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10 Great Jackson Browne Songs

Jackson Browne is a poet who also happens to be an accomplished musician and tunesmith. On paper, even his early lyrics read like those of a seasoned, accomplished poet. As a budding student of literature, I was drawn to his words. As an aspiring musician, I was drawn to his melodies and his grooves. He became a minor deity for me, along with the likes of George Carlin and Lew Alcindor — talented performers at the top of their games in the ’70s. Jackson has always struck me as thoughtful and curious, and he assured my younger self that it was OK for a guy to think and feel.

Jackson’s big record Running on Empty came out in ’77, just as I was getting into album-oriented rock radio and exploring my older sister’s record collection. I dug that record the most, and then wore out my cassette copy of its 1980 follow up, Hold Out. I lost touch with Jackson after that, until the late ’90s when I happened upon a copy of Looking East, a nice collection of songs that are even more worldly-wise than old-soul Jackson already was as a young man. I promptly lost touch with him again in the aughts, when I fell in with a crowd of hipper-than-thou music snobs for whom classic dinos were appreciated but best left in the archives.

Then in 2016 I was in New York for a training seminar and decided I wanted to hit up the Beacon Theater for old time’s sake. To my delight, Jackson was doing a mini-residency. He had a great band and was the earnest, humorous and engaging performer I remembered. Here are ten songs from his classic period, that continue to be touchstones for me.

“From Silver Lake”

Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using) 1972

This is one of the first songs I learned to sing and play on guitar. It reminds me of a good friend with a nautical bent who was a significant influence on me. We smoked and drank and talked of grand plans for the future. He was a person who would disappear for long stretches of time with no explanation, off on some adventure. I can’t stand that motherfucker now, but I still love this song.

“Rock Me on the Water”

from the album Jackson Browne (1972)

This strikes me as an ecology-era gospel song tethered to Earth, rather than yearning for Heaven. “When my life is over, I’m going to stand before the Father/But the sisters of the sun are going to rock me on the water now” There’ll be a reckoning at some point, but until then what we have is earth, water and sky. I love the piano-based nature of so many of Jackson’s tunes. I can see him sitting in the house from the cover of For Everyman, delicately assembling these chords and writing and rewriting the lyrics.

This clip from 1978, features the great Jim Gordon on drums.

“These Days”

from the album For Everyman (1973)

Jackson is quick to remind us that he wrote this song when he was 16. This is old-soul Jackson at his finest. “Don’t confront me with my failures/I have not forgotten them” It would really suck to have written your best song at 16. Good thing he conjured a bunch more great ones over his lifetime. The Nico version is other-worldly, and I never knew they dated.

This is a lovely acoustic version, featuring his long-time collaborator David Lindley.

“Redneck Friend”

from the album For Everyman (1973)

I never actually owned this album, and as such didn’t know it that well. So when he played this at the Beacon gig in 2016 I was like, “What is this awesome song?” I can’t believe it took me 43 years to dig on it, but better late than never. I totally want to get another band together so we can cover this outlaw country rocker. In this clip, my man is back at the Troubadour later in his career, revisiting the scene of some of his early crimes. The quality ain’t great here, but it’s got Mike Campbell and Jim Keltner, so fuck it.

“For a Dancer”

from the album Late for the Sky (1974)

He did this tune on solo piano at the Beacon that evening. It broke my heart. Since then I’ve lost both my parents, and now the song splits my soul wide open. “And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go/May lie a reason you were alive, but you’ll never know” There’s a wise resignation in this lyric that is a comfort to me. In this clip from 1976 he does the song beautifully, with the inimitable David Lindley plying his plaintive fiddle.

“Here Come Those Tears Again”

from the album The Pretender (1976)

This is a unique break-up song. I always appreciated that the singer doesn’t give in to the lure of a lost love trying to uncurdle a relationship that soured. “Walk away/I’m going back inside and turning out those lights/And I’ll be in the dark but you’ll be out of sight” Jackson is the master of the mid-tempo rocker, part of the SoCal movement that pioneered the style. If not for the depth of his lyrics and subject matter, he could’ve been the admiral of yacht rock. I’m glad I could find a live clip that features Rosemary Butler, Jackson’s singing soulmate.

“The Pretender”

from the album The Pretender (1976)

“Out into the cool of the evening, strolls the pretender/He started out so young and strong, only to surrender.” Sounds like the backstory for the anti-hero of the adapted stage play of my life. This is a poignant version with Jackson at the solo piano, Storytellers style. I like this song better without all the strings and horns and other filligree layered onto the recording.

“Running on Empty”

from the album Running on Empty (1977)

Holy shit! This is a spine-tingling live version! If this isn’t Jackson’s best song, check out this version and you tell me what is. He’s at the height of his performing powers here (with quintessential ’70s hair and trousers). The version that appears on the album was recorded at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, on August 27, 1977 and peaked at #11 on the US Billboard Hot 100. It remains eminently crankable.

“You Love the Thunder”

from the album Running on Empty (1977)

This is a personal favorite from this multi-platinum album. The woman the lyric describes seems to be prone to addictive cravings for a volatile lover that can never quite be left behind. “You know your hunger like you know your name/I got your number if it’s still the same” Released as a single late in the album’s initial chart run, the version that appears on the album was recorded live at Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey, on September 6, 1977. More great contributions from Rosemary Butler and David Lindley

“Call it a Loan”

from the album Hold Out (1980)

I don’t know if it was Space Invaders, Reaganism, tootski or Daryl Hannah, but the ’80s seemed to do a number on our boy. He did however, kick the decade off with this solid follow up to Running on Empty. This song finds the singer waking up in love, the lyric bathed in tender imagery. “While the room was growing light/I was holding still with all my might” Jackson co-wrote with David Lindley on this one, and the two perform it here in an acoustic arrangement, with David on what appears to be a lute. They included this tune on Love Is Strange: Con vivo con tino, a double album documenting their 2006 tour of Spain.

LATER CAREER BONUS ALERT!

“Barricades of Heaven”

from the album Looking East (1996)

This seems to be a meditation on memory and aging. There is a zen quality to the song’s signature couplet. “Better bring your own redemption when you come/To the barricades of heaven where I’m from” It’s as though he’s glimpsed heaven, but is convinced he must work out his own salvation. The clip is a recent recording featuring (no surprise) David Lindley on lap steel.

Jackson’s best writing continues to age well. I am struck by the depth of his catalog as well as the depth of his insights. “These Days” set a high poetic bar that he regularly clears, with room to spare. I’m glad I reconnected with him in NYC last decade. He’s on tour now, playing rescheduled dates with James Taylor, and then he’ll mount a series of “An Evening with…” shows. See and hear him while you can. And check back here for a review of his forthcoming album Downhill from Everywhere, scheduled for a 23 July release.

For more information, check his web site: jacksonbrowne.com

Jackson Browne set list – 17 June 2016 – Beacon Theater, NYC

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