An enquiry | Contents
2015-2020 | 11,400 words | 1 hr
A: Probably not, but no one really knows apart from them – and they’re not saying.
Update: March 2020
Wikipedia gagged me!
For a long time, the Wikipedia entries for Browne and Hannah made no mention of the assault allegation. However, at some point they began mentioning it, and (at the time of writing) both entries gave the same three references (all of which are covered in this post, and none of which sheds much light). I signed up as a Wikipedia editor and added a reference from both entries to this post. Those references were then removed. Wikipedia – understandably – regards self-published sources as generally unreliable but they make exceptions. Despite my appeals (including an unanswered email to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales), they wouldn’t make an exception in this case, even though this blogpost is – if I say so myself – the only reliable source available. Oh well – I still love Wikipedia. (I donate, FFS!)
Quotes about this post
‘Nice presentation and analysis of competing facts and explanations… excellent evidentiary compilation’
Jane, commenter and lawyer
‘You’ve put work into the research’
Fred Schruers, Rolling Stone writer who interviewed Jackson Browne in 1994 about the incident
‘Very thorough and well researched’
Alan Nierob, Daryl Hannah’s press agent at the time of the incident
‘Please do not contact Ms. Hannah or myself again’
Lawrence Kopeikin, Daryl Hannah’s entertainment attorney
- US letter 1: from Hannah’s uncle
- US letter 2: Browne’s open reply and his police ‘statement’
- US letter 3: Browne’s reply to Hannah’s uncle; a deal made?
Smoke (and mirrors) but no fire
I’ve loved Jackson Browne’s music since the early 70s, especially his wonderful 1974 album, Late for the Sky. 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. See also Bruce Springsteen’s brilliant speech about Browne at the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.)
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 done that – from time to time – for over five years. This post is about what I found out. (Summary: a lot of relevant information, but no definite answer. There’s smoke – and mirrors – but no fire.)
In a 1993 interview, Browne said, ‘I’m not going to provide the actual details of what did happen, because it’s not anybody’s business.’ So far, he’s kept his word.
Its understandable 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. If that’s you, dear Reader, please read on.
Just the facts
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.
Browne called the police at some point, supposedly to report someone ransacking his house. When the police arrived, they spoke to Browne and possibly to Hannah. The police left.
Sometime later, Hannah apparently left the house and called her 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?
Spoiler: not the butler
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 carefully worded statement’s a fine example of the dark art practised by a skilled press agent. It might seem to imply that Browne inflicted the injuries, but it doesn’t actually say so.
As far as I know, Hannah has never publicly repeated or withdrawn that implied accusation.
Browne has strongly denied causing Hannah’s injuries but has never publicly explained what happened.
In a 1994 interview (see below), Browne, apparently referring to Hannah’s long-term fragile emotional state (possibly her autism – see below), said, somewhat Biblically, that his reason for not explaining what happened was that it’d be ‘a breach of faith in a covenant that is many, many years old‘.
I asked Hannah’s then spokesman, Alan Nierob, if he still held that position and, if so, if he’d ask Hannah to publicly say what happened. Nierob said he no longer represents Hannah. I asked him what really happened. He hasn’t replied.
The autism factor
We’re all on the spectrum, but…
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 recorded a song about it.) In the 80s and 90s many wealthy creatives had a chronic habit. Perhaps Browne and Hannah were a user-couple. Perhaps Hannah found that cocaine helped with her autistic shyness.
Cocaine’s a very moreish and ultimately addictive drug. It can produce psychiatric symptoms including violence. Perhaps on that sad occasion they had a line or two for old times’ sake, and things turned bad…
The 1992 People article
The guilty pleasure of celeb tittle-tattle
In October 1992, one month after the incident, celebrity magazine People wrote about it. The artcle’s opening paragraph referred to Hannah as ‘reportedly…a battered victim‘. Quoting numerous anonymous ‘friends‘, People said:
- A press statement made on the day of the incident by Hannah’s spokesman said: ‘She received serious injuries incurred during a domestic dispute with Browne for which she sought medical treatment.’
- A ‘close friend’ of Hannah’s said Browne caused her injuries.
- Browne’s manager, Donald Miller, said the incident couldn’t have happened because he was with Browne at an LA recording studio at the time.
- ‘Browne supporters’ said he was defending himself against Hannah. Browne’s friend, the singer JD Souther, said, ‘He was getting chased around by her.’
- A ‘friend’ said, ‘This has happened before, but never this bad.’
- A Santa Monica police officer, Sgt Gary Gallinot, said Browne called the station complaining that someone was ransacking his home.
- ‘Friends of Hannah’ said Hannah was not ransacking, but hiding in the guest house in fear of Browne. ‘Friends’ said, ‘He goes into blind rages and doesn’t know what he does. He was trying to kick the door down. A ‘friend’ said: ‘He has an explosive personality.’
- Gallinot said that Browne told the two attending officers, ‘Everything is fine’; that they never saw Hannah; and that as there were no signs of distress the men left and didn’t file a report.
- Hannah’s ‘friends’ said she then left the house and called her sister, who took her to a local doctor to have her injuries treated.
- An ‘associate of Browne’ said, ‘He’s not the macho type…it sounds completely out of character.’
- Hannah did not plan to press charges.
- ‘Friends of Browne’ said he’d gone to northern California and was keeping a low profile.
- A ‘friend of Hannah’ said she certainly wouldn’t be going back to her home in Santa Monica or to Jackson Browne: ‘We would never let her do that again.’
The 1994 US interview
Earnest but dull
Over a year after the incident, in February 1994 monthly film and music magazine US (not to be confused with its later trashy incarnation US Weekly) published a long interview with Browne in which he opened up to music journalist Fred Schruers (better known as a writer for sister publication Rolling Stone).
Browne’s denial in this interview apparently provoked the letter to US from Hannah’s uncle (see below). In the interview:
- Browne strongly denied assaulting Hannah.
- He denounced the 1992 People article (see above) as lies orchestrated by Hannah’s publicist.
- Schruers wrote that Hannah’s press agent denied this; and that People’s managing editor said they stood by the story and the publicist had nothing to do with the story’s conclusion.
- Browne denied the People article’s claim that the police didn’t see Hannah during their visit. He said the police spoke to them both for ‘a long time‘.
- Schruers quoted Santa Monica police officer Sgt Gary Gallinot as saying, ‘A male and female officer went to the house. It was an argument, what we call a family disturbance, and when we left, everything was OK. [Hannah] never made indications she was assaulted…if there are any signs of domestic violence, we take a report, but in this instance there were no signs. It could have happened later, but she never filed charges.’ (My bolding)
- Browne denied that he was laying low after the incident as implied by the People report. He pointed out that he was gigging regularly at that time.
- Browne said he wouldn’t explain what happened because it would be ‘a breach of faith in a covenant that is many, many years old‘. He was apparently referring to Hannah’s autism.
- Referring to Jerrold Wexler, stepfather to Hannah since she was eight years old, Browne said that at the time of the incident, ‘Daryl’s father was dying. She was under tremendous pressure, had been caring for him for over a month in hospital. So she was in very fragile shape.’
- Referring to Hannah’s family, Browne said that since the incident he’d been ‘banished from the kingdom, from the monarchy that her family resembles‘
The three 1994 US ‘uncle’ letters
Following the February 1994 interview with Browne (see above) in monthly film and music magazine US, in April 1994 the magazine published three letters about the incident: a letter of angry accusation by Hannah’s uncle, Haskell Wexler, and two letters of angry denial by Browne.
US letter 1: from Hannah’s uncle
Angry Uncle Haskell
The first of the three letters in the April 1994 US was from Hannah’s uncle, the late Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Haskell was the brother of Hannah’s stepfather, Jerrold Wexler, who was seriously ill at the time of the incident, and who died not long after. Wexler wrote:
‘I am Haskell Wexler, Daryl Hannah’s uncle. I am, also, a longtime friend of Jackson Browne and admirer of his artistry. I am no longer his friend.
‘Jackson beat Daryl in September 1992. 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”. I photographed her at the hospital.
‘It could be that nobody cares about objective truth anymore. Jackson is a “good guy,” and good guys don’t beat women. Yes, it is hard to listen to Jackson and believe he has a hidden side of violence.
‘I saw the results of the last violent attack on my niece, and there is no spin of fancy which will erase my shock and disdain for someone who would beat her up.’
In saying ‘I saw the results of the last violent attack on my niece’, Wexler was clearly suggesting there were previous attacks. However, this throwaway accusation apparently has no basis in fact.
There’ve been no other suggestions of previous incidents except for some flimsy accusations from anonymous ‘friends’ of Hannah in a celebrity magazine’s report of the incident.
If Hannah’s protective uncle had known of any such incidents at the time, he’d surely have intervened (and have ended his friendship with Browne then). If, on the other hand, Hannah had told him at the hospital about previous attacks, he’d surely have insited on reporting it to the police. No report was made to the police. (See below.)
Perhaps Wexler, angrily convinced that Browne attacked his niece, wanted to enhance his case by suggesting – with, apparently, no evidence whatsoever – that there were previous attacks.
US letter 2: Browne’s open reply and his police ‘statement’
(The ‘statement’ is rubbish)
In the same April 1994 edition, immediately after Wexler’s letter, US published two replies from Browne repeating his denial. A US preamble said:
‘Jackson Browne asked to respond with two letters. One general response, and one addressed specifically to Mr Wexler.’
In his open letter of general response, Browne, apparently referring to the February 1994 US interview, wrote:
‘It appears that Haskell Wexler has taken exception to your having printed my assertion that much that was said about this affair in the tabloids and in the media is untrue.’
He criticised the 1992 People report for saying the police didn’t see Hannah during their house call.
Browne ended his open US letter by reproducing a defensive and somewhat rambling ‘statement’ by a Santa Monica police officer, with no contextual information 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 this ‘statement’ supported his case, but it actually raises more questions:
- Ending with ‘This whole thing is ridiculous‘, it’s clearly not the usual carefully worded press statement made by the police. It sounds like a spontaneous spoken statement which was recorded and transcribed. How did the officer come to make that statement? Was he prompted by Browne’s lawyer?
- Did the ‘investigators‘ who said ‘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 the apparent lack of a formal investigation – how could the police be so sure ‘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 that the police visited 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?
I asked the Santa Monica Police Department about Lt Miehle’s ‘statement’. They said they had no record of the incident or of any statement made; and that Miehle had retired. I asked retired Capt Miele about his statement. He hasn’t replied.
US letter 3: Browne’s reply to Hannah’s uncle; a deal made?
Jackson hits home – silences angry uncle
Browne’s second letter in the April 1994 edition of US was addressed to Hannah’s uncle, Haskell Wexler.
Browne agreed they were no longer friends. He said Wexler hadn’t allowed him to explain what happened, but had joined the attack on his reputation and character in which many untrue things were said, some of which Wexler must have known were untrue; and that Wexler had added his own incorrect and damning assumptions.
Browne said Hannah’s decision not to press charges was not taken out of generosity but for her own reasons. It meant he’d been subject to trial by media, ‘where anything can be said and nothing has to be proven’.
Browne, addressing Wexler, 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. It has been hard. I would have preferred to talk to you a year ago. Basically, I believe that Daryl has a right to the support and belief of her family and friends. However, you leave me no choice but to respond to your public accusations.’
Perhaps, faced with that threat of exposure, Wexler allowed Browne to ‘describe Daryl’s actions‘ and found his explanation plausible.
Perhaps they made a deal: Wexler would drop the accusation and Browne would continue to keep his ‘covenant‘ of secrecy.
That would explain why, after all that hot air, they both suddenly and completely clammed up (apart from Browne’s occasional pained – if unexplained – denials).
Haskell Wexler died in 2015.
Why didn’t Hannah’s uncle go to the police?
You’d think he would have…
The police ‘statement’ included in Browne’s open letter to US (see above) said, ‘no one alleged that Hannah was assaulted‘, meaning that no assault was reported to the police.
In his angry letter to US, Wexler said he photographed Hannah’s injuries and he believed Browne to have caused them. He was clearly a high-status resident who wouldn’t have hesitated to make a complaint to the police – so why didn’t he?
The reason must be that Hannah persuaded him not to. Perhaps she told her uncle she couldn’t face the publicity a possible trial would bring, or that she wanted to protect Browne.
However, if Browne didn’t assault her, perhaps Hannah’s real concern was to protect herself from the embarrassing or incriminating truth that a police investigation might have uncovered.
Did the police see Hannah during their visit?
A vital peice of the jigsaw
As regards whether the police who visited the house saw Hannah, there are conflicting reports. However, it seems likely they did see her.
The 1992 People report said:
‘Since there were no visible signs of distress – [the police] never saw Hannah, says Gallinot [*] – the men [sic] left and did not file a report.’
*Santa Monica Police Department spokesman Sgt Gary Gallinot
In the 1994 US interview with Fred Schruers, Browne, specifically criticising the People report, said:
‘…the story that I sent the police away, that they never spoke to Daryl, [is] completely untrue. The officers did speak with Daryl, and they spoke with both of us for a long time…They basically said: “Look, you’re having an argument. Just cool it.”‘
Schruers then quoted Gallinot as saying:
‘A male and female officer went to the house – it was an argument, what we call a family disturbance, and when we left, everything was OK. [Hannah] never made indications she was assaulted…if there are any signs of domestic violence, we take a report, but in this instance there were no signs. It could have happened later, but she never filed charges.’
So according to the People report, Gallinot said the police didn’t see Hannah when they visited the house; but in the US interview, Browne said the police spoke to Hannah; and Gallinot was reported as saying Hannah didn’t indicate she’d been assaulted, implying that the police did see her.
In his open letter to US, Browne, apparently referring first to the 1992 People article and then to the 1994 US interview, wrote:
‘…much that was said about this affair in the tabloids and in the media is untrue. Particularly that the police came to our house and I sent them away without their having spoken to Daryl. Further, Fred Schruers actually checked it out with the police, and that’s more than the other writers that I made the same assertion to were able to do.’
I asked Schruers about this. He said he vaguely remembered speaking to the district attorney or possibly the police.
I asked the Santa Monica city attorney’s office about it. They said they have no record of the incident; they only keep closed domestic violence files for 15 years.
I asked the Los Angeles district attorney and Santa Monica Police Department Sgt (now Capt) Gallinot about their involvement with the incident. The LA DA’s office said they have no record of the incident. Gallinot hasn’t replied.
Was there a police investigation?
Defund the SMPD
There should have been a full investigation – but it seems there wasn’t one.
According to lawyer, fan and forum contributor ‘Laura‘ it was the practice in California at that time (and still is) to investigate – and, if appropriate, to prosecute – cases of apparent domestic violence even if no complaint was made to the police.
(‘Laura’ thinks this proves Browne’s innocence: there must have been an investigation – which, as no charges were made, must have exonerated Browne.)
The October 1992 People article reported Hannah’s press release about her injuries, issued on the day of the incident. Presumably the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) would have been aware of that public statement. The call-out to the house and Hannah’s press release made later the same day should have prompted the police to launch an investigation.
However, it looks as though there was no investigation. The People article, apparently relying on information from SMPD press information officer Sgt Gallinot, said the officers who visited the house didn’t file a report.
Also, if there had been a follow-up investigation, the defensive ‘statement’ by SMPD Lt Miehle (made, according to Browne, in November 1992) would surely have mentioned it. But the ‘statement’ didn’t say there was an investigation – it referred only to the ‘investigators‘ who ‘resolved the situation in about five minutes‘. It said:
So how come there was no investigation? As ever, cock-up is the most likely explanation but conspiracy is always a possibility.
According to the People report, Browne’s manager Donald Miller gave him a false alibi, saying Browne was with him at a recording studio at the time of the incident. Presumably Miller thought things looked bad for his friend and client and was trying to fix it. Did Mr Fixit then somehow persuade the police not to investigate?
(Donald “Buddha” Miller was production manager for Browne’s 1977 album/tour Running On Empty. He co-wrote with Browne the frustrated roadie’s ode to masturbation, Rosie, an oddly coarse song that was part of that album’s account of life and camaraderie on the road. Perhaps the members of that tour made a pledge of loyalty.)
I asked Miller if it’s true that he gave Browne that alibi, and if so, why? I also asked him if he somehow persuaded the police not to investigate. He hasn’t replied.
I asked the SMPD about their response to the incident. They said they were unable to find any record of the incident. They said if there had been a record, it would presumably have been deleted.
(SMPD case types exempt from deletion apparently include unsolved cases of severe violence. So, if there had been a follow-up police investigation in addition to the five-minute visit, the record might have been deleted, depending on whether the case was considered solved or not; and if not, how severe the alleged violence was considered to be.)
The 2003 defamation claims
A legal farce with a fair outcome
Fox Television Studios, makers of a TV movie about John F Kennedy Jr, and the Gurin Company, makers of a documentary about celebrity paparazzi, both agreed to remove 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. The powerful and well lawyered Fox company must have seen the holes in Browne’s police ‘statement’, but perhaps decided not to bother with what would have been a difficult and high-profile defence.
Fox and the Gurin Company both added an identically worded apology to the start of their movies:
‘…local authorities have reported to the media that based upon their investigation, the incident previously reported in our program did not occur.’
I asked Fox, Gurin, Iser and Jensen if that’s a reference to Browne’s police ‘statement’, or, if not, which ‘local authorities’ investigated the incident and reported to the media that Browne didn’t assault Hannah.
None of them have replied. It seems safe to assume that the film companies’ identical statements are pompously refering to Browne’s rubbish police ‘statement’.
Joni Mitchell’s song, Not to Blame
A false accusation made in anger
The song’s misinformed scattergun attack – by a spurned lover who apparently still carried a torch for Browne – implied he was a serial physical abuser who caused the suicide and suicide attempts of his previous partners (including, presumably, Mitchell’s own alleged attempt – which she denies) but who always claimed he was not to blame.
This smear seems to have been inspired by pure spite with no substance. Browne’s relationship history shows not that he was an abusive man who drove women to suicide, but rather that he was attracted to troubled women. It happens.
This was a low point for Mitchell. I’d like to think she’s better than that. Her best songs have a sublime magic. Her artistry (if not her style) is indeed comparable to Van Gogh’s. However, even geniuses have off-days.
Not to Blame is apparently a false accusation – but why would honest Joni have told such a damaging lie?
See my account of her relationship with Browne, below, which tries to answer that question – and to counter the widespread assertion in discussion forums that the song proves Browne’s a wife-beater.
Browne – a troubled man?
Was his childhood exile from Abbey San Encino a traumatic event?
- Freud believed that events in our childhood have a great influence on our adult lives, shaping our personality. For example, anxiety originating from traumatic experiences in a person’s past is hidden from consciousness, and may cause problems during adulthood.
Simply Psychology, Saul Mcleod
Regarding Browne’s apparent attraction to troubled women (an alternative to Joni Mitchell’s toxic tale of serial abuse – see above), perhaps sensitive artist Browne is or was himself a troubled person.
Browne was apparently somewhat disturbed as a pre-teen. His behaviour, which involved hanging out with a ‘bad’ crowd, caused his parents to move the family from their amazing bohemian home, Abbey San Encino – hand-built by Browne’s grandfather and featuring a dungeon and a chapel – to an identikit housing estate.
This must have been a traumatic change in the young Browne’s life. When he and Hannah separated, Browne spoke movingly of feeling banished from the kingdom that her family resembled. Perhaps he was painfully reminded of that previous exile from the abbey.
In a 1994 interview, Browne unconvincingly made light of this event. Perhaps he was cloaking a disturbed childhood – as many of us do, perhaps unconsciously.
- No one ever talks about their feelings anyway
- Without dressing them in dreams and laughter
- I guess it’s just too painful otherwise
Perhaps in his search for a lover, what Browne most needed was unconditional support. Some of the lyrics in Take it Easy (co-written by Glenn Frey, Browne’s neighbour at the time) such as ‘I’m looking for a lover who won’t blow my cover’ and, ‘I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me’ sound, despite the song’s carefree and upbeat tone, revealingly desperate.
Perhaps a troubled Browne found not the support he needed, but troubled women who shared that need – women with whom he found co-wounded co-dependency. However, if so, that doesn’t make him abusive.
Happily, Abbey San Encino was kept in the family, and Browne returned there in the early 70s. In 1973 it was pictured on the cover of For Everyman. In 1974 much of Late For the Sky was written and rehearsed in the chapel. Since 1975 Browne’s brother, the singer-songwriter Severin Browne, has lived there.
Asylum records (for whom Browne was David Geffen‘s first signing) went to some trouble with the original For Everyman cover. The photo frame was die-cut: the photo showing Browne was on the sleeve. With the sleeve removed, there was another photo on the inside back – the same scene, but without Browne. Push the sleeve in – with this record, he was back!
Some peripheral information
Blue and Black – black and blue?
Given the yearning sincerity of the lyrics, it might seem unlikely – but is there perhaps an incongruously dark wordplay in Sky Blue and Black’s title and refrain? ‘Blue and black’ is only a reversal away from ‘black and blue‘. Could master wordsmith Browne have been unaware of that?
JFK Jr on Hannah
A magazine article about the incident included an account of a 1996 TV interview* (see ‘JFK, Jr. Interview’ in the article) in which John Kennedy Jr, Hannah’s lover at the time of her breakup with Browne, commented on Hannah’s flakiness, and said he didn’t think Browne hit Hannah.
Kennedy’s comments might seem somewhat ungallant, but Hannah’s reported behaviour at the time of Kennedy’s mother’s death in 1994 might be thought to justify them.
John Kennedy Jr and his wife died in a plane crash in 1999.
* I haven’t been able to find any information about the interview.
Check it out for yourself
There are some useful sources of information out there:
- The surprisingly (to me) in-depth October 1992 news report by US celebrity magazine People, published about a month after the event – hotly contested by Browne (in the interview listed next) as fake information – but stoutly defended by People as genuine
- A scan of the February 1994 interview with classy US film and music magazine US (not to be confused with its later trashy celeb mag version, US Weekly) nicely written by music journalist Fred Schruers, in which Browne opens up on the incident (albeit without saying what happened)
- A scan of the three April 1994 ‘uncle’ letters in US
- An interesting forum discussion on the subject
- Another one – with a post by lawyer ‘Laura‘
- An 2016 article 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)
- Two Joni Mitchell biographies cover her troubled relationship with Browne and its bitter aftermath: Sheila Weller’s 2008 Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation; and David Yaffe’s 2017 Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
The text of the US ‘uncle’ letters and the account of the JFK Jr TV interview (see above) can be found in the forums and the OnStage article.
In his OnStage piece, Philpot wrote that as a longtime friend of David Linley (Browne’s genius-collaborator and close friend) and as a stage photographer who’d looked many times into Browne’s (famously soulful) eyes, he didn’t believe Browne could have assaulted Hannah.
The OnStage article said Hannah had denied several times that Browne hit her. I’ve come across this claim elsewhere but I haven’t found any evidence. I asked Philpot if there’s any evidence that Hannah has publicly made that denial. He hasn’t replied.
Conclusion – kind of
She probably did it
- And in the end
The love you take
Is equal to the love you make
From The End by The Beatles from their 1969 album Abbey Road. (No, I don’t know what it means, either – but it seems somehow appropriate.)
Conclusion – kind of
This is the end, dear Reader
Did Jackson Browne beat Daryl Hannah in 1992? Back in 2014 I couldn’t find a definite answer to that question, so I didn’t take my wife to Browne’s 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. Yes, it was all a long time ago, but it still matters to me, 28 years on from 1992. I love Jackson Browne’s music – it speaks to something in my soul – but the unresolved rumour makes it a tainted love.
It apparently also matters to the 30,000-plus people who’ve found and read – or, at least, looked at – this post.
Can we – should we – separate the artist from the art? Maybe not – or not completely. I’d overlook a lot of bad behaviour in an artist whose art I admire, but not domestic abuse – nor, as in this case, a persistent rumour of domestic abuse that the artist refuses to resolve.
Separating the life from the art is especially difficult with a singer-songwriter who wears his heart on his sleeve. So I didn’t take my wife to Browne’s 2017 or 2019 UK tours.
In Browne’s defence there is, of course, his social activism. Browne’s decades-long record of committing his talent, fame and much of his wealth to social activism speaks to his good character. Perhaps you can combine domestic violence with dedication to improving the world, but it seems unlikely.
Hannah also has a long record of committed social activism in the course of which she’s been arrested more than once. That speaks to her character and integrity.
Hannah never explicitly accused Browne of assaulting her. Her press release on the day of the incident – her only public statement – read, ‘She received serious injuries incurred during a domestic dispute with Browne for which she sought medical treatment.’ She didn’t press charges. She’s never publicly repeated or withdrawn her implied accusation, as far as I know.
Browne has frequently denied beating Hannah. However, he refuses to publicly explain what happened, citing a promise made during his relationship with Hannah.
Hannah’s uncle Haskell Wexler saw her injuries and wrote to US magazine accusing Browne of beating her. In his US reply to Wexler, Browne threatened to go public unless allowed to privately explain it. Their subsequent silence suggests Wexler heard Browne’s explanation and found it plausible.
Joni Mitchell’s accusatory 1994 song Not to Blame is thought by some to show that Browne’s guilty of being a physical abuser – but it doesn’t. It shows that in 1972 he made a lifelong enemy by not sufficiently returning Mitchell’s love, and then dumping her.
David Geffen, Browne’s friend since the early 70s, might be considered partial but seems like an honest guy for a multi-billionaire. He told me, ‘Jackson is not violent in any way and the end of relationships are always messy. Jackson never assaulted Hannah’.
My opinion, having investigated the rumour as I set out to do, is that – his dodgy police ‘statement’ notwithstanding – Browne probably didn’t assault Hannah.
Who says what? A summary:
- Hannah didn’t explicitly accuse Browne but has never withdrawn her implied accusation.
- Browne denies it but refuses to explain it.
- Uncle Haskell angrily accused him but piped down when Browne said he’d go public.
- Joni Mitchell implied abuse but it was a false accusation made in anger.
- David Geffen said Browne’s not violent and he didn’t do it.
- I think my detailed investigation shows he probably didn’t do it.
Conclusion – kind of
WHAT I THINK (PROBABLY) HAPPENED 🔼
You know that cartwheeling scene in Bladerunner…
If, as seems likely, Browne didn’t do it, how did Hannah get those injuries?
Perhaps she had an autistic rage episode during which either she inflicted the injuries on herself or she attacked Browne and was injured when he defended himself.
Perhaps it happened like this: They had an argument. Hannah began ‘ransacking’ the place. Browne called the police, who told them to cool it. After the police left, she attacked him and he defended himself.
At five-ten, Hannah was the same height as Browne. A former gymnast and dancer, she’d done some of her own stunts in Bladerunner. At 32, she was 12 years younger than Browne. She might well have been a match for the skinny ex-high-school wrestler approaching middle-age.
According to his own account, in his early twenties Browne punched an unemployed actor defending his first wife-to-be’s dignity – albeit the actor then supposedly knocked him through a barroom door. Allowing for artistic licence with the barroom door slapstick, Browne’s apparently true tale shows that – although by all accounts (apart from Joni Mitchell’s) a gentle man – he was no weakling.
Despite Browne being 20 years older in 1992 than he was that night at the Troubador, if he was instinctively defending himself against an effective autistic rage attack by Hannah, his fighting spirit might account for her injuries.
We’ll probably never know why there was no proper police investigation or why Browne’s manager gave him a false alibi – but we should know how Hannah got those injuries. Browne says it’s none of our business. I disagree. Here’s to truths yet to be known.
Conclusion – kind of
AN APPEAL TO BROWNE AND HANNAH 🔼
For heaven’s sake, just tell us…
So I think, probably:
- Browne’s a decent chap who didn’t assault Hannah.
- Hannah’s injuries were caused when Browne defended himself against her autistic rage attack.
- Hannah felt embarrassed, and kept quiet.
- Browne felt bound to keep her secret.
That’s what I think, but I could be wrong – on all counts. There’s only one way to settle it. They should just tell us.
I couldn’t find contact information for Browne or Hannah, so I asked their representatives to ask them to say how it happened. I said I’d publish whatever they said.
Browne’s representatives – his lawyer and publicist – haven’t replied. (They’ve got form for ignoring such requests.) Hannah’s entertainment attorney replied immediately to say, ‘Please do not contact Ms. Hannah or myself again’. How rude!
Having got nowhere with their monkeys, I’ll ask the organ-grinders directly. (You never know – they might read this.)
If you didn’t do it, Jackson, please explain it. Whatever covenant or deal you made, it’s time to tell the truth and shame the devil. You’ve been self-isolated for too long under a dark cloud of suspicion. The truth will set you free – at last.
It would be even better if Hannah told us what happened that day. C’mon, Daryl – spill them beans. What have you got to lose?
After all this time, such transparency would release the tension. Let it go! Everybody could forgive everybody else, and we could all move on.
It might be wrong to suggest forgiveness when there’s still the possibility of past domestic violence. (There’s no excuse for it and some things can never have closure.)
But it’s always better to be kind to one another – if possible.
My closing farewell
This rolling blogpost now rolls to a halt. I’ve been updating, supplementing, rearranging, editing, tweaking and generally faffing about with it for over five years (on and off). It’s grown to over 11,000 words. Enough, already.
There’ve apparently been over 30,000 viewers so far. (You’re another one, dear Reader.) That shows people care. Keep caring.
(Please feel free to comment – all comments will continue to be answered.)
Chris Hughes | Leicester, UK
email@example.com | 0044 7733 055472
* Old Uncle Tom Cobley and me
This refers to the well known Devon, UK, folk song, Widecombe Fair. The song’s rousing – often drunkenly shouted – chorus consists of a list of all the people with whom the singer hopes to travel to the fair. He wants to go…
- With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
- Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all –
- Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all!
(And after a few pints, we all want to go with them to Widecombe Fair.)
(Get drunk responsibly.)
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
And how it ended up with Not to Blame
- Heaven has no rage like love turned to hatred, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned
- [A] violent and personal attack
David Yaffe, biographer, on Not to Blame
- Jackson is not violent in any way and the end of relationships are always messy
Introduction | Was it violent? | A rebound relationship? | Browne’s contributory immaturity | How it ended | Phyllis Major | Mitchell on Major’s suicide | Not to Blame | Browne on Mitchell | Mitchell on Browne | Conclusion | An appeal to Mitchell
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
Get the popcorn out, dear Reader
This – necessarily – detailed account of what’s known about Browne and Mitchell’s relationship amounts to almost half my post about Browne and Hannah.
I added this annex quite late when I realised that many people condemn Browne because they believe Mitchell’s accusatory song Not to Blame.
The song’s believability depends on her relationship with Browne. Mitchell, known for her lyrical integrity, had an affair with Browne and knew him well – so it must be true, right? But what if it’s not true?
I love Joni Mitchell’s music. Blue blew my mind, and still does. I also love a lot of her other work, earlier and later. She’s unique – a genius. She was also beautiful, sexy and glamorous. (She still is, for an old person – ie over 70, like me. Finally, she can truly be described as Old Lady of the Year!)
I’m probably not worthy to lace her size 9 dancing shoes, let alone charge her with misusing her art and platform to make a damaging false accusation out of anger – but needs must when the Devil drives.
To fans like me, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell seemed like gods in their early ’70s Laurel Canyon paradise. Jackson and Joni were a match made in that heaven. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, apparently.
For instance, their relationship and its unhappy ending led to Mitchell releasing her vicious accusatory song Not to Blame (on the album, Turbulent Indigo).
Mitchell has denied her songs are autobiographical but Not to Blame is widely understood to be her condemnation of Browne as a wife-beater who made women suicidal but said he was not to blame.
Not to Blame also implied Browne was responsible for the suicide of his first wife, Phyllis Major. Mitchell’s Song For Sharon (from the album Hejira) made a similar implication. Major suffered extreme postnatal depression before committing suicide. No one else has suggested Browne was in any way responsible.
If Mitchell’s allegations aren’t true, why would she do that? If she’s made false accusations, there has to be a plausible reason.
What could have gone so wrong with their relationship? Like any relationship, theirs was private – but Mitchell’s song made it public.
No one else knows exactly what went on, but there’s some published information. It paints a sad and murky picture not of physical abuse but of a failed relationship that ended badly and of Mitchell’s lasting and overwrought hatred of Browne – a hatred vented in Not to Blame.
Mitchell and Browne began their brief and turbulent relationship in early 1972 while touring the USA and England.
Back home in Los Angeles, they didn’t live together. Their ‘dating‘ relationship ended later the same year.
There was apparently some violence in both directions, but serious incompatibility seems to have been the main problem.
After Browne ended it, a scorned Mitchell was furious. Love turned to hate and rage – and how!
This section refers to, and quotes from, two biographies which cover Browne and Mitchell’s troubled relationship:
- Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation (2008) by best-selling author Sheila Weller
- Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell (2017) by award-winning music writer David Yaffe
(There’s an excellent review of Yaffe’s book in Goodreads.)
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
WAS IT VIOLENT? 🔼
There was apparently some violence but it clearly wasn’t the habitual kind characteristic of an abusive relationship that could make a woman suicidal, as implied by Mitchell in Not to Blame.
According to David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter:
- There was violence of some kind – allegedly in both directions – during Joni’s relationship with Browne.
Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us claims* that Browne hit Mitchell on one occasion. According to Weller (as related in a 2008 news report), Mitchell confided to a friend that Browne disrespected her on stage at LA club The Roxy, and that they later had an argument, during which he hit her. (*P 407)
Weller assured me her source was good. However, Mitchell cast doubt on the credibility of scenes related in Weller’s book when she vetoed a planned movie based on it.
According to a 2014 report, Mitchell told the movie’s producer, ‘It’s just a lot of gossip – you don’t have the great scenes‘. She also said of Weller’s book, ‘There’s a lot of nonsense about me in books – assumptions, assumptions, assumptions.’
So there’s questionable hearsay evidence that Browne hit Mitchell on one occasion. On the other hand, Browne claimed Mitchell attacked him during their relationship.
In a 1997 interview about his response to Mitchell’s Not to Blame, he described Mitchell as a violent woman who twice physically attacked him.
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
A REBOUND RELATIONSHIP? 🔼
Possibly – but who was on the rebound?
Did Browne’s relationship with Mitchell turn sour because he was on the rebound from a previous relationship?
Browne has denied his songs are autobiographical – something, at least, he shares with Mitchell – but Fountain of Sorrow is widely believed to be about Mitchell.
In a 2014 interview about Fountain of Sorrow Browne was asked about the meaning of these lines:
- When you see through love’s illusion there lies the danger
- And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool
Declining to say who it was about, he nonetheless replied:
- ‘It’s about the fact that when you fall in love with someone, when you’re brokenhearted, you don’t see them as a person.’
Was Browne saying that although he loved Mitchell he was still heartbroken from a previous relationship? Was it his continuing focus on a previous lover that so distressed Mitchell?
According to Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, Browne was a romantic who said he kept getting his heart crushed. Weller says that in 1971 Browne had a love affair in London with actor and photographer Salli Sachse, who’d been tour photographer for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (P 405) Weller refers to Sachse as ‘Jackson’s pre-Joni girlfriend’. (P 410)
According to a 2019 interview, Sachse (now an artist living in California) left Browne to go to Holland, where she met and fell in love with an artist.
Was Browne’s heart crushed again when Sachse left him and fell for another man? Was he on the rebound?
Maybe not. That’s speculation – and it was a short affair. But it would perhaps explain that strange remark of Browne’s:
- ‘When you fall in love with someone, when you’re brokenhearted, you don’t see them as a person.’
Or was that actually about Mitchell and James Taylor, Mitchell’s pre-Browne lover. Was it Mitchell on the rebound?
Mitchell and Taylor were together from 1970-71. For a while, according to Yaffe, they were very close. (P 127) Then, with Taylor’s growing heroin/opioid addiction and Mitchell entering her thin-skinned Blue period (when, she’s said, she felt ‘like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes’), the relationship declined.
Was Mitchell broken-hearted when Taylor ended their relationship? Was Browne – a young, tall, good looking and cultured singer-songwriter, like Taylor – Mitchell’s rebound substitute? Was Browne referring to Mitchell not seeing him as a person?
Taylor married Carly Simon in November 1972. Did that make the breakup with Browne even worse for Mitchell?
However, if that’s true and Mitchell’s relationship with Browne was relatively insignificant, why would she remain so intensely bitter towards Browne 20, 40 years later?
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
BROWNE’S CONTRIBUTORY IMMATURITY 🔼
In his own words
Browne’s relative immaturity – and the 20s age gap – probably contributed to the breakdown of his relationship with Mitchell.
Ready or Not is about Browne’s first wife Phylis Major, who he met around the time of his break-up with Mitchell. It’s funny, honest and slightly flippant.
Two verses refer to Major’s apparently unintended pregnancy and to Browne’s uncertainty about settling down:
- Now baby’s feeling funny in the morning
- She says she’s got a lot on her mind
- Nature didn’t give her any warning
- Now she’s going to have to leave her wild ways behind
- She says she doesn’t care if she never spends
- Another night running loose on the town
- She’s gonna be a mother
- Take a look in my eyes and tell me brother
- If I look like I’m ready
- I told her I had always lived alone
- And I probably always would
- And all I wanted was my freedom
- And she told me that she understood
- But I let her do some of my laundry
- And she slipped a few meals in between
- And the next thing I remember, she was all moved in
- And I was buying her a washing machine
The Songfacts page on Ready or Not (click on the ‘artistfacts’ tab) quotes a Mojo interview* with Browne:
‘She [Major] hated that song. She said, “I wasn’t having a baby to get you. And the bullshit about the washing machine is just insulting. So fuck you.” And she was right. I should have said in that song, “Oh shit, I’m about to become a parent and I have no idea how to do this.” But I was not emotionally mature enough.’
* The interview date isn’t given (and there’s no online archive for Mojo).
In a filmed interview*, a 1970s-looking Browne described Ready or Not as glib, and said – generously – he learned from Mitchell the need to write deeper songs. (And he did – with his next album, the timeless Late for the Sky.)
* The interview was possibly in a TV documentary about Laurel Canyon. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it again.
Those comments show that Browne considered himself relatively immature at that time. With Mitchell, perhaps this was inevitable given the awkward younger-man 20s age-gap. Browne was 23, Mitchell 28.
He was, as he said in Fountain of Sorrow, ‘one or two years‘ (five, actually) and (apparently) ‘a couple of changes‘ behind her.
Ready or Not portrayed Browne as torn between settling down and freedom. No doubt the immaturity and commitment-aversion shown in the song and acknowledged in his comments on it – along with the age-gap – contributed to his apparent incompatibility with Mitchell.
(Also, the casually entitled sexism shown in Ready or Not’s jokey reference to Major doing laundry and cooking meals can’t have helped. Apparently, there was quite a lot of that around, despite the proclaimed hippy ideals of equality and liberation.)
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
HOW IT ENDED 🔼
The relationship was ended by Browne in 1972 shortly before or after he met his future wife Phyllis Major. Apparently Mitchell was incensed that it was Browne who ended it.
She was also apparently distraught. According to Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, a confidante of Mitchell said that she attempted suicide by taking pills and that she threw herself at a mirror, badly cutting herself. (P 408)
Mitchell has denied this. According to David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter, the breakup was ‘less eventful than has been reported elsewhwere’ (P 167). Mitchell told Yaffe, ‘I’m crazy but not that crazy’. Hmm.
After a period in residential therapy, Mitchell moved into the home of her – and Browne’s – friend and manager, David Geffen.
I asked Geffen about Mitchell’s alleged suicide attempt. He replied to say:
- ‘Everything written about it is either wrong or completely made up…I am not going to talk about Joni’s private life other than to say Jackson is not violent in any way and the end of relationships are always messy.’
(I told Geffen I was asking about Mitchell’s alleged suicide attempt in the course of my investigation into the rumour that Browne assaulted Hannah. In his reply, Geffen added, ‘Jackson never assaulted Hannah’.)
Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter quotes Larry Klein, Mitchell’s husband from 1982 to 1994, as saying:
- ‘Joni had a great deal of anger towards Jackson…Maybe it stems from the fact that he was the one to end the relationship…I think that’s a pattern in her life. She would do things that would lead to the end of the relationship…and then feel unjustly abandoned.’
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
PHYLLIS MAJOR 🔼
In 1972, around the time he ended his relationship with Mitchell, Browne met the woman who was to become his first wife, Phyllis Major. They met in the LA Troubadour club when he saw her having a row with her boyfriend and intervened.
- I met her in a crowded barroom
- One of those typical Hollywood scenes
- I was doing my very best Bogart
- But I was having trouble getting into her jeans
- I punched an unemployed actor
- Defending her dignity
- He stood up and knocked me through that barroom door
- And that girl came home with me.
Soon after meeting, they began a serious relationship. Their son Ethan was born in 1973. They married in 1975.
Tragically, Major, who had long-term mental health problems, suffered severe postnatal depression. She attempted suicide in 1975, and committed suicide in 1976 by taking an overdose of barbiturates.
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
MITCHELL ON MAJOR’S SUICIDE 🔼
Browne met his first wife, Phyllis Major, around the time he ended his relationship with Mitchell in 1972. Tragically, Major committed suicide in 1976. (See above.)
In two of her songs, Mitchell has implicitly accused Browne – with no grounds whatsoever – of driving Major to suicide.
- The epic Song For Sharon from the album Hejira was released in 1976 soon after Major’s suicide. In one of the song’s ten verses, Mitchell falsely implied that Browne drove Major to it.
- The accusatory Not to Blame from the album Turbulent Indigo was released in 1994 in the wake of the rumour that Browne beat Hannah. In addition to falsely accusing Browne of serial physical abuse (see below), Not to Blame repeated the smear about Major more openly – and with spurious detail about Browne and Major’s three-year-old son.
Mitchell was apparently acquainted with Major before Browne met her. In David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter, Mitchell described Major as ‘a sensitive, artistic, beautiful girl, who was passed from guy to guy to guy‘, and said when she learned Major was with Browne, she thought:
‘Here comes another one – the worst one of all. The very worst one. And all that shit that she’s gone through to fall into his clutches.’
(P 238 – Yaffe’s italics, my bolding)
(In Yaffe’s book, Mitchell harshly criticised all her exes, but was especially – gratuitously – vicious about Browne. See below.)
According to Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us*, Mitchell angered Browne by attending Major’s funeral. Weller says Mitchell saw a parallel with her own suicide attempt and included a coded implication in Song For Sharon that Browne was responsible for Major’s suicide. (*P 411)
At the time of writing, Wikipedia’s description of Song For Sharon – in its entry on the album Hejira – cites Weller’s claim that the song alludes to Major’s suicide, and relates Weller’s observation that the song asks if the suicide was a means of ‘punishing someone‘.
Mitchell’s beautiful Song For Sharon is a long and rambling autobiographical catch-up (nominally – as it were – addressed to an old friend, Sharon). However, the song’s poetic and sonic beauty conceals an ugly bitterness. Verse five (of ten) is a coded account of Mitchell’s vengeful response to the news of Major’s suicide.
Although Major died from a barbiturate overdose, the verse refers cryptically to a woman who ‘just drowned herself‘. It says she was ‘just shaking off futility‘ – ie of life with Browne – ‘or punishing somebody‘ – ie Browne, presumably for his supposed mistreatment of her:
- A woman I knew just drowned herself
- The well was deep and muddy
- She was just shaking off futility
- Or punishing somebody
- My friends were calling up all day yesterday
- All emotions and abstractions
- It seems we all live so close to that line
- and so far from satisfaction
In Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter there’s no comment from Mitchell about the coded accusation in Song For Sharon. Nevertheless, Yaffe, perhaps referring to unpublished parts of his conversations with Mitchell, describes her emotional compulsion to make that accusation:
- A woman [Major], who had been married to an ex-lover, commits suicide. She [Mitchell] feels bad. And she can’t let go of her bitterness toward the man who surely drove her to it, which makes her feel even more sympathy, more anger… She is sad, she is angry, she takes umbrage. She would like to be above settling scores, yet she is compelled to do so. It all came rushing back. Jackson had the nerve to dump her. Then she had such a vivid sense of what was wrong with him, and she could see what he was doing to the women who came after.
(P 236-7 – My bolding)
The bitterness in Song For Sharon was coded and muted. However, 18 years later Mitchell was still bitter – and she let rip. In 1994, in the wake of the Browne-Hannah rumour, Mitchell’s song Not to Blame (from the album Turbulent Indigo) repeated the accusation openly and angrily.
The first two verses of Not to Blame are about physical abuse (see below), but the last verse addresses Major’s suicide. Cruelly padded with spurious detail, Mitchell’s unusually boorish lyrics openly accuse the subject – ie Browne – of driving his wife to suicide.
- I heard your baby say
- When he was only three
- ‘Daddy let’s get some girls
- One for you and one for me’
- His mother had the frailty you despise
- And the looks you love to drive to suicide
- Not one wet eye around
- Her lonely little grave
- Said ‘He was out of line girl
- You were not to blame’
The spurious detail (‘I heard your baby say…’) refers to Browne and Major’s son. Interviewed about Not to Blame in 1997, Browne said:
- ‘It was abusive to employ that image of my son as somebody who treated his mother’s death lightheartedly. I mean, he was a three-year-old baby, you know. This is inexcusable.’
Major took her own life after apparently suffering long-term mental health issues and extreme postnatal depression.
There’s no corroboration for Mitchell’s nasty accusation in those two songs and – despite Yaffe’s sympathetic explanation for Song For Sharon’s coded accusation – no excuse.
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
NOT TO BLAME 🔼
In 1994, in the wake of the Browne-Hannah rumour – 22 years after her relationship with Browne had ended – Mitchell released her clunky false-accusation song Not to Blame (on the album Turbulent Indigo).
Browne had already been damaged by the rumour. Now Mitchell weighed in with her tall tale of a wife-beater who makes women suicidal but always says he’s not to blame.
The song doesn’t name its subject, and Mitchell, when confronted about it, loftily contends that the song isn’t about anyone in particular. However, the timing and the context – not to mention the line beginning, ‘Your charitable acts seemed out of place‘ – give the lie to that claim. The song is widely understood to be about Browne.
In addition to repeating the false implication first made in 1976 in Song For Sharon that Browne drove his first wife, Phyllis Major, to suicide (see above), the song compounded the Browne-Hannah rumour by falsely implying that Browne had a habit of beating women.
The US ‘uncle’ letters about Daryl Hannah (see above) had been published in April 1994. The rumour that Browne beat Hannah in 1992 was still news. Mitchell’s song, released in October 1994, was perfectly timed to twist the knife.
The first of the three verses gave the gist:
- The story hit the news from coast to coast
- They said you beat the girl you loved the most
- Your charitable acts seemed out of place
- With the beauty, with your fist marks on her face
- Your buddies all stood by
- They bet their fortunes and their fame
- That she was out of line
- And you were not to blame
In David Yaffe’s Reckless Daughter, there was no comment from Mitchell about Not to Blame, and although she was critical of Browne she notably – perhaps advisedly – didn’t repeat that song’s accusations. Yaffe says:
- There was violence of some kind – allegedly in both directions – during Joni’s relationship with Browne, and this song [Not to Blame] finds her carrying a grudge 20 years later.
Allegations of violence in a relationship must be taken seriously, but given Mitchell’s comments on Browne in Yaffe’s book (see below), it seems unlikely that the grudge was about some alleged occasional two-way violence (see above).
Yaffe’s claim that Mitchell’s grudge was about ‘violence of some kind’ in their relationship was clearly wrong. More accurately, he described the song as a ‘violent and personal attack’. (P 344)
Browne expressed frustration at not being able to talk to Mitchell about Not to Blame. Interviewed in 1997, he said it was inexcusable for her to believe the tabloid gossip and he was tired of people assuming she was an authority on his life despite not having known him for 20 years.
He said he wrote to Mitchell after hearing the song, but she didn’t reply. He’d tried not to conduct a public defence against Mitchell’s song, but was tired of having to accept her bitter attack.
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
BROWNE ON MITCHELL 🔼
Typically tight-lipped, Browne has said very little about his relationship with Mitchell other than in response to Not to Blame and in contemporaneous lyrics, some of which he’s – kind of – explained.
In a 1997 interview about Not to Blame, Browne described Mitchell as a violent woman who twice physically attacked him during their relationship.
Browne has also spoken about the ‘differences’ alluded to in Fountain of Sorrow (from his 1974 album Late For the Sky), believed to be about Mitchell.
In his introduction to a 2014 videoed performance of Fountain of Sorrow, Browne explained that he wrote it for an ex-lover. He’d run into her some time after they separated, was impressed by her beauty, remembered ‘all the good stuff’, and wrote the song for her. His introduction concluded:
‘But as time went on, as years went on, it turned out to be a more generous song than she deserved‘.
The audience’s knowing and sympathetic laughter showed they got Browne’s drily understated reference to Mitchell and her vengeful song.
Weirdly, however, Fountain of Sorrow isn’t a generous celebration of an ex-lover’s good points at all – it’s a typically deep and soulful meditation on relationships, memory, and loneliness.
- I’m just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you
- In my lessons at love’s pain and heartache school
- Where if you feel too free and you need something to remind you
- There’s this loneliness springing up from your life
- Like a fountain from a pool
Pressed about that introduction to Fountain of Sorrow in a 2014 interview, Browne said:
- ‘The things that come to bear in that song are the healing and acceptance of each other’s differences. That’s what I meant by it being more generous than she deserved.’
Hmmm. In the same interview about Fountain of Sorrow Browne was asked about the meaning of these lines:
- When you see through love’s illusion there lies the danger
- And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool
He replied, gnomically:
- ‘It’s about the fact that when you fall in love with someone, when you’re brokenhearted, you don’t see them as a person.’ (See above.)
The equally brilliant and moody song Late for the Sky – ‘Looking hard into your eyes, there was nobody I’d ever known’ – is also thought to be about Mitchell.
Such were Browne’s thoughtful – if not particularly ‘generous’ – reflections on their relationship. Mitchell’s take on it, however, seemed increasingly angry.
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
MITCHELL ON BROWNE 🔼
More heat than light
Apparently furious after Browne ended their relationship in 1972, Mitchell trashed him implicitly in two songs and then explicitly in a recent biography.
In 1994 (22 years after their relationship), in the wake of the Browne-Hannah rumour, Mitchell released the uncompromisingly vicious Not to Blame which openly implied that Browne was a serial wife-beater who drove his wife to suicide.
In David Yaffe’s 2017 biography Reckless Daughter (published 45 years after her relationship with Browne) Mitchell – apparently consumed by bitterness like a modern-day Miss Havisham – brutally dismissed him as a worthless nonentity.
In Yaffe’s book (based partly on conversations recorded in 2015 shortly before Mitchell’s aneurysm) Mitchell – perhaps advisedly – didn’t repeat Not to Blame’s accusation but she vindictively described Browne as a ‘leering narcissist‘, ‘just a nasty bit of business‘ and ‘the very worst one‘.
In Yaffe’s book, some of Mitchell’s comments about Browne were conflated with those about her previous lover, James Taylor. Taylor and Browne seem to have almost fused in Mitchell’s mind into a single lump of uselessness – but while she excused Taylor as a junkie, she condemned Browne as actively vile.
Mitchell made the ‘leering narcissist’ comment when speaking about her love not being reciprocated:
- ‘I did love, to the best of my ability, and sometimes, for a while it was reciprocated, and sometimes…they were incapable. James numbed on drugs and Jackson Browne was never attracted to me…when [Jackson] spoke about old lovers, he leered. He was a leering narcissist.’
(Yaffe, P 167)
The ‘nasty bit of business’ comment occurred when Mitchell explained how her sadness was caused by having her self-worth undermined:
- ‘I wasn’t mentally ill. I was sad…When someone’s undermining your self-worth, it’s not a healthy situation. Well, it’s not James’s fault, he’s fucked up. And Jackson’s just a nasty bit of business.’
(Yaffe, P 169)
The ‘very worst one‘ comment was about Browne meeting Phyllis Major at the time he ended his relationship with Mitchell. She described Major as a ‘sensitive…girl, who was passed from guy to guy’ (see above), and claimed a horrified concern:
- ‘Here comes another one – the worst one of all. The very worst one. And all that shit that she’s gone through to fall into his clutches.’
(Yaffe, P 238 – Yaffe’s italics, my bolding)
There’s more of this from Mitchell in Yaffe’s and Weller’s books. Yaffe told me he was able to get most of the people involved to tell their side of the story but Browne’s management didn’t respond.
That was probably for the best. Browne must have had his faults, but Mitchell seems to have constructed an alternative reality in which fault is one-sided, exaggerated and vilified.
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
A woman scorned
I think this detailed account of Browne and Mitchell’s brief 1972 relationship and its lasting aftermath shows that Not to Blame is a false accusation made in anger. That false note continues to resonate – people still believe it’s a true accusation.
Then in 1994, clearly meaning to boost the rumour that Browne beat Hannah, she implied in Not to Blame that Browne routinely physically abused women.
Not to Blame also repeated the smear about Major’s suicide, nastily adding spurious detail about their son. (See above)
There’s apparently no truth in either allegation, so why did Mitchell lash out with those very damaging false accusations? The last one was made over 20 years after their relationship ended. What could have made her so vengeful?
Was it simply that Browne didn’t sufficiently return her feelings (perhaps because it was a rebound relationship) and – perhaps even worse – that it was he who ended it? Was Mitchell inconsolably enraged when he dumped her?
If there’s more to it than that, perhaps it’s the depth of her feelings for Browne and the depth of her despair when he ended things.
No one else has publicly said such things about Browne. Mitchell’s unsupported criticism, so bitter after over 40 years, raises the possibility that in denigrating him she was hiding – perhaps from herself – a painful truth.
Perhaps Browne wasn’t the despicable nobody she portrayed, but was actually the lost love of her life. To paraphrase the poet, there’s no fury like that of a woman scorned – and no rage like love turned to hatred.
Like Mitchell’s previous lover James Taylor, Browne was a talented and intelligent singer-songwriter. Taylor was handsome enough, but Browne was undeniably a very good-looking young man. Was Mitchell entranced by his combination of talent and beauty – and hopelessly in love with him?
As she’s said, ‘I’m a fool for love‘.
Perhaps Browne inadvertently got through Mitchell’s defences like no one else, and left her permanently embittered when he ended their relationship.
In his 1997 interview about Not to Blame, Browne said, ‘She and every one of her friends knows – it’s all about carrying a torch‘.
Is that the explanation for Mitchell’s lasting bitter anger and its expression in Not to Blame‘s spiteful slur? We’ll probably never know – Browne has mainly kept quiet about their relationship, and Mitchell’s heated outbursts have shed little light.
Whatever happened and whatever Mitchell’s state of mind, her relationship with Browne gave Not to Blame considerable credibility.
That song’s defamatory message, boosted by Mitchell’s renown as the truthful songwriter and by her more recent expression of lasting hatred in Yaffe’s biography (see above), has continued to damage Browne’s reputation.
Sheila Weller’s 2008 biography Girls Like Us recounts a brief meeting in 2004:
- Mitchell ran into Browne in a grocery store. He told her he couldn’t bear the animosity between them and the two reportedly buried the hatchet.
However, Mitchell’s comments on Browne in Yaffe’s 2017 biography showed the hatchet was buried alright – in Browne’s head.
Browne’s relationship with Joni Mitchell
AN APPEAL TO MITCHELL 🔼
Let it go!
Mitchell said she was thin-skinned and exposed when recording Blue in 1971. If she was still vulnerable in 1972, perhaps the relatively immature Browne got under her thin skin and accidentally did some lasting damage.
She used her art to hurt him back. Her more recent comments inflamed the wound.
After all this time, perhaps she could forgive him and retract her claws. Some healing would be good.
Apparently, Mitchell doesn’t use the internet, but you never know – a friend might pass on this direct appeal:
What d’you say, Joni? You were lovers – you know what he was like. Was he really that bad? If not, however difficult it might be after all that bluster and slander, you owe him an apology – a debt of honour.
Before you die would be good. (Flinch not, dear younger Reader. Those of us over 70 may try to deny it – I do – but however you slice it, we know we’re facing death.)
I’m just saying – don’t take this calumny to the grave, Joni. Let it go!
I’m grateful for some of the above information about Browne and Mitchell to Alan Ashworth, UK journalist and writer on music, especially West Coast music.
It’s the Me Too movement’s time.
It’s a movement against sexual abuse and sexual harassment especially of young and vulnerable women and especially in the workplace. None of that applies here, but the Me Too mood extends wider to other sorts of abuse by men against women.
So, in this time, with this mood, how can I give the benefit of the doubt to a famous man accused of abusing a woman? And how can I accuse a woman (Joni Mitchell) of making a false accusation of abuse against him?
The Me Too movement’s a wonderful thing. It’s breaking the awful silence and setting the truth free.
That’s the thing: truth. I think Browne’s probably telling the truth – but not enough of it; Hannah’s kept quiet – which is a kind of deceit; and Mitchell’s lying – but it’s a crime of passion.
To be effective, the wider Me Too movement needs truth, however complicated.