Backstory: Fountain of Sorrow

By on January 27, 2023
Jackson Browne at piano, horizontal
Jackson Browne with some introspection, live in an Indianapolis concert at the Murat Theater, October 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Larry Philpot of

“Fountain of Sorrow” is a song written by Jackson Browne and released on his 1974 album “Late for the Sky”. Like many of Browne’s songs, this one is a reflection on the end of a relationship and the pain that comes with it. The lyrics are both sad and introspective, with Browne singing about the “fountain of sorrow” that flows from a broken heart. The song is considered to be one of Browne’s most personal and emotional works, and many believe it was written about his own experiences with love and loss. The song features Browne’s signature storytelling style and poetic lyrics, making it a timeless classic that continues to resonate with listeners today.

Released as the second single from his 1974 album Late for the Sky, clocking in at almost seven minutes (6:42), it was the longest song on the album, and the longest song Browne has ever released, so he must have had a lot to say. To get airplay, the label cut two minutes from the single release of “Fountain of Sorrow”, but the song still failed to chart on Billboard’s Hot 100

In his 1974 review of the album “Late for the Sky”, Rolling Stone contributor Stephen Holden wrote that the song “develops parallel themes of sex and nothingness, fantasy and realism, as Browne, looking at the photograph of a former lover, recalls:”

When you see through love’s illusion, there lies the danger
And your perfect lover just looks like a perfect fool
So you go running off in search of a perfect stranger
While the loneliness seems to spring from your life
Like a fountain from a pool… “

“In the chorus, highly romanticized sexuality becomes a ‘fountain of sorrow, fountain of light.’ Later in the album the water[ fountain] images are developed into a larger metaphor for death and rebirth,” wrote Holden.

(Rolling Stone Magazine)

This song must have taken a long time to write, as evidenced through the storytelling. The song begins with:
“Looking through some photographs I found inside a drawer” which speaks of the relationship having ended long enough ago for Browne to have put the pictures away, and upon finding them, had the strength to look through them. Acknowledging her moving on, he discusses how her loneliness has gone away, like a fountain, and believes his will too… in that “I’m just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you.”

The most compelling part of this song is not just in the storytelling, but the underlying music that represents — as Holden of Rolling Stone writes, rebirth. At about the 5 minute mark, one thinks the song is over, and like a goldfish from a broken fishbowl on the floor, it is over… except for an occasional twitching movement. Indeed, there are dead spots, with the last twitches being just a few notes from his piano. Then, after around 20 seconds, slowly rejoining the song, the drum (heart)beat returns — a metaphor that he’s beginning to live again.

With backing vocals by the late Dan Fogleberg, Don Henley and J.D.Souther, and David Lindley on electric guitar, it’s a masterpiece.

Browne doesn’t discuss his personal songs, leaving the interpretation up to the listener, but the timeline and story put this one squarely in the lap of Joni Mitchell.

Browne and Joni Mitchell had a romantic relationship in the 1970s. It is not publicly confirmed that Jackson Browne wrote any songs specifically about Joni Mitchell, although some songs that were released during the time period are believed to be inspired by her or their relationship. Some songs like “For a Dancer” and “Late for the Sky” are considered as songs that might be inspired by Mitchell. This song was released at that time as well.

They met in the early 1970s, around the time when Browne was starting to gain fame as a singer-songwriter. Their relationship was brief but intense, and Mitchell was said to have been a major inspiration for Browne during this time. Mitchell wrote several songs that are believed to be about their relationship, including “For Free” , “The Last Time I Saw Richard”, and “Car on a Hill.” Mitchell has also mentioned Browne in interviews over the years and has spoken about the impact he had on her life and career. While the exact timeline of their relationship is not easy to set in stone, it is known that it was during the 1970s, but to music fans Mitchell and Browne are indelibly linked together, and to some of the best music of a generation. Hear it again for the first time.

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