Aching With Strangers in the Comments of a Jackson Browne Song

The 1974 anthem "Fountain of Sorrow" seems to elicit a universal pang

Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann/Getty Images // Icon: Jack Koloskus
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I don’t know where I was when I first laid ears on Jackson Browne’s heartbreak anthem “Fountain of Sorrow.” It’s my mom’s favorite song; I remember hearing it in the back of her car in August 1997, while my siblings and I ate ice cream beside a toxic lake in Northwest Indiana the weekend before school started. I certainly listened to it, ripped from Limewire, on my iPod a lot in 2004, when I lay in bed with mono for three months instead of going to school. I heard the song again two weeks ago for the first time in a while, driving through Philadelphia’s Main Line in a rental car with my sister and an old friend of ours, trying to find a place to buy Altoids, a lint roller, and safety pins to fix my gaping dress buttons before a funeral.

This song, which is seven minutes long, is about a guy who stumbles upon an old photograph of his ex-girlfriend (reportedly Joni Mitchell). He sees an ever-present sorrow in her eyes in the photo, in spite of her laughter. She’s a little bit older than him (“I’m just one or two years and a couple of changes behind you / In my lessons at love’s pain and heartache school”), and she’s slept around and partied with strangers to outrun the “fountain of sorrow” that Browne predicts will always be “springing up from [her] life / Like a fountain from a pool.” But around three minutes in, the song’s tempo changes, and Browne aims to celebrate the struggle this girl’s been through. After all, she keeps it light, and she seems to have a generosity of spirit. “You could be laughing at me, you’ve got the right / But you go on smiling so clear and so bright,” he finishes.

So alright, “Fountain of Sorrow” doesn’t apply to any of the situations from my memories, but this song — despite being from 1974, before I was even born — feels like it was written for me. Browne touches on a concept my sister and I like to call “the ancient melancholy,” a lifelong condition we are unfortunately both afflicted with wherein we’re always a little bit sad, even when we’re being baby party clowns like the girl in the song. It’s possible our mom feels this too, but I’ve never asked. Maybe the thing that seems so specific to me about the song is actually universal: a sorrow that is part of the human condition.

A mounting collection of evidence in the comments section of illegally uploaded “Fountain of Sorrow” YouTube videos tells me that much is probably true. The boomers who have figured out how to access YouTube on their iPads go nut-nut for it, and they’re not afraid to type out and hit “send” on 100-word rhapsodies about how it’s been decades since they’ve heard this song. I like to spend time with these fellow heart-achers in the comments. I marvel at their transparency; maybe it’s the sweet salvation of this technology that makes them so vulnerable in those little text boxes.

In the comments of one unsanctioned “Fountain of Sorrow” lyric video uploaded nine years ago, I find an “internet challenged” person posting for the first time. It’s like seeing a baby grasp object permanence:

A compatriot shares to nobody in particular about how much this song did for them in 1974, the worst year of their life, and gets a surprise reply from a sympathetic new friend:

One yearns, presumably, for an old love:

And why isn’t Jackson Browne vaulted to the same level of rock ‘n’ roll fame as that hack Bob (Dylan)?

In the comments of another illegally uploaded version of “Fountain of Sorrow” posted nine years ago but without lyrics — just the “Late for the Sky” album cover — we meet an individual who postures that they’re over an unforgettable ex. Commenting peers don’t let them off that easy:

The next poor soul to open up about love lost was a little more candid:

These two simply made me cry. They’re like Jackson Browne lyrics as a couplet:

Not even Jackson Browne could have written this one, scrawled on the back of an envelope:

And I’m blinded, somehow, by some stranger’s gratitude spilled into a void:

You can conduct this exercise with any old song and find the elderly being softer than you’ve ever witnessed them be in waking life. I recommend it: There’s something about quietly listening to this song and reading the comments when you could be doing anything else in the world that rewards you with a sense of common humanity. None of us in that holding pen have outrun the fountain of sorrow yet, but we can scroll through it.