Carousel Corner And when I die and go to pure pop heaven The angels will gather around And ask me for my whole life story And ask for that fabulous sound But I know they're gonna stop me As I start going through every line And say please not the whole damn album Nobody has that much time Please ... just the hit single You gotta love that number one
Joe Jackson, "Hit Single"
It's a bit of weird karma, except for the brief mention (Live in Tokyo and Steppin' Out, The Video Collection in No. 90), that has kept Joe Jackson's new music out of this column since its inception. Jackson's last pop album of consequence, Laughter and Lust, was already in the cut-out bins when the "Carousel Corner" debuted, and his output until the three discs in this month's issue either didn't inspire or didn't fit into whatever we were ranting about at the time.
Of all Britain's "angry young men," including Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, we've harbored a voracious appetite and not a wee bit of anticipatory drool for Joe Jackson. From 1978's Look Sharp! to 1992's Laughter and Lust, Jackson offered up an eclectic potpourri of styles and bands, always guaranteeing smart lyrics brimming with pathos and irony, impeccable musicianship, and catchy tunes. A Joe Jackson disc, like those from Steely Dan, would offer a fabulous ride and, when all was put away, leaving one wanting just one more song. Then strangely he disappeared completely from pop music, releasing two ambitious compositions, Heaven and Hell and Symphony No. 1. "[A] composer ... is what I wanted to be in the first place," Jackson semi-explains in his 1999 autobiography, A Cure for Gravity, and considering the molds he'd shattered during his pop career, the works were oddly solid and in hindsight predictable, if not the trenchant slices of pop innovation he'd served up before.
Jackson's returned to the pop arena with a series of outings, dating back to 1999, amount to a summing up of his career, a slow arcing flare over the bow of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and perhaps a portent for his future. Then again, for someone for whom the present is the all, whose musical tastes and directions are only predicted at considerable risk, and for whom a certain circularity is fitting, we'll not to try to make too much of it.
Joe Jackson, A Cure for Gravity (A Musical Pilgrimage) (Da Capo Press, 1999)
The very notion of thinking man's rock is borderline oxymoronic. Rock'n'roll is glands, angst, chops, nerve, sweat, cars, and frantic coupling. But if Joe Jackson has insisted on nothing else from the post-punk edge of Look Sharp! to the shimmering homages to Tin Pan Alley and New York of Night and Day II, it's that you take him, his music, and his lyrics seriously. Jackson, like Dylan, Springsteen, Becker and Fagan, and Lennon and McCartney, doesn't pen one syllable or place one note that doesn't mean something, all within the context of a pop song. One would posit further that the thinking man's rock musician and song writer would at some point fairly well along in his career stand back and reflect on where he's been, what he's accomplished, and what remains to be done, unconsciously summoning Kierkegaard's dictum, "The unreflected life is not worth living." Sometimes this reflection indicates a career turn accompanied, or not, by a receding hairline or the first fleck of gray. In Jackson's case I believe it is all of the above, an abject gaze into the rear view mirror--just as we see him on the cover of Night and Day II, maybe or maybe not an intended irony.
To fully appreciate Jackson, one starts at A Cure for Gravity, more memoir than autobiography, tracing his musical roots and disposition from an asthmatic youth in Portsmouth to the Joe Jackson Band that recorded Look Sharp! in 1978. Recurrent themes emerge, which, given when it was written, indicate a great deal of what went into his oeuvre to that point, but also inform his subsequent production. First, Jackson considers himself a composer; a writer of pop songs to be sure, but one who carefully writes and arranges the music to convey precisely what the lyrics contend. Jackson is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music with a degree in percussion, among whose classmates were Annie Lennox and Sir Simon Rattle, a towering talent whose miracles with the City of Birmingham Symphony earn generous plaudits. Although he doesn't feel necessarily constrained by the three-minute pop song, Jackson is unawed by the challenges facing compositions of length and musical complexity--those not suited to either pop or the radio.
Second, Jackson's musical influences, as even a cursory scan of his albums would reveal, are widely diverse. He reveres Ellington for his compositional skills and deep understanding of tonal quality, Lennon and McCartney for their songwriting and unique sound, Steely Dan for turning pop on its ear, the punks for stripping rock back down to its elementals at a time when that was desperately needed. The "list," as it were, is infinitely longer when one examines Jackson's own work and I think safely assumes that the nicks from other writers are there no less purposefully than his own creations. Jackson doesn't stop at individual writers and works. Whole genres have had albums created around them, Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive a case in point, and indeed the legends of Tin Pan Alley made an indelible mark with Night and Day and Night and Day II. But Jackson's roots are in symphonic literature, notably Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Sibelius. A precision craftsman, he is equally comfortable transcribing a violin quartet for piano as rearranging an old Joe Jackson Band hit for tonight's performance.
Finally, for all of the impeccable craftsmanship that marks Jackson's studio output, his raison d'etre is live performing, having issued no less than seven live recordings on CD, DVD, and MP3. Anyone who's performed with any kind of live ensemble can tell you: when you lock into a groove and start cooking, and the audience reacts, dances, whoops, hollers, what have you, the moment of shared energy and experience is indescribable. And like the elite live performers (Springsteen, Jimmy Buffet, the Dead, Willie Nelson come to mind), the best gigs are those where the audience after 2-3 hours, when both they and the band have expended every shard of strength, screams for more--always just one more.
A Cure for Gravity alternates between squeamish passages in the "I was fodder for the class bullies" vein to the "what's it all about" mode, guileless without being trite. It's the Algeric "clawed me way up from the bloody bottom" story you've heard a hundred times, but told with a refreshing honesty and, one would think, disarming candor. Few if any pop stars would admit to being virgins at the age of 20 much less having been circumcised late in life--one of the many episodes in which Jackson deflects pain with humor. In the recovery ward with longtime Jackson bassist Graham Maby:
"How do you feel?" he asked.
I had been disfigured for life and I would never have sex.
"How do you think I bloody feel?" I muttered.
Graham thought for a moment.
"Lighter?" he suggested.
One is tempted to read the "what's it all about" passages as little more than angst-driven excuses for having it tough. But Jackson, who could choose to wallow in an oozing mire of self-pity, seems to have gotten past it. Not even the local "hardnuts," mostly jack-booted, tattooed, ultra-violent skinheads who seem to have pummeled Jackson with startling regularity, have managed to escape Portsmouth's council flats, much less achieved international stardom. Perhaps too generously Jackson harbors them little or no ill will. In fact he still seems fascinated by the pub and club cultures that nourished his early bands, understanding that if it weren't for them, he'd most likely be a baker's assistant or shoe salesman back home.
Likewise, his Academy disciplines, much as he chafed under their rigor, yielded skills for composing scores in traditional notation, far more useful than the fake-book shorthand he'd been gigging with. Later, these would serve him well. When scoring the movie Tucker, "I was able to produce a score that sounded, in almost every detail, exactly as I'd heard it in my head." Again Jackson for all of his youthful petulance and impatience understood then as now the value of his Academy education, even though it would lead him down musical paths of which the Academy took a dimmer view.
A Cure for Gravity ends just as Look Sharp! is breaking both in the UK and the States, and Jackson's pop career begins its meteoric rise. Wisely, he leaves the ensuing 20 years to the music. Jackson is a facile writer who prefers erudition over winking shorthand, so the self portrait of this artist emerges in multiple dimensions. He's not a whiner, nor does he use his opportunity to take cheap shots that the myriad agents and promoters who'd done his young bands wrong. They, like he, played their parts more or less as expected, so his musical education, like so many before and after, is a mixed affair of gigs that click, toilets masquerading as dressing rooms, truncheon-wielding hooligans, groupies, and the endless boredom of slugging out one theory class after another. If you're a Joe Jackson fan, A Cure for Gravity is required reading, and if you're not, I recommend it nonetheless for its humor, itself a cure for gravity, quality writing, and a familiar yet unfamiliar story well told.
Joe Jackson, Summer in the City (Manticore/ Sony Classic)
Jackson emerged from his self-imposed pop exile with a small tour in 1999 with a trio: himself, Gary Burke on drums, and Graham Maby on bass. For the first time in memory Jackson went at it without a guitarist, which may have fulfilled some musical objectives, but left his "sound" oddly at odds with what we're accustomed to. Further, Jackson includes a number covers, something for which he hasn't been known, each of which lets us in on what he's been listening to and in some fashion how they've contributed to Jackson's own work. The disc opens with The Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City" before segueing into two Jackson standards, "Obvious Song" and Another World". The first surprise is "Fools in Love" which shares a wealth of irony with its embedded mate, "For Your Love." The Yardbirds hit was penned by Graham Gouldman, later with Kevin Godley the tongue-in-cheek writers for 10CC, a simpatico songwriter; shares "Fools in Love's" chord structure; and complements Jackson's wry lyric with the unabashed passion ("I'd give you everything and more/That's for sure") that "Fools in Love" chides ("Fools in love think they're heroes/'Cos they get to feel more pain").
One reason, I believe, Jackson chose a guitarless trio for this date is because it fairly emulates jazz trios of the sixties: bass, piano, and percussion, a configuration common to reworking pop standards (think Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett), new and old, in another idiom. His trio reworks Ramsey Lewis's reworking of Dobie Gray's "The In Crowd," the former an accidental hit, and embeds in it Jackson's own "Down to London," which again shares the other's chord structure. Other reworked covers include "Eleanor Rigby" and Steely Dan's "King of the World." The former is a natural: Jackson believes Lennon and McCartney were the greatest composers of the 20th century; the latter is remarkable because it came from Countdown to Ecstasy, the only influential album that Jackson specifically cites in A Cure for Gravity. Yes, there are a lot of artists, but only one album, and Jackson is not shy about relating the impact of Countdown as a seminal eye-opener. The band also covers Ellington's "Mood Indigo" to, er, less than fine effect, the one instance in which Jackson's vocal talents aren't up to the task.
The CD closes with the first song from Look Sharp!, "One More Time". Ostensibly a break-up song ("Baby, baby, tell me that you never wanted my lovin'"), it opens a remarkable number of his live discs: Live 1980/86, the bonus live CD with his new disc, Volume 4, and the Live in Tokyo DVD all open with it. Although it may be a mere talisman, my guess is that Jackson's love of live performing is so compelling that he quite literally takes the stage and dares the audience to show the love "one more time."
One can't put too fine a point on Jackson's mania for live performance, so perhaps even more significantly, the front cover to Live in New York includes a telling paragraph from the Prologue to A Cure for Gravity, which merits a bit of extended quoting here:
"And finally ... Showtime!
"Time, once again, to disarm and charm that great beast called The Audience. Time to focus all our energy into making a connection, into making something happen. We can feel it, when we're winning them over, and it feels good. Everyone, band and audience, merging into one entity. And on a really good night--and this rarely happens, but we get glimpses of it--we're flying. It's as though music has the power to neutralize the force of gravity ... And maybe those glimpses are what keep us going, like a drug fix taking us out of the clatter and grind of normal life."
For Jackson these are words that he will live by, the gig he's describing is with an early band circa 1975, which will pop up again in another venue a bit later on.
Joe Jackson, Night and Day II (Manticore/Sony Classical)
Although Jackson had a string of hits with his first three CDs, Look Sharp!, I'm The Man, and Beat Crazy, his first experiment away from pop, Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive, an energetic romp that did Cab Calloway proud, sold poorly. Needing to resurrect his reputation and more to nourish another foray into a novel musical direction, Jackson turned to Tin Pan Alley, the Gershwins, and Cole Porter for Night and Day, a rediscovery of New York and its ability to inspire song crafting of mythic proportions. It is perhaps fitting that after a decade's hiatus from pop that Jackson would return to at least the spiritual motifs of Night and Day, if not the briefest references to that landmark disc. Night and Day II is not a mere rehash of the first. It is a series of meditations on life in New York, snapped from the shutter of an seasoned emigre, at once fascinated and horrified by the city's daunting prospects, rewards, and dire punishments.
Jackson, now splitting his time between Portsmouth and New York, has matured over his first views of America, which were often of the Mark Knopfler/Crowded House/Chumbawumba variety, hoisting up cartoonish icons for easy satire and not a little ridicule--and, lord knows, there's a lot of material there. Night and Day II's portraits ("my friend the Chinese Elvis ... He talks like Mickey Mouse/And sees with x-ray eyes"--"Stranger Than You") bear a quirky authenticity having been unshackled from the goshgollygeewhillikers mawkishness that infects first time or occasional visitors. As the opening cut proclaims, "It's a hell of a town/ Smoke coming up through holes in the ground ... Stepping out in a bulletproof gown" ("Hell of a Town").
Night and Day II, unique because Jackson has reserved almost all the instrumentation to himself, is awash in the Latin rhythms that drew him to New York to begin with and so pervaded Body and Soul and later work. While Jackson indeed handles the bulk of the keyboards, synthesized bass, and drum programming, he has the good sense to call in old friends (Graham Maby on bass, Gary Burke on drums, Sue Hadjopoulos on percussion) when necessary. Still, Night and Day II is a solitary venture, one man revisiting his relationship with his adopted home. In a novel move for his pop output, tho' this was commonplace with Night Music and Heaven and Hell, Jackson invites guest vocals from Sussan Deyhim ("Why"), a husky Marianne Faithfull ("Love Got Lost"), and one Dale De Vere ("Glamour and Pain"), who we learn in the 25th Anniversary Special, is a drag queen, but whose picture is Jackson in drag. Jackson isn't shy about his "ambivalent sexuality" in A Cure for Gravity, so who knows?
Of course this is Night and Day II, so we'd be lost without some direct references to the original Night and Day, and Jackson obliges. Besides the lyric from "Hell of a Town," both "Glamour and Pain" and "Stay" contain the signature vamp from "Steppin' Out." However, these are merely echoes. Night and Day II stands on its own as tough, yet affectionate, limning of his home away from home. From the poignant runaway missives of "Dear Mom" to the nightclub conflagration of "Happyland" Jackson roams New York in search of "some Guiliani charm" ("Just Because ..."). In the end, when posed the $64 question, Jackson responds, "You could have anyone you want to/ Give me one reason to stay/I think I'll stay" ("Stay").
Joe Jackson, 25th Anniversary Special (Image Entertainment)
Jackson's issued two versions of the tour that supported Night and Day II, Two Rainy Nights, the "official bootleg" in MP3 format and only available via the Web (www.joejackson.com or www.greatbigisland.com), and the 25th Anniversary Special DVD. Special "opens" with Jackson reading the Prologue from A Cure for Gravity--nothing really opens a DVD, what with the menus and all, but I highly recommend starting with the reading for a couple of reasons. First, it's how Jackson actually opened the gig; second, Jackson takes the treacle potential out of the "what's it all about" passages with a wry, guileful reading, slyly winking through the youthful, "philosophical bent" toward the "age-old and portentous" inquiries. No doubt what was once edge-of-the-cosmos, self-inflicted breast thumping, has become in the slightly skewed illumination of older age actually pretty funny. At least he's honest about it, something that cannot be claimed by too many recollections, written or otherwise. Sir Paul's adventurous reinventions come to mind. Of course, this Prologue contains the "charm and disarm that great beast called The Audience" passage that graces the cover of Live in New York. If there's any doubt, you are meant to get it.
Special sports an ambitious band, a sizable aggregation not seen since the Body and Soul tour, documented on Live 1980/86. Besides Maby and Hadjopoulous, this band includes Allison Cornell (violins, vocals, percussion), Roberto Rodriguez (drums), Andy Ezrin (keys), and Catherine Bent (cello) in a largely successful effort to recreate the multiple layers of strings, keys, and percussion on Night and Day II. Besides faithful renditions of a large measure of Night and Day II, Jackson resurrects "You Can't Get What You Want," "Another World," "Real Men," "Target," of course "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" and a sizzling "Got the Time." One of the principles of Jackson's live shows is that the songs from whatever disc the tour is supporting are rendered pretty much as they're heard on the recording, no mean feat on this tour. (Or on the Live in Tokyo, where the Big World band ruthlessly pegged the album in song after song, an amazing achievement considering guitarist Vinnie Zummo had left the band in favor of Tom Teeley.) Significantly, Jackson can play every instrument that this band is scored for: strings, percussion, bass (if only synthesized), and keys.
The lemma to that proposition is that songs culled from the archives are reworked, sometimes for the array of instruments and musicians in the band, sometimes because Jackson can't stop from tinkering, or in his words, "keeping things fresh." One of his arts as a composer is imagining and then scoring how differently an old song would sound using a different band with different instruments. Thus, staples like "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" received four different treatments on Live 1980/86 and still another treatment on Special, while other staples like "One More Time" has barely changed over the years, despite the bands' personnel. Unique to Special's rather large band, is the lack, like Live in New York, of a guitarist, a staple of the vast majority of his smaller combos. However, with rare exceptions and like the jazz combos of the '30s--i.e., before electricity--the guitar is a rhythm and occasionally percussive voice. The list of guitar solos in any Jackson live show or studio recording could fill one hand.
Jackson claims in a voice-over that when he embarks on a project, say, a live tour, he doesn't know how things are going to turn out, "I have no plan." Well, yes and no. He may not have a plan or a series of rescorings in mind, but once he's decided on which older songs will be resurrected and rehearsed the band, the arrangements seldom change from one night to the next. For instance, you know going in that Special was recorded over a number of nights in Seattle and Portland. So you expect the costumes to change from song to song. What you're not prepared for is the absolute synchronicity among the different nights: as the camera "jumps" from one player to the next, the costumes change, the nights and venues change, but the song never misses a beat. Of course Jackson is using only one sound recording from one night, but it's scary just how seamless the video is and how tight the band.
Finally, there's a not-so-hidden message in the DVD's title, 25th Anniversary Special. As you know, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's minimum "public" recording eligibility requirement is 25 years, and Joe's letting 'em know he's hanging around. The RRHOF will date Jackson's tenure from the time of his chart debut, 1979, so he's got a year or so left before even beginning to get consideration. My guess is that Jackson considers the idea of a rock'n'roll hall of fame a silly notion, certainly nothing to do with music, and would not care one way or another if he's elected; but being able to join idols like Steely Dan, the Beatles, and The Lovin' Spoonful would have an attractive allure.
Almost fittingly, Special concludes with "Slow Song" with the musicians one by one finishing their parts, taking a bow, and leaving the stage. Pretty soon it's Jackson and Maby stringing out the coda. Jackson departs, and Maby, who's been with Jackson for every album and gig except Big World since their first high school band, finishes alone, rocking gently over a simple, elegant scale.
Joe Jackson Band, Volume 4 (Rykodisc)
In a way, we've come full circle. Volume 4 is certainly not Jackson's fourth album, but it is the fourth by the original Joe Jackson Band after a 22-year hiatus. Lending further impetus to the notion that Jackson has been engaged in a four-year summing up, it seems almost inevitable that he'd reassemble the original band (drummer Dave Houghton owned a drum shop in Portsmouth; guitarist Gary Sanford did stints with Joan Armatrading and Aztec Camera) for another--never say "final"--examination of his musical pilgrimage. Volume 4 contains two discs, one with eleven new compositions and another with six live cuts of songs from the first three albums, redone by the original band last heard on Live 1980/86. In an unexpected twist, these live versions are virtual clones of the original album versions: no reworking, no frills, just straight-ahead, unadorned, vintage post-punk rock'n'roll.
Volume 4 is a treasure of stylistic turns, homages to heroes, and another hefty dose of Jackson's bottomless gift for crafty lyrics and jagged sharp metaphors ("She needs you so much/Like fish need bicycles"--"Take It Like a Man"). The first jolt is "Still Alive," a love song, perhaps to his ex-wife (read the book), through both the windscreen and the rear view mirror: "The say it's better to be traveling than to arrive/ But then they said I couldn't live without you/ And I'm still alive ..." "Still Alive" opens with some deft "If I Needed Someone" 12-string rhythm guitar over a "Tomorrow Never Knows" drum beat, as Jackson appropriates a late Beatles tonal idiom. Then Jackson drops in the first four bars of the middle eight to Steely Dan's "Barrytown"--word for word, note for note: "In the beginning we were there till the end of time ..." "Still Alive" finishes with some squealing "I Am the Walrus" violins. And that's just one song.
"Awkward Age" rings volumes of adolescent truth after A Cure for Gravity: "I got a mind that goes out to lunch for days/And a body that sometimes disobeys/I get into the parties but I hate them 'cause I'm shy/Oh my/I'm still at an awkward age." McCartney-as-songwriter gets a nod with the vamp to "Chrome", a small variation on the intro to McCartney's "Junk." "Chrome" is another broken glass paean to faithless love: "Now you shine like chrome/You're so hard and cold like chrome/And I'd like to take you home/ But I'm scared of you." "Fairy Dust" reflects on Jackson's ambivalent sexuality: "See the cherry lips/Hands on the hips/anyone would think your name was Oscar Wilde/Think you're pretty smart/Poetry and art/Put him on testosterone and vodka." Even "Love at First Sight," the bittersweet aftertaste of a one-night stand, echoes Buckingham and Nicks's "Crystal," a reference fully contemporaneous with Steely Dan, but somehow lesser than what Jackson's primed one to expect. Still, he declaims in Cure that he may hate a song, but will willingly nick an artful phrase and find a way to use it, inverted, arpeggiated, etc. Gangstas and similar ilk get the full ska treatment in "Thugz 'R' Us" while the pub rock legacy of Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe, and Dave Edmunds shows up in "Little Bit Stupid" and "Dirty Martini." On the latter, Jackson tinkles through the bridge with some mean Professor Longhair riffs.
The cliche is that one can never, ever go home again. We've seen bands reunite after a decade's pause and simply wish they hadn't. Still other bands can't ("There will be no Beatles reunion so long as John Lennon remains dead."). We're turning a new page in rock's curious, crooked path through time, where the punks and post-punks are getting long in the tooth, have been out of the spotlight for a while, and may be a bit short of cash. You can't have The Sex Pistols, The Clash or The Ramones, but why not The Jam, English Beat, or Talking Heads? To his credit Jackson has never been far from the action, has managed to do just what he wants--and the critics be damned (tho' Cure has some kind words for the ugly breed)--, and has managed to glue back together a band twenty years dead, grayer and somewhat thicker around the middle, for as energetic and vital a rock'n'roll album that 2003 has so far seen.
Coda. Jackson has taken his mid-life in stride, has gazed into his personal and musical history without embarrassing himself, and continues to produce music as fresh and alive as he did before or most anyone does now. Is he one of the giants? Does a simple vendor of clever pop confections merit the Olympian heights of the Beatles, Stones, Who and others? That judgment will wait for the Hall's voters. In the mean time, I suggest that you give your own mid-life a jump start: read A Cure for Gravity, listen to Volume 4 and Night and Day II, and dance around for a while, paunch and all. No one will mind, and I promise not to peek.
Next Ish: Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, Mark O'Connor, Zwan, Darden Smith, Ringo, Libertines, The White Stripes, Stratford 4, The Jayhawks, Steely Dan, Jewel, and more.
RIP. June Carter Cash, Nina Simone, Felice Bryant, Noel Redding-all surely in pure pop heaven. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Gotta love that number one... --KE