If you’ve listened to a classic rock station for at least an hour sometime in the last twenty years, you’ve probably heard “Take It Easy.” The version by the Eagles is almost ubiquitous. It’s the theme song of the 1970s: A paean to hedonism that is so relentlessly sunny and carefree, you almost get sunburned listening to it.
That’s not the version of this song I care about.
“Take It Easy” was famously co-written by Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne. Browne recorded it for his second album, 1973’s For Everyman. Sonically, structurally, and instrumentally, it is almost exactly like the Eagles’ version. Almost.
Lest anyone forget, Jackson Browne is a master of angst, and in his hands, “Take It Easy” becomes not a rallying cry to get high and have sex, but a desperate search for meaning in a meaningless world. You get the feeling that the singer is sleeping with seven different women not because he can, but because he needs to find that one woman who will provide the comfort and safety he so clearly craves (the one who says she’s his friend appears promising, but he’s taking nothing for granted). He’s “running down the road” and “standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” partly because he doesn’t seem to have anywhere else to go. The fade out (which is the only significant difference between the recordings) is wistful guitars slowly tapering off. There is no peace in this song. The repeated title line becomes not a statement of cool relaxation, but a plea for sanity.
The part that really brings this out for me is the second verse. The singer, who is probably hitchhiking, meets a woman driving a “flat-bed Ford” and convinces her to pick him up. It’s the desperation in Browne’s voice that gets me every time. When he sings “C’mon baby, don’t say maybe, I’ve got to know if your sweet love can save me,” he means it. He may just as well have sung “Oh please give me a ride, because I’m hot and thirsty and dying of loneliness out here in the middle of nowhere.” This girl is his last chance, and if he doesn’t take it, he’s going to die. That level of sturm und drang is something Browne does better than any of the rest of the SoCal soft rockers. He is scared and unsure and lost, and it shows in his voice. There is a need for connection and the fear that it will all amount to nothing in the end, so why even bother. In Jackson Browne’s California, there is a price to pay for everything. And he just got stuck with the check.