Retrofit Guide Special: Jackson Browne De-and-Reconstructed: "Running On Empty"

The road and sky collide, with drums

A songwriter comes up with a brilliant idea, comes up with half a dozen striking new ways to capture the sounds. And yet the most haunting parts of “Running on Empty” turn out to be the ones that contain no music at all.

I keep thinking about the first 30 seconds before the start of the opening (title) track. Bear in mind that “Running” is a fantastic song, certainly the best rocker JB ever wrote, both thoughtful and fiery, captured in a performance that is both stripped down and simply blazing. Holy shit. But it’s that silence that sticks with me.

Actually, it’s not silent at all. The band is onstage, gearing up to play a new tune. You can sense that the lights are low, you can hear the crowd get restless. Voices bellow song titles. “The Road and the Sky!” a woman shouts. “Ready or Not!” a guy honks. Other voices form a kind of wordless chorus – the sound of expectancy, of demand. Finally another guy finds the bridge between impatience and resignation. “Play what you want!” It’s like a signal. A foot stomps, a hand chunks a rhythm on tamped guitar strings.  Then…….Boom.

A two-chord riff for piano and guitars, a simple bass line, David Lindley’s jet-engine slide guitar. The drums pounding a hard stutter rhythm. Blazing and roaring.

“Lookin” out at the road rushing under my wheels. . . .I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels…

Remember the place where the road and the sky collide? This is it. And the point of “Running on Empty,” the album, is to find a way to tell everyone else how it feels to be the man on the road. The poet as object of desire. The troubadour on the run. JB came up with a brillliant way to do just that: by recording an entire album of new songs on the road – onstage; offstage; in the hotel; on the bus. The whole experience, from the good (the glow of the stage) to the bad (cooped in the bus on an all-night ride) to the hideous (wired so tight on coke that even the stupidest ideas seem brilliant).

Brilliant in concept, less so in execution, “Running on Empty” is both a huge step forward and a lurch toward self-destruction. Funny how those two things can happen at the same time.

“Running on Empty: As discussed, this straight-ahead rocker was, and remains, an uncontested high point in JB’s career, both as a work of self-analysis and poetic insight, and also as a searing blast of rock ‘n’ roll music coming from a highly unexpected source. Essentially flawless to these ears, and according to most, simply essential.

“The Road”: A moment of silence, then we’re back in the hotel, a couple of guitars and Lindley’s fiddle covering Danny O’Keefe’s raw portrait of the struggling artist on the road. “Phone calls long distance/To tell you how you been/You forget about the losses, you exaggerate the wins...” puts a fine point on it, to the ghostly drone of the fiddle and JB’s own sad, vaguely desperate recitation. He’s in a higher-end game now, but you can hear how closely he still identifies with the soulless pursuit the narrator describes. Another music-less moment makes the connection vivid: When the music pauses between the second chorus and the third verse — “When you stop to let ’em know/You got it down. . .” the faint crickets give way to the cries of fans, the three-way jam becomes a fully-arranged band performance in a concert hall. “You’re right about the moon/But you’re wrong about the stars,” he sings. The fiddle sings now, but the singer still sounds glum. “It’s just another town along the road. . .”

Haunting, beautiful, and it won’t get any better than that, unfortunately. The lag begins next, with “Rosie,” a smirky, half-serious tale of a roadie seeing his dream groupie walking off with a bandmember. “I might have known she’d come for a star,” he sulks, before heading off to his room to contemplate the solitary sexual life of a guy who isn’t in a band.”Rosie,” as it turns out, isn’t a girl as much as an adolescent boy’s code name for masturbation. “You’re all right,” he sings, enroute to a litany of double entendres shared between singer and background vocalists: “You wear my ring/When you hold me tight/Rosie, that’s my thing…I got to hand it to me.” The tune itself isn’t bad – simple, but trending toward elegiac. The words are somewhere between silly and stupid and while I still love a smirky adolescent sex joke, this one doesn’t work in the least. In the context of the opening two songs, it’s a disaster.

“You Love the Thunder“: Is a rebound, but not nearly potent enough to recapture the momentum. Addressed to the women who actually do love the guys drawn to the road, it’s got a nice melody (particularly the swells toward the chorus in the end and the vocal arangement in the climax) but the central metaphor (thunder, rain, etc) are shaky at best, and tho Lindley’s guitar does its best to distract us from the lyrical and rhythmic weaknesses, it’s a relief when the audience applauds and we mosey backstage again, to explore the depths of the rock ‘n’ roll life.

“Cocaine”: Another peek behind the curtain, and the view is grim, grim, grim. A bunch of stoned musicians weaving blearily through the Rev Gary Davis’s classic, with words carved into new lines by JB and his sleazy pal Glenn Frey. “I went to see my doctor down at the hospital,” a dazed-sounding JB sings, “He said, ‘Son, it says here you’re 27 but that’s impossible/You look like you could be 45.” When I was 15 that sounded scary. Now that I’m 47 it just sort of pisses me off.  Nevertheless, there’s a kind of bracing vividness to this vision of rock ‘n’ roll hades, which becomes all the more haunting when the music ends and once again the real haunting part of the album comes most clearly out of the silences between the songs.

What we hear is JB himself leaning down, and not away from the microphone, as he takes a huge, ugly-sounding snort. Snoooorrrrf, then koff-koff-koff, and

“Blood on the highway,” someone observes, with the sort of non-judgmental shrug that one tends to reflect on later at the funeral.

JB can barely form words, but keeps talking: “You gotta take more of it or less of it, I can’t decide which one,” he muses. Then Lindley speaks up, his voice needle-sharp, but twisted into a sardonic imitation of some movie cowboy (who he identified in one invu but whose name I now forget sorry about that.)

“I’ll tell you what it does take,” he drawls. “It takes a clear mind.

JB: “It takes a clear mind to take it, or a clear mind not to take it?”

DL: “It takes a clear mind to make it.”

JB: (stoned, dull-witted pause) Then he laughs, snuk-snuk-snuk, like Beavis and/or Butthead, 20 years before their time.

End of side one.

“Shaky Town”: Side two begins with a kick in the head – a largely acoustic, but rough-hewn road song, only this time from the perspective of the working men – the drivers at the wheel, the working musicians who grind away with a fraction of the glory accorded to the superstars. “I‘ve heard you tell those lies about the love you’ve known,” the narrator scoffs, more concerned with the practical need to get out to the coast and play the next show. “This young man feels/Those eighteen wheels/That keep turnin’ round to take me down to Shaky Town…” Another memorable tune, captured raw and vital in a makeshift set-up in a Holiday Inn somewhere. The only fly in the ointment is that JB didn’t write it – it comes from gui
tarist Danny Kortchmar, who harmonizes and keeps the stomp in the beat. A troubling question.

“Love Needs A Heart“: Another onstage peformance of another wonderful new song. This time a JB collaboration with Lowell George (talk about cocaine problems) and Valerie Carter, but you can hear JB’s pull on the lyric just as clearly as Lowell’s off-kilter, yet consistently lovely modulations. What begins as a lonesome break-up tune (Leavin’ behind the life that we’d begun/I broke myself in two…) the melody seems to catapult the lyric toward unexpected insights and breakthroughs. “I’m afraid to believe the things I feel,” the singer proclaims, aspiring toward transcendence with one eye on hope and the other on the clock. “I hope it finds me in time,” he frets, as Lowell’s music descends through two or three keys in search of the song’s root note. “Love needs a heart like mine,” he concludes, traveling onward into the darkness where George’s own cocaine-swollen heart would beat its last, somewhere between shows on his own endless road.

“Nothing But Time” : Onto the bus with the band, rumbling from Maine to New Jersey in search of the next blast of light and cheering crowd. The real bus engines rumble (an actual on-the-road recording, if you hadn’t figured it out already) and the stripped-down band (acoustic guitars, percussion on cardboard boxes and guitar cases; backing singers perched in their own row of seats) describes the meandering thoughts and notions of exhausted, sleepless minds. The guitar solo careens from style to style – the singer calls out for a Chuck Berry riff, and is instantly rewarded. Nothing matters, and what if it did? “I got a bottle of wine/I got a broken white line/ there ain’t nothin’ but time between this Silver Eagle and that New Jersey line. . .

“The Load-Out/Stay”: At which point the mirror cracks, and the magic runs out. No longer content with the stripped down verite portraits of road life, JB digs deep, brushes off the coke and road dust and emerges with a piano ballad that casts it all into a Disney-like shimmer. JB finds himself noodling around on an empty stage, hearing the echoed thumps and bangs of his devoted (and admittedly ill-paid) crew packing up his gear and lugging it off to the trucks, to rumble off to the next hall where the people will be so fine, and wait in line for the opportunity to stand up and cheer, once again, for the magical strains of JB and friends. Between then and now, tho, the road is full of friends and fun: CB radios on the bus, Richard Pryor videos, disco music. This gang, this merry band of brothers and chick singers, has as much fun as they can. Still, what it all comes down to, he proclaims, is the people waiting in the hall. “People, you’ve got the power over what we do…come along, sing the song/You know that you can’t go wrong…” Are you buying this? I’m not buying it. It’s all affirmations and phony cheer. What happened to the grim, coked-out hotel rooms? What happened to the easy/sleazy road sex and the not-so-secret beating off, and all the existential nothingness viewed from the Silver Eagle window? Now it’s all pixie dust and make-up, leading to the mellow gold reprise of Maurice Williams’s “Stay,” which just sort of sits there, fat and happy onstage, til Lindley takes the mic and wails out a grand crazy-man falsetto climax.

The promoter didn’t mind, the unions didn’t mind. But the listeners, so beguiled by the bracing darkness of the album’s best tunes, leave the road (and the album) puzzled by the quick pivot to nowheresville. What started on the edge of a compelling philosophical question ended up, somewhere near Las Vegas. Not an awful trip, exactly. But what did it bode for the future?

The Road and the Sky – bonus fun facts about JB and "Lost"

Remember last week when I said that I’d be gone for a week and would post more Jackson Browne retrofit pieces when I returned? Turned out to be all true, except for the part where I get back to posting the second I got back. . . Give me a day or so, and we’ll have “Running on Empty” re-digested, de-constructed and posted for your blog-reading pleasure. In the meantime. . . a series of fun facts:

1. Jackson Browne’s real first name? Clyde. Which makes me wonder: If he’d stuck with that (which is in some ways far cooler and rock-y than the archaic/literary/formal Jackson) would he have turned into a different kind of writer/musician? I’m thinking a heavier backbeat and grungier guitars and far fewer acoustic musings on sleep’s dark and silent whatever. Clyde Browne rocks.

2. When hiking through a dense Hawaiian jungle everything seems slightly surreal and full of meaning: Thank you, “Lost”!

3. The final revelation on “Lost”: After a 3-hour layover at the Honolulu airport yesterday I can say, without a doubt, that the flash-sideways Losties did NOT land at LAX, after all. The real mystery? How a club sandwich can cost $16, plus an extra $2 to sub in a salad for the fries? And still not be all that good? Gives me chills just thinking about it. . .

Retrofit Guide Special: Jackson Browne De-and-Reconstructed: "The Pretender"

Editor’s note: Despite promises to the contrary, this week-long special will take the rest of the week off, then resume on Monday. Also, the spelt bag described in the review of “Jackson Browne” is almost certainly some kind of water bag, as per the sharp eyes of California outdoorsman Michael “Dusty” Mooers, who provided something like half a dozen pieces of photographic evidence to prove his point. Way to fact-check, Dusty!

“THE PRETENDER” (1976): Produced by Jon Landau, fresh from co-producing “Born to Run” and already girding the for legal battle that would make him manager/producer/comptroller of the Bruce Springsteen empire, this album was designed and executed to catapult JB’s gold-tinted success to something closer to solid platinum. Now the spelt-flecked raw edges were smoothed down, stacked neatly into shimmery, airy mixes with far more sonic depth and clarity. This could have been disastrous (and indeed, the impulse toward shiny surfaces would eventually render JB’s albums all but hollow). But given the terrible straits the man fallen into (his wife Phyllis, also the mother of his young son, committed suicide during the early weeks of 1976) the neat production only clarifies the confusion and angst roiling inside.

Whether Phyllis’s suicide was a function of their relationship or in spite of it is not the stuff of public discussion. It took him nearly a decade to approach the subject in anything close to literal terms (1986’s “In the Shape of a Heart”). But the shock of the tragedy — the grief, the guilt, the emotional numbness finding form in reportorial observations and/or assertions of whattk and/or existential gloom — shadows the entire album. What results still seems striking, if not exactly the instant classic it seemed when it was new.

“The Fuse” leads off, taking us back to the empty highways that so often set the stage for JB’s albums. A technicolor re-envisioning of “Colors of the Sun” (check the similar chord progression in the verses), this time the sun-baked invocations of eternity take flight into affirmations: Whatever it is you might think you have/You have nothing to lose;  then layered voices describing a post-mortal world where “…there’s a part of me (that speaks to the heart of me)/that’s never far from me (though sometimes it’s hard to see)/ Alive in eternity/That nothing will kill.” The words of bereaved widower, you might say, and being Jackson Browne he projects his own resilience (real or imagined) to the world around him: Look out beyond the walls of Babylon, he shouts. I’m gonna be around/When the walls come tumbling down!

You can look at this in a variety of ways: JB is either veering toward easy affirmations, or else the narrator he’s created is still stumbling through the Kubler-Ross steps of grief.  Is the heart of the world empty (“long distance loneliness”) or buzzing with promise (“you are what you choose to be”)? Ultimately he leans toward the tumbling walls and immortal souls, swept into being with a neatly reversed chord pattern that trades a minor progression for a stirring major ascent and a chorus of background vocals.

“Your Bright Baby Blues” stays on the road, this time in the company of Lowell George, whose own distinctive slide guitar (like a truck shrieking down a steep, curvy road, according to one indelible description) and background harmony give the trip a cosmic cowboy shimmer. Fellow Little Feater Bill Payne provides the churchly organ, and the song floats above the road enroute to a realization that all these highway stories maybe promise more than they can ever deliver. “No matter where I am, I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away/From where I want to be,” JB admits, which anyone’s therapist would confirm in a heartbeat. The anti-drug appeals (“…when I looked down I was standing on my knees”) probably come a decade or so too early (just wait for “Running On Empty”), but realization is out there somewhere, and with Lowell pitching in with a high harmony the white boy highway blues feels as grounded in down-home smarts as it is in hopes and dreams.

The mariachi ballad “Linda Paloma” strikes me as musico-tourism, a tequila-laced trifle whose elegant arrangement (exotic instruments set into place by impish musical genius Van Dyke Parks) can’t quite hide the emptiness at its core. It mostly serves as a diversion enroute to the side-closing “Here Come Those Tears Again,” a kind of will-to-power breakup tune  whose bereft title and opening verse (“…just when I was gonna make it through another night/Without missing you…”) explode into powder via a sleek, white-boy gospel arrangement that (again) takes flight thanks to Craig Doerge’s surprisingly funky piano. You might expect a bleaker take from the recently widowed, but this is straight-up romantic busines: the singer is making a stand, casting his faithless, yet ambivalent ex from his life. “Some other time, baby,” he snaps, “When I’m strong and I’m feelin’ fine, maybe. . .” Be gone, woman. And don’t let the backbeat hit you on the ass.

So ends the album’s first side, and also the mood of stubborn resilience (or escapism, as per “Linda Paloma”) together. From here “The Pretender” stops denying its own dark heart, finally confronting the grief and confusion at its core. No wonder, then, that the next four songs answer life’s thorniest riddles and sorrows with the same not always beleaguered response: surrender.

“The Only Child” addresses JB’s young son, pictured at play on the beach, a golden-tressed cherub scampering naked through the surf. With JB alone at the piano the song begins gloomily, then perks up as the band carries him aloft. Changes unfold; wisdom comes and goes; nothing seems to fit. So the Eagles swoop in to emphasize the simple solution to it all: Care for your family. Be kind to others. Remember that cruelty meted out is often the clearest symptom of cruelty absorbed. “There are those who feel themselves exiled, on whom the fortune never smiled.…” The lonely searching for the lonely. And again, that simple, yet jarring given the context request: Take good care of your mother.

“Daddy’s Tune” turns the lens in the opposite direction, reaching back across the generational divide to heal a rift with his own father. Once again the tune starts as a piano/vocal solo, then snaps quickly into a horn-fired blast of California soul that is positively Boz Scaggsian. “Somewhere something went wrong/Or maybe we forgot the song,” JB belts to his father, urging the old man to “make room for my 45‘s along beside your 78‘s.’ A phrasing that flirts with corniness until you consider the internal language all musicians wield when they approach their heart of hearts  (e.g., “take a sad song and make it better,” and/or “I wanna be where the bands are…”). The music picks up even more steam, the horns get even more excited and JB delivers one last observation on his way off the shiny stage: “Nothing survives/But the way we live our lives!” It’s the upper-class white boy existentialist boogie. And while I’m not sure if the song was necessarily composed for such a white-hot production, it certainly does create some jarring contrasts.

Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate.” Perhaps JB’s most haunting ballad, and certainly the closest he comes to describing the descended psychic gloom. Tumbling piano chords follow a stately pattern as he describes the passage between waking and sleep as a preparation for the final descent we’ll all make, eventually. Now the darkness is
less restful than remorseful: “I found my love too late,” he admits, flashing back to the relationship that was far more troubled than even he imagined: “Never should have tried so hard to make a love work out/I don’t know what love has got to do with happiness. . .” Neatly composed with nary a note nor syllable out of place, “Sleep” circles back to the only comfort he has left: “Oh, God this is some shape I’m in/When the only thing that makes me cry is the kindness in my baby’s eye.” Death edges closer to us, but life — and meaning — persists in the children who take our place.

“The Pretender”: Tellingly, this is the first JB album to not flirt with holy transcendence in its final grooves. Instead, JB leaves us with his feet marching across the ground and his hands numb at his sides. He’s back in the suburbs of his youth, living the day-to-day life of the American salaryman, turning the wheels and feeling lulled by their chunking rhythm. He’ll live near the freeway; he’ll get up early and go to work; he’ll sleep at night and get up the next morning to do it all over again. And again. And again. And. . .well, you get the picture. The band plays brightly, but in a lockstep of its own. The guitar jangles gently, the piano plays a simple figure, the bass zooms upward to fill the silence. “I’m gonna be a happy idiot/And struggle for the legal tender,” JB pledges, his voice too dull-edged to be truly ironic. And what the hell – everyone does it. The policemen with their sirens; the junkmen with their fenders; the lovers feigning passion as yet another way to fill the time. It’s a tart portrait of society, but unlike, say, Billy Joel (whose simple folk are so often reduced to Davy-in-the-navy caricatures) JB sees himself right in the middle of the crowd. “We’ll fill in the missing colors in each others’ paint-by-numbers dreams,” he pledges, going on to describe nights of endless, if dismayingly chilly passion. Remember the sweet, sticky erotica he found with Bonnie Raitt on “The Times You’ve Come”? This ain’t it. Not even close. “We’re gonna put our dark glasses on/And we’ll make love until our strength is gone,” he croons. “And when the morning light comes streaming in/We’ll get up and do it again. Amen.

The life of an idiot, perhaps. But certainly not a happy one. And as the pop-friendly gloomfest “The Pretender” soared up the charts, JB prepared to hit the road again. And he had a grand scheme for another record he could make along the way.

Retrofit Guide: Jackson Browne Week Part III: "Late For the Sky"

“Late for the Sky” (1974) An unapologetic triumph, and the increased prominence of Lindley in the mix is the least of it. The music works perfectly — a crisper, yet still understated production; great playing all around — but these tunes would work just as well if they were performed solo, “Nebraska”-style, a lone voice and instrument captured on a simple reel-to-reel.

Here the man’s eyes are wide open, his pen tracing the most complex puzzles of life and living. The good ol’ emotional/intellectual dialect; the twirl between thinking and feeling, the urge for escape and the impulse toward social responsibilty.

Start with the title track, a simply-wrought piano ballad, paired with Lindley’s sizzling slide guitar and a series of verses describing romantic delusions of all sorts. No finger-pointing, no self-recriminations, no self-adoration. Merely a portrait of the mismatched: “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me,” he sings. “Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” The next song, “Fountain of Sorrow” steps up the rhythm (despite the forlorn-sounding title) finding some comfort in even the most misbegotten connections: “You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right/But you go on smiling, so clear and so bright. . .

“Farther On” and “The Late Show” project the lost little boy talk into the macro level, where the disconnects and hurts extend beyond cultural and social lines, into a kind of universal society of sad, lost lovers. “Nobody ever talks about their feelings anyway/Without dressing them in dreams and laughter/I guess it’s just too painful otherwise.” And while anyone’s talk of ‘feelings’ might make me cringe, the words give way to Lindley’s wildly articulate slide guitar, and then a real Hollywood ending with pasts left at the corner, car doors slamming and motors revving: Let’s just say it’s an early model Chevrolet, he sings, Let’s just say it’s a warm and windy day. . . And off they go into the sunlight, born to be mellow.

An actual rocker, “The Road and the Sky” socks the album’s flip side into action, clearing the way for the musical elegy, “For a Dancer,” written for yet another lost friend. Which would seem to invite sentiment and tears, except for that this time the view stays on the survivors, all these healthy, happy young hippies, trying to come to terms with what even happens when people die. Do you weep for the loss, or celebrate what could be a spiritual ascendance? Not even the thinking man’s Lothario knows, and it’s this overarching confusion that gives the song its own transcendence: “Perhaps a better world is drawing near/Just as easily it could all disappear/along with whatever meaning you might have found.” Nothing pat about that; no easy answers to unspool nor cheap melancholy in which to wallow — just the simple comfort of music, a “joyful sound” to fill the darkness.

The climactic piece, “Before the Deluge” follows the “Everyman” model by flirting with religious imagery, this time an apocalyptic vision meant to illustrate a real-world environmental catastrophe. In its moment this paean to communal interdependence seemed like a kind of closure to the romantic/social disconnections described on the first side of the album. Let the music keep our spirits high! Let the buildings keep our children dry! Ah, but given three-plus decades of distance the political text sounds perfectly clear, pointing to the theme that would dominate the next, far less satisfying decade in the artist’s career. But for now, let creation reveal its secrets by and by!

Now at the height of his creative powers, Jackson Browne’s commercial arc would continue on its vertiginous path. Unfortunately, his next work would come in the wake of a personal disaster more shattering than any deluge he could imagine.

Retrofit Guide Special: Jackson Browne Tribute – "For Everyman"

“For Everyman” (1973): Two words: David Lindley. The hippie-freaky-super-accomplished multi-instrumentalist (slide guitar, violin, bazouki, etc.) joined JB’s band just before the sessions for his second release, and what a terrific match it was: Now the maestro’s romanto-solipsisto yearning came with unexpected filigrees and skronky, drone-like textures; a raw lyricism that acknowledged more than Jackson’s measured words would ever say on their own.

The album kicks off with Jackson’s dusty take on his own “Take It Easy,” already a smash hit for the super-slick Hollywood cowboy   Eagles, but here the emphasis is on dirt roads and a yearning for escape that seems far less plausible than it could in the freon-cooled studio world of the Eagles. The journey ends – or detours into – the dreamy  desert ballad “Our Lady of the Well,” which moves back through time (months? centuries?) to describes a romance with Maria, who transcends time in some mysterious and yet viscerally captivating way. “There is a dance we do in silence/far below this morning sun,” JB begins, introducing us to a primoridal love affair that is both far removed from (“Here we stand and without speaking/Draw the water from the well…“) and a direct result of modern society’s failures (“Across my home has grown the shadow/Of a cruel and senseless hand...”)

Christ! It was like Jackson Browne knew my high school’s principal! By the time I picked up this one (thank you Cellophone Square, and quite possibly its star salesman, Scott McCaughey) I was the editor of the Garfield Messenger, thus a leader among young men, and more than eager to strap on my own backpack and do some water dancing beneath the sun with Maria or anyone who would find me in the shade wide awake or in a dream (it’s hard to tell). These worlds existed, not just in “Our Lady…” but also in “Colors of the Sun,” the even moodier and more cryptic primo-eco-mordial tune that comes next. “Awake to understand you are not dreaming,” JB begins, amid a swirling organ, a meandering bass and dueling, occasionally harmonizing acoustic guitars. I’d read about peyote somewhere. I had to imagine its effects sounded a bit like this: lost, but lovely; floating through time and space in pursuit of some undefined transcendence that was immediately available. . . but only if you weren’t looking for it. “Leave me where I am, I am not losing/If I am choosing not to plan my life. . .” All that, plus a great tan (all that sun), wandering tribal chicks and a spelt-rich diet of natural grains, wild honey and home-dried peyote buttons.

Or on second thought, there’s the right-there-in-front-of-me love piano ballad “I Thought I was a Child” (“...til you turned and smiled“), the adolescent existentialism of “These Days” (one of Nico’s faves, revived by Gregg Allman’s shuffling blues arrangement) and the unlikely companion pieces “Red Neck Friend” (raunchy barroom rock, in which JB celebrates, at least by longstanding gossip, his own not-so-little Jackson) and the ruefully funny, if alarmingly sexist my-chick’s-having-a-baby ballad “Ready Or Not.” First he had trouble getting in to her jeans, dig, but now SHE can’t get into the same jeans ’cause he knocked her up! Har. Funnier still: a one-line synopsis of how These Chicks Do You When You GIve Them An Inch (or eleven, if you believe “Red Neck Friend”) “….next thing I remember she was all moved in/And I was buyin’ her a washing machine.” Oh, snap. the full Westinghouse.

So sure, you can sense the flaws in JB’s aesthetic/philosophical foundation. But then, we’re talking about a spokesman for a generation here, and if said generation (see also: Boom, Baby) has its own issues with solipsistic lifeways (see also: hits radio, classic) dude is merely channeling what he’s been put here to channel.
And did I mention JB’s gift for writing simple, yet lyrical melodies? Or his growing ability to weave personal experience into the larger cultural fabric? Take those ingredients, leaven with Lindley’s scrabbly fiddles and snarling slide guitar leads, and suddenly the eroto-transcendent pillowtalk in “The Times You’ve Come” sounds closer to sweet than silly. Though that may also have something to do with Bonnie Raitt’s backing harmonies, too.

Move onward to the climactic medley of “SIng My Songs to Me” and “For Everyman,” a two-song illustration of how lightly JB can pivot from navel gazing (he needs us to sing his own words back to him, dig, because…”it seems to me/there may never be/a better chance to see who I am/come timelessly dancing.”  It occurs to me now that I have never had, and still can’t claim, a single idea as to what that means. But does the literal meaning of the words matter as much as the spirit of the piece (meditative and welcoming, even despite the Buddha’s Voice pose the singer assumes). And as the chords build to a tom-roll suddenly we’re in the middle of a revelation: “For Everyman,” and its visions of a society unified, finally, by a shared pursuit of transendence. Everyone’s waiting for God to return, you see. And though no one can honestly say what the answer is, or even if a hint is forthcoming (“…don’t ask me, I don’t know,” JB shrugs, in a rare moment of self-doubt) what matters is the pursuit itself; that even if God doesn’t exist, faith definitely does, and that in and of itself is enough to make life worth living.

I really loved this record when I was 18. And when I hear it again, as I am this very moment, it all comes bubbling up again: the sweetness, the post-adolescent narcissism, the yearning for a more evolved, spiritually and sexually affirming existence. Am I admitting something shameful here? Did the subsequent decades of listening to the Clash, the Replacements, Loudon Wainwright, Elvis Costello, Warren Zevon and all the other razor-wielding singer/songwriter/asskickers teach me nothing? Arguably. But if I finally make it to that place beneath the sun where the people work the land and the chicks find you in the shade, bearing water from the well and peyote from wherever they get that, I won’t be coming back. For a while, anyway.