IN the first part of the Jackson Browne story, we left our hero having completed his brilliant second album, For Everyman, living in the Los Angeles house where he grew up and contemplating impending parenthood with his beautiful girlfriend Phyllis Major. His happiness, it seemed, was complete.
In November 1973 their son Ethan was born and Jackson threw himself into work on what would be LP number three, Late For The Sky. Asylum Records chief David Geffen wanted early product and at less cost than the last record, which had a cast of thousands, so Browne decided to stick with his touring band of bassist Doug Haywood, Jai Winding on keyboards, Larry Zack on drums and the genius David Lindley on guitars, lap steel and fiddle.
When they eventually hit the studio recording was completed in six weeks, Browne producing himself with engineer Al Schmitt. The result was a tour de force, from the Magritte-inspired cover to the eight flawless songs inside.
The opening title track examines the end of an affair and, since Browne had broken up with Joni Mitchell on meeting the lovely Phyllis, could be taken as referring to the Canadian star.
‘Looking hard into your eyes
There was nobody I’d ever known
Such an empty surprise
To feel so alone.’
An achingly beautiful song, Browne said it was one of his most personal lyrics, telling Mojo magazine: ‘It’s about a moment when you realise that something has changed, it’s over, and you’re late for wherever you’re going to be next.’ In another interview, with Uncut, he admitted: ‘I had this one phrase, “late for the sky”, and I wrote that whole song in order to say that one phrase at the end of it.’ As always, Lindley is magnificent on this track – you couldn’t imagine it without his stellar guitar. Movie buffs will recall the song playing on Travis Bickle’s TV during the 1976 Scorsese film Taxi Driver.
Fountain of Sorrow explores a similar theme of regret, with Jackson looking at a photograph of a former lover and saying:
‘When you see through love’s illusion, there lies the danger
And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool
So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger.’
This is also thought to be about Mitchell. Browne has never confirmed this but in a 2014 performance he introduced it with the words: ‘As time went on, it turned out to be a more generous song than she deserved.’ Given the acrimony between the pair, this would seem to seal the case against Joni, m’lud.
In Farther On, the artist is looking for paradise in vain, older, sadder and wiser ‘with my maps and my faith in the distance, moving farther on’. The Late Show finds him engulfed in misery and claiming that even if he ‘stumbled on someone real’ he would never know. However he does find a new lover and they drive off into the distance in an ‘early model Chevrolet’ as shown on the cover.
The first track on side two, The Road and the Sky, lifts the mood with its jolly rhythms and then we have the magnificent For a Dancer, which is ostensibly about death but emerges hopeful and calling for the creation of life.
‘Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you’ll never know.’
The song was played at memorial services for the Saturday Night Live stars John Belushi and Phil Hartman.
The upbeat Walking Slow explores Browne’s then domestic bliss while the album ends with the apocalyptic Before the Deluge, a prayer for spiritual comfort.
‘Let creation reveal its secrets by and by
When the light that’s lost within us reaches the sky.’
Phew, what an album. Inducting Jackson into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, Bruce Springsteen described Late for the Sky as his ‘masterpiece’ and the Boss got it right. It went platinum and in 2012 Rolling Stone magazine placed it at No 377 in its 500 greatest albums of all time. I’d put it in the top three.
While Jackson was recording and touring to promote the record, Phyllis was going through postnatal depression hell. The two married in December 1975, perhaps to give her more of a sense of stability, but that same month she took an overdose, leaving notes for Jackson and her friends saying she could not stand the pain. She was revived in time but in March 1976, with Ethan and his nanny in the next room, she swallowed enough drugs to end her life. She was 30 years old.
Among those attending her funeral in Santa Barbara was Joni Mitchell, who had herself attempted suicide when Jackson left her for Phyllis. She would with the revenge song Not To Blame, on her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo, pretty much accuse him of causing his wife’s death. Here are the vicious lyrics.
Browne dealt with his grief by immersing himself in work and The Pretender came out in November ’76 – its front cover showing him in white T-shirt crossing a road surrounded by people while the rear was a photograph taken by him of his now motherless little son, running naked at the edge of the ocean. Jackson would later say that the album was ‘just about being totally lost’.
The opening track, The Fuse, is sadly one of only two to feature David Lindley on guitar. His absence, however, is more than compensated for on track two, Your Bright Baby Blues, which has the great Lowell George on slide guitar and harmony vocals. This beautiful song, in my view the highlight of the album, was written for Phyllis at the height of her depression and concludes with the plea:
Baby if you need me
Like I know I need you
There’s just one thing
I’ll ask you to do
Take my hand and lead me
To the hole in your garden wall
And pull me through.
I first saw Jackson play in December that year, in Manchester, and when he performed that song I swear there was no one in the Palace Theatre who wasn’t weeping.
The next track, Linda Paloma, is a sweet, mariachi-style interlude and then we’re into Here Come Those Tears Again. This was co-written with Phyllis’s mother Nancy Farnsworth, who showed Jackson some lyrics she had written while visiting the couple in 1974 and they completed the song together. Listen out for the great Bonnie Raitt on backing vocals.
More heart wrenching comes with The Only Child, written for Ethan before Phyllis’s death and urging him with tragic irony to ‘take good care of your mother’.
Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate is, according to Browne, the only song on the album written after his wife’s suicide.
Oh God, this is some kind of shape I’m in
When the only thing that makes me cry
Is the kindness in my baby’s eyes.
The final, title track, which predicts the rise of the yuppies, was written under the guidance of Jackson’s great friend, the sardonic lyricist Warren Zevon, who was the support act on his 1976 tour. Jackson told an interviewer: ‘He really influenced my thinking. That line, “I’m going to be a happy idiot” . . . that’s not exactly the Browne touch, is it?’
The Pretender reached No 5 in the US album charts and went platinum in 1977. However Jackson’s next album was even more successful, as we shall see in another instalment.
PS A measure of the reverence in which fans hold JB is this message which I received from someone who had just read my first column about him: ‘Please continue this series. Jackson is my favourite artist in any genre. He had taught me more about life, love and death than any teacher or religion.’
PPS A year ago I was contacted by Michael Sentance, an American musicologist, educationalist and former attorney pointing out, in the most courteous way possible, an error in my piece about Joni Mitchell’s album Blue. Since then he has proved a mine of information about Joni, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and all things West Coast. He now informs me that he is too ill to carry on helping so I’d just like to say thanks for everything, Michael. I hope readers will join me in wishing him well and those of you with religion will include him in your prayers.