Joe Jackson

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!

Good stuff.

Bad Movies To Love III: Death Wish III (1985)

What’s more entertaining than Charles Bronson killing people?

Charles Bronson killing LOTS of people!

Death Wish 3 comes smack in the middle of Charles Bronson’s urban vigilante action pentad, precisely at the moment when any sense of reality attempted by the first two movies in the series is totally abandoned. 1974’s Death Wish depicted comfortably liberal architect Paul Kersey’s (Bronson) gradual and often guilt-ridden evolution to vigilante urban avenger after his wife and daughter are attacked by muggers (led by the unlikely Jeff Goldblum of all people). By the time we get to Death Wish 3, any sort of character development is thrown aside in favor of Bronson becoming an indestructible action hero who travels from city to city looking for street criminal scumbos to blast apart in a variety of cinematically entertaining ways.

This time, Bronson fights a gang of urban thugs who look like a cross between wanna-be breakdancers and rejects from the casting call for The Road Warrior. There’s really no point in describing the plot in great detail, since it makes little sense and doesn’t really need to. The story kicks off with cockroach-crushin’ police chief Shriker (the great Ed Lauter) locking Charlie up after IDing him as the legendary vigilante Paul Kersey & leaving him to the mercy of the perps du jour in the violent psycho bin. This gives Bronson the opportunity to get into some bone-crushin’ fights with the crazies, culminating in him horsecollaring a big scary dude who looks like Curly Howard on steroids and ramming his bowling ball-sized fat bald head through the bars of the cell. Ouchie!

After this, Bronson makes an enemy of the main villain of the film, coincidentally the leader of the gang who offed his old friend, and Shriker sets him loose upon the gang’s turf to clean things up while his cops look the other way. From then on, the film is basically violent eye candy with villainous street nasties’ scumbaggery exhibited and then said scumbags positioned for Charlie’s target practice, culminating with a face to face showdown between Bronson, Shriker & the lead baddie, where Chuck gets to blow him away with a handy mail-order rocket launcher that must have been the one thing Wile E. Coyote forgot to order from the Acme warehouse before Bronson snapped it up. The main villain Fraker is played by Gavin O’Herlihy, who you may or may not recognize as Richie Cunningham’s long-lost and eventually forgotten older brother Chuck. See what happens when you don’t have Howard Cunningham’s fatherly wisdom or the coolness of the Fonz to look after you? You become a reverse-mohawked street thug complete with Rothko-esque war-paint (that is if Rothko is a nickname for one of the “slow kids” in a First Grade finger painting class), and your destiny is to be in Charles Bronson’s crosshairs. If only it had happened to Chachi.

But I digress.

As much as I don’t place Death Wish 3 into the same league with Road House in terms of sheer shit-as-entertainment value, it has a lot to offer.

We have Bronson killing people with assorted guns, but also with bizarre boobie-traps that embed teeth and shred feet. We have gun-wielding old folks inspired by Bronson shooting back and catching on fire. We have Martin Balsam taking out his old World War 2 machine gun and going after the muggers, only to fall down the stairs (you’d think he would have learned to avoid stairs back in Psycho.) We have Bronson shooting purse snatchers in the back and getting applause from people at their windows, in sort of a reverse-bizarro-universe tribute to Kitty Genovese.

We have a God-awful music score by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin that sounds like a cross between John Carpenter’s keyboard-on-the-cheap music for Halloween and porn synth slowed down and played backwards.

We have a nonsensical romantic subplot where too-hot-to-be-a-public-defender Deborah Raffin spots Charlie as a possible murderer in lockup and thinks “Gee, there’s a guy old enough to be my father accused of murder who won’t tell me anything about his past!” so she takes a taxi up to terror town to randomly look for him & ask him out on a date. She finds him, they have dinner, she confesses her disgust at her job and they bed down for some Chuck lovin’ before Mohawk McMayhem gets back at Bronson later that night by bonking her on the head and rolling her and her car in neutral down a hill into traffic, knowing full well that in a movie like this, a 20 mile per hour fender bender will assuredly become the equivalent of Dresden when it blows up real good into a flaming inferno of efficient cinematic girlfriend disposal.

We have Fraker, pre-Bronson-battle, getting on the phone and saying “I need more reinforcements” before we smash cut to a biker battalion riding into town whirling chains into people’s heads and throwing grenades through shop windows that, like Deborah Raffin, also blow up real good. Think about this for a moment – who the hell is he calling? Rent a riot? Bikers ‘r’ us? Leftover extras from the set of The Born Losers next door on the lot? And did he put it on account or promise to pay them in cash afterwards?

We have the repeated unsubtle motif of gun-as-wang from director Michael Winner, whether it’s the series of bizarre angles and quick cuts during Shriker’s interrogation of Kersey when one shot places a trophy handgun where it appears to come out of Shriker’s fly, or later on when Bronson repeatedly fires his machine gun at crotch level into a veritable supermarket of disposable mugger meat.

Ah, Michael Winner! He used to be a half-decent director, and made earlier films with Bronson such as Chato’s Land or The Mechanic that are far, far superior to this one. And he was also capable of astounding levels of shititude with material like The Sentinel, where hottie model Cristina Raines needs to leave her fashion model fastlane life and guard the gates of hell in order to save her soul. If you’ve ever wanted to see Burgess Meredith play the demonic ghost of a child molester who can summon up armies of intestine eating deformed midget goblins at will, then this is definitely the movie for you! After all, if he had done that for Rocky, Clubber Lang would have never had a chance! He’s a wreckin’ machine!

But I digress.

Looks like Winner has rediscovered his British sense of humor, in this piece about how he’s no longer a big fat slob. Bon appetit!

Action and idiotic violence aside, my only reason for knocking Death Wish 3 down a few notches from Everest-level heights of anti-genius remains its lack of moronic dialogue, an element that my earlier choices of bad films to love have in abundance. Except for the deeply moving moment where one of the thug army mourning one of their fallen comrades lets loose with “They shot the Giggler, man!” there really isn’t much else to chew on here. But I’d still recommend this one for anyone in the mood for good old mindless violence, despite a depressing “we need to show some tits” rape scene – where the victim is Marina Sirtis, otherwise known as Counsellor Troi – No dialogue from her throughout the film, by the way, since she probably hadn’t lost her British accent and is supposed to be playing Puerto Rican from what I can tell – in any case, it spoils the surreal quality of the rest of the film’s violence and undermines our ability to kick back and mindlessly enjoy the entire thing as a comic book-gone-wild depiction of New York as if David Dinkins were mayor-for-life.

Stupid beyond belief! Thumbs up!

Fuzzy Warbles From The Swindon Beatles

The long and bumpy story of XTC, one of my favorite bands, is certainly filled with drama. Most of it hinges on the immense talent and immense self-destructive streak running through Andy Partridge, who suffered a nervous breakdown from overwork in 1982 and refused to tour afterwards. The band confined itself to the studio and continued to turn out great (probably a lot of its best) material, but endless fights with management and their-then Virgin record label ground them down, all without concert gate to make it up. Tensions within the band grew over the lack of commercial recognition, despite a seemingly endless period on the cusp of such a breakthrough around the time of hit singles Dear God and The Mayor Of Simpleton. An EXCELLENT journey through all of this can be found in XTC: Songs & Stories, which gives accounts on the background of every XTC song and also a very revealing look inside the studio battles that Andy always seemed to win – and little by little, we can see almost a subconscious desire by Partridge to sabotage the greater possibilities of success for the band, as if he’s avoiding the same path of quickly rising and mega-touring that led to his 1982 breakdown (which was supposedly also attributable to his then wife throwing out his valium – Partridge’s domestic problems and joys also figure heavily into his music).

In any event, XTC put out a shelf load of material during their time together, all of which is wonderfully catalogued & OCD’d over at the wonderful Chalkhills fan site maintained by John Relph. And in keeping with my own OCD, I have finished listening to the must-have-for-fans Fuzzy Warbles Collection, nine CDs worth of home recordings from Partridge from over the years, including demos of songs eventually recorded, songs eventually given up on & thrown away, and assorted fragments & ephemera.

This collection is a rich & wonderful assortment of the wide gamut of musical stylings that XTC produced over the years – from their rough/industrial/clangy sound through softer, often Brian Wilson-esque material, through their knock-offs of psychadelia and bubblegum, and through an assortment of ear candy from some of the best Brit poprock of the past thirty years.

I’m interested in listening to the demo versions of slickly produced songs Partridge originally recorded in his garden shed, since it provides a window into the actual process of putting a record together, a subject that the Songs & Stories book tackles very well, and can also be glimpsed in the wonderful Chuck Berry documentary Hail Hail Rock & Roll by Taylor Hackford. Sometimes lyrics get changed, bridges get re-arranged, songs are restructured, and so forth. It’s basically the rock and roll version of comparing the early & revised versions of symphonies. But what mystifies me when listening to a lot of this material is just how damn good the songs they threw away are. I remember someone reviewing a previously released collection of forgotten XTC B-sides Rag & Bone Buffet remarked “The songs these guys throw away are better than some bands’ careers.” I heartily concur, especially now that I’ve heard a boatload of material Partridge gave up on for whatever reason and wonder why. Partridge’s commentary on this material can be found here, and while it provides some insight into this, I guess there’s really no way to truly explain artistic temperament, especially with someone as volatile as Partridge.

Listening to all of this material, however, makes me wonder if Andy is done cleaning out his mental closet. There always seems to be news of new recordings in the works (most recently with Robyn Hitchcock) that never seem to materialize. With the present day technologies allowing him to record, mix & distribute his music without the money boys or record company weasels intervening, I’m hoping that someone who has been as prolific in the past as Partridge has been will continue to pump out top-notch material, with the clever lyrics and mix of musical styles to fit the idea behind each song. My eager ears await more!

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