Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Steppin' Out": The Glistening Summit Of Yuppie Rock

Not every genre needs to have a crowning achievement, but if Yuppie Rock had one, it would be Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out."

Imagine if you took the best elements of Yuppie Rock - the glitz, the glamour, the style, the sensitivity, the drum machine - and combined them all together into one song. That song would be "Steppin' Out."

But just as Dorothy lived in ignorance of the true power of her ruby slippers until the very end of The Wizard of Oz, so it was that I'd experienced the power of Joe Jackson's biggest US hit my entire life, but not until one random spring day in 2001 did I truly realize it.

I suppose I'd been hovering around the edges of such a discovery for several years. Of course, I knew "You Can't Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)" from its inclusion on The '80s Tape, and sometimes KFOG would play "Breaking Us In Two," another Joe Jackson song which I liked as well, even though it vaguely reminded me of another '80s song I'd heard before and couldn't name. But just from those two songs, I somehow sensed that I had a deeper connection to the Joe Jackson.

Let's go a little deeper. In high school, I used to have an old Microsoft CD-ROM called Music Central, and I used to stay up late at night reading some of the brief but informative artist biographies included on the disc. This was back in the days before the All Music Guide, or the internet - or the All Music Guide on the internet (if any civilization could ever be so lucky).

So one night I clicked on Joe Jackson's bio. There was no mention of either "You Can't Get What You Want (Til You Know What You Want)" or "Breaking Us In Two," which I thought was odd, given that those were the only two fucking Joe Jackson songs I'd ever heard of, but there was a full sentence about a song called 'Steppin' Out": "The hauntingly hummable 'Steppin' Out' with its mantric bass line and crisp piano is a superbly crafted pop song that won him many new admirers." "Hauntingly hummable"? "Crisp piano"? Sounded like a pretty good song to me. Maybe I needed to try and hear it somewhere. Ah, but this was still in the days before downloading, or YouTube. One couldn't just "hear" a song at the click of a button. Oh how did we live?

Nevertheless, every now and then, I would see a CD copy of Night and Day in the library music rack, and I would wonder about checking it out. After all, it had "Breaking Us In Two" on it, and I was curious if Music Central's observations about "Steppin' Out" were accurate. I even liked the album cover. But damn it, I had other fish to fry. I wasn't about to check out a CD from the library just based on mild curiosity. Library checkouts were important.

Fast-forward three or four years. I'm sitting in a car in Redwood City, feeling rather bored, listening to the radio, flipping between stations. Suddenly I catch a song right in the middle. It's a song from the early '80s that I'd heard a million times as a kid, though I quite possibly haven't heard it since then. I'm instinctively familiar with its mantric bass line and crisp piano. Funny, but I can swear I recognize the singer's garbled wail. Then it hits me: Joe Jackson. I listen to the chorus. My God. Could it be? This radio staple from my youth that never really stood out from all the other department store hits? This ... was "Steppin' Out"?

And so I've prepared you for the terrifying twist. It turns out I didn't need to go hear "Steppin' Out" ... because I had already heard it.

It was a revelation. I saw a bright, blinding light and a flaming bush. "Ohhhh," I thought with wonder. "So that's 'Steppin' Out.' " Turns out my CD-ROM was right. I also realized why "Breaking Us In Two" had reminded me of another '80s song; it had reminded me of "Steppin' Out"! Now I needed to get my hands on it. I didn't yet have access to a music downloading program, so this was going to be tricky. When I got back to college, I asked a housemate to download it for me and then I had him put it on a shared network.

I probably listened to "Steppin' Out" for a week straight. Well, maybe not a week, but that's not as far off as you'd like to hope. I was transfixed. I was demented. I was infatuated. Eventually I got a little sick of it and found that I was able to listen to other songs beside that ... one. But it was difficult. Let me tell you why.

Most '80s songs that I remember from my childhood seem to strike me in about the same way as a grown-up as they did when I was little. But when I re-discovered "Steppin' Out," well ... this was different. I tried to think back to any memories of hearing it as a kid. I had just assumed it was another piece of MOR aural wallpaper, like "Maneater" or "Arthur's Theme." But now, hearing the song as a mature adult, I could suddenly grasp the very abstract and thoughtful sentiments in the lyrics that had completely escaped me as a toddler. It was like finding out that a cheesy '80s song had actually been written by Bob Dylan. My experience of listening to the song had changed, because I had changed. And that mixture of nostalgia combined with newfound perspective was a mixture I had rarely experienced in my music-listening habits. No new song could ever tap into that personal reservoir of feeling that "Steppin' Out" was tapping into, unless I could go back in time and play it for my past self (quick, get Zemeckis on the phone). Re-discovering "Steppin' Out" was like hearing a song that was simultaneously extremely familiar and yet brand new. Or maybe it was just really fucking catchy.

Like much of my favorite pop music, "Steppin' Out" is about the desire to escape. But if it suggests escape, it also suggests desperation and doubt, as if the escape you're about to embark upon won't last forever, and soon enough you'll have to come back to the normal world and deal with your everyday problems. Ah, but for that one moment - riding in that cab, cruising around Manhattan, basking in the glow of the neon lights, staring into that beautiful woman's eyes - God damn it, you're free. Tell 'em, Joe:
The mist across the window hides the lines
But nothing hides the colour of the lights that shine
Electricity so fine
Look and dry your eyes

So tired of all the darkness in our lives
With no more angry words to say
Can come alive
Get into a car and drive
To the other side

Me babe - steppin' out
Into the night
Into the light
You babe - steppin' out
Into the night
Into the light

Are young but getting old before our time
We'll leave the T.V. and the radio behind
Don't you wonder what we'll find
Steppin' out tonight

Can dress in pink and blue just like a child
And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile
We'll be there in just a while
If you follow me
But all of that's just a sterile Madison Ave. fantasy without the music. Oh man, the music. Let me give this a shot:

The synthesized bass line and drum machine fade up slowly, establishing a mood that is hypnotic but also a little sinister, as if the song is creeping up on you like steam out of a manhole. That "manic" bass line sort of fades into the background, and you start to forget that it's there, but it plays throughout the entire song on an endless loop, like a cab that drives around Manhattan all night long and never stops (you like these similes?). The piano comes in, playing a chord sequence that seems as though it is about to resolve itself and yet never quiet does. By the time the song reaches full volume, Joe plays the chord sequence an octave higher, but there's something else too, something that makes the chords shimmer and glisten in your ears. It's ... bells! There's motherfuckin' bells! Another nice touch is the organ, which is buried far back in the mix, but it's ever-present and contributes to the sense of constant forward motion. This song is unstoppable.

And then Joe begins to sing. As I mentioned before, Joe Jackson's voice can be an acquired taste, but here, it's like magic on a Coney Island cotton candy stick. Every strangled syllable, every tangled consonant, captures that sad, urgent yearning for escape. And if anyone else were to sing, "We/So tired of all the darkness in our lives/With no more angry words to say/Can come alive," it wouldn't necessarily mean all that much, but coming from Joe Jackson, the world's most curmudgeonly bastard, the lines take on an added dimension. I mean, here is a man who has certainly said his fair share of angry words, now finding himself, if only momentarily, turning the corner.

Some other favorite bits:

2:06 - right after "getting old before our time," a sparkling little piano twinkle
2:31 - an even stranger twinkle, right before the start of the final verse, which sounds more like a synthesizer than a piano
3:17 to 3:40 - the manic bass line drops out completely, while the piano, bells, organ, and drum machine riff off each other, like a car hovering in the air after hitting a jump, waiting to land
3:46 - Joe does this little piano flourish that is simply divine, dahling

That about covers it. Well, I should also mention that the song instantly transports me to the beautiful New York City of my dreams, which should probably not be confused with the slimy, muggy, rank, dank, overcrowded, rat-infested, flesh-and-blood New York City in which people actually live and breathe, but let's forget about that for a moment. Oh, there's also an official video for "Steppin' Out," in which a hotel maid imagines what it would be like to live for one just night in the shoes of her wealthy guests (and it turns out Joe's doing a little imagining himself), but this time I really have to say that, as nice as it is, here is one music video that really does not do justice to the images the song conjures up in my head. Because the images that "Steppin' Out" conjures up in my head ... are some serious images! At least it was filmed in New York, which is a start. But "Steppin' Out" may be that rare '80s song in which the music is so evocative, I'm afraid it may render even the best video superfluous.

No comments: