One Song at a Time – Jackson Browne’s The Pretender

Gertrude St, Geelong West, Victoria. 1976

I met Bill when I changed schools for my last year of high school, in 1976. We spent many gentle Saturday afternoons listening to records in his neat-as-a-pin upstairs loungeroom. His girlfriend Carol was always there, as were a stack of schoolbooks. They are a studious pair. Together we’d drink hot chocolates and dine on shortbread biscuits.

Outside, Bill’s parents, migrants from eastern Europe, tended their vegetable garden. I didn’t speak their language but a nod and a smile was all we needed.

As Bill and I chatted about school and sport and poetry and music – with Carol occasionally interjecting a wry comment or just a smirk – Bill played The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt and Dan Fogelberg and Boz Scaggs and Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.  And Jackson Browne.

Sometimes Bill’s quiet voice would quicken with enthusiasm as he suggested we listen to a particular song. “The lyrics are wonderful,” he’d say. Or “The fade-out is quite moving.” Or “The solo is really something.” And we’d sit there and not interrupt the song. I wouldn’t even reach for another shortbread, there on the spotless glass coffee table.

The Pretender is the title song of Browne’s fourth album. Bill had probably played, in the background, the first three albums. But The Pretender album was new. Brand new. And the title song, which closes the album beautifully, immediately resonated, even though I was too young ‘to rent myself a house in the shade of the freeway’, too young ‘to be caught between the longing for love/and the struggle for the legal tender’, too young to know that ships bearing dreams would ‘sail out of sight’, maybe even too young ‘to be a happy idiot’.

Despite its title, The Pretender is not a critical or a cynical or an accusatory song. It’s a very sympathetic song. As Bill would say, the lyrics are wonderful: ‘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.’

And it’s not as if The Pretender is the only moving song on the eight song album. It’s the conclusion to a series of very fine songs featuring David Lindley, Graham Nash, David Crosby, Lowell George and Bonnie Raitt.

I first heard The Pretender live in a pub in coastal Queenscliff in the late 1970s. I was there with a group of mates from my old school. Just another Saturday night. No one, including myself, was paying much attention to the country-rock band playing in the back room. I don’t remember the name of the band but I remember they played The Pretender and that just another Saturday night now had some meaning, some heart.

Soul singer Gary U.S. Bonds covered The Pretender in 1981, on his Dedication album (featuring Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band). Bill probably bought the album as soon as it came out but by then we’d both left Geelong and the gentle Saturday afternoons in the upstairs loungeroom of Bill’s parents’ home were just a memory. A valued memory.

I only came across the Gary U.S. Bonds version a few months ago, when I spied Dedication in a second-hand record stall at a country market. Bonds seems to sing the song with a sense of triumph, a sense of championing the pretender’s limitations. The back-up singers are quite exuberant, as one might expect with soul music. (Bonds, now in his early 70s, is still performing but I don’t know if he sings The Pretender these days.)

Jackson Browne tours Australia fairly regularly, playing festivals and concert halls. I’ve probably seen him half-a-dozen times, with Bill and Carol sitting next to me. Or not far away. Each time that Browne has performed The Pretender I’ve wanted to get up and give the song a standing ovation. But self-consciousness, and concert hall courtesy, leaves me seated.

My CD copy of The Pretender disappeared about six months back but I know it’ll be amongst my 22 year old daughter’s stack of albums. (That’s where I find stray Paul Kelly and Bob Dylan CDs, too.)

What does Hannah make of the title track? I am old enough, now, to know about dreams that sail away. I am old enough, now, to know about ‘struggling for the legal tender’. I am old enough, now, to ‘Say a prayer for the pretender/Who started out so young and strong/Only to surrender’.

But what does Hannah hear? Probably something similar to what I heard in that neat-as-a-pin upstairs loungeroom with Bill and Carol – humanity, empathy, sympathy.

The Pretender on YouTube (BBC, 1994. Solo performance on piano)

Jackson Browne official website

More stories from One Song at a Time


  1. Good to have the memories stirred, Vin. I like The Pretender, but it was Carol King’s “Tapestry” that seemed to be the soundtrack of ’76-77 for me. And I had a couple of Gary US Bonds albums that have been lost along the way — but I still reckon “This Little Girl” is a great, great dance track (thanks Bruce), and that “All I Need” (thanks again, Bruce) is one of the great love songs from the 1980s. Can you write more about Gary?

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