Many apologies for the hiatus between posts, especially since I left some of you hanging with these last ten. But here they are without further ado. Again, remember that the rule here is that these songs weren’t originally included on one of Bob’s solo studio albums and they can’t be alternate takes of songs that were included.
10. “I’m Not There”- The amazing thing about this famed outtake from the Basement Tapes sessions is how none of the players seems quite sure where it’s going at any time and yet they all get there together. And where exactly is there? It’s that place inside a broken heart where hopes and dreams go to die, where the expectations that the one you love is really going to change finally give up the ghost. I tend not to believe in magic, but there was something clearly afoot at Big Pink beyond just talent and inspiration, and it’s all over this mysterious, marvelous track.
9. “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”- I’ll never stop wondering how much of this was meant to be homage and how much was meant to be parody. The funny thing is that Springsteen had largely stopped writing these streetlife tales by the time Dylan and Top Petty concocted this wild love quadrangle. Instead this plays like some lost connector between Bruce’s second and third albums. And, unlike most songs of this nature, it’s extremely engaging even if you don’t get the jokes, in large part due to the ominous refrain and Dylan’s ability to pull all the various strains together in a fatal but funny ending.
8. “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”- The first Bootleg Series volume was the first huge payload of unreleased Dylan material to hit the shelves, but Biograph leaked some great forgotten songs a few years before that, including this single far too unwieldy to be a hit (except in England, where it snuck into the Top 20.) The Band’s herky-jerky rhythmic inventiveness is in early evidence here, while Dylan curls his words around them like sarcastic vines. This tale of a girl mesmerized by a svengali-like character whom the narrator knows isn’t all that features some of Bob’s most elastic wordplay, with lines that you could never believe even now would work in a pop song (so imagine what it must have sounded like 50 years ago!)
7. “Foot Of Pride”- One of the great songs that Bob left off Infidels and made that disc the ultimate what-might-have-been of his career, “Foot Of Pride” benefits from Mark Knopfler’s tough guitar licks and Bob’s colorful harmonica asides. The music is really just an excuse for Dylan to spin lyrics that take aim at various targets and characters, all of whom are going to survive his diatribes just fine, which is part of the reason he’s so aggrieved. Why he didn’t want the world to hear this kind of wild genius around this time is known only to him. What’s certain is that Dylan spewing venom allows us all to vicariously get out own frustrations off our chests as well.
6. “Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie”- Yeah, I know, not a song. But it has to be acknowledged. The nervousness with which Bob plows through this spoken-word poem about Guthrie’s impending passing and the impact he made on the youngster carrying the torch, which was recorded and captured for posterity on the Bootleg Series, betrays just how much the folk forefather actually meant to him. That makes it an important document of the inner, empathetic Dylan that too many observers overlook in favor of his lyrical brilliance and idiosyncratic behavior. It’s hard to imagine anyone not being mesmerized and genuinely touched by that performance, while it’s easy to figure that anyone hearing it might just look up Guthrie’s stuff too, which is a heartening thought.
5. “She’s Your Lover Now”- Howlingly funny and heartbreakingly disappointed all at once, here is a masterpiece that remained unfinished for many years, thanks to the breakdown at the end of the take included on The Bootleg Series. The complete 65-66 recordings finally gave us the full magilla with Bob on piano, but the band version is the one for the books. Nobody plays the jilted lover like Dylan, as he alternately insults and confides in his romantic rival while directly addressing the former lover with wisecracks that are leavened by the hurt in his voice. Perhaps the best manipulation of pronouns ever heard, as well.
4. “Things Have Changed”- I had the chance to interview Marty Stuart and asked him about the resemblances between this and Stuart’s “Observations Of A Crow,” and he admitted that Bob asked him for the A-OK first. Stuart responded that he had probably borrowed the melody in the first place anyway from somebody else, so Dylan could go crazy with it. People concentrate on the chorus and the seeming weariness of the punch line, but a close listen to the verses reveals that there’s a lost of feistiness in this main character. I think that payoff line should read more like “I used to give a damn, but ….” Because when you’re confronted with the insanity and hypocrisy that Bob details in the lyrics, indifference seems to be the only reasonable option.
3. “Positively 4th Street”- The capo de tutti capi of all kiss-off songs; it’s quite amazing that this kind of unrepentant attack made it so high on the singles charts. But, then again, with each new release Dylan was expressing emotions that hadn’t previously been broached in pop songs, so the newness of it probably struck people, that and the fact that he did it with Al Kooper’s chirpy organ as his main accompaniment on the track. I’m in the camp that it was probably written about his former folk song buddies who turned on him, but what does that matter really? What matters is that without it, it would be hard to imagine songs as diverse as “You’re So Vain,” “You Oughta Know,” every diss rap ever recorded, and, heck, even “Diamonds And Rust,” for that matter, ever existing.
2. “Red River Shore”- When we’re permanently separated from the person we love the most, is it possible to truly be happy? What kind of life awaits us if that’s the case? Is it a life at all? Those are the questions underlying a song that might be the most tragic in Dylan’s entire catalog. Much of his music since Blood On The Tracks is haunted by that one girl who reigns above all others in his mind and heart to whom he is endlessly returning but never quite getting there, and “Red River Shore” takes that idea all the way to the harrowing end of the line and dares us to behold the boundless misery that awaits there.
1. “Blind Willie McTell”- Dylan’s intuitive sense of timing on the piano combined with Knopfler’s minimalist acoustic guitar fills make for a haunting combination, first thing. As for the lyrics? Timeless is a word that gets thrown around a lot when discussing music, but this song takes that word to another level. It bounces from Biblical times to slavery ships to a lonely modern hotel room, and a connection that suggests that human nature has never quite been able to get out of its own way becomes obvious. God watches it all, allowing greed and corruption to run rampant and lives to be subordinated to these pursuits while refusing to interject. Only the blues singer can put his finger on the vastness of the pain, providing an outlet if not an answer. And if that pretty well sums up what Dylan has been doing all the years.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on Bob Dylan, check out the link below to the paperback edition of Counting Down Bob Dylan: His 100 Finest Songs.)
The sentimental among us likely couldn’t find it in ourselves to give The Wind a bad review even if it consisted of ear-damaging shrieks committed to tape for an hour, such were the circumstances surrounding its release. But I’m here to say that, even separated from the context of its creation, this album stands tall among Warren Zevon’s imposing back catalog, and it’s a fair argument to say that it might have been his best after the one-two punch of Warren Zevon and Excitable Boy a quarter-century earlier. The guest stars all give their all, but, regardless of the shadow hanging over them cast by his illness and subsequent death, Zevon’s songs, and his searingly honest performances of those songs, carry the day, just as it had always been with this artist. (And, since we’re at the end of this series, I want to take the opportunity to wonder why Warren isn’t in the Rock Hall of Fame, for sanity’s sake?) Here is a song-by-song review.
11. “The Rest Of The Night”- The one B-sideish throwaway here, it wastes some stinging guitar from Mike Campbell. (Campbell’s bandleader Tom Petty pitches in harmony vocals, which are not his strong suit.)
10. “Rub Me Raw”- Some of the lyrics seem to reference the reaction to his illness and Zevon’s distaste for some of it, but it’s a bit too vague where a direct broadside might have worked better. Plus his raised-eyebrow approach to the blues undercuts the song’s potential power.
9. “Numb As A Statue”- Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the Jackson Browne catalog should be able to recognize David Lindley’s distinctive slide guitar here. It gives this otherwise routine mid-tempo workout some pepper. The chorus is solid even though the verses meander.
8. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”- First of all, it might be the most overrated song in the Dylan catalog. Plus, it’s almost too on-point considering Zevon’s situation at the time. Still, when Warren beckons the doors to “Open up, open up” in the fadeout, damn if it doesn’t overcome all that.
7. “Prison Grove”- Backed by an all-star cast of vocalists playing the chain gang, including Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Billy Bob Thornton (naturally), Zevon depicts in poetic terms a frightful,\ figurative prison. He asks for deliverance not just for himself but for his fellow inmates: “Shine on all these broken lives.”
6. “El Amor De Mi Vida”- The Latin lilt and Spanish lyrics differentiate what otherwise is a pretty straightforward piano lament. More than anything though, Zevon’s wrecked vocal makes the most impact here.
5. “Disorder The House”- Bruce donated a good one to Warren in the early days with “Jeannie Needs A Shooter.” Here Zevon returns the favor by having The Boss essentially duet on this rollicking, unkempt, hilarious commentary on the state of the depressing world, written with Jorge Calderon. Springsteen wails on guitar, can barely keep a straight face when the Lhasa Apso makes an appearance, and joins Warren in stomping all over the “davenport of despair.” Anyone thinking that The Wind is a downbeat affair should know better after hearing this one.
4. “Dirty Life And Times”- Ry Cooder’s guitar provides the essential spark while Dwight Yoakam joins Thornton for some high lonesome on backing vocals. But this is Zevon’s show, starting the song (and album) off with the unforgettable line: “Sometimes I feel like my shadow’s casting me.” He intimates that maybe his lowly state is some cosmic comeuppance for his wanton ways in the past, and yet he still shrugs off a reticent paramour by going after her sister. Unapologetic and candid, it’s the perfect tone-setter for the deep emotional stuff to come.
3. “She’s Too Good For Me”- Here Zevon enlists Don Henley and Timothy Schmitt to add bittersweet, beautiful backing to prop up his wounded lead. It’s an irresistible combination, perfect gilding for the loveliest melody on the album. When he told that girl to hasten down the wind way back when, you got the feeling it was because he knew he couldn’t hold on to her anyway. But here it appears that his own folly drives her away, which somehow makes it even more forlorn.
2. “Please Stay”- This is the one that really gets me. The vulnerability is almost overwhelming, as is the beauty, upped by Warren’s perfect choice to have Emmylou Harris contribute the harmony vocals. What must it be like to stare down death, not knowing if “the other side of goodbye” even exists? Hearing his guy who’d never capitulated to anything in his songwriting subtly admitting to his fear is staggering. And then Gil Bernal’s sad, out-of-left-field saxophone part cinches the deal. The fact that so many colleagues and friends rallied to help him out on this album leads me to believe that Zevon was far from alone at the end, unless we all are, in which case this song hurts even more.
1.”Keep Me In Your Heart”- All the guest stars back off for the closer, leaving drummer Jim Keltner, Jorge Calderon, Zevon’s longest-running, most consistent collaborator who co-wrote and played all other instruments on the track, and Warren himself for his farewell. This is the optimistic flip side to “Please Stay,” Zevon assuring us that he’ll always be around even as he’s headed to Pleasant Stream. And this dude of so many witty, wise, wicked, wonderful words leaves us with a simple “Sha-la-la” refrain, sounding absolutely at peace. And we said, “So long, Warren.”
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, arrives in November. Pre-order with the link below.)
Following 2000’s reflective Life’ll Kill Ya, Warren Zevon returned to a more rocking mode with 2002’s My Ride’s Here. The former is more compelling; not that Zevon can’t rock convincingly, but the songs on the latter album, for the most part, are either too musically simplistic or too lyrically burdensome. And all of the co-writers prove that Zevon might have been better off going it alone. Still, there are three standouts here that can easily slide into any best-of mix CD of the man you might care to make. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “You’re A Whole Different Person When You’re Scared”- What should have been a monumental mind meld between Zevon and Hunter S. Thompson turns out to be anticlimactic, in part because Zevon forgot to write a melody, in part because the lyrics are kind of blah for two such distinctive writers.
9. “Laissez-Moi Tranquille”- Serge Gainsbourg’s original was like a rock tango. Zevon keeps the cowbell but otherwise turns it into more of a grinder, which saps the fun out of it. Not what you expect him to cover, but when did he ever do what was expected?
8. “MacGillycuddy’s Reeks”- Zevon always case his net far and wide outside the rock world for collaborators. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon joins him here for an energetic jig about romance, sickness, and financial concerns. It’s maybe a smidge too idiosyncratic, although the lines “I was a thorn/Still trying to find a side” are keepers.
7. “I Have To Leave”- Written by a buddy of Zevon’s (Dan McFarland), this mid-tempo number isn’t a classic but it elicits one of the most animated vocals on the album, in part because it possesses more melodic range than just about anything else here.
6. “Sacrificial Lambs”- Co-writing with Larry Klein, Zevon starts the album off on a particularly caustic note, tearing off some mean guitar licks to go with his unforgiving observations on the connection between money and religion. He seems to veer off the rail as the song rolls on, name-dropping Russell Crowe and Saddam Hussein, but what the hey? It’s all in good, dirty fun.
5. “Basket Case”- Warren hooks up with the “friskiest psycho” and eventually takes her place at the funny farm. If nothing else, it’s a good excuse for some solid one-liners from Zevon and old buddy Carl Hiassen, and it crunches along pretty effectively.
4. “Lord Byron’s Luggage”- Byron doesn’t stick around past the first verse’s musings on his bathing habits, and this second Irish-tinged tune on the album turns out to be the songwriter’s confessional. A grabby, slightly melancholy chorus centers the wandering verses of this song, the only one on the album written solely by Zevon.
3. “Hit Somebody! (The Hockey Song)”- As someone who wouldn’t watch hockey if they were playing the Stanley Cup across the street and changes the channel immediately when I see Mitch Albom’s face, I have to say that was a pleasant surprise. David Letterman’s hilarious recitation of the refrain helps to balance out the Hollywood sports movie turns of Albom’s storyline, and Letterman’s backing band does the song proud. Zevon’s just along to steer the zamboni on this winning novelty.
2. “My Ride’s Here”- Muldoon’s second contribution is a winner, delivered by Zevon with just the right mix of humor and heart. The galloping arrangement probably robs it of some of its pathos, and maybe that’s what Zevon wanted. Still, Bruce Springsteen’s slowed-down, mournful live version played in honor of Warren after his death seems definitive to me; The Boss makes even the Pinto sound elegiac somehow.
1. “Genius”- While it’s impossible to say what the division of power on this song was, it seems likely that Larry Klein handled the interestingly exotic instrumental backing and left the lyrics to Zevon. The Auto-Tune-like effect on his vocals is just right for the eloquently twisted narrative (or twistedly eloquent perhaps.) At its heart it’s a basic you-done-me-wrong song, but Zevon’s tangents are the fun part. Einstein, Mata Hari, and Charlie Sheen all make striking appearances, but none of them can draw our attention away from our narrator’s hypnotically deft wordplay. Genius, indeed.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. My new book, Counting Down The Rolling Stones, comes out in November. Pre-order on the link below.)
1995’s Mutineer is a fascinating entry in the Warren Zevon catalog. It’s a series of mostly slower, often contemplative songs. Zevon dials back the wisecracking (for the most part) and gets to the heart of the matter, emphasis on heart. He also takes some interesting musical risks, and though they don’t all pay off, the ones that do are revelatory. Some pedestrian rockers that are haphazardly thrown in really only break the spell; this one is at its best when it’s at its dreamiest. Here is a song-by-song review.
10. “Rottweiler Blues”- The author Carl Hiassen helps out with the lyrics here about a particularly ferocious guard dog and his ornery owner. Too bad nobody bothered to do much with the squawking rock arrangement.
9. “Seminole Bingo”- The other song co-written with Hiassen takes place in the author’s Florida haunts, depicting a scam artist on the run from the SEC. The story never really ignites, although Zevon gets in some ferocious guitar licks toward the end.
8. “Piano Fighter”- In typically idiosyncratic Zevonian fashion, this tale of a have-piano, will-travel outlaw features very little ivory-tickling. In fact, the production gets a bit too wild for its own good. But I do love the idea of Zevon as a musical gunfighter.
7. “Something Bad Happened To A Clown”- Zevon once sang of a “running-down calliope”, which is a good approximation of the sound of this oddity. Bruce Hornsby chips in with an evocative accordion part. Zevon’s lyrics don’t really go much further than the old tears-of-a-clown cliche, but the off-kilter mood is sustained quite well.
6. “Poisonous Lookalike”- A rather rancorous dressing down of a deceptive lover, this one possesses enough minor-key potency to get by all right. In a similar vein as Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise” but with a bit more bile.
5. “Similar To Rain”- Zevon cops a Brian Wilson Smile vibe here, with dissonant sounds fluttering at the edges of an ethereal musical landscape. The lyrics are a bit of an afterthought; just drift along with the strangely stirring music and you’ll do fine.
4. “Monkey Wash Donkey Rinse”- This one has the same stately, medieval feel as “The Indifference Of Heaven.” Zevon seems to be targeting the kind of lifeless gatherings of the affluent that he’s nailed before. This one is best enjoyed for its sprightly melody and the fun refrain.
3. “Jesus Was A Crossmaker”- Judee Sill, like Zevon, came from the Laurel Canyon scene in the late 60’s and the early 70’s and was one of David Geffen’s first discoveries. Unfortunately, her career sputtered and she died at age 35 in 1979. Zevon does her wonderful tribute with this elegiac version of her first single. Hornsby’s accordion bed breaks all falls, and Warren does the sweet but sad melody tender justice.
2. “Mutineer”- Zevon performed this in unforgettable fashion in his last appearance on David Letterman before his death, and anyone who saw that could tell that this was a personal song for him. The hazy synths conjure a nautical feel, albeit with a touch of melancholy. His wistful lyrics admit to his rebellious tendencies but also project heaping helpings of vulnerability. Bring your hankie.
1. “The Indifference Of Heaven”- It’s all well and good to look at the bright side, but sometimes a dose of dour reality is necessary. The narrator, a down on his luck yet poetic convenience store worker, takes umbrage here with both God and the Boss, an empty horizon yawning in front of him. And yet a kind of grace is bestowed upon him by the acoustic sheen of the music and Peter Asher’s benevolent harmonies. What a wonderful juxtaposition of lyrical theme and musical tone.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
If you thought he was going to be mellow after five years away, you were sadly mistaken. And if it was a comeback, it was only from the hiatus, since the quality of the previous two albums were still pretty high. Nonetheless, 1987’s Sentimental Hygiene was a kind of muted triumph for Warren Zevon. It didn’t tip the applause meter very high in terms of gaining wide acceptance, but to those who had followed him from the start, it was a reaffirmation of his strengths, from his ballsy social commentary to his out-of-left-field tenderness to the undeniable charm of his ne-er-do-well persona. Here is a song-by-song review:
10. “Leave My Monkey Alone”- In the “It seemed like a good idea at the time” department, how about a dance song about colonization of Africa? Other than a so-cringingly-bad-it’s-good video featuring Zevon doing choreography with George Clinton and the fact that you can tell people that Warren once collaborated with Flea, this one is best left for the curiosity pile.
9. “Bad Karma”- A little sitar spices up this heartland rocker about a damaged soul wondering where everything went awry. Concise and solid if not overly memorable, this one shows off Zevon’s Rolodex, as Michael Stipe and Heartbreaker Stan Lynch sing backing vocals.
8. “Sentimental Hygiene”- Zevon knows he’s got a catchy title phrase, so he wisely builds the song around it and keeps the fanciness to a minimum. What remains is a driving, moody rocker that sets a solid tone and gets its job done, with a big assist to Neil Young’s wall-scraping guitar solo.
7. “Reconsider Me”- Of course, the subtext of the title is that Zevon was asking the same of the listening public after his five-year absence. More than that, this is a great example of how he could tinker with his vocals and empty out all the bad-ass attitude when needed; his vulnerability on the mike is the most memorable thing about this straightforward love song.
6. “Even A Dog Shake Hands”- OK, so maybe Hollywood hangers-on were an easy target, but Warren hits the bulls-eye so clean and hard that he not only splits the target but he also fells the tree holding it. I don’t know if he came up with the title phrase, but it’s so on-point it’s scary. And “All the worms and the gnomes are having lunch at Le Dome”: it don’t get much better than that. Kudos as well for three-fourths of REM for helping out on a song that sounds like they crammed on Bobby Fuller Four singles before recording it.
5. “The Factory”- It may be Bob Dylan on harmonica, but this ode to the working man is far more Springsteenian in nature. The tone is Zevon’s though: Where Bruce took a somber tone on his own “Factory,” Warren blows through this one with sardonic humor and a zest that you wouldn’t expect considering he’s inhabiting a guy knee-deep in asbestos and contemplating offing his wife. The refrain of “Yes, sir, no sir” is a brilliant touch.
4. “Boom Boom Mancini”- We live in an era where boxing earns a few select champions billions where most of the rest toil in anonymity among the wider public. Ah, but the 80’s were a great era for puglisitic cult heroes like the title character, who represented the kind of underdog spirit from which countless movies have been made. Zevon takes a gritty approach to his tribute, with attacking guitars and bludgeoning drums, while using typically no-BS tactics in the lyrics. In this way, he underscores the brutality of the sport while still capturing Mancini’s allure.
3. “Detox Mansion”- Again, here is Zevon zigging where most would zag. Instead of singing about his addiction in hushed tones filled with mea culpas, he conjures a sarcasm-heavy track about the celebrity recovery lifestyle, name-dropping and suggesting that he’s going to get a great song out of the deal. It’s a wry commentary on how the famous have the opportunity to expunge their demons in luxury, as compared to the normal person who just has to do the work without any creature comforts to soften the blow.
2. “The Heartache”- Damn it, Warren, you’ve got me laughing all disc long, and, then, on the penultimate song, you go and get me misty. Combine a gorgeous country-tinged melody and Zevon’s predictably trenchant musings on the one that got away, and you’ll start to wonder if the guy who first said it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all had any credibility whatsoever.
1. “Trouble Waiting To Happen”- Guest stars add serious zest to this good-natured rambler about bad times: J.D. Souther adds some country sensibilities as co-writer, Brian Setzer lends a little rockabilly on lead guitar, and Don Henley punches out some sweet harmonies. But what makes the song such a winner is Zevon playing off his public persona so cleverly, to the point where you can’t be sure how far his tongue is tucked in his cheek as he sings about the various calamities on his docket.
(E-mail me at email@example.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
In a just world, Jackson Browne’s 1986 album Lives In The Balance would have been hailed as the kind of mass-audience masterpieces that peers like Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon achieved in the second half of the decade. Not everybody was ready for the unflinching truth-telling, often at the expense of America’s leaders, that defined the album. Agree or not, the message was searingly spoken against a more diverse musical backdrop than Browne had ever before attempted. And, sadly, the album sounds eerily relevant still. Here is a song-by-song review:
8. “Soldier Of Plenty”- This is the one song on the album that gets a little too fussy production-wise and doesn’t do enough musically to leaven some of the bile being spewed, which makes it a bummer to endure even when the points being made are valid.
7. “Candy”- Imagine a more in-depth look at the inner workings of the girl from “Somebody’s Baby” and you’ve got the gist of this moody track. It’s not as thorough as it could have been but it’s solid nonetheless.
6. “Lawless Avenues”- Browne catalogs the lives and deaths of a rough Latin neighborhood and adds in a couple anti-war shots for good measure. “Fathers and sons’ lives repeat,” he sings, suggesting the endless cycle of poverty and violent crime that hamstrings these hard-luck characters. Nice use of the Spanish vocals as well to add some authenticity to the tale.
5. “Till I Go Down”- The kicky reggae might have signalled a softening of Browne’s withering approach some other time, but not on this album. Instead it serves to soundtrack his promises of eternal vigilance as long as the atrocities he sees persist. By the time it’s over, “Till I Go Down” has turned into a rousing if unlikely anthem.
4. “For America”- With the charging guitar and the saxophone piercing the night, Browne sounds like he’s invading the territory of his buddy Bruce Springsteen with this opening salvo. The desperation in his performance sets it apart though, as does his willingness to castigate his younger self for not being more aware of the lies and governmental sleight of hand he now sees everywhere he turns.
3. “Black And White”- Browne brings it back down to a personal level on this elegant closer. He challenges the protagonist to reach back to his former self, the one ready to fight for his ideals no matter the cost, before it’s too late. The refrain of “Time running out” works on that micro level but it also serves as a larger warning that echoes the politicized rants elsewhere on the album. That Browne manages this so seamlessly without an ounce of strain is just par for the course for this gifted songwriter.
2. “Lives In The Balance”- Browne steals some of Paul Simon’s thunder by imbuing this unsparing protest song with hauntingly sad music featuring exotic Spanish folk song overtones. Not that he’s trying to sweeten the medicine: His lyrics about the questionable reasons that countries use to justify wars are as harshly eloquent as he’s ever written. If anything, the beauty of the music only intensifies the senselessness of the situation as perceived by Browne. “There are children at the cannons,” he sings, an image of madness that drives his point home with excruciating accuracy.
1. “Shape Of A Heart”- On this album full of topical material, Browne realizes that the topic of tortured romance is always a hot-button issue. This poignant, warts-and-all reflection on a past relationship allows him to theorize that the flowery stuff of love songs and the ugliness of real life are usually at opposite poles, and never the twain shall meet. “People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of,” Browne sings, and you get the sense he’s including his past songwriting self as one of those “people.” The moment when he drops his former flame’s old ruby into the hole in the wall from one of their former fights, a symbolic act of letting go, gets me every time.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia.)
Considering that single songs about a rock star’s life on tour can be self-indulgent, baasing an entire album on that concept would seem to have serious train-wreck potential. Yet Jackson Browne emerged triumphant in 1977 with Running On Empty, scoring a pair of Top 20 singles and his biggest-selling album in the heart of the disco era. While a big hit sometimes represents selling out, in Browne’s case it was a matter of his poignant observations about life on the road resonating with fans who could relate to the loneliness. Here is a song-by-song review:
9. “Nothing But Time”- The fact that it was recorded on a bus may win it some novelty points, but it also makes it feel even more like a throwaway.
8. “Shaky Town”- Written by guitarist Danny Kortchmar, it doesn’t have the heft of your typical Browne composition but it works here on an album with a much more laid-back vibe than any of Jackson’s previous efforts. The CB jargon dates it a bit.
7. “You Love The Thunder”- Even with the excellent work of the Section (the famed band of West Coast session musicians who back Browne throughout the album) trying to propel it, this one has a bit of a generic classic rock feel about it. Luckily Browne’s lyrics elevate it a bit, as he warns an admirer that the itinerant life may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
6. “Cocaine”- Browne played it sparse with this oft-covered blues classic from the Rev. Gary Davis, sticking with just acoustic guitars and David Lindley’s mournful fiddle. Although the bones of the original song are there, Browne and Glenn Frey added some lyrics, and you have to think they were responsible for these lines: “I was talking to my doctor down at the hospital/He said, ‘Son, it says here you’re twenty-seven, but that’s impossible/Cocaine, you look like you could be forty-five.’”
5. “The Load Out/Stay”- No sense separating these songs, since Browne restructured Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ oldie “Stay” to fit the touring theme. (Who knew Lindley could hit those falsetto high notes?) It would have been disingenuous to say that everything on the road is a bummer, so the goosed-up second half after the somber piano open is necessary at this point in the album. I’m not sure that a listener can separate this one from its specific setting like some of the others here, but as an anthropological study of a touring rock star, you can’t beat it.
4. “The Road”- It was written by Danny O’ Keefe of “Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues” fame, but you could easily mistake it for a Browne original thanks to its chilling melody and piercingly self-aware lyrics. Again Lindley is invaluable here with his tender violin work, and the moment when the song shifts from a hotel-room jam into an arena performance is both clever and well-executed. Add in a lived-in vocal from Browne just to tip the scales even further in this one’s favor.
3. “Rosie”- The genius of this one is that Browne plays it straight. Had the music not been so earnest, the silliness of the masturbation jokes would have run amok and turned this one into a kind of parody song. But the beauty of the melody and the sensitivity of Browne’s vocal, even with a knowing wink in his voice, make the narrator’s predicament hit home. And anyway, it’s true: “It’s who you look like/Not who you are.”
2. “Love Needs A Heart”- This is one of the most unheralded songs on the album but it’s a showstopper in its way. Co-written with Lowell George and Valerie Carter, “Love Needs A Heart” finds Browne sinking into a country-tinged ballad with heartbreakingly pretty results. What grabs you about this song is how honest the narrator is in assessing his romantic capabilities. In a way, the message mirrors that old break-up cliché “It’s not you, it’s me.” Only this time the guy really means it, and admitting his immunity to love is akin to admitting that a lifetime of solitude is ahead if he can’t turn the page.
1. “Running On Empty”- Only two years before, Bruce Springsteen had summed up an entire ethos with his song “Born To Run.” This feels like an answer record of sorts. Browne’s character is running, but it doesn’t fulfill him and he can’t escape the feeling that he’s running late and missing something life-altering. At least he’s got a killer soundtrack for his journey thanks to Russ Kunkel’s energizing drums and Lindley’s moaning slide. Browne wants to shake off any spokesman status (“I don’t know about anyone but me”), but he just does his job summing up the aimlessness of a whole generation too damn well to get away with it.
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