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Running On Empty

Songwriting is a solitary pursuit. You need to get inside your own head…..and try to treat what’s in there like you would a holiday snow globe. As the late great Ric Ocasek once said…”Shake it Up”.

To be good at it you need to embrace loneliness, and then flip the switch and become desperate for community, because once the song is born it’s gonna end up in a better place if it’s raised by a village.

There’s just something about making music with friends. So much of it is non-verbal. A nod. A smile. What my friend (and probably yours) Fud calls the “perfect stew”, when the song is barreling down the runway and finally lifts off right before the pavement ends. It’s communication on a level that was never invented before bands were formed. True bands talk endlessly about why things aren’t working. But once you find the pocket, words are no longer necessary. Just try to land safely when it’s time to go home.

(And by “true”…..I don’t mean a random gathering of musicians. I mean guys who live in each others pockets….24/7……no secrets, ’cause there’s nowhere to run to, baby…nowhere to hide. Put simply, if you don’t have your own code-words for pretty girls in the audience, you’re not a real band.)

jbI’ve become an inveterate walker. If I can’t run away from getting old, I can at least try to not look back and see age gaining on me. For each walk…..I require a soundtrack. And I was thinking about all of this…..music shared…..when I chose Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty for Saturday’s 5 miles.

It just seemed right. A “road” album recorded everywhere. On the bus. In hotel rooms. Backstage. Browne and his band huddled in circles, not letting anybody else in until they captured what it must have been like for a group of wild 20 somethings, topped off with powder and pills and jugs of wine, to pretend that living this way was normal. So they not only sang the Reverend Gary Davis’s cautionary tale “Cocaine”….they sang it in between audible snorts….adding their own lines..

I was talking to my doctor down at the hospital
He said, “Son, it says here you’re twenty-seven,
But that’s impossible
Cocaine…you look like you could be forty-five

Running on empty indeed. I’ve owned this record for years….but this might have been the first time I really understood that Browne could never have made this music by himself. It needed his friends. It needed the bus and the hotel rooms and the backstage areas. The decadence was force-fed by exhaustion and boredom, and all three found their way into the grooves. Browne sounds like lots of things in these songs. Weary. Resigned. Stoned. Older than his years. But never lonely. I can’t say that about anything he has subsequently released.

(As you can probably tell….I take these walks very seriously, so if you see me out there and I bury my head in my chest as a hustle past you without making eye contact, this is why. Who knows what’s next. Maybe I’ll reach for “Late For the Sky”….although I’ve a feeling my time might suffer.)

If you want to learn how to write, you need to read. If you want to learn how to write songs, you need to listen. The best prose writers I know read incessantly. The best songwriters I know wake up and fall asleep with music in their ears. But through it all, find some fellow lunatics that know how to properly wrap cables and don’t mind loud noises and messy rooms and don’t disappear when it’s their round. Form a circle and don’t let anybody else in until you find the sound that’s in your head. And then get on that bus.

In a bit..



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