Doing this deep dive, I’ve been surprised to realize how few “hits” Jackson Browne has recorded. ‘Doctor My Eyes’ and ‘Somebody’s Baby’ are the only two to reach the top ten, with ‘Running on Empty’ a little ways behind. But that’s about it, in terms of Jackson Browne songs your average music fan can name off the top of her head.
You can throw ‘Take it Easy’ into the mix, but that was a hit for the Eagles, not Browne himself. Even his ‘These Days’ is better known as a Nico recording.
When I read several references to Browne’s 1974 album Late For the Sky as his “masterpiece,” I expected to find two or three well-known hits on it. That’s usually how it goes — a beloved artist’s major albums feature at least a couple of their best-known songs.
But Late For the Sky was completely new to me, and a lovely discovery. I had seen the title track used in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, its lonely rhythms serving as a perfect metaphor for Travis Bickle’s sorry state, but that’s it.
The record features only eight songs, five of them topping five minutes, and almost all of them sadly exploring mortality, loss and other melancholy matters. As you’d expect, I’m a big fan.
The two shortest tracks are mood-breaking rockers, and though they are fine songs in their own right, they feel out of place here. I wonder if Browne felt pressure from his recording label to put some potential radio hits on this otherwise downbeat album.
He did get pressured on the budget. After breaking the bank recording his previous album, the label asked him to cut costs on this one, leading him to record with his touring band rather than bringing in pricey session musicians. It worked out just fine, because these songs sound great.
Browne wrote today’s track about the death of a dancer friend of his. It was played at the memorials of Saturday Night Live alumni John Belushi and Phil Hartman (the latter time performed by Browne himself).
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must’ve thought you’d always be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found
I don’t know what happens when people die
Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear that I can’t sing
I can’t help listening
And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
Crying as they ease you down
‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
Dancing our sorrow away
(Right on Dancing)
No matter what fate chooses to play
(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)
Just do the steps that you’ve been shown
By everyone you’ve ever known
Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown
In the end, there is one dance you’ll do alone
Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down
Perhaps, a better world is drawing near
Just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
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
This is a beautiful song to capture an unexpected loss. I’m familiar with more of Browne’s songs than I know by name or about which I know much of anything at all, largely from having seen him in concert and having his songs pop up on random playlists over the years. Also, a bit like the Indigo Girls, the songs I like best by him have a common thread. This is certainly one of those. Now I will have poignant images connected with it.
I believe I heard this album at least once many years ago, but I am long overdue for another listen.
I think Browne is not unlike many of the greatest singers/songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Randy Newman and Ben Folds, in having a few modest hits receiving top 40 radio play, but otherwise releasing decades worth of material known only to the most ardent fans.
Meanwhile, in reading a bit more about this album, I found that, just this year, Late for the Sky was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
“For A Dancer” is probably my favorite Jackson Browne song. Interesting that you mention the lack of hits on this album. Very much like The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” album, which is a fan and critics favorite, but had no hits at the time, Late for the Sky is generally considered Jackson’s greatest album. The title track and “For a Dancer” consistently rank among his fans favorite tracks.
The album was recorded in just six weeks and reached #14 on the Billboard Top Pop Album Chart and stayed on the chart for 29 weeks. It was also released for a short time (1974-1979) in a quadraphonic edition!
And once again, like all of Jackson’s early albums, there is a standout track to conclude the album in “Before The Deluge,” a song that sadly is still poignant and deeply relevant today.
By the way, the album cover image was inspired by Belgian painter Magritte’s Empire of Light series.
Greatt reading your post