1971, Singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, 22, is about to play an important role in shaping the direction of the Southern California country rock movement.
His first solo album, Jackson Browne, was recorded that summer and released in early 1972. The single “Doctor My Eyes” peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard pop chart. In 2019, the album was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Fifty years later, Brown looked back on the writing, recording and production of “Doctor My Eyes.” Brown will be touring this fall and his new album “Downhill From Everywhere” (Inside Recordings) will be released on July 23rd. Edited from the interview.
Jackson Browne:In mid-1969, I lived in an underground apartment in Echo Park, Los Angeles.
I have had my grandfather’s upright Fisher Piano since the early 1900s. He was a printer and craftsman, painting wildflowers on the front and sides.
One day, my best friend, songwriter Greg Copeland, and his then-wife, songwriter Pamela Polland, arrived. She sat in front of my piano and played the song “Mind Snap” that I just wrote.
I applied her piano riffs to the song I was writing that became “Doctor My Eyes.” I played the piano part with my thumb one octave apart. Real piano players don’t, but I thought it was a cool way to suggest the rhythm needed for the song.
In the process of writing, my eyes became infected and badly covered. I barely saw it. I didn’t know what was wrong.
I went to the doctor, and he gave me some medicine. It took some time for my eyes to return to normal. My eye trouble was the first inspiration for the lyrics of the song. But when I wrote them, eye problems became a metaphor for lost innocence and seeing too much:
“Doctor, my eyes have seen for years / and a slow parade of horror without crying / now I want to understand.”
I don’t know what writes something to me. Many of my songs are imagined. They are coming from somewhere. This song isn’t literally about going to the doctor to fix my eyes. It’s a bit more glib than that:
“Doctor my eyes / tell me what’s wrong / wasn’t it wise for me to keep them open for a long time?” The lyrics are like a modest statement about the loss of idealism.
I don’t think I played “Doctor My Eyes” for anyone in ’69. At that time, the club I played didn’t have a piano and I had the songs aside.
I recorded David Geffen’s Asylum Records first album “Jackson Browne” at Crystal Sound in Los Angeles in the summer of ’71.
Crystal was where James Taylor recorded his third album, Mud Slide Slim, earlier that year.
Along the way, I met Richard Oshoff, a recording engineer for James. His engineering sounded great and he was a warm and empathetic man.
If James producer Peter Asher liked to work with Richard, I thought he might be great for me.
From the beginning, I thought “Doctor My Eyes” was one of the albums short enough for a single. I also thought that recording a single was a functional exercise and would be fun to try.
My friend David Crosby agreed to sing background harmony on some of the songs on the album. During the recording process, David Geffen played Graham Nash’s “Doctor My Eyes” and asked if he could be a single.
Graham said he might have added a high-harmony vocal. It was a big break on the album. Crosby and Nash were singing together when I was a totally unknown songwriter. It was quite a calling card at a radio station.
Before I started, I met drummer Russ Kunkel through a friend. Russ was a great and innovative drummer who recorded with James Taylor. He was able to arrange the songs for acoustic musicians, realize the drums and make them sound completely natural.
Russ said he liked my song and urged him to call him when he entered the studio. It was an incredible plunge.
When I started recording the basic rhythm tracks for “Doctor My Eyes,” I decided to play the piano, Leland Sklar play the bass, and Russ play the conga instead of the drums.
I had to change the piano part. Until then, I was playing that ridiculous two-thumb part throughout the song. With these two great players, I had to find a piano part that supported what they were doing and singing.
I decided to play an in-line 4-cylinder that plays on every beat, as the Beatles did on many songs.
Once we had a basic rhythm track, Russ suggested overdubbing the shuffle beats onto the drums to widen the conga.
Guitarist Jesse Ed Davis also joined in to overdub the solo. I was lucky to have him. He was part of a group of great session musicians from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I met him through Pamela Poland, which is interesting now that I think about it. Her riff was the basis of the song.
I originally called Jesse and played my song “Nightingale”. But when he heard it, he asked me if there was anything else. I played him “Doctor My Eyes”. He said, “Yes, I can play with it.”
When Jesse entered the studio, I played a tape of a basic rhythm track on his headphones. Richard had already recorded him when he tuned to the track.
Fortunately, Richard recorded everything Jesse played, including the little tuning riff we used.
Jesse overdubbed the solo in the middle of the song with one take and then started packing the guitar.
I went into the studio and the song went out so I asked if he could add his guitar at the end. Jesse reconnected the guitar and added that part.
Richard packed up again and went into the studio asking if he could add a big deep whole note under and at the end of the solo.
Jesse was happy to do so. Then he was gone. We used all the notes he played.
After the album was completed, I went out before it was released in January 1972. I didn’t play “Doctor My Eyes” before the album or after the single hit. It was only me and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley.
The day after the single reached the top 10, I returned from the road to LA. The girl I was watching came to pick me up at the airport.
Driving on La Brea Avenue, she said, “Look at this.” She turned on the radio and was playing “Doctor My Eyes”. I don’t know how she did it, but we both cracked down.
It was very unrealistic to hear one of my songs that way. I was focused on making an album.
For years, I didn’t think much about the song. It didn’t really represent what I did. But recently I heard Master’s test press for an album reissue. When “Doctor My Eyes” came out, it knocked me out. “It’s pretty good, it’s not bad,” I thought.
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