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There’s a mother lode of memorable thoughts and imagery packed into the suite of beautifully intertwined piano ballads of Jackson Browne’s landmark 1974 album, Late for the Sky. One remembers with almost cinematic clarity the metaphorical picture, conjured by The Late Show, of the narrator parked outside a mournful girl’s house in his early model Chevrolet, her standing in the window, him mentally urging her to bundle up her sadness, leave it at the curb, and just get in the car so they can go far away from whatever it is that’s breaking her heart. There’s the photo of a former lover he finds in a drawer in Fountain of Sorrow, so clear in the mind’s eye; she’s turning around to see who’s behind her, unaware that her picture’s being taken, and thus caught off guard betrays her true feelings with the unmasked sorrow in her eyes. There’s the open road, stretching on forever like the highways do in places like Arizona and Utah, which I always see when I listen to Farther On. There are frank, rueful sentiments, like maybe people only ask you how you’re doin’ cuz that’s easier than lettin’ on how little they could care. Every song is a finely wrought study of loss, regret, doubt, and a steadfast refusal to give up, but the finest has to be For A Dancer, which showcases Browne’s rare capacity to mix profound sadness with a clear-eyed, rational hopefulness that acknowledges all the mishaps, mistakes and misfortunes that drag down our spirits, tells itself no lies, harbours no illusions, yet refuses to accept that our lives must be futile, no matter how much it may seem that way. Written in memory of a friend who died pointlessly in a house fire, For a Dancer is poignant, philosophical, and steeped in almost unbearable emotional honesty, confronting head-on the terrible, unfathomable reality of death.

I don’t know what happens when people die
can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
it’s like a song I can hear
playing right in my ear
and I can’t sing it
but I can’t help listening

What can anything mean when you can be alive one minute and permanently gone the next, when somebody you know can simply vanish, and all the things that were unique and endearing about a friend can be rubbed out like they never existed in the first place? Why maintain the forward momentum when all paths lead us over the edge of an abyss? Once we’re gone, will it matter at all that we were here for just a little while?

The special grace of For A Dancer lies in Browne’s admission that he just doesn’t know, but he’s not going to let that stop him from squeezing as much out of his time among the living as he can. You never know what will be coming down, and if you don’t know what it’s all about, and can admit of the possibility that it might not be about anything at all, you also have to accept the flip side, and allow that after all, our seemingly inconsequential lives might form a part of something larger and mysteriously, perhaps unknowably meaningful. It might not be the answer we’re hoping for, but maybe we can still take solace in realizing that the doubt cuts both ways.

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown
from a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
and somewhere between the time you arrive
and the time you go

may lie a reason you were alive
that you’ll never know

Somehow, the closing lines of For A Dancer always manage to break my heart and mend it at the same time. I know of nothing else in popular music that offers such an honest and unblinking rationale for continuing to hope against hope. Maybe our lives don’t matter. Maybe they’re too meaningless to justify the pain. Maybe, though, there’s a reason that we’ll never know.

Words to live by.

The Empire of Light II, René Magritte, 1950


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