"Doctor My Eyes" was the song that made Jackson Browne, who had been kicking around the music business for years, wowing record executives with his songwriting, but leaving them unable to figure out how to market him, a star. Something of the problem and its solution are revealed in the song's development. Browne, born an Army brat in Germany in 1948 and raised in Los Angeles, began gaining notice while still in high school, writing songs and briefly joining an early lineup of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at 17. Two of his songs appeared on their 1966 debut album, and by the end of the '60s his work had also been recorded by Hour Glass (featuring Duane and Gregg Allman), Nico, and Tom Rush, among others. The covers led to interest in Browne as a singer, and he got demo deals with record and music publishing companies, but despite the obvious eloquence of his lyrics, there were questions about how commercial his sometimes depressing material was and how effective he was as a performer of it. By the early '70s, however, his songs were being cut by such prominent performers as the Byrds, Linda Ronstadt, and Johnny Rivers, and he finally got his shot with David Geffen's Asylum Records.
Browne first recorded a demo of "Doctor My Eyes" for the Criterion Music publishing company in early 1971, and despite its striking imagery and carefully crafted writing, it was a bleak song about a young man who has experienced too much and is vainly seeking help, even though, having seen the "Angel of Darkness" descend, he finds it's too late to escape his fate. By the time he came to record the song for his first album in the summer of 1971, however, Browne had revised the lyric, tossing out the most pessimistic lines. Now, "Doctor My Eyes" was the statement of a man who had stoically endured life's hardships, but having done so, now worried that he had been rendered unable to feel anything. It still wasn't an optimistic song, but the unhappy ending had been rendered ambiguous. And working with other musicians, Browne drastically altered the sound of the song on record. A lively 4/4 beat played on drums and congas and supported by piano set up a catchy underlying riff before the lyrics even began. Browne's singing was supported by David Crosby's harmony, giving the lyrics an emotional edge. On the whole, the arrangement and performance worked against the still desperate message contained in the words. It would be another eight years before Browne came up with a song called "Disco Apocalypse," but the paradoxical sense of that title was already glimpsed on his debut single, a rollicking pop/rock song about being almost terminally burnt out.
"Doctor My Eyes" appeared on Jackson Browne, released in January 1972, and it was issued as a single the following month. By March, it was in the charts, and it peaked in the Top Ten in May. That still seems surprising given the song's lyrical content, but the times had caught up to Browne by 1972. The week that "Doctor My Eyes" reached its apex, the singles charts also included America's "A Horse With No Name," Don McLean's "Vincent" and "Castles in the Air," Cat Stevens' "Morning Has Broken," Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and "Old Man," Paul Simon's "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," Harry Chapin's "Taxi," and Graham Nash and David Crosby's "Immigration Man," all of them highly individual songs not concerned with conventional romantic sentiments (the almost invariable subject of popular music lyrics), performed by highly individual singer/songwriters in a soft rock style. Browne fit in well in such company. Still, "Doctor My Eyes" was his last major hit single for six years. The song drew one immediate and curious cover: The Jackson 5 released their version of "Doctor My Eyes" on their Lookin' Through the Windows LP as the original recording was peaking in the charts. A more congenial interpreter was Mary Travers, who put the song on her All My Choices album, released in early 1973. But "Doctor My Eyes" doesn't seem to have drawn any other covers, and it remains known as Jackson Browne's breakthrough hit.