There’s a moment early in Jackson Browne’s 1977 album Running on Empty that isn’t merely an impressive production coup, although it is that. It functions as a thesis statement for the record, and simultaneously elevates it above any similar album in the rock ‘n’ roll canon.
Essentially a concept piece about a life spent touring, with new songs by Browne augmented by a number of co-writes and covers, Running on Empty was recorded entirely outside the traditional studio environment. Some of the tracks were recorded live in concert; others were cut backstage, in hotel rooms and even on the tour bus itself (a Continental Silver Eagle, since you ask).
The Road, the second track, initially sounds like a moment of pensive, quiet introspection after the adrenaline-fuelled high of the opening title track. Browne sings the song quietly, accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and David Lindley’s smoky fiddle. The liner notes tell us it was tracked in Room 301 of the Cross Keys Inn, Columbia, MD *. The verses rest upon the tension created by moving back and forth between G major and a G augmented, a tension that isn’t fully released until just before the end of the chorus, where a chord is held and the singer pauses long enough for us to hear the night-time sounds of crickets through an open window. “It’s just another town along the road,” Browne concludes over a descending sequence that takes us back to G major and the start of the next verse.
The song is a meditation on the cost of a life spent always on the move, losing contact with people you care about, taking drugs you oughtn’t to, and making only superficial connections with the people you meet. It’s a cover of a song by Danny O’Keefe, but Browne sings it as if it is his own, inhabiting every note convincingly. But then, after the second chorus, as the major 7th chord fades, the crickets are replaced by cheers from an audience, and we crossfade into a live-in-concert performance of the song. It’s done so subtly that the first time you hear it, you probably won’t hear the join or realise what’s happening until it’s happened.
That cross-fade from motel room to concert hall may have been a relatively simple matter for audio engineer Greg Ladanyi (the album’s unsung hero), but the emotional effect of it, the dramatic change it causes to the song’s meaning, is huge. Yes, the song says, the life of a touring musician – boring when it’s not bacchanalian, and harmful to the soul when it is – takes a great deal from you, but it’s a price worth paying to get to play for people for an hour or two a night. It would be one thing to write a song that contained that message. Plenty of people have, including Jackson Browne. But with this song, he found a way to illustrate it, to show without telling. It’s this that I find so impressive, and this that makes the album probably the best of its type.
That said, there aren’t many live albums of its type*. Live records are more usually recorded at one show to document a set that contains at least some old material, and over the years have been so routinely touched up in the studio, or in extreme cases re-recorded so extensively, that calling them live albums might be a bit of a stretch. What we have with Running on Empty, if we take the sleeve notes at face value (and I’m inclined to, having watched the bass player on the tour, Lee Sklar, talk about Running on Empty on his YouTube channel – the guy has had such a storied career that he has no reason to embellish the truth where this one record is concerned), is very different. This is more akin to a fly-on-the-wall documentary of a rock band on the road, in which concert footage is juxtaposed with jam sessions on the tour bus and songs being rehearsed backstage.
Even if you don’t know the album, you may well know the title track, which was one of Browne’s biggest hits. It’s played so cleanly that during its running time we may well forget that it’s a live recording (from a show at Merriweather Post Pavilion), but there’s an edge to it, a power, that Jackson Browne’s studio records sometimes lack. The Section – Russ Kunkel on drums, Sklar on bass, Craig Doerge on keys and Danny Kortchmar on guitar – are in fiery form, with Sklar and Kunkel a thrilling blend of power and agility, while David Lindley’s scorching lap steel guitar eggs Browne on to really let go in his vocal performance; when he cries out “I don’t know about anyone but me” halfway through the track, there’s an edge, a grain, to his voice that feels raw and genuine, as if he’s just being carried away by the music.
The other famous moment from the record is the medley of Browne’s The Load Out and a cover of Maurice Williams’s Stay, during which backing singer Rosemary Butler (who along with Doug Haywood does yeoman work throughout) takes a verse, before David Lindley does likewise, bringing the house down with his best doo-wop falsetto.
It’s easy to forget about The Load Out, to enjoy it just as a prelude to the warm, funny climax of the record, but it’s one of the record’s most important songs. The Load Out (and Rosie from earlier in the album) is as concerned with the roadie’s experience of the touring life as that the musician’s, and it has an eye for detail (“I can hear the sound of slamming doors and folding chairs and that’s a sound they’ll never know”) that raises it above the many, many road songs that got written in the seventies. So many of those songs talk only of the alienation of life on tour. The Load Out acknowledges the loneliness, the endless time to fill, but is ultimately about the camaraderie between musicians and crew, which is why when it segues into Stay and Browne sings that they want to play just one more song, it works so perfectly.
Jackson Browne himself produced Running on Empty, and what makes it successful, apart from that crucial decision to record outside the concert venue as well as in it, is his choice of material. Browne wrote only two of the songs by himself, unusually for him, and included four covers (The Road and Stay, and also Danny Kortchmar’s R&B-flavoured Shaky Town and a version of Cocaine with new lyrics by Browne and Glenn Frey).
Browne is an excellent writer. These Days, Jamaica Say You Will, Late for the Sky, Somebody’s Baby, Running on Empty and many more all stand as testament to that. But his decision to forgo his own material and bring in work by other writers that fit the album in mood and subject, like The Road and Shaky Town, was astute and refreshingly free of ego. Better to have 10 songs that belong together and form a musical and conceptual unity, whoever wrote them, than to have 10 disparate songs that all feature solo writing credits for the artist. Likewise the co-writes, particularly the gorgeous Love Needs a Heart (by Browne, Valerie Carter and Little Feat’s Lowell George), and The Load Out (by Browne and Bryan Garofalo) are crucial to the album’s success.
I’d never completely dug Jackson Browne at album length until getting familiar with Running On Empty. Previously, I figured that Browne’s greatest hits would suffice for me, having not been impressed by much on Late for the Sky other than the title track. There’s something, and I don’t use the word lightly, magical about Running on Empty, though. As a document of a truly special band whose greatness is as apparent during a casual post-show jam as it is in front of 20,000 people at an outdoor arena, there’s simply nothing like it. The songs are, perhaps with the exception of You Love the Thunder, all first rate, and Browne is on great vocal form throughout. If you’ve never really heard his albums, start here.
Browne and Danny Kortchmar, recording Nothing But Time aboard the Silver Eagle bus
*That is, albums of new material recorded live rather than in the studio. I’ll be writing about a couple over the next few weeks. Maybe not sequentially though. I might break things up with some shorter posts. The next one, when it comes, might be lengthy, as I’ve got some rather cool stuff to put in it.