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Monday, April 29, 2013

My week with Jackson Browne Songs

Many of you probably stay up late and watch shows like Jay Leno or Letterman. The Late Show. Or Craig Ferguson, or whatever else in on the air. I used to do that. Not anymore.
My nights, my late nights, are spent watching videos, listening to music, and if the mood strikes me properly, doing some good writing.
This past week, for a variety of reasons, that involved music by Jackson Browne. My own kind of "Late Show."

It all started on Monday morning. I had grand visions of putting the finishing touches on a song I started writing a few weeks ago. Most of the song and its structure came to me fast. They usually do. I am a pretty good writer of song lyrics and the story that goes with them. That is the easy part for me. I know a bit about structure and how to build a song around a hook. I am good at that part too. I am not a musician, but I can compose a bit on a piano. Enough to make something worth working with. I have very good pitch and a decent sense of melody. 
However, none of that really matters. There is a missing ingredient that all the very good songwriters have that I don't. They have a sense of a song. They hear the music, and how those lyrics mesh with the melody in their head. Many of them are also very good singers (which I am not) and they can use their voice and performing skills to work out the nuts and bolts of the phrasing in the song. The phrasing is what ultimately bring out the emotion and feeling in the song. That part I can rarely do on my own. 
In addition, I have been listening to albums, complete albums from You Tube, late at night in the dark, partly to calm and relax me after I have been writing furiously for a while. I tried listening to early Bob Dylan, because I thought that was the vibe I wanted for this particular song I am working on, but as I did that, I found that wasn't what I wanted. It was close, and it had the right type of vibe, but not what I was going for. I somehow stumbled onto Jackson Browne and saw the link for his 1974 album, "Late For The Sky" so I settled in and listened to it. I heard many songs that might work for the melody I wanted, but nothing on the first pass stood out. I suppose my mind was drifting as I did that. So, next day, I went back and listened to it again. I was doing other things as I did that. When I got to the song "The Late Show" it clicked in. That was the song that could help me with my new song. I could sing the lyrics I already had, and I came up with more great ones as I did that. And certain parts of that song I could pluck out for different musical parts. Of course, once all that is done, I have to go back and make the new song mine, and I will do that. If and when you ever hear that new song, it most likely will be called Rainy River. 
What they call today sampling, I do that. Sort of. I think we all do, whether we realize it or not. For me, I do it intentionally with music. Because I have to. I just wont come up naturally with melodies and phrasing for songs like I can with stories, plots and characters. Words come very easily for me, melodies don't. I work with the skill set I have been given.

"The Late Show" also points me towards what I already know. The use by Jackson Browne of the sound we came to know well as the harmony sound of the mid 70s Eagles sound, mostly before Hotel California, but also after it as well. If you listen to The Late Show, you can hear that. That is another thing I might want to incorporate into my new song. Many are not aware of this, but Take It Easy, the big hit by The Eagles, was written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and Browne has recorded it. The harmonies are similar to much of the other stuff he does, as well as the Eagles. The tempo and vibe is different in the Eagles version, and that is why that was a radio hit and Jackson's version wasn't. But for a songwriter, the harmonies they both use are very songwriting friendly. There is a great story behind that song, and I will tell that another day.
While I am not great at putting a song together musically from scratch, I likely would be a very good producer. When I hear elements that will work, I am able to slot them in where they need to be and form a complete song. It will still be my creation, just a bit of creative borrowing from those who are more talented and have special talents that I don't.

Back when I was just learning to be a better writer, I wrote a lot of pretty good stuff that I now realize can be better. So, periodically I go back to those pieces and try to make something better out of them. One of those was a piece I wrote about 2 years ago in about 20 minutes. It was called "The Rush". I got the idea for it by watching a concert video of Garth Brooks singing. But I always felt that I didn't do enough with it, and wanted to expand the scope of it.

I tried to think of what other artists who have lived the experience I was describing in the story have done with that idea, so that I could possibly incorporate that. I watched a bit of Bruce Springsteen and Pete Townshend live on Letterman, because both of them perform in a way I consider to express that rush I was talking about in the story I wrote 2 years ago.

But it wasn't enough. Only Jackson Browne's "The Load Out..Stay" is a song that does that. So, I watched and listened to that over and over this week, as I continued to grind away at the updated story, which for now is titled "The Two Hour Rush". While watching that video, I noticed a live performance on The BBC, and I wondered who the backup singers were who sang the very high falsetto parts in the song. I had heard that a thousand times before, but never took the time to find out. So, being the inquisitive type that I am, I began to try and find out. Being that we live in the internet age, that was very easy and I tracked down the two artists who sang on that iconic song, and I will post a bit about them here.

Rosemary Butler was the one who sang the high woman's part of Stay. She was mostly a backup singer who hung around for many years, singing with many great artists like Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Rosanne Cash and of course with Browne on Stay and some of his other songs. She never made it on her own, but continues to perform in bars and night clubs. Her performance on "Stay" will likely be her enduring legacy and one shining moment in the big time.

As impressive as Rosemary Butler was on that song, David Lindley has an even more impressive range. He sang the very high falsetto, also the low parts and played steel guitar. He is also known as a musician who can play multiple instruments very well. Like Butler, even though he is very talented, he never really made a splash on his own. He talent appears to be a contributor rather than creator.

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the Pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there 

I'm going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender

Over the years, Jackson Browne has found a lot of success, and I'm sure money. But his songs still reflect the worth of all that, in a relative way. "The Pretender" touches on that, and really makes you think about things like that. I just enjoy the way he can provoke your thoughts.
For those of us raised the way we were, when we were, the longing for money (legal tender) is just something that is very tough for us to shake. We know that money makes the world go round. But so does love, so therein lies the conflict. Are we all pretenders? Only to surrender. Good question. I am not sure I, or you, or anyone will ever have the answer to that question. Nor should we. But it is interesting to ponder it.
Somehow, on Wednesday, the topic got on to the 1982 movie Fast Times At Ridgemount High, a movie I have loved since day 1. Which is funny, because some of my friends love this movie and others just "don't get it". 
This is especially true with my female friends. And I think I know why. The women I know who sort of "get" men really relate to this movie. You can even remember these girls in high school. They haven't changed much. The types of gags and cultural references in Fast Times resonated with them then and do now. Especially the Spicoli and Mr. Hand characters, and the overall high school "cool kids vs. nerds" thing that we all remember from high school. I think most of us can remember a Jeff Spicoli in high school, or many as in my case, and a few teachers like Mr. Hand. For me, the whole movie rings true with references like that.

One of the great things about that movie for me was Jennifer Jason Leigh. Sure, most guys also jerked off to the naked image of Phoebe Cates, as the character in the movie did, but for me, the Jennifer Jason Leigh character was the one that did it for me. The regular nice girl, pretty, normal and the type we all dated or could date. Jackson Browne created the song "Somebody's Baby" for that character and whenever I hear it, now more than 30 years later, I think of her and some girls I knew like her in high school. 

One of my friends who always gets these references is Kirstin Craine. And so, on Friday when she posted a status about it, I was on top of it. I think almost every scene in the movie I can remember from memory. It was just one of those movies for me. The scenes about hanging out at the mall is something I think most of us from that generation, the one before smart phones, call relate to.

Running on Empty, to my knowledge, is the first song I remember hearing or liking of Jackson Browne's. I actually had moved to Burlington, Ontario just a few months earlier in 1978. There was a huge mall across the street from the townhouse we lived in and it had a Zellers, which was a huge department store chain at the time. I had decided I was going to buy the album, but when I got over to the mall, I decided to buy a different one, Aja by Steely Dan, which was my first album purchased with my own money. I only had enough money for one album, although I wanted to buy many. 

Back to the song though. Sometimes I still feel like that. Like I am just trying to maintain, but running on empty. I think most of us feel like that at one time or another. That sort of feeling comes and goes. Again, since I liked this song and "Stay" and since they are both from his very successful 1978 album, I listened to the whole thing a few times. That is something I never got to do back then, because I bought the Steely Dan album instead. There was no You Tube back in those days to give you 24/7 access to just about any song or album in the world. Times have certainly changed. One thing that hasn't changed: We all get tired and run down at times, and we all find our inspiration where we can to get us back on track. Jackson Browne and his songs were my destination this week. I do feel recharged in some ways. 

And then there are the JB songs that remind me of what it takes to be a great writer and the level those of us who do it want to attain. There aren't many writers who can craft a stanza that has both great meaning and poetry like JB can.
Doctor My Eyes is just one of those. It is the JB song I go back to most often. And the one I will leave you with at the end of this blog. Very profound words, one of his first popular songs back in the early 70s.

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand

I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding
You must help me if you can

Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long

'Cause I have wandered through this world
And as each moment has unfurled
I've been waiting to awaken from these dreams
People go just where they will
I never noticed them until I got this feeling
That it's later than it seems

Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what you see
I hear their cries
Just say if it's too late for me

Doctor, my eyes
Cannot see the sky
Is this the PRICE for having learned how not to cry

For me, it is the song where he puts it all together. Lyrics, melody, phrasing, and harmonies. And it makes you think, every time you hear it. Or at least every time I hear it.

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Daily profile about a specific artist,their life, their work and their impact