Released as a single along with Jackson Browne's self-titled album in 1972, this song was immediately recognized as a classic. Its tone expressed perfectly the exhaustion felt throughout American culture at the end of the 1960s. Critics might say it gains artificial commercial appeal from being overly vague (somewhat like Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down"). This may explain why it has remained popular for so long, but in my view, there is no mistaking the heartfelt struggle between idealism and disillusionment in Jackson Browne's vocals and piano here.
The music in the original version of the song sets up an interesting contrast with the lyrical and vocal tone. It's a fairly simple arrangement, relying mostly on Browne's skill on the piano. A bit of electric guitar work rounds out the melodic line, and the percussion is flavored with an almost surreally cheerful bongo sound. For the many listeners who never bother to analyze lyrics very deeply, the overall effect is probably more uplifting than melancholy.
Now I have to admit the lyrics are somewhat vague, especially when compared to some of Browne's later work. His impassioned delivery makes up for the lack of concrete, specific images in the words. You may not know exactly what he means to say here, but the feeling he wants to get across is clearly visible.
The structure of the song is also interesting to me. There is no catchy repeated refrain, other than the three words of the title itself. The vocals begin with a jump straight into the first of the two main stanzas, setting up the wafer-thin metaphor of a doctor visit. By the second line it becomes clear the "eyes" that worry the narrator are not his physical eyes.
Hence the whole metaphor makes a good example of dramatic irony. The narrator's worries are metaphysical, not medical. The eyes that pain him are supposed to supply the inner vision of moral awareness, but he has nowhere to turn for help with the inner eyes. So he falls back on a doctor trained in the treatment of physical ailments of the outer eyes, hoping to somehow find the help he needs but cannot articulate fully.
Like many other examples of irony, this interpretation is subject to dispute, and it's quite possible to enjoy the artistry of the song without ever thinking about such things.
See for yourself:
Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand
I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding
You must help me if you can
Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong.
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?
'Cause I have wandered through this world
And as each moment has unfurled
I've been waiting to awaken from these dreams
People go just where they will
I never noticed them until I got this feeling
That it's later than it seems
Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what you see
I hear their cries
Just say if it's too late for me
Doctor, my eyes cannot see the sky
Is this the prize for having learned how not to cry?
Writeup revised on September 15, 2003. I believe this review now complies with fair use defined in E2 policies.