Joe Jackson (illustration by Andy Friedman)
In his 1999 autobiography, A Cure For Gravity, Joe Jackson wrote: "As I reflect on my musical apprenticeship, I can't say where the apprenticeship ended, or if it even has yet. That's okay. It's actually comforting to think that I'll always be traveling and may never arrive. Because if you ever "arrived," wouldn't it be all over?"
His musical output over the past 40 or so years is one of endless elasticity and restless genius: he's slipped effortlessly from a teenage love of Beethoven (his first album was the composer's Eroica Symphony) to jagged punk to jazzy salsa rhythms to big band grooves to modern opera. Jackson got the hell out of the tough port town of Portsmouth at an early age and never stopped moving forward, deftly shedding one musical skin for another, and postponing that dreaded "arrival."
Jackson is his own rakish and rebellious genre (with a line to Steely Dan, Duke Ellington and David Bowie). In his late-'70s guise as a pained and unlikely Romeo —an alabaster pale, classically-trained pianist with a heron's angular stature and a poet's despair — he bore a caustic streak and serious misapprehensions about lasting love, dwelling candidly on the cruelty of romantic hope:
Fools in love they think they're heroes
Cause they get to feel more pain
I say fools in love are zeros
I should know I should know because this fool's in love again
- "Fools in Love," 1979
A working-class boy's retorts rattled through Look Sharp!, his debut album released as the Joe Jackson Band in March 1979. It was an auspicious introduction and one of the most outstanding furious young man records of that year, a fecund twelve months for freshly-mined male angst that also saw Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, Joy Division, Nick Lowe and the Police chime in with their own dark and anguished ripostes. Jackson's snarling "Sunday Papers" and "Look Sharp" were aggrieved, unyielding, and smart.
By October, the prolific songwriter had released a second album, I'm the Man, which offered a palette of deeper hues, splashes of an aching disquiet ("It's Different for Girls") or a reggae-jogged love story ("Geraldine and John"). He threw curveballs gleefully thereafter; an album covering swing music of the Forties, Jumpin' Jive, was hardly what anyone expected in 1981, but like most of Jackson's forward-thinking adventures, it was a harbinger of the mid-'90s resurrection of that genre.
But it's with 1982's Night and Day that Jackson reached a different realm of artistry entirely; his fifth album is one of the most sophisticated and deeply satisfying recordings of that decade. New York City served as his capricious muse and Jackson's freewheeling mélange of jazz, salsa, big band, classical, conga, rock, world beat and synthpop coalesced as a complete suite that tapped into the city's diversity. Few hit singles from the Eighties sound as evocative as "Steppin' Out" still does, 35 years after its release. The urgent, ahead-of-its-time ballad "Real Men," exploring sexual fluidity and queer identity, is as relevant today as it was long ago.
There was nothing predictable about Jackson's Eighties output: the brassy ebullience of 1984's Body and Soul sat side by side film scores for James Bridges' Mike's Murder and Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker, and a foray into classical composition, 1987's Will Power. Aside from "Steppin' Out," his only other moderate radio hits were "Breaking Us In Two" off of Night and Day, "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)" from Body and Soul, "Nineteen Forever," from his conceptual 1989 opus Blaze of Glory, and a collaboration with Suzanne Vega, "Left of Center" (with Jackson on piano) from the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. He didn't seem interested in easy pop paths or superstardom, preferring to follow his own esoteric instincts. Following 1991's pop-centric Laughter & Lust, he drifted more assertively into classical music, via Night Music and his arresting 1997 rock opera exploring the Seven Deadly Sins, Heaven & Hell, which featured solos from Suzanne Vega, Dawn Upshaw, Joy Askew and Jane Siberry. He finally won a Grammy, in 2001, for Symphony No. 1, jamming with jazz and rock musicians like Terence Blanchard and Steve Vai.
Jackson's recording pace has slowed a bit over the past 17 years; he's only released five studio albums, most recently 2015's Fast Forward, which returned to pop songs and matched Jackson with kindred spirits like guitarist Bill Frisell and violinist Regina Carter. He again leaned on a trio of urban catalysts — New York, Berlin and New Orleans — as inspiration for songs like "If It Wasn't For You," which he performed live for FUV at a Cutting Room concert in 2015.
FUV will rebroadcast that concert on Thursday, August 10, as we honor, at last, Jackson as one of our FUV Essentials. As he marks his 63rd birthday on Friday, August 11 — far from Portsmouth and the fitful post-punk album that launched his eclectic career — we celebrate a genius who never chose a predictable path and who sometimes battled depression and setbacks, but persevered to write and record again.
"I let go of trying to be clever, trying to be objective, trying to stay on top of it all," wrote Jackson in A Cure for Gravity, 19 years ago. "There's so much hype around, so much snobbery, so much mindless worshipping of celebrity and success. We all have to make an effort now and again to shut it all out, be subjective, and ask: What's really important, and meaningful, to me?"
Joe Jackson continues to search for that answer — but eschews certitude. That restless quest, and the beguiling, beautiful music that has come from his life's journey, is why he will always be an FUV Essentials artist.
- Joe Jackson 2000: Live from Flom Auditorium
- Joe Jackson 2015: Live from the Cutting Room (Airs Thursday, August 10 at 8 p.m. on FUV Live.)
- Suzanne Vega: Five Essential Joe Jackson Songs
#FUVEssentials: Joe Jackson (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV host Darren DeVivo)
*Two songs to add that aren't on Spotify: “Ever After” from Night Music (1994); “Awkward Age” from Volume 4 by The Joe Jackson Band (2003).