#391: Jackson Browne, "The Pretender" (1976)

    It was hard to abandon
History of What Might Have Been
    (I was well into the ninth volume)
    But when I looked out the window one morning
    To see the hands had fallen
    From the clock tower
    And lay still as Zeno’s arrows
    In a bed of heliotrope
    I knew I had no choice but to leave unfinished
    My lifelong study of regret
    And begin work instead on this
    Short history of the present.

—Prologue to A Short History of the Present by Erik Reece, Larkspur Press, 2009

On one of the last properly brutal summer days in Kentucky a few weeks ago, I was working the beer tent at a street fair in my neighborhood, sweating, smiling, getting sunburned, talking with old friends and drinking for free all day. I went to grab a couple of big bags of ice from the cooler and ran into a young gal I’d worked with before. We helped each other slam bags on the concrete to break up the ice and chatted perfunctorily about how there was a good crowd at the flea market, how it was nice to see everybody out, but damn, this heat. After a while, and apropos of nothing, she looked at me—like, looked me up and down, noting, I’m sure, the stiff white whiskers that streak through my beard these days and the low-profile pleasure-craft ball cap I’ve inexplicably started wearing— and said, “Are you a dad? You look like somebody’s dad.” I wasn’t surprised by this because it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. It happens all the time, actually, because somebody’s always telling me how much I look like my dad. And I do; I look exactly like my father, who’s a good man and a comrade. He’s intelligent, generous, and even-keeled in ways that I aspire to be. I’m always flattered by the comparison.

I told the girl that no, I wasn’t a dad, but I sort of knew what she meant, and that it was sweet of her to say so. I said, “It’s sweet of you to say so,” then I humped the bags of ice over my shoulders and walked back to the beer tent feeling sort of pleased but tender, and a little confused.

A buddy of mine, a guy I played in hardcore bands with in the 90s, always referred to artists like Jackson Browne, the Eagles, America, Linda Ronstadt—any Levi’s-boot-cut-desperado-jams—as “Dad Rock.” While it certainly collated and glossed over important particulars about craft and approach, I recognized some truth resonating in the quick pejorative the same way that one can understand intuitively, almost by touch, that “Yacht Rock” means acts like Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald, and that “Lawyer Rock” gestures up the turnpike toward Billy Joel and Steely Dan. While the jagged, shorthand judgements of youth against age are never entirely inaccurate, they necessarily suffer from an as-yet incomplete survey of the territories, the world falling off the edge of a map.

My buddy’s assessment of Dad Rock had less to do with being a father, than the vague presentiments—inherited by every generation—that, beyond the next ridge, in the realms of adulthood, some nebulous, debilitating compromise looms like a storm front over an arid desert of mediocrity. He has a ten-year-old son now, and to my knowledge has not come around to Jackson Browne, still preferring Fela Kuti, the Fat Boys, Devo, et. al. I’m thirty-eight with no kids, I don’t feel particularly grown up, and I don’t sense that I’m deflating into some senseless obscurity. I have to confess that the fears of adulthood we discussed as young men, fears of complacency and unfulfilled designs, about the prospect of a slow attrition of the will, are still very present; it’s bleak stuff, and it scares the shit out of me actually.

It’s these sort of predictable, broad-spectrum anxieties that were Jackson Browne’s lyrical coin in trade through the entire decade of the 1970s. Seriously, you can drop the needle into pretty much any groove on any of his records at the time and count on hearing one variety of sentimental, aphoristic presentiment or another, coddled inside his signature thoughtful melodies and breezy cadences which are propped up against existential dilemmas, most frequently, “How the hell did I get here, and what am I supposed to do now?” Don’t turn it into a drinking game; it would be lethal.

What’s aggravated me so much this week as I’ve listened to The Pretender again for the first time in a while, is that while it stimulates my youthful distrust of ambivalence, I’m also powerless against its treacly, sentimental pap—thick and sweet as condensed milk, bearing the faintest whiff of a stink—that I understand fully. It bugs me that I understand this record so clearly.

There’s always some low-octane uncertainty in the lyrics of Browne’s pre-1980s records.  It’s another entry in the soundtrack of nostalgic regret that, as a young man, I took as received wisdom, drank up like cough syrup and smeared on my chest like Vicks VapoRub. There’s always some pensive reflection on not knowing what the future holds, or discomfort with past decisions. There’s never a shortage of presentiment from the Slim-Fit Introspector General, and his sentences hinge on negations like can’t, hardly, haven’t, won’t, never; they issue forth from a language of scarcity and are spread over root-deep bass lines and a constant stream of bottleneck slide guitar. Jackson Browne’s always sitting down by the highway somewhere, running down the road, or staring off into “a long distance loneliness blowing out over the desert floor.”

    No matter where I am I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away from where I want to be.

Browne’s narrators are uncertain. They’re starting to wonder if there’s any such thing as trajectory. They gaze deep within themselves, shrug, and try to play it cool when they discover large, airy, empty caverns there. They’ve drunk the pool water at the Hotel California and have learned to disguise their mediocrity as ambivalence, pretending until they forget they’re pretending, like undercover agents who’ve gone native: boring-native, given-up-native.

    I'm gonna 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

Assessing the fakers who are faking it all the way to the grave, into the arms of Thanatos itself, it sometimes feels like Browne’s observant narrators may yet be exempted:

    Everybody’s going somewhere, riding just as fast as they can ride.
    I guess they got a lot to do before they can rest assured
    That their lives are justified, pray to god for me babe, that he can let me slide.

Look, The Pretender is not a very good record. To borrow an interpretive mode from John Sullivan, “it fails to be excellent.” It is an interesting record, though, because it demonstrates, almost as an object lesson, the paradoxes of incautious, youthful genius speculating  on what could follow. The roots of The Pretender’s in-excellence are addressed directly in the record itself: it’s a mediocre record about avoiding mediocrity, and it tries, at times diligently, to distill an antidote from its own poison. Sometimes it’s like we’re watching Browne or his narrator claw at the walls.

    Though the years give way to uncertainty
    And the fear of living for nothing strangles the will
    There’s still a part of me, though it’s sometimes hard to see,
    Alive in eternity that nothing can kill

All of the fears addressed in Browne’s 70s catalogue—loss, failure, death, etc.—are inextricable from the human psychic make-up, they’re standard issue, totally fertile if well-trod ground for poetry and song. My real dilemma, my new dilemma, is not any fault of Jackson Browne’s in particular. I think of him, at the tender age of twenty-eight, juggling with the same fears that I and my buddy fretted over during cigarette breaks at band practice. My questions about Jackson Browne speak to a larger, newfound suspicion of the entire misty-eyed nostalgic trajectory of Sentimentalism and Romanticism. One that telescoped, directly and necessarily, from the 18th century through and beyond the earnest, milquetoast, singer-songwriters of the 70s who were in so many ways my schoolmasters. I’m a little ashamed to admit that this is the first time I’ve ever really questioned or scrutinized capital-S Sentimentality. It’s about damn time, I guess, and I sort of object to it; I think I’ve had enough, I think I’ve absorbed the lesson fully. I’ve recited my catechisms faithfully, and now I have a toothache.

I spent some time the last few years considering the economies of nostalgia in pop music. I put my thinker on the best I could and became convinced that the pervasive presence of nostalgia in our culture was, at the very least, some type of popular engagement with the past, some expression of historical imagination, and that there was an almost medicinal effect of the pathos and longing, that it moored the present to the past. It’s a claustrophobic chronology though. I’m unconvinced of its usefulness now, and that feels like a good thing to me, like progress finally, like maybe I’ll hear some new songs, songs that seek to address this present moment. This one, right now.

—Joe Manning