John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“These Days” Is Still Haunting

Written by Jackson Browne at age 16, sung by Warhol’s discovery Nico, and unforgettable.

By - Jun 24th, 2016 02:13 pm
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Jackson Browne. Photo by Kellen Nordstrom courtesy of the Pabst Theater.

Jackson Browne. Photo by Kellen Nordstrom.

Exceptions to rules make life interesting. Raised Catholic, I used to be Mr. Cut and Dried. Now it’s pleasurable to be swayed, letting a little air into the chamber of ultimate truth. Some artists who I view as very good craftsmen leave me wishing for something more. Messy emotions? The occasional human flaw? I don’t know, but I’m open to liking them more, rather than less. Music isn’t The Inquisition.

I have a very firm policy on Jackson Browne, a man of no small ability who I always had trouble enjoying as much as his legions of fans. There’s a slight Eagles aroma about him, having co-written their first hit, and I have little patience for that brand of California Country Rock. He definitely was the lesser of those two evils, but I passed a point where I found their tales of conquest and loss, or life on the road — with all the cocaine it must have involved — compelling. I have two favorite songs by Browne, though: “Redneck Friend” is a terrible but funny double entendre, which had to be written by someone. He got there first. The other, “These Days,” is a classic.

Browne wrote the song when he was all of 16. If I am the first one to say he has never topped it, so be it. A lot of people have responded to its melancholy descending progression and world-weary lyrics. It surprises with its very grown up air of defeat, perhaps because we forget just how hopeless life can seem at that age. He went on to write a lot more songs, but somehow, they seem less universal. A natural lady killer who quickly became a star early on, maybe writing from a life that was going so good made it hard to ever write in such a doleful way again. I think it’s called first world problems.

Nico at Lampeter University - November 1985. Photo by GanMed64 [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Nico at Lampeter University – November 1985. Photo by GanMed64 [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

The version of “These Days” we hear today is by Nico, also called, Nico Superstar, back when she was associated with Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground. A ravishing formal model from Berlin, she could have stood on stage and said nothing and probably have made a go of it. Inserted to the lineup of the Velvet Underground, pretty much against their will, by Warhol, she sang in a heavy Teutonic alto that recalled Marlene Dietrich and long nights in a smoky cabaret. Turns out it worked pretty well — she held her own on three cuts from their debut album. We’re talking about the group and the record said to have inspired those who bought it to start their own bands. Except that not many bought it.

Nico and the band were a match made in hell, bickering ensued and she was gone by the second record. She started performing solo in a place called The Dom in New York. Her backing guitarists read like a who’s who of the folk scene of that time. Aside from Browne, there was Tim Buckley,  Tim Hardin, with his beautiful tenor and timeless songs, and Leonard Cohen, no slouch himself. She did songs by Hardin, Browne, members of Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan on her debut album Chelsea Girl. Though she was dissatisfied with the production, which featured strings and her least favorite instrument, the flute, it was effective. Affective, too. Many punks and goths took to her years after its release.

Too sad for words but somehow Browne found them:

I’ve been out walking
I don’t do too much talking
These days, these days
These days I seem to think a lot
About the things that I forgot to do
And all the times I had the chance to

I’ve stopped my rambling
I don’t do too much gambling
These days, these days
These days I seem to think about
How all the changes came about my ways
And I wonder if I’d see another highway

I had a lover
I don’t think I’ll risk another
These days, these days
And if I seem to be afraid
To live the life that I have made in song
It’s just that I’ve been losing so long
I’ve stopped my dreaming

I won’t do too much scheming
These days, these days
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten
Please don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them

Metrolyrics Print These Days | MetroLyrics

© Jackson Browne

The ability to edit on the fly and in the flow makes this short note from the land of broken hearts close to perfect. Browne took it further in his own version, leaving the “rambling gambling” verse out. Pretty tired by then and best left to Bob Seger. The “corner stones” and “Quarter tones” rhyme is so good it could have come from Paul Simon.  (I’d like one of those quarter tone watches, but they only exist in song.) Living on the fuzzy border of pretension, the lyrics, had they been submitted by any English lit major, would have brought a scolding from the professor — but here it imparts flavor. All the rhymes feel very internal and natural. The lines run like a single thread through the fabric of the whole song, staying true to the original intent.

Musically, the descending pattern puts the listener in a sort of collapsing environment. You are trying to get your footing along with the singer, looking for a ray of hope. Nothing new here, but it feels so organic you’d swear the song was plucked off a tree, not written.

Ah, the beautiful people and their sad glamorous lives! Jetting off here and there to parties and flings with other beautiful people. Do they have to have talent too? Both Browne and Nico knew life at the top but somehow could show something closer to the depths. Nico was a butterfly, fluttering from one country and relationship to the next. Had there been an internet and social media back then, she would have been constant click bait.

She was also a heroin addict for 15 years, though it started, surprisingly, after she left the Velvets and Warhol. It may have led to her early departure. She suffered a brain injury driving a motorcycle while on vacation with her son in Italy and died hours later. She never made it to 50. Browne has had his own ups and downs, including the suicide of an ex-wife. But he’s a survivor and in recent years has taken to playing the now classic “These Days” again. It had been off his set list for a long time. If someone could play a one-song show and make it worth the price, it might be this guy and this song.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “These Days” Is Still Haunting”

  1. Virginia Small says:

    Wow, another profound and evocative analysis of a lyric, its creator and interpreter. Thanks for the insights into an era and Jackson Browne’s place within it. I’d always liked the song but had not heard Nico’s haunting version.

    I imagine you have a long list of songs to feature, but please consider analyzing a song by Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell or Lucinda Williams.

  2. Nancy Alvarado says:

    Not to be nitpicky John, but I DO so love Nico.
    She actually died in IBIZA while riding a BICYCLE.
    Saw her at the Metropole in Milwaukee. And also at Irene J’s on the southside, next to the Outlaws’ clubhouse.

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    What beautiful lyrics! Melancholy, crestfallen. Haven’t heard this song but am going to wait for awhile before looking it up so that the poetry of the words sinks in first!

  4. Thomas says:

    Yes, John, “These Days” is a haunting and timeless song. My favorite recording of it is by Tom Rush on one of his early LP.s.

  5. johnny k says:

    The definitive version of These Days, for me, is Gregg Allman’s bluesy, boozy take from his 1973 solo album” Laid Back.”
    The pedal steel adds an extra layer of wistful regret and man, that voice. Sounds like a man vs. Jackson’s adenoidal boy.
    I agree that Jackson may have never reached that nearly perfect song craft again, but he has contributed mightily to serious singer/songwriting with “Before the Deluge”,”For Everyman”and at least a half dozen others. Thanks for this column, John, it’s a kick in the head.

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