There’s an old Yiddish proverb that says “Man plans, and God laughs.” Whatever we think our life will be, whatever preconceived notions we may have, our actual life will probably be something far different than what we have imagined.
The history of rock and roll music is riddled with songwriters letting their imagination run wild. The Beatles imagine what it’s like to be older in “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Bruce Springsteen imagines what it would be like to escape the confines of his hometown in “Born to Run.” Chuck Berry imagines what it will be like to be a rock and roll star in “Johnny B. Goode.“
However, real life is usually never as idyllic or as tragic as the stories told in these songs. There are a couple of exceptions to that rule, and although they were written and released years apart, I think they tell two parts of the same story.
Southern California singer songwriter Jackson Browne released “The Pretender” in 1977 when he was 29 years old, and British writer performer Pete Townshend released “Slit Skirts” in 1982 when he was 37 years old. Although Jackson and Pete are in different rock and roll generations, and they are from two different continents, and they have wildly different backgrounds, these songs are strikingly similar.
They don’t sound similar. “The Pretender” is a slow study. It’s momentum is steady and a little lethargic. “Slit Skirts” also has slow parts of the song, but they are accented by hard rocking choruses. Both songs are meditations on life, on aging, and on rising above the mundane routine that life so often presents.
“The Pretender” lays out the scenario to the clock steady cymbal rhythm of the great session drummer, and Toto member, Jeff Percaro. Jackson Browne has an even keel understanding of what life his. His goals are simple. His expectations are realistic, and might even aim a little low.
“I’m going to rent myself a house
In the shade of the freeway
Gonna pack my lunch in the morning
And go to work each day
And when the evening rolls around
I’ll go on home and lay my body down
And when the morning light comes streaming in
I’ll get up and do it again”
Pete Townshend’s life is different. He is a little bit older than Browne, and has escaped the mundane routine that Jackson Browne pessimistically expects. He has a family and a home, and those things are not quite enough. Is he the man he wants to be? Is he the man his family expects him to be?
“Let me tell you some more about myself,
you know I’m sitting at home just now.
The big events of the day are passed and the late TV shows have come around.
I’m number one in the home team, but I still feel unfulfilled.
A silent voice in her broken heart complaining that I’m unskilled.“
Jackson Browne knows what to expect. He will go to work. He knows what he will hear and see in the morning and in the evening.. People going about their business. The sounds of the neighborhood. There is no one at home with him, so little solace can be found there. He goes outside. He pretends he is the same as everyone he sees. He pretends he is one of them.
“Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender.
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the Pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there“
Pete Townshend has lived a life of excitement and extremes, and he feels his best days may be behind him. He misses the man he once was. He misses the woman his wife used to be. Townshend is left disappointed in himself. Alcohol only makes things worse. He realizes those times are long gone.
“Slit skirts, Jeanie never wears those slit skirts
I don’t ever wear no ripped shirts
Can’t pretend that growing older never hurts.
Knee pants, Jeanie never wears no knee pants
Have to be so drunk to try a new dance
So afraid of every new romance”
There is little solace at the end of these songs, only a sad acceptance. Jackson Browne had big dreams and goals for himself, and he recognizes that person is still inside of him, but for now he needs to pretend he is just like everyone else.
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender.
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender.
And it seems the situation is reversed for Townshend. All his goals and aspirations were met long ago. His wife saw the man he was in pursuit of those goals, and now he is different. He is not the man he used to be.
“And I know that when she thinks of me, she thinks of me as him,
But, unlike me, she don’t work off her frustration in the gym.”
This is life. We have ideas about how things should be, and we set goals to get there. Or, the years have gone by, and we reflect on who we were and how we got here. I don’t know that “Slit Skirts” ever really got the critical acclaim that the “The Pretender” got, but I think they are both masterful works, and beautiful tragic statements on the goals we set for ourselves. The goals we don’t quite achieve, and maybe even worse, the goals we achieve that change us.
And maybe the lesson is that there is no lesson at all. We all need to go through these experiences. That is what makes a life. There are no shortcuts. It’s like a maze. We know the maze is there, we think we will find our way through, but there are twists and turns we don’t expect. When we have finally reached the other side, we turn around to look at where we’ve been, but we still can’t see. We just have to move forward.
Written and Performed by Jackson Browne
Released May 1977
Written and Performed by Pete Townshend
Released June 14, 1982