Doctor My Eyes (1972)

Jackson Browne

Written by Jackson Browne
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Doctor my eyes in studioJackson Browne has been a man under reconstruction since he began writing songs when he was 16, or 15, depending on what you hear on the street.

In that, he is not unlike his native city, Los Angeles, always re-jiggering and re-figuring.

Of course for L.A., like all big cities, that is true physically, but the wads of cultural, spiritual and social self-examination that southern California has given us since the late-1950s typifies the place – Donald Duck, silicone, smog and all. The region reaches the heights of frivolity and the depths of self-analysis.

What kind of doctor do you go to for these problems?

Browne stares, in the L.A.-style, perhaps a little too closely at his soul, giving the listener insight, but little comfort. He barely skirts the edge of self-absorption.

As tart-tongued native Angeleno Randy Newman sings in “A Piece Of The Pie”:

And no one gives a shit
But Jackson Browne
Jackson Browne

That “give a shit” mode began early in Jackson’s career and has never really stopped. In 1972’s “Doctor My Eyes,” Browne has looked into the heart of darkness and survived, even prospered, by spinning painful emotional straw into Rock gold. It was a top 10 single from his first album Jackson Browne (Saturate Before Using).

“Doctor” thrives on cognitive dissonance. The music is as chipper as Tom Sawyer on a sunny morning; the lyrics are as murky and moody as Huck Finn’s ride down the Mississippi. The foundational piano sounds almost as if it could be taking refuge from a Saturday morning cartoon show, which is not to say it isn’t great. It is terrific but it’s also borderline bippity-boppity-boo.

Russ Kunkel, assuredly the greatest session drummer of the ’70s and ’80s, kicks and scuffs the song along, keeping the music merry. (Kunkel played On Doctor My eyes leland sklarDylan’s New Morning album; Carol King’s record-breaking Tapestry; Joni Mitchell’s Ladies Of The Canyon and Blue; Neil Young’s Comes A Time and on Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy.) Essentially Kunkel could play with the New West Des Moines Ladies Auxiliary Chamber Ensemble and do a killer job.

Paired as the two have been countless times, Kunkel’s drums were fully complemented by Leland Sklar’s bass mastery. Sklar’s resumé is even longer than Kunkel’s. Instead of listing his achievements, we give you his picture at right so you get the idea.

More later on Jessie Ed Davis’s lead guitar, a superb Alternative Country contribution by one of the least-appreciated guitarists who ever played music.

The lyrics are reflective of a soul-searching guy, young, seemingly footloose, maybe living carelessly. Indeed, when he lived in New York in the late-1960s, Browne was an item with singer Nico of The Velvet Underground, and was pals with Warhol, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Rush among others.

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears
Doctor my eyes saturatewithout crying

Now I want to understand

I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good
without hiding

You must help me if you can

Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them
open for so long?

Those are leaden thoughts for a 16-year-old, and if you listen to “Doctor My Eyes” 10 or 20 times, you can’t avoid wondering if the boy who became Jackson the man was a teensy bit mannered in his writing. But, whether by design or ingenuousness, they give the listener pause. Jackson Browne, as we know is “everyman,” for his later album tells us so.

On the chorus, David Crosby and Graham Nash lend their trademark CS&N harmonies as if they were lending someone a quarter. They toss off excellence without getting their brows damp.

As the second set of verses unfurls, Jessie Ed Davis sneaks in and launches his quiet, moving magic. He makes his guitar talk not just to the other players but to Browne as the lyrics tumble from his mouth.

Besides playing for years as part of Taj Mahal’s band, Jessie Ed played with The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan.

Photo of Jackson BROWNEDavis shows off a bit of the Blues, a bit of Jazz guitar, and a smidgeon of country-swamp Rock in his restrained picking and the few full riffs he plays before his powerful solo. Even in the solo, though, he remains laid back and constrained, his main job it seems to be adding more counterweight to Jackson Browne’s dourly meditative word-smithing.

We are left with an ambiguous sentiment as the song ends, but anyone who has lived and lost even just a little can smile ruefully at the closing lyrics:

Doctor, my eyes
Cannot see the sky
Is this the prize for having
learned how not to cry?

All this came together to build Jackson Browne’s first hit, the one that fired him off on a long, illustrious career as a singer/writer/performer and as a social activist whose main cause is the preservation and re-purification of the environment. 

Browne has always been a rebuilder, and the world is a better place for his leaving his eyes open for so long.

  • An odd choice for them, The Jackson 5 covered “Doctor My Eyes” in 1973, which found its way onto the charts in many countries at a relatively high position. Or maybe the idea of “The Jacksons Do Jackson” appealed to a whimsical sensibility?