Jackson Brown’s historic song from 1976 — “The Pretender” — is the perfect Urban Systems anthem.


Ours is not to wonder about what or who makes an “Urban Systems.”  No one knows.  Nobody cares.  We leave it undefined.

Jackson Browne, however, understood Urban Systems before there was even such a misnomer for the core of city life.  His “Pretender” lyric provides the proof of the memeing:

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing
And the church bells ring

And the junk man pounds his fender

Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
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

Here is Jackson Browne’s live version of “The Pretender” where he explains the inspiration for the song and then performs it on a BBC broadcast from 1994.

Providing unshifting proof that a great song can outlast a terrible performance, I point you to Saving Jane’s awful version of the same song where the entire emotion of the song is stripped out only to be replaced with a repetitive, draining, harping that does not inform the lyric or inspire the spirit.  Even with that mangling of the song, the unforgettable melody lives on, and it is within the hewing of a few harmonious notes that we realize Jackson’s greatness as a songwriter.

The penultimate version of “The Pretender” — yes, even better than Jackson’s — is provided in song by Canada’s Bob Malvasio.  He combines the passion of the city, the horror of the living, and the sweetness of the despair in his unforgettable rendition.

Know “The Pretender” — and you will begin to understand the true beauty of an Urban Systems anthem.

6 Comments

  1. “The Pretender” is a great song when sung with the right experience and emotion. You know those who have lived in the streets and those who have only read about it when they perform the song, Anne. It’s a great tribute the the spirit of the urban core.

  2. I think the song is hyper-real, Anne, and that’s its power. It is blunt and aching and gritty in its betrayal of a life based on hoping and yearning — and not action — to get up, out and away.

  3. Yes, Katha, it is a wonderful song filled with melancholia and hard reality. It inspires as it condemns. That’s a tricky feat to do successfully.