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 and thematic concerns 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 show they didn’t see.” Ostensibly, the Gawain of rock & 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 mythopoeic (the Road and its metaphorical implications), the other presumably maudlin (musicians on the road). The first can barely be done justice to within the confines of a pop record, while the second has rarely risen above its inherent cliches.
If a full-fledged mythology of the road didn’t exist, we’d undoubtedly have to invent one, but the job has already been done by the same people who gave us the sky and the sea: i.e., practically every artist and thinker who ever lived. Because of this, we’ve probably got more concrete imagery than we do concrete, more journeying Jungians who would rather check out the Holy Grail than check in at the Holiday Inn. First the fire, then the wheel — it’s almost as simple as that. Since the primary theme of nearly every major American novel, play, poem, movie or song is Innocence versus Experience, the road is our perfect primal symbol; we can use it to advance or escape, as beginning or end. When Jackson Browne, on his first album, sang, “There’s a train every day/Leaving either way/There’s a world, you know,” he was giving us both the problem and the solution, and there’s not much difference between the two. For Browne, as for most of us, the question has always been whether to stay or to leave, the answer either or neither. We want commitment, but we’re committed only to the quandary.
Of course, one apparent way around all this is to stay out on the road, simultaneously searching while sending constant letters home. But Running on Empty‘s enormously moving “Love Needs a Heart,” cowritten with Lowell George and Valerie Carter, chillingly demonstrates what usually happens to men and women who attempt this. “I split myself in two,” the singer admits: “Proud and alone, cold as a stone/Rolling down that hill into the night/I could see the surprise and the hurt in your eyes….” In “You Love the Thunder,” Browne forges a temporary relationship with a kindred spirit, only to realize “You can dream/But you can never go back the way you came.” “Running on Empty” (whose very title bristles with tenacious, win/lose duality) is an effective continuation of the songwriter’s darkening “Looking into You”/”Farther On”/”Your Bright Baby Blues” cycle. Here, as with “Love Needs a Heart” and “You Love the Thunder,” Browne looks back on his life, revisits The Pretender and reaches similar conclusions:
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive
In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don’t 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.
This is the hymn of the Harvard cowboy, a pragmatic hobo’s lullaby. It’s what daydreamers have nightmares about.
If love needs a heart, Running on Empty makes it clear that the road isn’t a good place either to find or to hold one. But then, neither is a house in the shade of the freeway — “The Pretender” told us that. On the road, at least, there’s that old gray magic, asphalt camaraderie and the special language of musicians who mark time by gigs and guitar cases. Section guitarist Danny Kortchmar’s “Shaky Town” captures perfectly all the desperate exhilaration of playing in “a thousand bands” on “those one-night stands,” and Browne raises the hair on the back of your neck with his passionate singing. There’s “Nothing but Time” on the bus and “Cocaine” in the hotel room, both recorded on location. On one song, tour photographer Joel Bernstein sings harmony on the chorus. Funny things happen when you’re part of a caravan. In the subtle, rueful and witty “Rosie” (written by Browne and his production manager, Donald “Buddha” Miller), a groupie the sound mixer craves leaves with a star, so the mixer must, if he wants any loving that night, once again take himself in hand.
Best of all, there’s a finale — a fusion of Jackson Browne’s and Bryan Garofalo’s “The Load-Out” and Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ “Stay” — that’s worthy of such earlier Browne anthems as “For Everyman,” “Before the Deluge” and “The Pretender.” “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 & 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 “Stay,” where Browne tells us he doesn’t ever want it to end. Taken together, “The Load-Out” and “Stay” are so accessible they’re practically transparent. Maybe that’s why they feel so good.
You’re supposed to end a review like this with a logical recapitulation of the points you’ve been trying to make, but let’s just forget about that. Though everything I’ve said is true, it’s also somewhat obvious and possibly even misleading. 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 craftsmanship and skill, with how much I admire the music of David Lindley and the Section, but rather with Jackson Browne himself. It’s simple enough to talk about lyrics, aims, structure and all the critical etceteras, but it’s very difficult to pinpoint what it is that’s actually moved you. It has to do with essences, I think, and all those corny virtues like truth, courage, conviction, kindness and the rest of them. 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.