Five Reasons Jackson Browne Was the Most Honest Songwriter of the 1970s

When one thinks of the sensitive singer/songwriter types who thrived in the early 1970s, certain artists come to mind: James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young were the big buzz, and yet, though their songs embodied a starry-eyed sensibility, none of them could squeeze more pathos from their platitudes than Jackson Browne.

While Joni sang serenely, James waxed wistful and reflective, and Young went off on his metaphysical tangents, Browne allowed his music to pierce the soul by laying bare his personal turmoil and private tragedies. Be it the uncertainty of youth, turbulent relationships, a wife's suicide, or unsettled feelings about the politics and upheaval during the Reagan era, Browne never wavered. And here are five reasons Jackson Browne was the most honest singer/songwriter of the '70s.

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5. "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate"

Browne's wife, Phyllis, took her own life while he was in the midst of recording The Pretender, the album that became his most epic early accomplishment. The entire disc plays out like an elegy -- certainly for his spouse but also for the innocence and optimism spawned in the '60s and ambushed by the '70s. This song directly addresses the tragedy of suicide with musings on mortality, promise, and purpose.

4. "Before the Deluge"

In a very real sense, this song was a metaphor about a coming catastrophe, a description of dread that was so compelling, it could very well have changed life forever. Some saw it as Browne's farewell to a relationship, while others imagined something even more profound: the end of youth, the end of idealism, the end of hope for a better tomorrow. It still stands as one of Browne's darkest and most despairing testimonials.

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3. "Running on Empty"

While other songs describe the more telling incidents in Browne's life -- those that helped mold his artistic identity -- this is the track that ranks among his most iconic autobiographical narratives. He refers to his age at various intervals, specifically 17 and 21. But in a general sense, he's also describing how the events in his life have overtaken him, even this early on. And though the prognosis for the future might seem somewhat dreary, Browne still offers some hope. "If it takes all night, that'll be all right/If I can get you to smile before I leave." Indeed, for all his drama and despair, he has succeeded in doing just that.

2. "Doctor My Eyes"

The first of only two Top Ten singles, "Doctor My Eyes" is uncommonly upbeat, not only by comparison with the rest of Browne's repertoire but in contrast to the downcast disposition of his early work. "I have done all that I could to see the evil and the good without hiding," Browne declares before ending with a plea: "You must help me if you can."

1. "These Days"

One of Browne's first signature songs and perhaps his most indelible of all, this track set the tone for much of what followed. "These Days" exudes a curiosity drawn from life's journey and contemplates the eternal yearning for answers, especially in the face of adversity. Song to song and decade to decade, Browne's honesty has always been undeniable. 

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Jackson Browne. Friday, February 20. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $55.50 to $93.50 plus fees via All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit

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Lee Zimmerman