August 11, 1954– Joe Jackson:
“Everything gives you cancer.”
I am writing about Joe Jackson, the English singer/songwriter who is the same age as I am, and whom I somewhat resemble; not Joe Jackson, the fabled baseball player; or Joe Jackson, the less than charming father of Michael, Janet and Tito; or Joe Jackson, the jazz trombonist; or Joe Jackson, the novelist; not even Joe Jackson the well-regarded music journalist.
With the decline of punk and disco in 1981, British and American New-Wave artists filled the gap with songs driven by synthesizers and programmed dance beats. Steppin’ Out came early in the transition. Released in the summer of 1982, the song reached Number Six on the Billboard Pop chart, and its album, Night And Day, went to Number Four. Jackson plays all the instruments on Steppin’ Out.
Here, let Jackson tell you about it:
December 1980 was a turning point for me. My band had just finished touring when my drummer gave notice. I considered replacing him and carrying on. Instead, I broke up the Joe Jackson Band and took a break from pop. I wanted to try something different. I set to work arranging some of my favorite late-1940s jump blues and jazz songs. It was a bit of fun—a vacation from my own music. My album, Jumpin’ Jive came out in June 1981.
That fall, I left London to live in New York City. A lot was going on there, musically. I took a sublet in the East Village and went out to jazz and Latin clubs. One of the first songs I wrote for my next album, Night And Day, was Steppin’ Out. I was inspired by New York.
I envisioned playing a diverse range of keyboards. I wanted them to conjure up the dazzle of neon lights and the feel of cabbing from club to club to take it all in. It would be a romantic ballad set to a disco beat.
As soon as I finished the music, I wrote the words. I thought of a couple who had just fought and were making up. They were telling each other, ‘Let’s forget it and take advantage of the city. Let’s just throw ourselves into the night.’
I remain a very big fan of his music and for a certain period in those crazy 1980s, Jackson’s songs were a major contribution to the soundtrack of my life. Night And Day was my most played album of 1982 and it spoke to me in a very personal way. This was an era when The Husband was just the boyfriend and we went out dancing and clubbing every weekend. In that era, I felt that I was living in a somewhat punked-up version of a 1930s Hollywood Musical with a score by George Gershwin.
Jacksons’s songs, rooted in the late 1970s/early 1980s New-Wave but with a sophisticated Pop/Jazz/classic Rock sound, maintained an edgy relationship with mainstream gay culture. Even today, many people don’t even know Jackson is bisexual, a fact that isn’t mentioned on his website.
In his memoir, A Cure For Gravity (1999), Jackson riffs on how people make assumptions about him based on his lanky, effeminate appearance. But in his own book Jackson remains ambiguous about his sexual orientation and he speaks out against generalizing on anyone’s sexuality.
Real Men was released as Night And Day‘s third single. Considering the subject matter its failure to chart isn’t that surprising. Jackson writes songs that challenge traditional modes of male behavior, and this elegant, piano ballad (there’s no percussion) takes on sexual identity politics, touching on the cliches and contradictions on both sides of the gay/straight divide and despairing at the difficulties in finding one’s own way amid the confusing gender messes, misunderstandings and missteps.
From his song Real Men:
You don’t want to sound dumb
Don’t want to offend
So don’t call me a faggot
Not unless you are a friend
Then if you’re tall and handsome and strong
You can wear the uniform and I could play along
But there certainly are gay references in Jackson’s music. Jackson says this about the meaning of the lyrics in his amazing song Real Men:
I see the gay identity has become more and more about being so masculine that you’re more straight than the straight guys. And this is something that I find quite funny. I sort of get it, and at the same time, I don’t like it that much. It’s mixed feelings. And if we’re talking about stereotypes, then I guess what I’m saying in the song is that I almost prefer the older stereotype, this sort of Oscar Wilde/Quentin Crisp gay stereotype.
As a teenager in England, Jackson tried to find his identity in a mixed-bag of musical influences. He studied everything from Mozart sonatas and Beethoven concertos to Duke Ellington‘s Jazz standards to the blazing guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix .
Jackson ran a kind of parallel career with another British New Wave icon Elvis Costello, also a personal favorite of mine. Both write tough, highly intelligent, smartly musical, yet somewhat abrasive punk-informed pop that contained sophisticated, urbane lyrics. Both took a sharp turn early in their careers to explore different musical tributaries, Costello went Country and Jackson went Jazz and both matured into smart composers of sharp pop songs in the manner of Burt Bacharach. Costello even went so far as to work with the master himself.
Jackson’s first album, Look Sharp (1979), is a wonder of edgy punk-pop and it includes such classics as the cynical Sunday Papers and the sparse, broken, lurching guitar pop of the forever catchy Is She Really Going Out With Him?. That song really got my attention.
But my favorite of his 20 albums continues to be the sublime Night And Day (1982) which, in addition to calling up the spirit of Cole Porter in its title, brings that erudite uptown sensibility by featuring a drawing of Jackson sitting at a grand piano in some expansive Manhattan apartment with a view of the skyline drawn by legendary Broadway caricaturist Al Hirshfeld.
Night And Day is a sardonic, yet sensitive album of poignant songs concerning relationships, with the occasional up-beat tune like the Rumba tune Everything Gives You Cancer, which has become a sort of personal anthem for me.
Jackson’s more sophisticated, adult approach to pop music was influenced as much by Jazz and Latin music as by Rock, reflected in terrific albums: Body And Soul (1984), sort of a response to Night And Day; Big World (1986), Blaze Of Glory (1989) and Laughter And Lust (1991).
Jackson turned away from the pop mainstream with the gentle, soul-searching Night Music (1994), the experimental satirical opera Heaven And Hell (1997), and Symphony #1 (2000), which won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album. At the turn of the century Jackson released Night And Day 2. Jackson did an about-turn, reuniting the band from his first three albums for an acclaimed album of new songs, Volume 4(2003) along with a successful world tour. In 2008, he recorded a minimal album, Rain, using just piano, his voice, and his original rhythm section.
In addition to his own albums, Jackson has written several excellent film scores, including Francis Ford Coppola‘s Tucker (1988) and gay filmmaker James Bridges‘ Mike’s Murder (1984). He has also contributed piano and backup vocals on records by Suzanne Vega, Nina Hagen, Joan Armatrading, Ruben Blades, Rickie Lee Jones, and William Shatner.
About his varied musical styles, Jackson stated:
Don’t mutilate your foot, trying to squeeze it into Cinderella’s slipper.
I saw Jackson in a Seattle concert in 1984 and he and the band put on an amazing show. The most striking thing to me about the event was that Jackson had a 21-piece percussion section for his 35 member band. Three hours of terrific entertainment. During his beautiful ballad Breaking Us In Two the audience started raggedly singing along. Jackson lasted about 30 seconds before slamming his hands down on the keyboard and shouting: “Sing in tune if you’re going to sing!” He started the song over again. The audience refrained from singing along this time. Perhaps his prickly reputation is deserved, but in this instance I thought it was awesome and appreciated by the so many of us were there to hear him perform rather than listen to people around us singing tunelessly along.
Kind of nutty in the 21st century, Jackson is sort of a big Pro-Smoking advocate. I like that somehow.
Jackson released his 20th studio album, Fool, in January, 40 years since the release of his debut, Look Sharp. Jackson:
“The songs on Fool are about fear and anger and alienation and loss, but also about the things that still make life worth living: friendship, laughter, and music, or art, itself. I couldn’t have done this in 1979. I just hadn’t lived enough.”
If you are unfamiliar with Jackson’s music, I highly recommend that you give a listen to Stepping Out: The Very Best Of Joe Jackson.