In a moment of social media weakness and curiosity, I hit the Like button on a Facebook page titled For Everyman Jackson Browne Fan Group. It’s the first fan group of any kind that I have officially or unofficially ever joined.
It’s not the only musician I’ve followed however. Back in the 80s a group of us in the Chicago suburbs became roving fans of a band called Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. They were a blues-based band and Big Twist was a handsomely large man with a smooth voice and Chicago Blues cred.
We drank and danced wherever they played. But like Otis Day and the Knights in the movie Animal House, Big Twist never really knew who we were. Just another bunch of manic skinny runners with their girlfriends dancing at another smokey suburban bar outside Chicago.
So there’s no claim to fame in my worship of musicians here. I didn’t join the fan club hoping to someday meet Jackson Browne or anything like that. Yet this weekend there was a photo posted of Jackson Browne that produced an instant connection with the man whose music offers some of the most lyrically sophisticated songs ever written.
The photo was of Jackson Browne in track shorts and singlet. He’s probably 14 or 15 years old in the photo. He’s captured in one of those unguarded teenage moments where the camera catches you in full youthful repose. Slightly self-conscious perhaps. Yet eagerly aware of what comes next.
That photo reminds me so much of teammates from high school track days. He also reminded me of me. Those skinny arms and legs. The 60s or 70s haircut. And then there were the shoes.
Those gum rubber running flats on his feet were the same kind of footwear our team wore at Kaneland High School in the cornfields of Illinois. Those “flats” were black with three stripes on the side. Perhaps they were adidas. Perhaps not. The whole running shoe boom had not yet evolved. They were the only type of running shoe available.
I recall picking out a pair at a local shoe store. The salesman watched me walk around in those new flats and said, “Now don’t wear them except to run. You’ll stretch out your calves too much because they don’t have a heel like your regular shoes.”
Indeed. Those shoes were minimalist because the track world didn’t know any better, or any worse. What followed in the next 10 years or so was a gigantic experiment in shoe evolution. It reached epic and silly proportions with shoes like the Nike LDV, a huge wedge of vee-shaped rubber tacked onto a woven synthetic upper. Those were Moon Boots and the precursor in many ways of the modern-day Hoka shoes with so much cushioning your feet never know what’s under them.
Back to the Future
We wore those shoes to run cold laps around the high school on a circle of unforgiving asphalt that circled the main building. Many teammates came down with shinsplints. They would tape their entire lower legs to contain the pain. It usually did not go away until we moved practices onto the cinder track. Too much shock reverberating up the front of the leg tore muscle from bone. To combat this problem, some runners inserted plastic heel cups into heels of the shoes in an attempt to give them more stability. Essentially that anticipated the evolution in shoe construction. Nike’s Bill Bowerman was not far behind.
Running On Empty
So the fact that Jackson Browne ran around in the same somewhat inadequate running shoes was a real connection for me. There was an absolute relationship with the earth when running in those shoes. Running that close to the ground gives you a connectedness with all of reality that those who do not run seldom experience. You know what it feels like to cover ground. You know what it means to run alone. You also know what it means to run out of energy and hope, and to survive in spite of that. Jackson captures that feeling of running through life with barely enough rubber under your feet to keep going in his lyrics from “Running On Empty…”
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive
In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned onto the road I’m on…
When we’re as young as Jackson Browne was in that photo above, we do everything we can to try to understand the world. We seek out the funny and grapple with the serious. We lose our virginity in many aspects of life, and yet we keep on running.
And sometimes we run head on into the realization that life is harder than we thought it might be.
The very same summer that I began to listen an album by Jackson Browne titled “The Pretender” I was commuting an hour one-way to a summer job as a janitor in a tall office building that overlooked the hazy skyline of Chicago. That entire summer was like standing in the breach between youth and adulthood. I could feel it.
After college I would go live in that city with a close running friend and running buddy. We were caught between our college world and the real life we would soon lead. I spent that summer training like mad and racing 24 times in a year. I won 12 of those races. It was both a real and pretend life at the same time. Soon enough the full time running would have to stop. There was a marriage and a family on the way. Then came more commuting and finding out how the real world works. Throughout it all however, I kept running because it kept me sane…
I want to know what became of the changes
We waited for love to bring
Were they only the fitful dreams
Of some greater awakening?
I’ve been aware of the time going by
They say in the end it’s the wink of an eye
And when the morning light comes streaming in
You’ll get up and do it again, Amen
By the time I took up cycling in my 40s it was an attempt to look ahead and balance my time on the road between running and riding a bike. It was fun to explore a new identity, to see yourself from an entirely different perspective. That included shaving my legs and not feeling like it somehow undercut masculinity to do so. In fact it felt the opposite. Like preparing for your own personal battles. No different than getting a tattoo or a piercing. A form of personal expression that matters in terms of commitment to that aspect of personality most vital to your soul.
Fountain of Sorrow
It turns out it has all been a journey to conceive the mind. Who could conceive the depths of insight that would emanate from the mind of that young man in the photo above. Jackson Browne. He has written music and words that fill spaces of the mind so powerfully it is hard to conceive where they come from. That’s genius of course. We aspire to it and are drawn to it at the same time.
The saddest lyrics have at times pulled me through darkness of the soul. Wrestling with anxiety and depression and the reverberations of what those coin flips can do to your heart and mind is often difficult. But rather than wallow in the fact that we are sometimes alone in that venture, there is hope in the possibility that others share both the struggles and the joys in life. It truly is a fountain of sorrow in which we are washed clean.
But when you see through love’s illusions, there lies the danger
And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool
So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger
While the loneliness seems to spring from your life
Like a fountain from a pool
Fountain of sorrow, fountain of light
You’ve known that hollow sound of your own steps in flight
You’ve had to hide sometimes, but now you’re all right
And it’s good to see your smiling face tonight
See, we all need other people to help us find our way. Some of us turn to heroes such as Jackson Browne because of their ability to reveal the universal message in the madness. There’s a restlessness in all of us to find those answers. Sometimes by traveling so fast toward them we can miss opportunities along the way. Take the wrong path. Go seeking when we should just be listening. Running fast when we should be running slow. And the other way around as well.
Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place to get it together
Where with a few of my friends I could give up the race
Maybe find something better
But all my fine dreams well though out schemes to gain the motherland
Have all eventually come down to waiting for everyman
Waiting here for everyman
Make it on your own if you think you can
If you see somewhere to go I understand
Waiting here for everyman
Don’t ask me if he’ll show baby I don’t know
But thank you Jackson Browne for helping us comprehend that we’re never really alone, even when it feels that way.
Everybody’s just waiting to hear from the one
Who can give them the answers
Lead them back to that place in the warmth of the sun
Where sweet childhood still dances
Who’ll come along and hold out that strong and gentle father’s hand?
Long ago I heard someone say something ’bout everyman