After Neil Young released “Harvest” in 1972, he wasn’t sure what to record next. The album sold in vast quantities and there were expectations that his next album would be in a similar musical style. When he announced that he was going to tour, there were expectations that he would play songs from “Harvest”. In the late 80s, in an interview with Andy Kershaw on “Whistle Test”, he boasted that he had “systematically tried to destroy the base of my record buying public” and the events of 1973 were symptomatic. He went on tour but only played new songs which he recorded for his follow up album, “Time Fades Away”. The spontaneity of the live performances were deemed to be more artistically valid than the carefully rehearsed sound of “Harvest”.
Jackson Browne adopted a similar attitude in 1977. Having had a big hit with “The Pretender” in 1976, he went on tour and recorded 10 new songs which he released as the album “Running On Empty”. There is an appealing looseness in the performances although the sound is not quite as rugged as “Time Fades Away”. The songs are great, the performances are emotionally rich and the sound is crystal clear. It’s one of my favourite Jackson Browne albums.
The album starts with about 30 seconds of audience noise as various song requests are shouted out. Finally, one respectful person calls out “Play what you want”, at which point the band launch into the title track of the album. The recording of this song took place in a concert in Columbia, Maryland and was released as a single, reaching Number 11 in the Billboard charts. As with so many Jackson Browne songs, it starts with a small detail which causes him to ruminate on where his life is taking him. In this case, his car is about to run out of gas and he wonders if his life is running out of meaning. He thinks back to when he was younger and life seemed simple and now he doesn’t even know if love can save him. It’s a full band performance – I would guess it fits nicely into the late 70s AOR/Fleetwood Mac genre and that’s great. Jackson Browne’s long time musical collaborator, David Lindley, plays great lap steel guitar and Danny Kortchmar plays a blinding electric guitar solo. He played on many albums by James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, CSN&Y etc. He was also in an instrumental band called The Section which included Craig Doerge (piano), Leland Sklar (bass) and Russ Kunkel (drums) and they are all part of Jackson Browne’s band on this album.
I think my favourite track on the album is “The Road”. There are three verses – the first two verses were recorded in a hotel in Columbia, Maryland and the third verse was recorded in a concert in Holmdel, New Jersey. David Lindsey’s fiddle is particularly soulful in the hotel room and the editing between the different versions is very well done. The song is about how terrible it is to find love whilst touring; he can have lots of women coming to his rooms but, in the end, it’s all meaningless. Obviously, the excesses of rich rock stars don’t really invoke much sympathy but I still love the music. As it happens, the song was written by Danny O’Keefe, an American singer songwriter.
Jackson Browne co-wrote “Rosie” and the version on the album was recorded in a rehearsal room before a concert in Saratoga Springs, New York. Jackson Browne plays lovely piano and sings beautifully about a groupie who spends the night with him. He realises that she is only interested in him because of his status as a rock star. The sound of this song, like most of the album, is very accessible and probably explains why it is Jackson Browne’s best selling album and was in the top selling 25 albums of the 70s.
“You Love The Thunder” was recorded in a concert in Holmdel, New Jersey. Superficially, it concerns a girlfriend accompanying Jackson Browne on tour but lines like “You’ve got a second to look at the dark side of a man”, suggest that he is wondering about the nature of their relationship. This is one of only two songs on the album written by Jackson Browne by himself (the other one being the title track).
“Cocaine” is the Reverend Gary Davis song with additional lyrics by Jackson Browne and Glen Frey of The Eagles. It was recorded in a hotel room in Edwardsville, Illinois. David Lindsey’s fiddle playing is typically magnificent on this song. It sounds like Jackson Browne felt he had to sample some cocaine to be able to do the song justice but once again, the excesses of a rich rock star don’t detract from the great music.
“Shaky Town” starts Side Two and was written by Danny Kortchmar. Unlike “Cocaine”, this is a full band song but it was recorded in the same hotel room. I guess it was one of The Holiday Inn’s presidential suites. It’s a very enjoyable, solid song about the problems in maintaining a love life on the road.
“Love Needs A Heart” was co written by Jackson Browne, Lowell George (of Little Feat) and Valerie Carter and this recording is from a concert in Los Angeles. It is possibly the saddest song on the album. He has ended his relationship and knows he has hurt his ex. He feels that they were not in love and he fears that there may be nobody who could love him. Rosemary Butler provides lovely harmonies.
“Nothing But Time” is one of the more throwaway songs that Jackson Browne has ever recorded. It’s just a riff with trivial lyrics about the boredom that musicians endure on the road. As if to prove the point, the recording was made on the tour bus and the engine noise is clearly audible throughout.
“The Load Out” was also recorded in Columbia, Maryland and is all about roadies. Jackson Browne’s piano playing and vocal phrasing are at their very best in this song.
“Stay” is a song written by Maurice Williams which was a hit for The Zodiacs, The Hollies and The Four Seasons. It’s positioning at the end of the album (where Jackson Browne normally places his most heartfelt songs) indicates the love that he has of playing concerts for his fans. The song was a Top 20 hit in the USA which is very strange, considering that Rosemary Butler sings the first chorus and David Lindley sings the second chorus in a ridiculous falsetto (possibly mimicking The Four Seasons).