Jackson Browne: “Fountain of Sorrow”

When Jackson Browne was at his most successful as a songwriter, he was not necessarily at his best. After all, he co-wrote “Take It Easy” with the Eagles’ Glenn Frey. Browne was a remarkable early bloomer as a songwriter; he was hired as a staff writer for Elektra Records’ publishing company before his 18th birthday, and worked with Tim Buckley and with Nico, formerly of The Velvet Underground.

Browne and Nico were romantically linked (it seems that happened a lot), and Browne made major contributions to her debut album as a musician and writer, including the song “These Days.” Browne’s early songwriting work was recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, Nico, Steve Noonan, Gregg Allman, Joan Baez, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the Byrds, and others.

The flip side of the coin is that when Browne was at his best as a songwriter, he was usually not his most successful. In that category, I place “Fountain of Sorrow” and the title track from the album it is on, Late for the Sky. Lyric excerpts, the backstory, and more on the continuation page.

The song “Late for the Sky” describes the terminal phase of a romantic relationship or of a marriage.

Looking hard into your eyes
There was nobody I’d ever known
Such an empty surprise to feel so alone

The second song on that album seems to jump forward several years. And there’s also a very interesting musical contrast. “Late for the Sky” has a “churchy” feel, with a slow-moving melody and a prominent organ part. Nearly a dirge in fact. However, “Fountain of Sorrow,” despite its bittersweet lyrics, sounds like a bouncy rock song, with brisk tempo, pulsing drums, and energetic guitar lines. A rock song that is whistling past the graveyard, perhaps.

In one of Browne’s most poignant turns of phrase, “Fountain of Sorrow” opens:

Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer
I was taken by a photograph of you
There were one or two I know that you would have liked a little more
But they didn’t show your spirit quite as true

You were turning ’round to see who was behind you
And I took your childish laughter by surprise
And at the moment that my camera happened to find you
There was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes

I fully admit that “I was taken by a photograph of you” is not quite up to the level of Kenneth Rexroth at his best.

However, among commercially-successful 1970s singer-songwriters, I don’t think it gets much better than “Fountain of Sorrow.” That is primarily because the transitive inversion (it is the photograph that takes Browne, years after he took it) expresses the singer’s again-surprised emotional state (with respect to the quote above from “Late for the Sky”).

This jiu-jitsu’ing of a cliché gives a shock of immediacy; we understand that a chance encounter with a physical object has opened the doors of memory and the floodgates of emotion.

That said, Browne’s spoken prologue to this video of a years-later live performance of “Fountain of Sorrow” is absolutely priceless. Noting that in the act of remembering love, all of us tend to remember only “the good stuff,” Brown drily admits:

But as time went on []—years went on—it turned out to be quite a bit more generous a song than she deserved.

To quote Mandy Rice-Davies: “Well (giggle) he would [say that], wouldn’t he?”

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