SOURCE: Financial Times, an international daily newspaper printed in broadsheet and published digitally that focuses on business and economic current affairs. London, England.
Life of a Song
These Days — a song of regret and remembrance written by the 16-year-old Jackson Browne
The 1967 version by Nico set the tone for future releases of this beautiful, lyrical track
Michael Hann FEBRUARY 9 2020, Financial Times
It seems to be treated as something of a miracle that Jackson Browne wrote “These Days”, a song of regret and remembrance, when he was 16. Certainly, it’s an uncommonly beautiful and lyrical song for someone so young and green to produce, but perhaps it’s exactly the kind of song a 16-year-old would write: maudlin and self-centred. For all we know, the line “Don’t confront me with my failures” refers to school exams rather than the countless disappointments of life.
“To me it was not a heavy song or particularly revelatory,” Browne later said. “It was just telling my truth, the truth of my life.” But songs mean what people invest in them, and “These Days” has become invested with gravitas. When you listen to Glen Campbell’s version, recorded in 2008 — not long before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s — the knowledge that he was entering his final years gives the song a near-ghostliness. When you hear Gregg Allman’s version, released in October 1973, and draped in weeping pedal steel guitar, you’re aware that a year previously he had lost his bandmate Berry Oakley in a motorcycle crash and his brother Duane to the same fate a year before that.
[Listen to some of these covers below.]
The status of “These Days” as a song of great sadness was probably ensured by the first person to release a version of it, in October 1967: Nico, the German model and actress who had sung on the first Velvet Underground album, could have made “Agadoo” sound like an existential cry for help. Browne had become her accompanist (and lover, though he was only 18 at the time), and “These Days” was selected for inclusion on Chelsea Girl, the album on which she tried to relaunch herself as a solo folk singer. Browne had written the song in 1964 or 1965, and the earliest recording of it — his January 1967 demo, entitled “I’ve Been Out Walking” — was rather more spry and upbeat. Nico’s version set the tone for the future.
“These Days” was perfect for her oddly inexpressive voice. Her version is lugubrious and glassy, drawing attention to the words rather than their delivery. “I've been out walking,” she sings, suggesting not a ramble so much as a stroll off a cliff. “I don’t do too much talking these days.” She was initially accompanied only by Browne on electric guitar (he had switched from acoustic at the suggestion of Andy Warhol), with strings and flute added later by the producer, Tom Wilson, to Nico’s fury.
Allman’s version rearranged “These Days” into something stately rather than frigid, and that was the arrangement Browne used for his own recording of the song, released the same month, October 1973, as Allman’s. Others have also departed from the Nico template. Terry Melcher — who produced The Byrds, and was briefly an associate of Charles Manson — recorded a chamber-pop version in 1974, with his mother singing back-up, his mother being Doris Day. The following year, Cher remade it as overwrought MOR (“Oh, these day-aya-ays”). In 2003, Paul Westerberg — a man whose weary, bruised voice makes everything sound regretful — tackled it as scrappy country rock.
But most versions don’t depart too far from Nico’s, because why fiddle with something so lovely? St Vincent, Everything But the Girl, Tom Rush, Kathryn Williams, Elliott Smith and The Tallest Man on Earth have all performed it without departing too far from Nico’s template.
But it has also crossed boundaries — perhaps thanks to its prominent use in Wes Anderson’s film, The Royal Tenenbaums. In 2014, Ab-Soul, a sometime Kendrick Lamar collaborator, released “WWSD” (meaning “What Would Soul Do?”), in which he — more or less — rapped on top of Browne’s recording, offering a running commentary on what Browne was singing: “Yo, he wrote this sh** when he was 16, he said / I’m 27, this is like my whole life.”
There was a degree of shock when Drake popped up on a version by Babeo Baggins, retitled “Things I Forgot to Do”, in 2016, with him singing rather than rapping, though naturally he repurposed the lyrics to whine about the women he wished he had resisted, and he was sitting in a chauffeured car, rather than on a cornerstone.
More than 50 years after it was first recorded, “These Days” continues to resonate. Jackson Browne continues to be asked about it. And artists continue to record it. Ennui never gets boring.