Jackson Browne. Born on 9 October in 1948. I haven’t listened to Browne in any depth since 1978-79, when he was 30-31 and me 19-20. There was a short patch there when he—with his mostly morose songs, down-trodden delivery, clean production, songs of unusual structure, bathetic lyrics of soul-bearing clarity, and shades of a more melancholy Don Henley—was the main singer of my glum introduction to the costs of love.
And that’s what the best of Browne’s songs are about—except for the more uptempo ones that let him be a bit more brash and feckless. But he’s never in the clear. He’s always dogged by a sense of loss or of helpless uncertainty, or of earnest efforts to say it right. There are those who think that the drugginess of the Seventies was a license to stoner flights of fancy, or drug humor and its various absurdist variants. But drugs were also the occasion for baleful soul-searching, for the long and winding road that led within, those places where you had to take stock in all-nighters of pondering and wondering.
Taking stock of Browne’s work, I’d say that if I could combine the best parts of For Everyman (1973)—the first side and the title track that ends the album—and the best parts of Late for the Sky (1974)—the first three tracks on each side—I’d have pretty much all I need, with Running on Empty (1977) thrown in for good measure as an interesting take on the rock-road lifestyle. But even saying that requires a caution. Too much of Browne at once can cause a severe drop in one’s spirits.
Which is why I turned to him when my spirit had already dropped—dropped into that abyss that comes from trying to read someone else’s heart, and getting it wrong. It can also come from trying to maintain one’s place in someone’s heart, or trying to convince oneself that one’s place is the same or that the place in one's heart one has given to someone else is still secure. In other words, his songs—as love songs—are all about the perils of getting close to someone, of trying to make “someone” the be-all and end-all of emotional life. Or anyway, that’s how it is in the first two tracks on Late for the Sky—including today’s song, the title track.
I considered picking “For a Dancer” from Side Two because it will always resonate with me for the sake of a death that occurred in that “Browne period.” And David Lindley’s fiddle gives his steel guitar a rest, and makes a worthy contribution. But . . . I’m not willing to dance through Browne’s meditation on death just at this juncture.
And, listening to the album today, I keep coming back to that great close to today’s song: “How long have I been sleeping / How long have I been drifting along through the night / How long have I been running for that morning flight / Through the whispered promises and the changing light / Of the bed where we both lie / Late for the sky.” Bearing in mind that the closing verse echoes what might have been a chorus earlier in the song except that when it comes around again at the close it alters into what I’ve just quoted. The first pass gives us the same two lines about sleeping and drifting then: “How long have I been dreaming I could make it right / If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might / To be the one you need.” And the drum there comes as kind of a “that tears it” moment, setting off the slide solo.
In other words, the song is about a love affair that’s over even as the two caught up in it lay in bed through the night discussing—“trying to understand how our lives had led us there.” Which is a big question, no? It’s that question of “why were we right for each other” and “why aren’t we now”? God almighty does it suck.
The part that Browne really manages to put out there might be self-serving (maybe) if it weren’t so bald: “Looking hard into your eyes / There was no one I’d ever known / Such an empty surprise / To feel so alone.” Well, y’know, you can have experiences when your own face in the mirror is someone you’ve never known, in a manner of speaking. But when someone who should remain who you thought they were—and now they’re not—becomes unrecognizable, that’s a bit of the old “the abyss is close to home.”
Still, this isn’t a song of one done the other wrong. Which is why it’s more wrenching. It’s “the party” or “the carnival” is over. It’s—in Leonard Cohen’s phrase—“good night my night after night after night after night.” It’s the wine of the romance is drawn and the mere lees is left—to get Shakespearean about it. And why not? To brood on the vicissitudes of love is something poets have always done. And Browne, in those tracks I’ve already ear-marked, proves himself to be a songster-poet and master of just such brooding.
He even arrives at that kind of “what was that” reflection, where each has a love of the other that is still real and personal, though, it seems—in the event—not the mainstay of either: “You never knew what I loved in you / I don’t know what you loved in me / Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” In a not-shall, we can say. That picture of somebody we’re hoping for sends us out again, still looking. Oh, pardon me, I guess I had the wrong person. Mistaken identity.
Browne, on his albums of 1973-74, was quite adept at creating these little dramas buoyed by very tasty and sensitive guitar lines, in tunes generally carried by Browne’s piano. The piano is the instrument for these kinds of compositions, so stately, grand, measured.
I’ve long been struck by how that final verse conjures so completely that scene—do you know it?—when you’ve been awake till dawn light creeps in, “drifting along through the night.” Here, “late for the sky” and the allusion to “that morning flight” give us a sense of these two locked in this heart-to-heart, missing a plane because he just can’t go out that door. Alone as he is, he’s not ready to be solitary yet.
Awake again / I can’t pretend / And I know I’m alone / And close to the end / Of a feeling we’ve known
No more sharing one bed, one space, one heart. Granted, however much I felt for Browne’s spin on things once upon a time, that very style of earnestness had come undone by the time I played his albums for Kajsa and she just couldn’t take it. Even more than her teen turn against the Eagles, her animosity to this version of Californian psyche, c. 1973, was immediate. Well, alright, that meant Browne hasn't graced many tapes I've made for others, but I still feel a tie to a long unraveling romance—OK, with youth of that time if you like—when I hear songs from that period of Jackson Browne’s blood on the tracks. Though I’m also willing to entertain Rob’s question in High Fidelity: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Late for the Sky may well be the kind of music he had in mind.
Still, give Browne a break—he dated Nico and Joni Mitchell (neither of whom we've heard the last from, yet). And his first wife committed suicide.