In 1973, singer-songwriter Jackson Browne released his second LP, For Everyman. Browne’s first effort had yielded the Top Ten hit “Doctor My Eyes,” a mid-tempo piano-driven rocker that became one of the 1970s’ most recognizable songs. (I wasn’t there for it, but I know this from the song being prominently featured in the 1980s TV ads for the legendary K-Tel compilation of 70s soft rock classics Mellow Gold.)
Despite opening with “Take It Easy,” a song co-written with Glenn Frey of the Eagles, who made the tune a So Cal Zen anthem that ushered in an era of country rock revered (and reviled) to this day, For Everyman was largely a dour chronicle of a lost soul, in a lost country. In “Colors of the Sun,” Browne sings “Oh leave me where I am, I am not losing/ If I am choosing not to plan my life/ Disillusioned saviors search the sky/ Wanting just to show someone the way/ Asking all the people passing by/ Doesn’t anybody want the way?
Also tucked away on For Everyman was “These Days,” a tender Browne composition that inspired multiple covers, including versions by Nico, Gregg Allman, Glen Campbell, and 10,000 Maniacs. Like a lot of people, I had forgotten about the song until Wes Anderson used Nico’s self-consciously arty version from her LP Chelsea Girls in his self-consciously arty film The Royal Tennenbaums, the story of a family of misfit geniuses and the memorable mistakes they make throughout their lives. Nico, being the Teutonic maudlin avant pop star she was, imprinted the song with her own personal malaise; while lovely, it reads now as a meditation on drug-induced ennui rather than on a broken heart. Browne actually played on Chelsea Girls and was romantically linked with Nico; when that relationship ended he returned to California. As the old saying goes, Los Angeles may have been a bunch of suburbs in search of a city, but while many considered the city lacking in a physical coherence (it’s not), LA was inspiring a coherent, hybridized sound, with Browne one of its main architects.
The So Cal Sound synthesized the various musical heritages of discrete groups of people who flocked to Southern California for a new start, people who were pushed or pulled to the edge of the country seeking work, fortune, or fame—Okies, Southern blacks, Southern whites, New Yorkers, and conservative Midwesterners. Within a few hours drive of downtown Los Angeles, in the 1950s and 1960s, one found traditional country music, at the Palomino Club and up in Bakersfield; rhythm and blues, gospel, and jazz on Central Avenue, and in Watts and Leimert Park; folk music at the Troubadour and other spots from performers who had done their time in the Greenwich Village folk scene; light pop from the New Yorkers who had their roots in Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville, and the pop factories that produced songwriters such as Carole King and Gerry Goffin; and mariachi from Mexico, which bloomed at the popular restaurant La Fonda in downtown LA
A lot of this music was borne of real hardship, laments produced for a particular social group that reflected a longing for home and a realization that life in the Golden State may not be as shiny as the over-present sun. As Joan Didion and other California writers have pointed out, once you came West, there was nowhere left to go and so everything felt just a little more urgent. It was fame or failure, riches or rags. Thus emerged a pop music with a dual nature—all sunshine on top but, to paraphrase from urban theorist Mike Davis, all noir underneath.
Browne personified this duality like no one else. With his angelic, clean-shaven face and long hair, he was rock and roll’s Warren Beatty, or maybe it’s Dorian Gray; his face seems to have aged little during his 40+ years as a professional musician. But the crushing despair in his music and a lack of sentimentality sets it apart from the work of his contemporaries Paul Simon, James Taylor, Frey and Henley, Stephen Sills, or even Neil Young. Songs such as “Running on Empty,” “The Pretender,” “Late for the Sky,” and “Before the Deluge” seem to be the male response to Joni Mitchell’s desire for domestic bliss.
Many pop music buffs forget that Browne wrote “These Days” at age 16, which puts him right up there with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Lennon and McCartney, in terms of possessing refined talent at a very young age. His story is much subtler than the myth that, say, Dylan cultivated over the years—there was no wandering hobo narrative, no religious or acoustic-electric conversions. Born an army brat in Germany, his family moved to Southern California when he was three and that’s where he has mostly stayed.
“These Days” is just about the saddest song I ever heard. In Browne’s own version, it is a song of someone who regrets his failures at love. Glen Campbell’s last album, cheekily titled Meet Glen Campbell, was recorded in 2008, three years before Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It contains a version of “These Days” that takes the song to a whole different level of solemnity: a true confessional from someone knowing that his Alzheimer’s will rob him of life and memory. Funny that a 16-year-old can write a song so resonant for those of us well past the halfway mark.
I’ve been out walking
I don’t do that much talking these days
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to
And I had a lover
It’s so hard to risk another these days
Now if I seem to be afraid
To live the life I have made in song
Well it’s just that I’ve been losing so long
I’ll keep on moving
Things are bound to be improving these days
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them