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Weekend Songs: Jackson Browne, ‘Running on Empty’

Jackson Browne, 'Running on Empty'
Asylum Records

Classic rock is about heavy hooks, power chords, and tight harmonies, but it’s also about letting loose and enjoying the good times — and there’s no better time than Friday evening, when we pick up our paycheck, punch out of work, and enjoy a couple days of much-needed rest and relaxation.

Of course, no matter how much satisfaction we might take from our career, some weekends are less jubilant than others; instead of elation, Friday afternoon occasionally finds us teetering on the verge of exhaustion. Is it a sign of impending burnout, or just the price of a week well spent? That’s the question at the heart of Jackson Browne‘s 1978 single ‘Running on Empty,’ a #11 hit and the title track to his fifth album.

Not that his musical persona was ever exactly cheerful, but Browne seemed to be in a particularly pensive mood during the late ’70s, and ‘Running on Empty’ — the song as well as the album — explored the reasons why in typically eloquent detail. It’s technically a live LP, but unlike just about any other concert album, ‘Empty’ found Browne testing out new material on the road; rather than delivering live versions of his greatest hits, it functions as a sort of weary meditation on the price of pursuing a dream.

For Browne, that dream was rock ‘n’ roll stardom, and the price meant spending weeks at a time on the road — which might seem pretty great at first, but eventually devolves into a long slog filled with drugs (‘Cocaine’), loneliness (‘Rosie’), and the growing sense of existential dread illuminated in the title track, a deceptively upbeat number whose soaring chorus belies the narrator’s growing ache for home.

Even back in the late ’70s, Browne was far from the first rock star to try and explain the dark side of the record business, but ‘Running on Empty’ is one of the few songs that doesn’t come across as a whiner’s lament, mainly because he doesn’t sound bitter — he’s really just tired and confused. As he puts it in the second verse, “Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive / Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive,” which is a feeling that just about anyone can empathize with. Even the brightest dream — like, say, the opportunity to sell millions of records while playing for adoring fans — can sour into a nightmare if you lose sight of what it really meant to you in the first place. Then you’re just running on — empty, blind, into the sun. Running behind.

While the road may occasionally have been bumpy for Browne, he managed to steer his way through, and although his commercial prospects started to wane in the ’80s (in fact, ‘Running on Empty’ is his best-selling album), he’s continued to write, record, and perform; in fact, his most recent studio set, 2008’s ‘Time the Conqueror,’ gave him his first Top 20 record on Billboard’s album charts in 25 years. So if you’re feeling a little empty this Friday, take heart, because it’s almost time to refuel. In fact, why not just scroll down a bit, hit ‘play’ on that video we’ve embedded, turn up the volume, and let the weekend start now?

Next: When Is the Right Time to Let It All Hang Out?

Watch Jackson Browne perform ‘Running on Empty’

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