“At the moment the music began and you heard the guitar player starting to sing…”
With this opening line, Jackson Browne directly invites the listener in to his 1976 song “Linda Paloma”.
It’s a song unlike anything else in Browne’s catalog, and not just due to the music. While he’s known for writing subject matter that is very personal-specific, relating the trials, tribulations and heartaches of his own life, the lyrics of “Paloma” are less concerned with how Browne feels, and are more concerned with the feelings of the girl in the song [lyrics].
In a 1987 show, he stated that the song sprung from going repeatedly to the same Mexican restaurant with his girlfriend, where they would listen to the mariachi singer there. Browne laughs that he found out years later that the singer was blowing her kisses when Browne wasn’t looking. In the song, he appears to be putting himself into the place of the mariachi singer, who’s “the endless sky” to her “Mexican dove”. He “knows all about these things”: the girl’s yearning for a dream romance.
The track was recorded in a Mexican mariachi style, utilizing “genuine” Mexican musicians brought in by Browne’s friend, musician Van Dyke Parks. Acoustic guitar is joined by guitaron and vijuella. Though, it’s the harp playing of Arthur Gerst that is most striking and gives the song a shimmering beauty. Gerst was supposedly a PhD drop-out who played in a mariachi band and he also guested on albums by Lowell George, Warren Zevon and Linda Ronstadt. In fact, he plays some very similar harp on George’s “Cheek to Cheek” (which was also co-written by Van Dyke Parks.)
One may question Browne’s aptitude at playing music in the traditional style of another culture without it coming across as parody or musical tourism. And, to be honest, this is a criticism that has been leveled at the song. Though, Browne himself has said when performing “Linda Paloma” that it’s a “California Mexican song”. We can give him even a little more leeway, keeping in mind that he was exposed to a fair amount of Mexican-American culture, growing up in heavily hispanic Southern California in a house (built by his grandfather) which was modeled largely after Spanish missions [more info. on this unique house].
Either way, he did his mariachi homework (or music historian Parks did it for him). He’s got the vocal flourishes down (such as the way he sings “endless sky” and the falsetto of “fly way…”) and the joining in of the other musicians’ vocals at the end of the song drives home the feel of authenticity. You can almost taste the margaritas.
Interestingly, Browne’s original version of this largely guitar and harp dominated song was written on the piano and he sometimes performed it that way, solo, upon the album’s release. Yet, the mariachi instrumentation on the final studio version really makes the song. “Linda Paloma” continues to be a popular Jackson Browne song, with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa turning in an appropriately Mexican-flavored cover on the 2014 Browne tribute album Looking Into You.
The Pretender is a heavy album, released soon after his first wife’s suicide while he was trying to raise their young son by himself. Lyrically, the album is largely concerned with matters of sadness, regret, and resignation. So, as the song is unique in his entire oeuvre, it’s especially unexpected in this album. Though, due to this incongruousness, it offers a welcome respite from the weighty introspection.
Oh, and I should mention that “Linda Paloma” translates to “Beautiful Dove”. It also translates to “Fine Pigeon”, though I don’t think that’s what Browne was going for…