Jackson Browne’s 1976 was a tumultuous one. In February, his emotive ballad “Late for the Sky” was featured in Taxi Driver, during a scene in which Robert De Niro watches American Bandstand shortly after shooting a man in a bodega. In March, while Browne was in the studio cutting The Pretender, his wife Phyllis Major fatally overdosed on barbiturates. “Here Come Those Tears Again,” a devastating song co-written by Major’s mother, was included on the album.
To promote The Pretender, Browne appeared on the television series Soundstage, performing tracks from the new record as well as from 1974’s Late for the Sky, released 45 years ago today. Browne performs the title track in the video above, sitting at the piano accompanied by his band. “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me,” he sings, strands of hair falling across his eyes. “Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.”
“Late for the Sky” opens the album, a heartbreaking tale of a disintegrating relationship that sets the mood for the seven songs that followed — the arresting emotional maturity of “Fountain of Sorrow,” the stunning “For a Dancer” and the laid-back rocker “Before the Deluge.” “It was my literary period: long-form, rambling songs in iambic pentameter with that run-on philosophical attitude,” Browne told Rolling Stone of the album in 1983. “I was wistful, searching bleary-eyed for God in the crowds.”
Inspired by René Magritte’s 1954 series of paintings L’Empire des Lumieres, the iconic album cover features a 1950s Chevrolet parked on a residential street in South Pasadena, beneath a streetlamp and the expansive evening sky. The cozy, private scene encapsulated the self-reflective songwriting on the album. It would influence many artists in the following decades, including Bruce Springsteen, who praised it while inducting Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. “In Seventies post-Vietnam America,” Springsteen said, “there was no album that captured the fall from Eden, the long, slow afterburn of the Sixties, its heartbreak, its disappointments, its spent possibilities better than Jackson’s masterpiece Late for the Sky.“
“For the past six years, I’ve been meeting people who tell me they prefer Late for the Sky to anything I’ve done since,” Browne told RS in ’83. “The intimate, confessional and introspective song really had its time.” Browne has continued to play “Late for the Sky” throughout the years. Chances are high he’ll play it on the newly announced Lantern Tour II, which benefits migrants affected at the border.