They sit on the dance floor on the episode of American Bandstand that Travis Bickle watches during a tense and pivotal moment in Taxi Driver. They’re only visible for a moment, but they seem to catch his eyes, eyes that flicker from emptiness to intensity and back again within the space of an instant. It’s a song about loss that pierces the veil of upbeat usualness that came to define American Bandstand, in a rare hint of possible deep emotion on the set. Were the shoes, empty and alone on the dance floor, a memorial for a dead Bandstand dancer? Were they simply symbolic of change? It is unclear. The Bandstand dancers float and weave around those shoes, languid and carefree even as Bickle slow-dances alone at the edge of sanity.
The song that moves those dancers is “Late for the Sky” by Jackson Browne. There are few songs better suited as a soundtrack to dreams gone up in smoke.
Jackson Browne recently returned to the fiery purity of his creative current with a couple of tracks recorded live in performance with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. A founding member of the band in 1966, he left soon after to launch his solo career — just he and his guitar embarking on a journey covering countless miles with innumerable songs sung over five decades.
Tonight, Browne performs solo acoustic guitar to benefit Safety Harbor Kids, a Malibu-based nonprofit organization dedicated to lifting up the least fortunate among us: orphans, foster and homeless children. It’s a charity that aims to give those kids everything from college to a career to artistic expression in the hopes that these opportunities will break the cycle of poverty to homelessness to prison.
Well-crafted songs carry within their words shades of multiple meanings, significance in which you can see your own life if a song hits you at just the right time. The lyrics to “Late for the Sky,” brimming with sorrow and the annihilated love between two people drifting inexorably apart, could just as easily be read as the story behind what went into a divorce and a broken home. Children might pick up on the lyrics of songs like “Late for the Sky” and divine from them a different level of understanding of what really goes on between two people. Art and music and creative expression are exceptionally good for honing that kind of emotional maturity.
There’s a deeper level of understanding possible when listening to music, and it is this insight that Jackson Browne brings to his songs to be played at tonight’s benefit. Loss of love, loss of parents, loss of home — these are the wrenching, worldly terrors that mold us into the complex, dynamic and troublesome people we are today.
Jackson Browne’s music exists as a lens through which we can try to make sense of our tragedies as best we can. After all, when someone you love is gone from your life, it leaves an awfully big pair of empty shoes to fill.