This week I read the excellent A Cure For Gravity, Joe Jackson’s memoir/autobiography of his life and career that leads up to the release of his first album Look Sharp in 1979. What makes the book especially notable (besides its good writing) is how the book is really about the meaning of music in Jackson’s life, and how he listens to it, composes it, and generally reacts to it. It’s as much a book about the place of music within the mind as much as it’s about Jackson’s education, upbringing and experiences playing in various bands before finding and developing his own ever-expanding eclectic styles of music composition and performance. Jackson’s tastes range from classical through jazz to ’70s-era British New Wave. Now while (like many others) my favorite material of Jackson’s comes from his first 2 albums, I also liked his later jazz/crooner influenced Night & Day, and his more recent regrouping of his original band, Volume 4.
To someone only glancing at Jackson’s career, it’s easy to say that he only followed the same path that his contemporary Elvis Costello did – starting out with energetic, often angry pop/rock, experimenting with jazzier styles and crooning, and then returning to his roots – but Jackson is actually more complex than that, and I think the parallels between him and Costello are merely the result of them coming out of the same foundry of British music at the same time. Unlike Costello, however, Jackson has classical training via the Royal Academy, and as much as I’d expect a book by Costello to be as insightful as to the meaning of music, reading Jackson’s book shows you how much of a musicologist and professor he really is, especially in the passages where he describes listening to various pieces by Beethoven, Stravinsky or Mahler and how he interprets them.
Jackson is an excellent writer, and has very definite opinions on various topics associated with music. He was never crazy about making videos for his songs, and elaborated on those thoughts very well in this piece back from the mid 1980s.
Much of my record collection is filled with Jackson and his British contemporaries of the 1970s – Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, XTC and so on… all of whom seem to followed similar trajectories in the ways in which the amount of what I can only describe as urgency & aggression in the sound of their music mellowed over the years. Funny, I like a lot of the brand new material from Jackson, Parker & Costello, but Nick Lowe (always a favorite of mine) has lost me with his recent country/mellow/loungue type sound. Ah well.
I saw Jackson live at the small Rhode Island College auditorium way back in 1979 (I was barely out of my crib, really… ) when he was touring for Look Sharp and dropping in a few new tunes that would turn up on I’m The Man. It was a great show to be sure, and here’s a taste of it, a video someone made on that very tour at some other venue, with Jackson & the band performing an early version of “I’m The Man”
Notice how the song’s tempo is slower than on the album or on later live performances. The band was still learning it, I guess!