Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty is a series of tales tied together thematically about life on the road. The rock star glamour and the idealism of the traveling life made popular by other musicians and novels like Kerouac’s On The Road are stripped away, revealing that the same obstacles abound whether you’re moving or standing still.
The most well known song is the title track, a classic rock/easy listening hit about the wear that constant traveling brings. “The Road,” “where a good song takes you far”, is about how the faces and towns “all begin to look the same”. It has a fantastic bit of engineering, seamlessly transitioning from recording in room 301 at the Cross Keys Inn, Columbia, Maryland to the Garden State Arts Center stage 11 days later in Holmdel, New Jersey.
The road provides an opportunity for love and lust to be fulfilled, but it’s hard to sustain. Browne sings about the struggles of making a relationship work, “You Love The Thunder”, and the struggles of a relationship that doesn’t, “Love Needs A Heart”. Both offer the advice that moving forward is the key because “you can never go back the way you came”, particularly when you “need to find/If love needs a heart like mine”.
“Rosie” is a moving ballad about a soundman letting a groupie into the show who he naturally loses to the drummer. He chides himself for briefly forgetting “it’s who you look like/Not who you are”. However, Rosie isn’t the groupie, as the lyrics become an ode to masturbation. The solemn sound of the song remains the same, adding to the hilarity:
Rosie you’re all right–you wear my ring/
When you hold me tight–Rosie that’s my thing/
When you turnout the light–I’ve got to hand it to me/
Looks like it’s me and you again tonight Rosie/
When you are running on empty, especially back in the late ‘70s, cocaine drives you to the next destination, but there’s a price to pay as the meter is always running. “Cocaine” is an old tune by blues and gospel singer Rev. Gary Davis. There are additional lyrics by Jackson and Glenn Frey, who also contribute mad ramblings at the end.
“The Load-Out” honors the road crew, who are “the first to come and the last to leave” as well as the audience, who make the journey worthwhile. It segues nicely into the classic “Stay” by Maurice Williams with the lyrics altered from poppa and momma to the promoter and the union not minding if they all “stay just a little bit longer”. Ironically, the song closes out the album.
Running On Empty is unusual among live albums, in that none of the tracks ever appeared on a previous studio album before. It was recorded on stage, backstage, in hotel rooms and on the go. The latter evidenced by “Nothing But Time”, performed on a traveling bus, which can be heard during the quieter moments rumbling along somewhere in New Jersey.
The features on the DVD are awesome and set the standard for what consumers should expect from expanded discs. The album is presented in Dolby Stereo, Dolby 5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1 Surround. The songs are presented slightly different than the CD. They are extended, either at the beginning or at the end, bringing to mind The Beatles’ Let It Be, although not much is added. There’s an extended instrumental jam that closes “Nothing But Time”, but the rest is basically extra crowd noise, or musicians’ banter.
Two extras tracks are available only on the DVD. They are “Cocaine Again,” a reprise of the previous track, and “Edwardsville Room 124,” an instrumental track. They are nice to have, but neither is an amazing, unearthed treasure from the vaults that has to be heard.
The DVD has a photo gallery archive of the tour that features over 200 never-before-seen photos. They can be viewed on their own or accompanied by “Running On Empty” and music from other tracks off the album. New liner notes have been written by music critic Anthony DeCurtis and former music journalist Cameron Crowe.
The lyrics are available on the DVD, but, and this is my only complaint about the set, you can’t read along as the songs play on the DVD.