CAIN AND ABEL IN THE GARDEN OF ROCK AND ROLL EDEN
Creating love out of the broken pieces
by Stephen Hazan Arnoff
In “Adam Raised a Cain,” Bruce Springsteen explains what happens when children inherit the burdens of a father whose pain trumps his ability to love:
In the Bible Cain slew Abel
and East of Eden he was cast
You’re born into this life paying
for the sins of somebody else’s past
Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain
Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame
You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames
Adam raised a Cain
How much of Cain’s destiny is a consequence of fate forced upon him by his father, and how much does responsibility lie with Cain himself, the person who ultimately raises his hand and slays his brother? And what of Abel, whose sacrifices please the Lord even as he pushes a desperate Cain aside?
Myth begets myth, and myth explains myth, too. When the deceptive Eden of Southern California rock-and-roll in the 60s and 70s is superimposed upon the vortex of Adam, Cain, and Abel, the same tensions exposed by the Bible arise with new faces: the Beach Boys, Warren Zevon, and Jackson Browne.
Bruce Springsteen serves as chief commentator on the meaning of this mythic mash-up, though only from a poetic distance. From the beginning, Springsteen’s hungry rocker threatens lover “Rosalita” that he will run away to to the guitar heaven of Southern California, but he remains in the East for all but a few lost years in Beverly Hills long after becoming a star.
When Springsteen blesses Jackson Browne at the annual rites of hagiography at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2004, he offers a glimpse into the dark shadows behind the Edenic Southern California music scene, explaining that the Beach Boys plant light at the dawn of that age, while Browne and Zevon are their inheritors. You can watch the whole speech here, but this is the crux of Springsteen’s interpretation:We admit that Jackson Browne – our Abel in this story of Eden – is a bit of a musical guilty pleasure. Though his lyrics can be as meticulously crafted and eloquent as Paul Simon’s, his melodies are often predictable and plain. (I once heard a guy from his band claim that playing with Browne is easy because every song is in key of A.) He wrote “Take It Easy,” one of many links in personnel and persona to the Eagles. This does not rank high in the litany of his rock-and-roll bona fides.
The Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, they gave us California as paradise and Jackson Browne gave us Paradise Lost. Now I always imagine, what if Brian Wilson, long after he’d taken a bite of that orange the serpent offered to him, what if he married that nice girl in “Caroline No,” I always figured that she was pregnant anyway, and what if he moved into the valley and had two sons? One of them would have looked and sounded just like Jackson Browne. Cain, of course, would have been Jackson’s brother in arms, Warren Zevon. We love ya, Warren. But, Jackson to me, Jackson was always the tempered voice of Abel. Toiling in the vineyards, here to bear the earthly burdens, confronting the impossibility of love, here to do his father’s work. Jackson’s work was really California pop gospel. Listen to the chord changes of “Rock Me On the Water” and “Before the Deluge,” it’s gospel through and through.
Now I always thought that in our fall from Eden, besides the strains of physicality and the bearing of earthly burdens, our real earthly task was that an unbridgeable gap, or a black hole was opened up in our ability to truly love one another. And so our job here on earth, the way we regain our divinity, our sacredness, and our general good-standing is by reconstructing love and creating love out of the broken pieces that we’ve been given. That’s all we have of human promise. That’s the way we prove ourselves in the eyes of God and facilitate our own redemption. Now, to me Jackson Browne’s work was always the sound of that reconstruction. So as he writes in “The Pretender:” We’ll put our dark glasses on, and we’ll make love until our strength is gone, and when the morning light comes streamin’ in, we’ll get up and do it again. Amen.
Cain’s story is one of an unbreakable fate in a broken family. Paternal burden begets a world in which a child’s only release from this brokenness is violence of his own. And though it can only be conjectured upon through the little we know of his tragic end, and whatever imagination we can bring to bear on an untold backstory of parental and fraternal strife, Abel dreams of bringing back the love despite it all.
The light of the L.A. Garden was fractured from the start. Greil Marcus describes how gaps of discontent and darkness are core to city’s musical mythology in The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years. None other than Charles Manson, a frustrated rocker in the L.A. scene himself, actually lives amongst the Beach Boys for a while. Zevon dances half in sparks and half in the dark before an early exit.
It is left to Jackson Browne, Abel to Zevon’s Cain, to catch these sparks and send them back up and out to the world with a gospel of love. “Toiling in the vineyards, here to bear the earthly burdens, confronting the impossibility of love, here to do his father’s work,” says Springsteen. This is the work of love, which can be as easy to make fun of as the Eagles.
Randy Newman, who enjoys nothing more than burning holes in the hypocrisies of the titans of industry and song, sings an apocalyptic ode to vacancy and injustice from his own gated perch on a glorious spread in L.A. “And no one gives a shit but Jackson Browne,” he sings. But it’s precisely for his sincere voice “creating love out of the broken pieces that we’ve been given” that we listen to Jackson Browne. And, to paraphrase Randy Newman himself, that’s why we love L.A., too.