Friday, August 8, 2008

take it easy

My book-in-progress, provisionally titled Canyon Fodder, is set in Los Angeles and tells a series of intersecting stories about three musicians who live through the Great Collapse. I took my initial inspiration from three sources. The first was Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A., a film that in Pauline Kael’s words “looks drugged.” She intended the remark as criticism, but for me Welcome to L.A. has the same dreamy, fragmented feel as some of Robert Altman’s best movies. Rudolph, incidentally, worked very closely with Altman for many years and Altman produced Welcome to L.A., which is loosely centered on a singer-songwriter, played by the great Keith Carradine, and is about the precariousness of meaningful romantic connection in the splintered metropolis. The film drips with decadence and should be viewed, in my opinion, as one of the definitive representations of West Coast-style 70s malaise… The second source of inspiration for my book was Easy Rider, arguably the ultimate Great Collapse movie, and the third was Jackson Browne’s song, “The Pretender.”

“The Pretender” is Jackson Browne’s most explicit statement on the death of the hippie dream. ‘I wanna know what became of the changes we waited for love to bring/Were they only the fitful dreams of some greater awakening?’ The song deploys remarkably evocative poetic symbols to express the disillusionment of Baby Boomers who watched the communal ideals of the 60s morph into empty materialism and dull suburban routine.

Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender

Where the veterans dream of the fight

Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait For the ice cream vendor
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams

Begin and end there

Much to Jackson Browne’s credit, the acquisitive protagonist in “The Pretender” is not an object of derision or scorn but instead is depicted sympathetically as a person trying to navigate forces beyond his control, ‘caught between the longing for love and the struggle for the legal tender.'

“The Pretender” elaborates on ideas scattered over Jackson Browne’s previous albums, Jackson Browne, For Everyman, and Late for the Sky. I’ve always been compelled by Jackson’s ability to communicate broadly relevant problems with a personal, confessional style. He also keeps things mellow and understated, as if to underscore his milieu’s need for quietude after the turbulence of the 60s. While “The Pretender” is my favorite song of his at this level, my favorite collection of his songs is Late for the Sky, an album that, as Stephen Holden wrote in his 1974 review for Rolling Stone, explores “romantic possibility in the shadow of apocalypse..." What emerges from the songs on Late for the Sky is a portrait of a man and a generation adrift, having lost all sense of identity and meaning 'after the deluge.' How long have I been sleeping? Jackson asks on the album’s title track. ‘How long have I been drifting along through the night?’ What makes the album so affecting is the way Jackson balances sadness and dislocation with hope and a faith in renewal. ‘Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around’, he sings in “For a Dancer,” ’go ahead and make a joyful sound.’ I wouldn’t describe the sounds Jackson makes on Late for the Sky as ‘joyful’, but his humanistic impulse gives you reason to believe - or reason to want to believe.

Running on Empty, released about one year after The Pretender, is a ‘life on the road’ album, as in ‘life on the road is so damn hard.’ I find this hackneyed rock theme pretty tedious. Every time I watch The Last Waltz, I wince when Robbie Robertson tells Martin Scorsese that touring is “a goddamn impossible way of life.” How impossible can it be, really, when the record company is paying you tons of money to bask in mass adoration and get fellated by a different woman every night? Coal mining is an impossible way of life. The life of a rock star is comparatively easy… Having said this, though, Running on Empty is a pretty great record. The album features a number of solid songs (“The Road”, “Rosie”, “You Love the Thunder”), all recorded during live performances, sound checks, and in hotel rooms. The most well-known track on the album – and I think the most famous song Jackson ever wrote other than "Take it Easy" – is “Running on Empty.” The song is one part road exhaustion (‘I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels’) and one part post-60s disillusionment (‘In ’65 I was 17 and running up 101 / I don’t know where I’m running now I’m just running on’).

Running on Empty was Jackson’s last really good album. He called his next album Hold Out, likely a self-congratulatory reference to his increasing social activism and ongoing belief in the values of the 60s generation. Hold Out has one or two good songs, but the record as a whole gives the impression that Jackson was, by this time, truly running on empty.

1 comment:

aimable said...

Jackson Browne is my favourite rock singer; I like his songs because when you listen to his music, it makes you feel what he feels. Jackson Browne has always been one of my favourite music artists and I couldn't pass up any opportunity to see him even if his tickets are hard to come by. Before my friend and I used to attend their concerts even their tickets are often sky high; now we found a site where we found cheap tickets .Here is the link: