Album cut and concert video above, both live renditions.
The title cut from the greatest live record ever made, Running on Empty and its companion songs are all about living on the road, playing one city after another in a dizzying whirl of confusingly similar venues and hotel rooms, with the interior confines of the probably cramped and messy tour bus serving as a sort of mobile home away from home. Everything on the album was recorded on the fly, either on stage, or somewhere proximate, sometimes backstage, sometimes on the bus, wherever they happened to be when the muse struck them; the liner notes tell us that the terrific country lament Shaky Town was recorded in Room 124, Holiday Inn, Edwardsville, Illinois, while the extraordinarily moving The Load Out, a song of the day a while back, was recorded live at Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia, Maryland:
Listening to this, you can feel yourself on that bus, you can hear the steady hum of the tires and see the scenery rushing by, roaring along at 70 MPH between some place like Cleveland and maybe the Best Western in Pittsburgh, PA., or is it Chicago (“or Detroit?” sings Browne in The Load Out, “I don’t know, we do so many shows in a row, and these towns all look the same”). There’s a restless, relentless sense of forward motion to the pacing and arrangement, evocative of that strange mix of emotions peculiar to folks like touring musicians who can be out on an adventure that’s also an interminable grind – exhilaration, sure, but tinged with fatigue, loneliness, boredom, and, being as this is a song by Jackson Browne, the worried wondering about how it all came to this, and where it’s all going to wind up.
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels
Look around for the friends that I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes I see them running too
Years later, Cameron Crowe captured the same sort of feeling on film in his wonderful Almost Famous, with its pitch-perfect depiction of the highs and lows of hopping from concert to concert, the annoyances, the frustrations, the fleeting intervals of pure joy, the petty group dynamics that never quite overwhelm the camaraderie, all of it fusing together to produce what fond memory later frames as the romance of the road.
It’s so immediate and authentic that it comes as a bit of a surprise that Browne didn’t write it while he was out on tour. It came to him instead during the recording sessions for his previous album, The Pretender, when he was driving back and forth to the nearby studio every day in a car that always seemed to be out of gas. “I was always driving around with no gas in the car, I just never bothered to fill up the tank because – how far was it anyway? Just a few blocks.” So many great songs seem to spring from such mundane circumstances, I suppose because it’s at times like those that the creative mind starts to wander in the most productive ways, you know, those times when you and I just get bored and frustrated.
Running on Empty was hugely popular, and went multi-platinum at a moment when everybody could understand that mid-1970s feeling of emptiness and exhaustion after having gone so far, so fast, over the prior decade and a half of social and cultural upheaval. Nothing was the same any more, and it was starting to dawn on everybody, after the successive blows of Vietnam, Watergate, the energy crisis, repeated inner city race riots, the premature deaths of so many of the era’s most iconic musicians, and a few devastating assassinations tossed in along the way, that things had generally gotten worse instead of better. You could call it The Great Disillusionment. Those like Browne who’d come of age in the Sixties were still hurtling towards an uncertain future at breakneck speed, but the old optimism was gone, replaced by a sense that we couldn’t keep racing down the road we were on, not as individuals, and not as a society. It wasn’t working out. We didn’t have the energy. Yet everybody kept going, because the thing about those long ribbons of black asphalt that stretch off into the infinite distance is that sometimes, there just don’t seem to be any exits.