Desert Island Singles: “Fountain Of Sorrow” by Jackson Browne (1974)Posted: November 5, 2013
It was thirty-nine years ago this fall that I spun my first record on the radio airwaves. On KCMR-AM Augsburg College Radio, “The Station That’s Getting Through To You.” For the life of me I can’t remember the first song I ever played; I have it narrowed down to three, and “Fountain Of Sorrow” by Jackson Browne is one of the contenders. (Are you there? Say a prayer for the contenders…)
I was a fanatic about Jackson in late high school and early college. He had a talent for “making personal experience seem universal,” as reviewer Gil Asakawa wrote, although he acquired the rep of a tragic troubadour. Reviewers John Alroy and David Bertrand Wilson dismiss him as “a sensitive romantic, Alan Alda with a guitar.” Harsh.
His first three albums – “Jackson Browne,” “For Everyman,” and “Late For The Sky” – were a huge part of the soundtrack of my life. I brought those LPs everywhere I went, and forced everyone to listen to them until one friend gently mentioned that the group was “getting kind of tired of his voice.” Philistines.
I believe “Late For The Sky,” from 1974, is Jackson’s crowning achievement. Later chart success notwithstanding (“The Pretender” and “Running On Empty” and “Hold Out,” his only #1 album), he has never recaptured the excellence of that album. “Fountain Of Sorrow” was the only single to be released from the album, and had to be edited down from the 6:42 album length to 4:37 for radio play. Despite that, it didn’t crack the Billboard Top 100. More’s the pity.
The song describes the conflict between idealization and actuality, romanticism and realism in a relationship. Rumor has it that “Fountain Of Sorrow” was inspired by Jackson’s brief relationship with Joni Mitchell. Reviewer Tom Moon describes how “a photograph opens the floodgates” for the singer, and this “leads him into the minefields of memory.” Been there. Great line: “I was taken by a photograph of you.”
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 struggle, you’ve had to fight
To keep understanding and compassion in sight
You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right
But you go on smiling so clear and so bright