When Browne wrote this, the lyrics were about a guy who tries to get help, but is doomed because it's too late. His record company thought it was too much of a downer, so Browne made it into a story about a guy who has gone through a lot in life and comes to accept his fate.
Browne's Southern California musical cohorts David Crosby and Graham Nash sang harmony vocals. Brown was signed to Asylum Records, which was owned by David Geffen. According to Jackson, Geffen asked Nash if he thought there was a single on the album (Browne's first), and Nash picked this one, with the proviso that Browne add a high vocal part, which he did.
This was Jackson Browne's first single. The song isn't typical of his work; it runs just 2:55 and lacks the personal, introspective lyrics he's known for. Still, the song did very well in America, and remained a fan favorite, garnering lots of airplay on classic rock and adult contemporary radio, and often earning a spot on Browne's setlists.
Getting that first hit under his belt was satisfying for Browne, whose first recorded album (in 1968) was never released.
The guitar solo on this song was played by Jesse Ed Davis, a brilliant but troubled musician who performed on albums by Willie Nelson, Marvin Gaye and John Lennon. Davis died in 1988 at age 43 in what appeared to be a drug overdose.
In the UK, it was The Jackson 5 who had a hit with this song; their 1973 cover went to #9. On their version, Jermaine Jackson came in too early and ended up repeating the first line. His error was allowed to remain in the final mix.
Paula Cole sang this for the 2004 film Eulogy.