Thursday, October 1, 2009

For a Song: The Road

Danny O‘Keefe: The Road


I was looking at the moon, and I noticed that there was a bright object close by it in the sky. I speculated that, with the moon almost full, the object must be a planet. Checking into it, I found that this was Jupiter. And I thought of the line, ”You’re right about the moon, but you’re wrong about the stars.”

Of course, the line comes from the song The Road. And here is the original version, by Danny O’Keefe. Most people, if they know the song, think Jackson Browne wrote it. It was on Browne’s album of songs about touring, Running on Empty, and it fit right in. But Browne saw no reason to write a new song about a musician’s hopes and fears of his life on the road, when such a perfect example already existed. Although Browne turned in a fairly faithful cover, the song, in his hands, came off almost as ironic. After all, Jackson Browne was famous enough then, and to this date, that no one was ever likely to forget who he was.

But far too few people know the name Danny O’Keefe. O’Keefe was a “songwriter’s songwriter”. His work was known mainly to other songwriters, many of whom championed him by performing his work. His other well known song is Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues. Usually, a songwriter’s songwriter eventually has a breakthrough and becomes known in his own right. Tom Waits and John Hiatt are fine examples of this. But, for Danny O’Keefe, that breakthrough never came. And I have no idea why not. Happily, O’Keefe is still working. Maybe his break will still come.

In the meantime, his version of The Road still rings true. As fame continues to elude him, O’Keefe still writes his songs, and takes what joy there is in giving others even momentary pleasure through his music.


Steve MC said...

Thanks for this - the Jackson Browne version was a high school favorite, especially with that plaintive violin. I guess because my tape was made from my brother's album, I always thought Browne wrote it.

And then last year a local folk station played O'Keefe's version, and I was like, whoa. The original. How'd I ever not hear this before?

Ralph said...

Isn't the line "You write about the moon; you dream about the stars"?

Whatever--this is beautiful. I was not familiar with the song before, so I'm hearing it for the first time here. I'm a total sucker for the that mesmerizing figure swinging between major and minor he uses between verses--Ochs and Baez did the same thing on There But For Fortune and I fell for that one, too.

MB Walker said...

You're both right. O'Keefe sings "You write about the moon/You dream about the stars" the first time through and "You’re right about the moon/But you’re wrong about the stars" toward the end. The change in emphasis is one thing that makes the song one of my favorites.
Aside from his only major hit ("Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues"), other O'Keefe songs worth checking out include "So Long Harry Truman," "Quits" (which should have been a smash hit), "All My Friends" (another masterpiece, with a great line about growing older and losing touch: "All my friends are going to be strangers") and "The First Time" (from his latest album).
Times must be hard for singer songwriters who don't get played on the radio -- I ordered his latest album ("In Time") from his website and received the copy along with a handwritten note from O'Keefe thanking me for the support. Hard to Jackson Browne finding the time to personally thank people who purchase one of his albums.

Linda - SE PA said...

Your commentary on O'Keefe aligns itself with a topic I have had on my mind recently... which is the music industry.

Thinking that most would agree that it comes to individual taste etc. - one has to consider that how many individuals give the green light for what we hear in mainstream and how many support an indie/local music to get it somewhere (such as a blog) for more folks to listen to.

O'Keefe seems to fall into this "mystery". I sense this is very much like the "mystery" of why Paul Simon and not Art Garfunkel. I've heard of O'Keefe - possibly a different person - as he was mentioned as a session person and it could have been him as it was the time for everyone to have a "superstar" on their album.

And at one time I did have Jackson's album and remember The Road... Jackson Browne is one of my very best fav artists and I sense that I will carry The Road as "his" song rather than O'Keefe's. I consider the unfairness of it - yet, this is a touchstone of how this can happen when you "birth" a song and release it on its own.

Unfair - yes... but, consider J.D. Souther's Faithless Love - covered by - covered by - fill in the blanks and he also recorded it.

Once again, we ponder - some do and some don't.

boyhowdy said...

Nice choice, and agreed that O'Keefe is underrated, though I'd suggest he's surely made his nut, what with Browne's cover, and others on albums from Allison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Tim O'Brien, Chris Smither...and beyond.

BEST cover of The Road, though, is the one by Bill Morrissey and Greg Brown from their collaborative ninetythree album Friend of Mine. Morrissey's broken, hoarse, ancient voice and the sparse guitar picking frame the content so well...