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Off the Beaten Tracks: A Jackson Browne Study (Part 3)

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BACK in March, which seems a very long time ago now, we left Jackson Browne grieving after the suicide of his wife Phyllis but experiencing unprecedented chart success with his 1976 album The Pretender.

The fat royalty cheques meant he could afford to go on tour with the musicians of his choice – the great David Lindley on lap steel and fiddle, plus the Asylum Records house band The Section: guitarist Danny Kortchmar, drummer Russell Kunkel, bassist Leland Sklar and keyboards player Craig Doerge (all spellings correct despite looking like typos).

The result of this 1977 journey across America was the album Running on Empty, recorded entirely on the road at concerts, backstage, in hotel rooms and in one case on the bus. It was a smash hit and remains JB’s best seller.

We start with the title track, a stage performance recorded at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland with Lindley on fine form. One of only four songs on the LP penned solely by Browne, it was taken by some to reflect his emotional burnout but he said the meaning was more prosaic. He told Rolling Stone magazine that he wrote it while driving the short distance to Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood to make The Pretender. ‘I was always driving around with no gas in the car. I just never bothered to fill up the tank because – how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks.’ The song reached No 11 in the singles charts.

The first section of The Road, written by Danny O’Keefe, was recorded in a motel room after the Merriweather concert and the latter part on stage at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey.

Track three, Rosie, recorded in a backstage rehearsal room in Saratoga Springs, New York, was co-written by JB and his manager Donald Miller. I must be naïve but didn’t realise until I read it some time later that this is a song about a gentleman’s solitary pursuits after his putative companion for the evening slopes off with the drummer.

The Garden State Arts Center provides another live recording, You Love The Thunder, written by Browne. Is there any finer sound in rock and roll than his clear voice backed by Mr Dave’s lap steel?

Cocaine, an update of the Rev Gary Davis song, was recorded on August 17 in Room 124 at the Holiday Inn, Edwardsville, Illinois. It concludes with the sounds of drug-taking and giggling, with those concerned clearly thinking they were being big and clever. (Many years later in a further version he would acknowledge his folly and the fact that drugs had claimed the lives of so many friends).

According to the sleeve notes, it was on the following night in the same Room 124 that Jackson taped the lovely, world-weary Danny Kortchmar track Shaky Town about life on the road. It must have been a big room because there is a full band playing. Hope the neighbours had earplugs. In case any fans plan a pilgrimage, the building was pulled down in 1993 and replaced by a Comfort Inn.

Love Needs a Heart  was written by JB with the brilliant Lowell George and Valerie Carter and recorded live at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California. Special mention to the backing singers, Doug Haywood and Rosemary Butler.

Nothing But Time, credited to Browne and tour manager Howard  Burke, was recorded on the band’s Continental Silver Eagle bus somewhere in New Jersey. Liner notes inform us that ‘Russell plays snare, hi-hat and cardboard box with foot pedal’. Sharper ears than my old pair will probably be able to hear the engine in the background.

It’s back to the Merriweather Pavilion for the album’s closing couple of tracks. The Load-Out, co-written with guitarist and bassist Bryan Garofalo, is a politically astute tribute to the roadies who keep the show on the road. Hard for them to go on strike when Jackson has just sung about how wonderful they are. And finally we segue into the Maurice Williams classic Stay with Butler and Lindley sharing lead vocals. Mr Dave must have been wearing particularly tight trousers that evening.

Thanks greatly to the success of the singles Running on Empty and Stay, the album went to No 3 in the US, remained on the charts for 65 weeks and in the 21st century achieved seven-times platinum status. It was the signal for Browne largely to abandon his sensitive, introspective songwriting over the next few years in favour of a more commercial artistic approach with brasher, riff-based, radio-friendly tunes.

The next album, 1980’s Hold Out, was his only LP to top the US charts. Who would have thought that the creator of These Days and Late For The Sky would give us a first track called Disco Apocalypse? It is playing as I write and if you’ll excuse me for a second I’ll just get Scrotum, our wrinkled retainer, to turn down the volume on the steam-driven radiogram.

Hold Out finds JB in fine voice, although the sound is again denser and more heavily produced than on earlier records. That Girl Could Sing is clearly heartfelt. ‘She was a friend to me when I needed one; Wasn’t for her I don’t know what I’d have done.’ There was speculation that the song was about Linda Ronstadt or Laura Nyro, but Browne confirmed many years later that the subject was the aforementioned toothsome singer Valerie Carter (also said to be the inspiration for Valerie by Steve Winwood). Following her death in 2017 at the age of 64, JB played That Girl Could Sing as a tribute at a concert in Canada, saying: ‘I wrote this song for her at a time when I was really out of my mind about her.’

Boulevard is another straightforward rocker and then comes the first track which would not sound out of place on one of Jackson’s classic LPs. Of Missing Persons is addressed to Lowell George’s daughter Inara, whose father, Browne’s great friend, had died the previous year at the age of 34.

My favourite track on the album, Call it a Loan, was written by Browne and Lindley.

Oh, oh – If I’d only known
What your heart cost
Oh, oh – can we call it a loan?
And a debt that I owe,
On a bet that I lost.

The final song, the eight-minute Hold On Hold Out, was co-written with Craig Doerge and features Lindley in blazing form. What puts me off is a spoken message which concludes:

Anyway, I guess you wouldn’t know unless I told you
But I love you
Well just look at yourself,
What else would I do?

To be charitable, the chap is clearly head over heels in love. The album notes state: ‘This is for Lynne’ and Australian model Lynne Sweeney would soon afterwards become the second Mrs Jackson Browne, if only for a brief period before he took up with the blonde movie actress Daryl Hannah. The critics, however, were unimpressed by what they described as the cheesiness, schmaltz and sentimentality of the song, not that the record-buying public took any notice of them.

Embracing his new-found superstar status, Jackson recorded a single, Somebody’s Baby, which featured in the 1982 American coming-of-age movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It was the highest-charting single of his career, reaching No 7 in the US.

For his 1983 album Lawyers in Love, he stuck with the pop sensibility while introducing elements of his social conscience into the lyrics. The voice is as great as ever on the opening title track, although David Lindley is missing from the mix for the first time since JB’s eponymous 1972 debut LP. Guitars are provided by Danny Kortchmar and Rick Vito, giving a more conventional rock sound than Mr Dave’s wailing lap steel. In it, Browne turns his critical gaze on Americans ‘eating from TV trays, tuned in to Happy Days’.

The next track, On The Day, opens with the word Yeah repeated seven times before launching into a warning that ‘because you survive don’t mean you grow’. On Cut it Away Browne appears to disown his previous anguished attempts at self-analysis – ‘Cut it away, This crazy longing for something more.’

Probably the most successful song on the album is Tender Is The Night, the video for which features JB arguing with Daryl Hannah in a kitchen, coinciding with a reference to ‘the way we fight’. Hmmm, best not get into that although an exhaustive investigation into the end of their stormy relationship can be found hereKnock on Any Door returns to pop riffery and then we have Say It Isn’t True, an earnest anti-war number which pleads:

When you think of all the people
In the cities of the worlds
Who could vanish in a moment
Say it isn’t true.’

This was dismissed by Rolling Stone’s sniffy reviewer as ‘antinuke agitprop’.

We conclude with For A Rocker, an uptempo number said to be written in tribute to the Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeyman Scott, who had died of a drug-induced heart attack aged only 25. Musically it has more in common with Bruce Springsteen than Jackson Browne and proved a big hit in the sort of arenas JB was now playing.

Lawyers was recorded in a downtown Los Angeles warehouse converted into a studio. Greg Ladanyi, the engineer and Browne’s co-producer, said: ‘We set it up so that the band could play without the distractions of a normal studio because, for the most part, Jackson was writing the songs – in terms of the key changes and chord changes – based on what he was hearing when the band was playing. There was no “Okay, it’s take one or take two.” We kept the tape rolling just about all the time. And there are very few overdubs.’

In 1985 the lovely Daryl again featured in a video, for Browne’s duet with Clarence Clemons on the hit single You’re A Friend of Mine from  the Springsteen sax player’s album Hero.

Jackson’s political beliefs would become the dominant feature of his next album, but I’ll leave that for the fourth and final part of his story next year, when let’s pray this lockdown nonsense will be over and done with.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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