Friday, October 16, 2009

The Sound of One Heart Breaking

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate
ARTIST: Jackson Browne
SONGWRITER: Jackson Browne
ALBUM: The Pretender
YEAR/LABEL: 1976; Asylum

The perception was that I wrote an album about my wife's death, which was not true. If you want to listen to "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate" or "The Pretender" or "Your Bright Baby Blues" -- they're not about somebody dying.
(Jackson Browne)

Many performers emerged from the "singer/songwriter" era of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A number of them either came from or were based in southern California (e.g., David Blue, who wrote "Outlaw Man" on the Eagles' Desperado album, Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, J.D. Souther, and James Taylor), to the point where critics of the music labeled it a "mellow mafia." Fair or not, the music would never be mistaken for Led Zeppelin and the lyrics were heavily influenced by the deep, introspective writing of Dylan or other folkies.

For years Jackson Browne wandered about in the land of "cult" status. He was best-known for an early hit, "Doctor My Eyes," and for co-writing the first Eagles hit "Take It Easy" with Eagles front man Glenn Frey. Despite excellent albums that were praised by both his fans and critics he could not break through to "superstar" success.

After the release of his album Late for the Sky Browne married the mother of his son, Ethan. While recording the follow-up album The Pretender Browne's wife committed suicide, leaving Browne alone to raise his son and try to mend his broken heart.

Browne later claimed that The Pretender was not a musical documentary of his wife's death and his struggle to move on. Perhaps the melancholy mood of the album makes it appear that the opposite is true. Whatever the case, The Pretender is an album of pain, and "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate" is the most painful song of all.

The song may not be explicitly about Phyllis Browne's overdose in March 1976 but the imagery makes it difficult to conclude otherwise. The term "sleep's dark and silent gate" screams of a euphemism for death (especially given the number of cultures and religions that refer to death as "sleeping" or older songs such as Bill Monroe's "Mother's Only Sleeping"), which may be where the belief that the song was the most personal reference of Browne's heartbreak. Or it could be the literal cry in his voice when he pours out the line, "Oh, God, this is some shape I'm in." Misery and genuine grief oozes from every syllable uttered in this song, and that is one of the reasons for its greatness.

The Pretender enjoyed more success than any previous Browne album, gave him his second minor hit ("Here Come Those Tears Again"), and set him up for the superstardom that was to be his beginning with the next album (Running on Empty). The album stands in stark contrast to everything before or after it because of the personal tragedy Browne endured, best exemplified in "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate


The entire Late for the Sky album
-- some of Browne's best writing and one of his best rockers ("The Road and the Sky"). From start to finish it is the premiere album of Jackson Browne's career.

"These Days" (from For Everyman) -- "don't confront me with my failures, I had not forgotten them" is not only the superlative line from this song but wisdom that the wisest of philosophers did not provide us with.

"Of Missing Persons"(from Hold Out) -- a tribute to Jackson's friend, Little Feat front man Lowell George, sung to George's daughter. A wonderful memorial to a great talent we lost too early.

1 comment:

Newsletter Chair said...

In the days before I saw Jackson three times solo acoustic this November, I hadn't really listened to this song. This was mostly because I was too busy obsessing over the entire Late for the Sky album (which like you say, is some of his best).

Then he played Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate in Kingston NY, and nearly brought me to tears.

So painful. So beautiful.

Thanks for highlighting this song.