the Rouge et Noir” — bars which were landmarks of Orange County, California nightlife, as recalled in Jim Washburn’s story for the June 2008 issue of Orange County’s Riviera magazine, “The Radar Nightlife” (link is to a PDF copy at Greg Topper‘s website).

Another verse, about a friend who got killed robbing a liquor store, was ultimately left out of the song because, as Browne explained during his appearance on the VH1 series Storytellers (aired June 9, 1991), “It didn’t lead me where I wanted to go.”

Michael robbed a liquor store in some god-forsaken mall
Must have crossed some kind of line in his head
He stopped to shoot a goddamn bottle off the wall
And in that moment, he turned, he was dead

The song’s chorus — a repeated flourish of C – G – D chords — features two enigmatic lines:

Better bring your own redemption when you come
To the barricades of heaven where I’m from

‘Barricades of heaven’ meaning

“Barricades of heaven” is such a paradoxical phrase. Quoted in a 2005 KGSR (Austin, Texas) interview, Browne mostly prefers to leave its ambiguity open to the listener’s interpretation. But in Harold Lepidus’s January story on a mysterious 1966 Bob Dylan show at Riverside College, Lepidus prods filmmaker Sandi Bachom, who attended that performance by Dylan and The Hawks (later The Band):

Bachom remembered that she saw the electric Dylan show “at Riverside College, in Orange County. That’s ‘The Barricades Of Heaven’ Jackson (Browne) sang about.”

She knows this because she was hanging around with Browne at the time:

“I’m pretty sure our friend Jackson was with us but I’m not sure…..Hey, it was the 60s after all! ..Jackson and I were friends in California, so we probably went to the show. He was so influenced by Dylan. He idolized him. I have a picture he signed some place, he wrote on the back, ‘Sandi babe . . . motor highways . .something . . ‘ . . .very Dylanesque . . He signed it ‘Jack.’ We called him ‘Jackie’ in those days.”

I’m not sure this makes the phrase “barricades of heaven” any clearer (and both Riverside City College and the University of California, Riverside are located in Riverside County, not Orange County), but it’s interesting to have a few more fragments from that time and place.

Taking it at face value, “barricades” would be a barrier or obstacle, often associated with revolution.

So is Jackson Browne in some sort of paradise, throwing up barriers to keep out those threatening it — or is he approaching heaven, but obstructed by these barricades?

If it’s the latter, Browne’s “barricades” might be an example of the “threshold” identified throughout mythology by Joseph Campbell. Going back to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, there is always an obstacle and/or guardian blocking our path to fulfillment. “Bring your own redemption” could be interpreted as advice to seek your right of entry within yourself.

Here’s a similar interpretation from Dane Snyder:


Bring your own beliefs and definition of who you are with you to wherever you are going/go in life; do not let others define your identity for you. Be true and honest to yourself about your values and what carries meaning for you. In the end, it will be enough.

The exact date of that mysterious Bob Dylan show has not been fixed, but it seems to have been just prior to Dylan and the Hawks playing the Honolulu International Center Arena on April 9, 1966 — which is the same day my wife, Amy, was born.

The first of about ten Jackson Browne concerts I have attended was in 1978 at Northwestern University’s McGaw Hall — April 9th, to be exact. I was 17 at the time.

I remember how, during the show, Browne blanked in the middle of “Rosie,” his cryptic ode to self-fulfillment. He had to stop the song and get the next line from someone before resuming:

Of all the times that I’ve been burned, by now you’d think I’d learn
That it’s who you look like, not who you are.

“Jackson Browne,” he chuckled after that.

I don’t know about bringing your own redemption, but I do know you have to have your own ticket in your hand. Sadly, my friend Ernie forgot his ticket at home. He spent that concert alternately sitting in our friend Dave’s AMC Gremlin, and roaming the chilly streets of Evanston, Illinois until the show was over.

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1 Comment
  1. DD314

    This article is a a gem. Thank you.
    It’s nice to have first hand recounts of legendary times and people from that era.


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