Friday, March 10, 2017

Hippies vs. Punks: Jackson Browne's Late for the Sky (1974)

A critical scene in Taxi Driver (1976) is the one where Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, is sitting in front of his black-&-white television, pointing his Smith & Wesson .44 at the screen as youth slow dance to Jackson Browne's "Late for the Sky" on American Bandstand.

It is a critical scene, representing a dividing line for the character, who kicks the TV over and thereafter fully commits to his mission as an assassin.

What's interesting is that it is the only clear, popular musical marker in the film. Everything else is Bernard Herrmann's anachronistic film noir score. There are a few minor sonic references -- background music in the diner where the drivers hang out; Harvey Keitel's pimp character Sport singing in the brothel to a record I haven't been able to identify -- but nothing like the prominent placement of "Late for the Sky."

Scorsese is communicating something to us. But what?

"Late for the Sky" is of course the lead and title track off Jackson Browne's masterpiece, Late for the Sky. Late for the Sky appeared at the end of summer 1974, not too long after Nixon's resignation. It was nominated for a Grammy, reached as high as #14 on the Billboard album charts, and cracked the top ten of the hipster Pazz & Jop Critics Poll for 1974, though Christgau dismissed the record as follows:
Late for the Sky [Asylum, 1974]
Browne reminds me of Nixon: no matter how hard I listen to his pronouncements--important sociologically if nothing else, right?--my mind begins to wander. They're getting longer, too; the eight songs here average over five minutes. I admit that the longest is also the best, an intricate extended metaphor called "Fountain of Sorrow." But his linguistic gentility is inappropriate, his millenarianism is self-indulgent, and only if he sang as good as Dylan Thomas might I change my mind. B-
"Fountain of Sorrow" is indeed a terrific song that holds up to this day. One evening I think I listened to it on repeat five times:

My parents owned this album. It was one of their favorites. I think my father identified with Jackson Browne. He looked something like him and used to dress in brown corduroy pants and a white t-shirt, as Browne appears on the cover of The Pretender (1976) -- an album my Dad and I listened to a lot when my parents were going through their divorce.

From 1972 to 1977 Jackson Browne is pretty much at the top of the heap of singer-songwriters, He enjoyed critical acclaim and robust record sales. If Late for the Sky represents Brown's zenith, what we can take away from it, I think persuasively, is that the end of the line for the Hippies is synonymous with The Flying Burrito Brothersesque Los Angeles country rock of the Watergate era and Ford presidency. (Eagles Don Henley and J.D Souther sing backup on Late for the Sky.)

Like Hotel CaliforniaLate for the Sky is a very cynical document packaged in a slick, mellifluous studio sound. Browne is preoccupied with apocalyptic floods and planet-ravaging catastrophes that will scrub man's decadent civilization clean. You could say he was ahead of his time. (It is too bad that he doesn't keep his website more up-to-date.)

Scorsese gives the song its privileged spot in Taxi Driver because it is a refutation of Romantic love and the idea that we can ever satisfy our beloved. Love is a delusion where we are forever trying to become someone who we are not.

Once Travis Bickle receives this message, he is on his way. He kicks his TV over, and with it the Hippies. The Punk era is born from a Jackson Browne song.

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