life became the Paradox, the Bear, the Rouge et Noir
and the stretch of road running to L.A.
-“The Barricades of Heaven,” Looking East (1996)
The road looms large in Jackson Browne’s world—so much so that he dedicated an entire album to it.
Running On Empty is equal parts extended meditation on the grind of life on the road and tribute to the possibilities the road opens up (the second track—a cover of Danny O’Keefe’s “The Road”—is a representative distillation of these two themes). The album—recorded live on stage, backstage, on the tour bus, and in random hotel rooms during the fall of 1977—is ambitious and impressive (if only for the mere fact that it doesn’t completely fall apart). Running On Empty's cohesion, however, owes more to the steady hands of The Section than to Browne's talent. In fact, even though “Running On Empty” and “The Load Out/Stay” are intimately bound up with Browne's legacy, very little of Browne's individual artistry shines through (only two tracks are solo Browne compositions). It's also self-indulgent in ways that other Jackson Browne albums are not, as illustrated by the audible cocaine use at the end of “Cocaine” or “Rosie"—an entire song dedicated to a roadie that decides, after the groupie he was wooing runs off with the drummer, to…well, not to draw, at least not in any Wittgensteinian sense.
A better example of the road in Browne’s work is, I think, 1996’s “The Barricades of Heaven.”
Here, Browne recalls a youth spent playing music up and down the California coastline (“running down around the towns along the shore when I was sixteen and on my own”). Early in the song he confesses: “No, I couldn’t tell you what the hell those brakes were for, I was just trying to hear my song.” It is here that we can see the urgency of the road pulling at him as if against his will. This lack of agency—this submission to some larger calling—is made explicit in the chorus: “straight into the night our hearts were flung.” Browne and his compatriots do not willingly “fling” their hearts and talents into the world. Instead, it seems some external force has sent them out into the night.
This is not, of course, an unusual sentiment—people often describe the things they find beautiful or are passionate about as “calling out” to them from somewhere else. We are “moved” to write music, we are “driven” to create. In all of these sentiments, we—the supposedly active agents—become intermediaries between beauty and the world. As Elaine Scarry describes this experience: “At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you…. Your arrival seems contractual, not just something you want, but something the world you are now joining wants.”
For Browne, the road is no mere vessel for the transport of his music. Rather, it represents a reciprocal relationship—Browne wants to hear his song, and the road demands he share it with the world.