Greatest Songs, #492: “Running On Empty” by Jackson Browne

Album: Running On Empty (Asylum Records)
Year: 1977
Written by: Jackson Browne
Billboard Hot 100: #11

 From Rolling Stone:

Running On Empty” was Browne’s grand experiment: a live album of all-new songs recorded onstage, in hotel rooms and on the tour bus. The title track was actually written when Browne was driving back and forth to the studio each day to make The Pretender. “I was always driving around with no gas in the car,” he said. “I just never bothered to fill up the tank because — how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks.”

From Wikipedia:

The song starts off with an immediate, propulsive backbeat, with the melody carried by piano and throughout laced by David Lindley‘s distinctive lap steel guitar work. Browne’s vocal is emphatic, with strong backing vocal parts from Rosemary Butler and Doug Haywood; the arrangement overall conveys a headlong existence. The lyric’s ages and years match up with Browne’s, yet still the puzzled sentiment is universal…

From Rolling Stone‘s original review of the album in 1978:

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…

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.

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.