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 – 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 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 good.” 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, to me, 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.
A few years on I heard The Pretender played live in a pub in coastal Queenscliff. The late 1970s. I was there with a group of mates from my old school, the one I’d left in a hurry. Just another Saturday night, like all the others. 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.
Jackson Browne tours Australia fairly regularly. I’ve probably seen him half-a-dozen times, with Bill and Carol sitting next to me. Or not far away. Each time 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 disappears from time to time but I know it’ll be amongst my daughter’s stack of albums. (That’s where I find stray Paul Kelly and Bob Dylan CDs, too.)
What does Hannah, now a few years out of high school, 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.