The Legendary Jack Johnson, Sea-borne Denizen
Jack Johnson, Sea-borne denizen
by Philip Scott Wikel (originally published in Blue Edge Magazine)
Preface: 13 years ago I was honored to have the opportunity to interview this phenomenal musician. (August 2004)
If you take all the colors of all of the cultures whose borders touch the sea, then filter them through the hometown and surf-stoked sensibility of a lightly salted acoustic guitar, you’ll begin to gain an impression of the resplendent, sea-borne denizen that is Jack Johnson; surfer, film-maker, musician. His music might be labeled something like salty acoustic alchemy. From the subtle beat of steel-drum calypso on his song “Flake” to the childhood reveries of “Mud Football,” Jack pulls you into a seamless blending of eclectic sounds and experiences from his travels around the world, stirred, not shaken. He writes songs about living, loving, learning, and letting go; as he says, “You just go with the flow, you don’t stop.”
On September 13th at Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura, California Jack, along with Jackson Browne, the country-rock duo Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, and blues artist Keb’ Mo’ took to the stage in front of a capacity crowd of 3300 to support the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy and to raise funds for, and create awareness of, their efforts to preserve open space. “Venturans have demonstrated at the ballot box that we want our hillsides preserved,” says Brooke Ashworth, the Conservancy President, “the Conservancy provides a vehicle to implement this goal in a way that deals with property owners fairly and equitably.”
Phil Sedillos, a Chirikawa Apache, shared that he’s “proud of Ventura’s reaction to saving the hillside. It’s nice to see Jackson Browne come out here in support of this.” Next to him is Rosalyn Schuerman with “Dennis Kucinich for President” says “I just called my daughter to let her know I now know who Jack Johnson is.” And Rob Woods, an employee of Patagonia, chimes in with “We’re here showing our love for this place and that we don’t have to build. Check it out, we got the espresso to get us through the long day and some Ben and Jerry’s to wash it down. This is a cool scene.”
When Jack takes the stage, his countenance, his clothing, his music, and finally his lyrics scream, or perhaps, whisper, simplicity. And in a time when all things are hard to define, he seems to have done the homework for us. When the male/female struggle for togetherness has no clear rhyme or ritual. When roles have been greyed to the point of blindness, he offers, “If you would only listen/you’d realize what you’re missin’/you’re missin’ me” from the song “Bubble Toes” on the Brushfire Fairytales album. And on his second album, “On and on,” in the song entitled, he further narrows the dilemma when he sings “i’m just a waste of her energy/she’s just a waste of my time/so why don’t we get together.” The dance, the games, and the put-on is stripped down and laid bare. It’s as if we’re children in a playground again and the only question is “Do you want to play?” His approach is refreshing and you get to feeling in conversation with him that he’s kept a lot of his kid-ness intact.
Jack fastens his set together like a friendship bracelet. The soft material and warm hues of his music fit together like a classical symphony. Each song rolls a knowing hand down the spine or lends a lovers caress to the aching heart, and all the while there’s almost invariably a smile in every line, if only tongue in cheek. And even when Jack gets down in a song like “the horizon has been defeated,” written about the oil rigs that dot the seascape in Santa Barbara, you can feel that he’d rather be laughing, and is gently chiding us into a simple resolution.
Under a canopy of trees and in sight of the ocean, the crowd moved like waves at Waikiki or our own “Mondo’s, rolling with the music like a clean, warm and consistent summer swell. One of his faster songs “Mud Football” brought the crowd to its feet like surfers taking notice of a rogue set. All came to their feet in unison. It was Jack’s last song of the day and everyone knew the words.
Backstage I found Jack eating some grapes and signing autographs for some very excited teenagers. He’s been touring for three years now, the past year including dates around the world. Jack seemed a bit tired but was happy to sit down for a few and chat.
PW: How’d you get involved with this gig?
JJ: Jackson called me. I’ve known him for….
(Jackson Browne began his second song as we were talking and Jack stopped to listen, then started talking fast)
JJ: I’ve known him for 5 or 6 years. Of all the crazy people I’ve met I’d like to be like Jackson. He’s given me some great advice. He says you’re gonna get a lot of attention from people but remember that it’s not like the love you get from your family and friends.
Anyway, so Jackson called me and I was into it. I’m willing to fight for any hillside and this place is close to me, being from SB. You know if I have the time, and time is crazy now, you’ve got to manage it. I’m working on similar stuff in Hawaii.
(Jack mentioned he has a place on the North Shore of Oahu and I asked him if he knew a friend of mine, Scott Aichner, the surf photographer).
JJ: He’s the best guy out there, he’s incredible.
PW: When do you write your songs?
JJ: When I’m not on tour. I’ve gotta wait until I’m ready with these things and doing this stuff on the road doesn’t work. When I’m at home or on a boat trip, making a surf movie, when I can get away. After the first album I didn’t know if it was going to happen again. Life has gotten a little more hectic now and surfing is a time when I get to be away.
PW: Legend has it that Eddie Vedder wrote all of the album “Ten” after surfing one day.
JJ: I’ve been surfing since I was 5 and I feel as comfortable in the water as I do on land. It’s second nature, it’s special time, time to reflect, time to be comfortable. My dad and I have surfed a lot together, surfing’s been good.
PW: What are your plans from here?
JJ: Well I did the second album and I’m going to be touring more. I’m going to Australia and Japan. After that I’m gonna take a long break, maybe make another surf movie, I’m not real sure.
PW: You’ve got to trust that the ideas will come.
PW: Are you going to make another record?
JJ: I don’t have to right away, I have a pretty loose contract with Moonshine Conspiracy and we’ll just have to see.
PW: How about your wife?
JJ: She tours with me. She’s with me all the time on the road. She used to be a high school teacher in Santa Barbara but now she’s helping with management, it’s good.
PW: You guys have plans for kids?
JJ: At some point, yeah.
PW: What kind of boards are you riding?
JJ: I’ve got some Al Merricks and a few from a guy named John Pyzel in Hawaii.
I thanked Jack for speaking with me and told him it was an honor to talk with him. Taken together with John Mayer and Ben Harper you might say our generation is now producing singer/songwriters of the same caliber as the greats of the 70s like James Taylor and Jim Croce. And the world can’t be all bad when you’ve got these guys on the carousel.
Thanks Jack for some universal truths in a world where everyone is busy subverting the dominant paradigm. God love you.