Jackson Browne : Running On Empty
On December 6, 1977 Jackson Browne released the best album of his career, Running On Empty. I didn't ever feel a need to buy a copy of the album. It was blaring out of speakers pointed outside dorm room windows throughout my teenage years. But it's only when you listen to the entire album that you realize what a cool concept this is: A live album about a musician's life on the road, recorded onstage, in rehearsal rooms, in Holiday Inn suites and on a bus. Only complaint: David Lindley's lap steel guitar is almost too present on the record.
This is the 70's so it should be no surprise how often cocaine is mentioned :
In "Cocaine" : Cocaine, running all 'round my brain
In "Nothing But Time : I got a broken white line (I'm still sober)
As our finest practicing romantic, Jackson Browne has been stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again for so long that the road probably looks like a realistic way of life to him. Whether or not he knows it, he's been writing about highways and their alternate routes since his beginnings, so the subject matter of Running on Empty aren't all that different from those of his first four LPs. But the approach is. This time, Browne has consciously created a documentary, as brightly prosaic as it is darkly poetic, with a keen eye for the mundane as well as the magical. Running on Empty is a live album of new material about life on the road as conceived and recorded by a band of touring musicians in the places they spend most of their time (onstage, backstage, in hotel rooms, even on the bus). Since there are two separate concepts here, the audience gets an unprecedented double feature: ten songs they've never heard Browne sing, and a behind-the-scenes look at the "the show they didn't see." Ostensibly, the Gawain of rock and roll has scaled down his heroic obsessions, re-covered the Round Table with Formica and invited us in for a cup of truck-stop coffee, thus proving a point we knew all along: that small gestures can be just as meaningful and revealing as large ones.
Ironically, when Browne tries for specifics, he achieves both facts and universals. But his inclination to ease up makes sense here because he's really running two different, very dangerous races: one positively mythopoetic (the Road and its metaphorical implications), the other presumably maudlin (musicians on the road). The first can barley be done justice to within the confines of a pop record, while the second has rarely risen above its inherent cliches.
Sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don't even know when that road turned onto the road I'm on....
You know I don't even know what I'm hoping to find
Running into the sun but I'm running behind.
Best of all, there's a finale. "The Load-Out" is Jackson Browne's tribute to and summation of every aspect of live performance: the cheering audience out front, the band playing hard-nosed rock and roll, the backstage crew loading up the trucks -- and, always, the road to the next town. Packed to capacity with the data of first-rate reporting and with music so warm and soaring it belies the album's title, this song flows triumphantly into Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs' "Stay," where Browne tells us he doesn't ever want it to end.
What I really like about Running on Empty probably has little to do with the generosity or genius of its dual concepts, with the songwriter's craftmanship skill, with how much I admire the music of David Lindley and the Section, but rather with Jackson Browne himself. In other words, as impressed as I am with Jackson Browne's art, I'm even more impressed with the humanity that shines through it. Maybe they're inseparable, but I doubt it.
Out of the studio -- this was recorded on tour -- Jackson sounds relaxed verbally, vocally, even instrumentally. He cuts his own meager melodies with nice ones by Danny O'Keefe and Danny Kortchmar. He does a funny and far from uncritical version of "Cocaine" and a loving and far from unfunny version of "Stay." I consider this his most attractive album. But his devotees may consider the self-effacement a deprivation.
Presented here are 10 new selections from this gifted singer/songwriter, all recorded live onstage, as well as in hotel rooms, from a recent cross-country tour. The material deals mainly with experiences of the brief road encounters, loneliness and roadies -- all done with Browne's evocative, haunting and penetrating insight. Music is a mix of soft rock ballads and pounding, uptempo tunes with the Section (Craig Doerge on keyboards, Danny Kortchmer on guitars, Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass, as well as David Lindley on electric fiddle and lap steel) supporting Browne's piano. Best cuts: "Running On Empty," "The Road," "You Love The Thunder," "Love Needs A Heart," "The Load Out."