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Writing about Dobie Gray and the Seventies just now sent me back to the time my brother Mark brought home what may be the greatest road album ever made, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. The record was part live stadium performances, part impromptu demos made on the tour bus, and ends with the most perfect song imaginable to close out a concert: The Load Out, a thoughtful, highly melodic take on the conflicted emotions a performer experiences once the show’s over. It’s almost a sober version of the Velvet Underground’s Sunday Morning, which was about coming down from the drug-induced high of Saturday night; here, Browne sings about coming down from the high of a successful concert, having basked for a moment in that massive burst of approving energy that comes from an arena full of fans, only to be left there feeling, after it’s over, like the way Sissy Spacek’s character described it in Badlands, as if you’re sitting in a bathtub and all the water’s run out. These lines always leave me blubbering like a baby:

Tonight the people were so fine
They waited there in line
And when they got up on their feet they made the show
And that was sweet…
But now I hear the sound
Of slamming doors and folding chairs
And that’s a sound they’ll never know

The bangs and squeaks of slamming doors and folding chairs echoing through the empty arena as the roadies pack it all away, as lonely as the sound of a train in the distance at three in the morning. Then there’s these:

But the band’s on the bus
And they’re waiting to go
We’ve got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
or Detroit, I don’t know
We do so many shows in a row
And these towns all look the same

Yeah, there’s romance to being on tour on the open road, but there’s also heartache, let-down, and the realization that every moment of exaltation is fleeting – though oh, how magical when it all comes together, and the energy of the fans lifts the band higher. Those are the memories that keep you going during the endless hours on the road between gigs, waiting to arrive at the next nondescript motel, missing home, and maybe thinking about a time to come when there will be no more tours, no more crowds eager to shell out just to hear you in person.

These words could surely serve as the plea of every band that ever toured:

People you’ve got the power over what we do
You can sit there and wait
Or you can pull us through
Come along, sing the song
You know you can’t go wrong
‘Cause when that morning sun comes beating down
You’re going to wake up in your town
But we’ll be scheduled to appear
A thousand miles away from here

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