An ongoing enquiry last updated in April 2017
I love Jackson Browne’s music, especially his beautiful 70s albums. Back in the day, friends who liked the likes of Captain Beefheart scoffed at Browne’s supposed fey lightness, but I liked them both, Beefheart and Browne.
(There’s an excellent account of Browne’s musical career from the early 70s to the mid 00s on PopDose.)
I was going to take my (uninitiated) wife to see Browne on his 2014 UK tour, but the rumour of domestic abuse put me off.
I thought I’d check it out. I’ve been doing that – from time to time – for over two years. This is what I’ve found out. (Summary: not much – there’s smoke, but no fire.)
In a 1993 interview with the LA Times, Browne said, ‘I’m not going to provide the actual details of what did happen, because it’s not anybody’s business.’
Its understandable that he’d say that – but he’s wrong. Because of his fame, it’s the business of anyone who cares about his music, and who cares about domestic violence.
On 23 September 1992 Browne and Hannah were at their house in Santa Monica, California. It was the sad end of their long – if occasionally rocky – relationship. Hannah was leaving Browne for John F Kennedy Jr and had come to collect some belongings. Apparently, there was a row, and some kind of altercation.
Browne called the police at some point, apparently to report someone ransacking his house. When they arrived, Browne told them that everything was fine. The police left. It’s not clear if they saw or spoke to Hannah.
Browne left the house and called Hannah’s sister, who took her to a local hospital where she was treated by a doctor for injuries reportedly including bruises on her face and ribs, and a broken finger.
Who did it?
Hannah made no complaint to the police. Browne wasn’t arrested or charged with any offence. So how did Hannah get those injuries?
Hannah’s spokesman told the press on the day of the incident:
‘She received serious injuries incurred during a domestic dispute with Browne for which she sought medical treatment.’
That statement looks carefully worded. It might be meant to imply that Browne inflicted the injuries, but it doesn’t actually say so.
Browne has strongly denied causing Hannah’s injuries but has never publicly explained what happened. As far as I know, Hannah has never publicly withdrawn the implied accusation.
The autism factor
Hannah has revealed that she was diagnosed with autism as a child. Adults with autism, including those with high functioning autism, can go through rage cycles due to a build-up of anger, which can be expressed as destruction of property, self-injury and causing injuries to others. After the episode there’s often a denial of rage and withdrawal into a fantasy that it didn’t happen.
People with high functioning autism can control their anger and rage in their professions and at social functions and activities outside the home.
If Browne’s denial is true, perhaps Hannah had an autistic rage episode, and that’s why he didn’t want to explain what really happened.
The cocaine factor
Browne has spoken about his use of cocaine. (He even wrote a song about it.) In the 80s and 90s many wealthy creatives had a chronic habit. If they were a user-couple, perhaps Hannah found that it helped with her autistic shyness.
Cocaine is an addictive drug that produces psychiatric symptoms including violence. Perhaps on that sad occasion they had a line or two for old times’ sake, and things turned bad…
The Uncle Haskell letters and the police statement
Some time after the incident, US Magazine apparently published three letters about this. I couldn’t find the original US Magazine publication online; but the letters are claimed to be reproduced in a 2016 magazine article.
(It’s not clear when the US Magazine publication happened. The article reproducing the letters says the letters were printed a few months after the incident; but in one of the letters, Browne refers to ‘a year ago‘.)
The first of the three letters is from Hannah’s uncle, the late Hollywood player Haskell Wexler. In response to Browne’s public denial of assault, Wexler angrily accused Browne of assaulting Hannah, and wrote:
‘I was with her in the hospital. I saw the ugly black bruises on her eye and chin and on her ribs. The examining doctor reported she had blood in her urine. The doctor was shocked by the severity and noted Daryl as “a badly battered woman”.’
US Magazine then apparently published two replies from Browne repeating his denial: an open letter, and a letter to Wexler.
In Browne’s open letter, he reproduced a rambling, defensive and verbatim-sounding ‘statement’ by a Santa Monica police officer. Browne gave no contextual information for this statement other than the officer’s rank and name, and the month it was made (Lt John Miehle, November 1992). This is the statement:
‘The Santa Monica Police Department went to the house where Jackson Browne lives regarding a possible disturbance. We resolved the situation in about five minutes. There was never any assault. There are no charges pending and no prosecution sought by or intended by the District Attorney. It is this department’s intention that no citizen, regardless of who she is, suffer any kind of abuse, whether it be domestic violence or any other kind of assault. But in this case, absolutely no assault occurred. Our investigators tell us nothing happened. Nobody has even alleged that Daryl Hannah was even touched. If they had, we’d be investigating. We’re not hiding anything. The press is trying to make more out of this than there really is, and it’s unfair, not just to Browne, but to us. We did our job, and repeat, no crime occurred here. This whole thing is ridiculous.’
Presumably Browne thought that the police statement supported his case, but it actually raises more questions:
- Ending with ‘This whole thing is ridiculous‘, it’s clearly not the usual carefully considered press statement made by the police. It sounds like something said spontaneously by the officer, perhaps in frustrated response to questioning by a journalist. It sounds as if it was recorded and transcribed. How did the officer come to make that apparently verbatim statement? (I asked the SMPD. Their laconic reply: ‘Statements aren’t made to non-party. Case from 1990s. Hearsay from a decades old case by allegedly Ret. Lt. Miehle’. I’ve asked them for clarification. If I get any, I’ll update this.)
- Did the ‘investigators‘ who said that ‘nothing happened‘ question Hannah and check the medical evidence? Or were those ‘investigators’ the officers who went to the house and ‘resolved the situation in about five minutes‘?
- Given the events, and without any formal investigation, how could the police have been so sure that ‘no assault occurred’?
- ‘Nobody has even alleged that Daryl Hannah was even touched‘. It may be that no allegations were made to the police, but what about Hannah’s spokesman saying, ‘She received serious injuries incurred during a domestic dispute with Browne’?
- Given the police visit to the house because of a reported disturbance, and given Hannah’s press statement made later the same day, why didn’t the police formally investigate the incident?
- Regardless of the ‘department’s intention‘, did male rock stars get a free pass for reported domestic abuse in Santa Monica in the early 90s when no complaint was made to the police, even if the female involved was a film star?
Despite the flakiness of Browne’s police ‘statement’, he was apparently able to use it as the basis of two successful defamation claims in 2003. The makers of a Fox TV movie about John F Kennedy Jr and of a documentary about celebrity paparazzi removed scenes referring to Browne and the alleged assault on Hannah. Browne then said in a statement:
‘I never assaulted Daryl Hannah, and this fact was confirmed by the investigation conducted at the time by the Santa Monica Police Department.’
Browne, faced with the damaging rumour, seems to have resorted to a delusional faith in the police’s so-called investigation. Presumably Fox’s lawyers would have seen the holes in it, but decided not to bother with a high-profile defence.
The officer’s statement said, ‘no one alleged that Hannah was assaulted‘, presumably meaning that no assault was reported to the police. This begs the question: why didn’t Wexler go to the police after seeing his injured niece and believing Browne to be responsible? The reason must be that Hannah persuaded him not to. She must have told her uncle that she couldn’t face the publicity a possible trial would bring. But if Browne didn’t assault her, perhaps Hannah’s real concern was to protect herself from the truth that a police investigation would uncover.
Browne’s second letter in US Magazine was addressed to Wexler. In a carefully worded, legal-sounding paragraph, Browne wrote:
‘I suggest that you allow me to describe Daryl’s actions to you and then judge for yourself as to how those injuries may have occurred. I repeat: I did not beat her. I have no desire to expose Daryl to public scrutiny in this matter. I have avoided describing her actions or characterizing her behavior so far.’
Perhaps, under this threat of exposure – clearly implied by the words, ‘so far‘ – Wexler allowed Browne to give his explanation. If Browne was innocent, perhaps under the pressure of this public spat Hannah told her uncle the truth. Perhaps they then did a deal with Browne: Hannah and Wexler would stop the accusations; Browne would never say what happened.
Obviously, that’s pure speculation – but it would explain why, after all that hot air, the three of them suddenly and completely clammed up. I can’t find any further quotes about the incident from any of them (apart from Browne’s occasional pained denials of having assaulted Hannah).
Some peripheral information
It might seem unlikely, given the yearning sincerity of the lyrics, but is there perhaps an incongruous dark irony lightly encoded in Sky Blue and Black’s title/refrain. Blue and black – black and blue? Could a master wordsmith like Browne have been unaware of that?
The song’s misinformed, scattergun attack – by a spurned lover who apparently still carried a torch for Browne – also implied that Browne was a serial abuser who was to blame for the suicide and suicide attempts of previous partners, including Mitchell’s own attempt; and that he never accepts responsibility for the damage he does, but always says he’s not to blame.
This is a whole new set of smears but, as far as I can tell, it seems to be pure spite with no substance. Perhaps the pattern of events in Browne’s past shows not that he was an abusive man who drove women to suicide, but simply that he was attracted to troubled women. It happens.
This was a low point for Joni Mitchell, whose Blue album is timeless magic. I’d like to think she’s better than that.
(Apparently, Browne’s even more beautiful song Fountain of Sorrow was a reflection on his brief relationship with Mitchell.)
There are some useful sources of information out there:
- A surprisingly (to me) in-depth 1992 news report by US celebrity magazine People, published about a month after the event
- An interesting forum discussion on the subject
- A 2016 piece in the US online OnStage Magazine by assignment editor and stage photographer Larry Philpot, with a good summary of the available evidence (albeit with a pro-Browne bias)
The uncle letters (see above) are reproduced in the forum and in the OnStage article.
In his OnStage piece, Larry Philpot writes that as a long-time friend of Browne’s genius-collaborator and close friend David Linley, and as a stage photographer who’s looked many times into Browne’s (famously soulful) eyes, he can’t believe that Browne could have assaulted Hannah.
The OnStage article says that Hannah has denied several times that Browne hit her. I’ve come across this claim elsewhere but haven’t found any evidence. I emailed Larry to ask if there’s any evidence that Hannah has publicly made that denial. He hasn’t replied.
Back in 2014 (when I started writing this) I couldn’t find any definite answers, so I didn’t take my wife to the concert. It wouldn’t have felt right, especially as my wife suffered domestic abuse in her previous marriage.
I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (ie, a definite answer). It still matters, 25 years on from 1992, because I love Jackson Browne’s music – it speaks to something in my soul – but the unresolved rumour makes it a tainted love. I’d overlook a lot of bad behaviour in an artist I admire, but not domestic abuse. So I won’t be going to his 2017 tour either.
Should Browne’s denial be accepted? I’d like to accept it. I’ve checked out the rumour as I set out to do, and – for what it’s worth – my opinion is that Browne’s side of the story – fishy police ‘statement’ notwithstanding – is probably true.
Perhaps I’m being a bit obsessive about something that happened only once, a long time ago. Perhaps I’ve enjoyed ‘investigating’ it a bit too much. Nevertheless, I still want to know what actually happened. Browne says it’s none of our business. I disagree. Here’s to truths yet to be known.
If you did it, Jackson, ‘fess up – it’s good for the soul, they say. If you didn’t, please explain it.
Whatever deal you may have done, maybe it’s time to tell the truth, and shame the devil. You’ve been trapped under a dark cloud of suspicion. The truth will set you free. 🌷
Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
Please feel free to comment.