Sunday, November 17, 2013

Joe Jackson: Before He Went Yuppie

No, he wasn't banned from baseball during the Black Sox scandal, and no, he wasn't Michael Jackson's father either. This Joe Jackson was better than both of those Joe Jacksons combined - and he was certainly better than your Average Joe.

In fact, at the start of his career in the late '70s, the perfect adjective for Joe Jackson wasn't "average"; it was "angry." Once upon a time, Joe Jackson was an Angry Young Man. Well, officially, he was one of three Angry Young Men, the other two being Graham Parker and Elvis Costello. Graham Parker never really made it in America, and never really made it into my music collection either; I find him a little too coarse and "pub rock," without any real pop instinct to help make the lyrics stick. Elvis Costello bounced right off me at first, but I grew to appreciate the Bespectacled One in college - after I'd first exhausted the catalog of every other singer-songwriter of the '60s and '70s. But when all is said and done, Joe Jackson is the Angry Young Man who remains closest to my Angry Young Heart.

Let me put it this way: Elvis Costello's linguistic prowess was probably more nimble, and his musical output was more reliably consistent, whereas Joe Jackson's lyrics were occasionally awkward and some of his musical ideas could be overly-ambitious or ill-conceived. But I think because Jackson took bigger risks, he was able to really soar once in a while, while Costello seemed to stay in his tasteful little box. In baseball terms, Costello may have had the higher batting average, but Jackson probably hit more home runs. Also, I never quite understood what Elvis Costello was so angry about; his life seemed pretty OK. But Joe Jackson ... I mean, yeah. If I were Joe Jackson, I would have been pissed too. In summary: a friend of mine once referred to Elvis Costello as "a man with a thousand words and nothing to say." Joe Jackson may have used less words, but I think he ultimately had more to say.

He also had a lot more instruments to play. Even more so than Paul Weller or Sting, Joe Jackson was a trained musician in punk's clothing. He studied classical music at the Royal Academy of Music in London and could play piano, saxophone, violin, and oboe (!), but you'd never know from it listening to his first album, 1979's Look Sharp!, on which he hardly played any instruments at all. Instead, he mostly just stood at the mic and tried to sound like a punk rocker, while a guitar-heavy trio bashed away behind him. I was already familiar with Jackson's early '80s jazz-pop hits by the time I heard Look Sharp!, and it was jarring to hear just how ... simple he sounded. It was like listening to Rachmaninoff play the Moonlight Sonata. "Come on, Joe! You can write big sweeping hooks! What's with this two chord crap?" But I guess no one knew this at the time, and Joe didn't care. Over the years, this early sound has grown on me, but I still find it a bit odd to hear a musician deliberately "dumb down" his music. I mean, who wants to watch Usain Bolt play table tennis?

The melodies may have been more conventional, but Jackson's persona already stood out like a sore thumb. Unlike the vast majority of rock music, Look Sharp! was an album made by a guy who had not been very ... successful with women. Joe Jackson was not, shall we say, the most attractive singer; between the prematurely balding hair, bony cheeks, crooked teeth, and more of a snout than a proper nose, he looked like a cross between a skeleton and a pig. You've got to give him this: Joe Jackson was one musician who definitely did not make it on his looks.

Nor did he make it on his voice, which nevertheless happens to be one of my favorite singing voices of the '80s. How shall I describe it? Joe Jackson's voice is like a garbled slur. When he holds a note he almost approximates the sound of a wailing toddler. But that voice is distinctly his. Give me three seconds and I can recognize the sound of Joe Jackson, any time, anywhere.

On Look Sharp!, Jackson wasn't so much an Angry Young Man as an Angry Young Romantic Failure. Not only had he never succeeded with girls, but he was firmly convinced that he never would, either. And it was pissing him off! His early lyrics capture the full scope of that stage in a dorky man's life: the jealousy, the longing, the resentment, the attraction, the helplessness, the bluster ... rinse and repeat. Joe Jackson lived in a world where every single person around him seemed to have more success with relationships than he did. I'd like to say that I never identified with his predicament, but I would be lying. I'd also like to say that I've grown out of this stage, but I would probably be lying there as well.

His persona was fully formed right from the opening track, "One More Time," which, aside from being a riveting album opener, was also used to questionable effect in a Taco Bell commercial a couple of years ago:
Tell me one more time as I hold your hand, that you don't love me
Tell me one more time as teardrops start to fall
Shout it to me and I'll shout it to the skies above me
That there was nothing after all

Baby, baby, tell me that you never wanted my loving
Baby, baby, tell me that you never, tell me, tell me
One more time, one more time, say you're leaving, say goodbye
One more time, one more time, say you're leaving, say goodbye

Tell me one more time that we never had a thing in common
Tell me one more time as you turn and face the wall
Tell me I should know you were never my kind of woman
Tell me we were fools to fall

Joe Jackson may have been a self-loathing virgin, but he was a self-loathing virgin who could make a hit record. I have to laugh at how Elvis Costello tried desperately for seven years to have a US Top 40 single, and yet Joe Jackson managed to have one right off the bat (don't worry, Declan, you'd get there). "Is She Really Going Out With Him?," title taken from the Shangri-La's' "Leader of the Pack," peaked at #21 and became the ultimate frustrated loner anthem. I'm not sure how a single this quasi-punk managed to make it on American radio, but I guess it was just pop enough and lyrically quirky enough to appeal to a broader public. Joe does grace the track with a light sprinkling of piano in the opening and on the bridge, foreshadowing the Joe Jackson sound of the future. It's funny, but there is something intangible about the sound of Joe's voice when combined with the piano that instantly transports me back to the early '80s, even when the song itself is not one I remember from that time.
Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street
From my window I'm staring while my coffee grows cold
Look over there! (Where?)
There's a lady that I used to know
She's married now, or engaged, or something, so I am told

Is she really going out with him?
Is she really gonna take him home tonight?
Is she really going out with him?
'Cause if my eyes don't deceive me,
There's something going wrong around here

Tonight's the night when I go to all the parties down my street
I wash my hair and I kid myself I look real smooth
Look over there! (Where?)
Here comes Jeanie with her new boyfriend
They say that looks don't count for much
If so, there goes your proof

But if looks could kill
There's a man there who's more down as dead
Cause I've had my fill
Listen you, take your hands off her head
I get so mean around this scene

Nice guys finish last, as they say. But Joe's wrath was all-encompassing and not just reserved for the women who scorned him. On "Sunday Papers," for instance, he sarcastically extols the virtues of the British newspaper business:
Mother doesn't go out any more
Just sits at home and rolls her spastic eyes
But every weekend through the door
Come words of wisdom from the world outside

If you want to know about the bishop and the actress
If you want to know how to be a star
If you want to know about the stains on the mattress
You can read it in the Sunday papers, Sunday papers

Mother's wheelchair stays out in the hall
Why should she go out when the TV's on
Whatever moves beyond these walls
She'll know the facts when Sunday comes along

If you want to know about the man gone bonkers
If you want to know how to play guitar
If you want to know 'bout any other suckers
You can read it in the Sunday papers

Brother's heading that way now I guess
He just read something made his face turn blue
Well I got nothing against the press
They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true

If you want to know about the gay politician
If you want to know how to drive your car
If you want to know about the new sex position
You can read it in the Sunday papers

Boy, do I! The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? Speaking of staying the same, Jackson's second album, I'm The Man, mined similarly bare-bones, cynical loser territory as his debut, but if his persona wasn't quite as fresh this time, neither had it worn out its welcome just yet. "Geraldine and John" is like an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story set to a reggae beat; I almost picture Dick and Nicole Diver strutting around a European country club, trying in vain to keep their bourgeois secrets from each other:
See the bright red sports car, see the happy couple
See their clothes so white and their skin so pink
See them playing squash gotta keep their bodies supple
How they kiss goodnight but tomorrow they'll be thinking
All day long, all day long

Geraldine and John
See the happy couple, so inseparable
And the beat goes on
And for better or worse
They are married but of course
Not to each other

Geraldine and John gotta keep it under cover
See they scheme and sweat but it's all worthwhile
Now he goes back home to a wife who's not a lover
Now her eyes are wet but tomorrow she'll be smiling
All day long, all day long

Yuppie hypocrisy: makes an Angry Young Man want to puke, I tell you. I mean, there's no way that Joe Jackson would ever turn into anything remotely like Geraldine and John right? Right???

Oh, there's a way. But it would take some time.

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