Song of the Week – “Late for the Sky” (1974)

It was almost like discovering a writer I’d never read–except we discover writers we’ve never read all the time, and only rarely, as adults, do we stumble across major pop artists with a decent back catalog: it is usually prejudice rather than ignorance that has prevented us from making their acquaintance, and prejudice is harder to overcome (indeed, much more fun to maintain). And yes, of course it was prejudice that had stopped me from listening to Jackson Browne. He wasn’t a punk. He had a funny pudding-bowl haircut that wasn’t very rock ‘n’ roll. He wrote “Take It Easy” at a time when I didn’t want to take it easy. And though I hadn’t heard any of the songs, I knew they were wimpy, navel gazing, sensitive–American in all the worst ways and none of the best.[1]

In so many ways I can identify completely with the above sentiments of writer Nick Hornby about Jackson Browne. In fact, replace the phrase “He wasn’t a punk” with “He wasn’t a heavy metal shred guitar god” and the shoe pretty much fit like a glove (or something like that). In the early 80s I was a young teenage know-it-all armed with my first electric guitar and was determined to become the next VanHalenVaiYngwie. Songs featuring Dungeon & Dragon lyrics and harmonic minor scales were in. Songs by world-weary “old dudes” about heartache were anything but in.

Although I have been happily married to the same wife for nearly 20 years, I’ve lived long enough to know marital sorrow many times over. I have watched many folks make a good start at marriage, only to wake up a few years later and realize that happily ever after is, for a myriad of reasons, simply beyond their reach. There but for the grace of God go I.

Break-up songs are legion and usually a dime a dozen. Browne’s “Late for the Sky” stands out as one of the most insightful glimpses into a “relationship gone south” that I’ve heard. The song opens with the a couple staying up into the wee hours trying unsuccessfully to hash through their relationship.

The words had all been spoken
And somehow the feeling still wasn’t right
And still we continued on through the night
Tracing our steps from the beginning
Until they vanished into the air
Trying to understand how our lives had led us there

As the late-night conversation progresses, the singer comes to a devastating realization.

Looking hard into your eyes
There was nobody I’d ever known
Such an empty surprise
To feel so alone

Even words are meaningless at this point.

Now for me some words come easy
But I know that they don’t mean that much
Compared with the things that are said when lovers touch

The realization is reached that neither person has any idea what they are doing in the relationship.

You never knew what I loved in you
I don’t know what you loved in me
Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be

The singer compares the growing awareness of the failure of the relationship to the feeling of waking from sleep.

Awake again I can’t pretend
And I know I’m alone
And close to the end
Of the feeling we’ve known

How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night
How long have I been dreaming I could make it right
If I closed my eyes and tried with all my might
To be the one you need

After a beautifully spare guitar solo by David Lindley, Browne enters and asks once more…

How long have I been sleeping?
How long have I been drifting alone through the night
How long have I been running for that morning flight
Through the whispered promises and the changing light
Of the bed where we both lie
Late for the sky

The high level of songcraft and lyric writing found in songs like “Late for the Sky” was completely lost on me in my young metalhead days. I just wasn’t ready back then to “take it easy” and listen to songs full of nuance, space, and understated melancholy. But I’m ready now.

“In 70s post-Viet Nam America, there was no album that captured the fall from Eden–the long, slow after-burn of the 60s; its heartbreak, its disappointments, its spent possibilities–better than Jackson’s masterpiece Late for the Sky.” — Bruce Springsteen

1. Hornby, Nick. Songbook. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003, pp. 116-17.

“Song of the Week” is a regular Friday feature in which I discuss one song that has been repeatedly played on my iPod throughout the last seven days. And by “iPod” I really do mean iPod. My 16 GB fifth generation iPod Nano has been chugging along fine for years and goes with me wherever I go.

I gratefully acknowledge the influence of three different blogs upon my “Song of the Week” posts: Jeff Meshel’s World and his song of the week posts.  the “one track mind” posts at the Something Else! website, and the “death by power ballad” posts by Rob Smith at the Popdose site.