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?