Jackson Browne – Running on Empty: An Album More Unique Than it Should Be
1977’s Running on Empty - a predominantly live album by Jackson Browne - deals with the highs and lows of life for a band on the road. From the hollow romantic encounters and the questioning of motivation amidst the weariness of constant touring, to roadies and what comedian was on the tour bus video, the album is biographical and personal in a way that more albums should be.
That such a concept appears on an album released in the late 70s, when ostentatious rock tours were hitting their peak, only adds to its appeal. Much of what is said is still relevant, though, and still fascinating.
So why don’t we hear more of that kind of thing?
Aside from rock and folk staples, such as overwhelming love or its loss and the odd drug/drink problem, you don’t hear much about musicians’ everyday lives and routines in their songs do you? Of course, this may be because their day to day experiences are just that – routine. And music, like all art, is about lifting us out of earthly mundanity to a higher place where our hearts and souls reside. Not about how the kettle’s broken or how everyone at home is getting more and more annoyed with the dog dragging its bottom across the carpet to scratch (for example).
Yet in the pages of magazines and gossip sites, we are interested in every aspect of our celeb heroes’ lives, from weight loss or gain to who they had coffee with. Even those of us who don’t partake in such vacuous gawping like to read the biographies of people whose work we enjoy and interviews which include personal questions.
If musicians really are laying it out on the line in their songs, like they’re supposed to, then they might indulge us by letting us know more about what really goes on in their lives. Often, it seems to be a lot of general observations, even if delivered in first person narrative. In love songs especially, you often find yourself thinking, ‘well I know that didn't happen to you because you've been happily married since you were seventeen – I read it on Wikipedia.’
There’s nothing wrong with semi-fictional characterisation in songs, nor is there anything wrong with musicians making social commentary and bleeding about the ills of the world even though they live in massive mansions (they’re still allowed to care), but it so often rings untrue, in a medium which pleads sincerity.
Whenever you read written biographies of musicians, they talk at length about the experience of being on the road. This is a huge part of their lives whether a small band trying to make it or a huge artist playing arenas. Particularly now piracy has affected record sales, touring is essential to a musician’s livelihood. Even before the shift in consumption of music many musicians spent most of their lives on tour.
But somehow it doesn't appear in the songs. Sentiments about the highway and moving town to town are commonly metaphorical and/or romanticized, and yarns about groupies are limited to boasting or insincerely lamenting the loss of a girl who, let’s face it, was never going to stay with you when you sing songs about your own genitalia (take any hair metal band from the 80s). These girls probably only existed in songs anyway.
Not so the groupie in Rosie – track 3 from Running on Empty. The song is a true story about a roadie of Jackson Browne’s who fell head-over-heels for a girl that was hanging around before a show. The groupie's interest in him evaporated as soon as she realized he wasn't in the band. After she was swept away by the drummer, the roadie was so enraged he used a huge number of quarters to jam the couple’s hotel room door closed, leaving them trapped inside.
(Note for Simpsons fans: Jackson Browne performed the song but changed the lyrics, and the title to ‘Marjorie’, for the episode ’Brake My Wife, Please.’)
In other songs on the album when Browne talks about his own encounters with groupies, lines like ‘along the way their faces all begin to look the same’ and ‘I’d love to stick around, but I'm running behind’ sound less like fleeting misogyny (although not completely unlike it!) than someone genuinely admitting the loneliness that comes with a transient lifestyle.
Even if there is promiscuous rock star indulgence in the album's ingredients as well as a longing for genuine affection, you feel that that’s because both were happening, not just because both make good song lyrics.
The title song - Running on Empty, whose beat skips along with the bumps in any highway, is the most famous on the album (in more recent years for accompanying Forrest Gump on his impromptu run), and best describes the strain that tarnishes the excitement of life on the road.
But perhaps the song that covers the whole spectrum of the touring experience best is The Load Out. Minor but evocative details, such as the echo of chairs being packed away in an empty hall after a show, add to bigger questions like boredom and rootlessness (‘When the morning sun comes beating down, you’re gonna wake up in your town, but we’ll be scheduled to appear a thousand miles away from here').
This song is a live version on the album and was the first time it was ever played live. As Jackson announces to the audience, The Load Out is, ‘..a tribute to friends of mine that come out here on the road, and to you too.’ It is a tribute to the roadies and to the audience whose support ultimately makes all of the difficulties talked about throughout the album worth the hardship (‘till those lights come up, and we hear that crowd, and we remember why we came.’)
The track segues into a take on Maurice William’s hit Stay – the lyrics to which in this version implore the audience to stay and keep the night going just a bit longer, before the roadies, ‘the first to come and the last to leave’, remove everything from the stage.
Running on Empty is special because it captures the feelings of a musician during a tour, but also because it captures a certain point in music’s past. If you’re interested in the history of rock music, this album is a nice little essay.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the comedian on the tour bus video was Richard Pryor.