Like most people, I first heard Joe Jackson via the single "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" It's a deceptively simple, perfect little new wave pop nugget that belied Jackson's sophisticated harmonic sensibility. Like Elvis Costello, the first impression Joe Jackson made barely hinted at the depth and complexity he had hiding behind his angry young man stance.
There were four years of high school heartache compressed into a few seconds in the way he sang, "Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street," a sentiment both resentful and triumphant. It was an emotion that millions of pimply teens could relate to and it made him a star overnight. When Jackson added, "They say that looks don't count for much so there goes your proof," a nation of nerds took courage in the hope that brains were sexier than brawn, and the snide attitude we wished we could summon in the face of the high school football captain.
Many years later I got the chance to meet him and interview him for a magazine; we had dinner in a small restaurant in Hell's Kitchen, and he struck me as smart, thoughtful, sensitive --not much like a typical rock star, There's an old saying that to make it in the music business you have to be either brilliant or an idiot. I'm not sure if it's despite or because of Jackson's intelligence, but he's had a career that's been a rare combination of successful and musically interesting.
Last night, I went to see Jackson perform in a private show at the Cutting Room, on east 32nd Street. Just a few blocks away, Pope Francis had arrived at Saint Patrick's Cathedral and was holding a mass. At almost the same, Jackson opened his set with a sermon rarely heard from male rockers, an ode to understanding what it's like for females in the battle of the sexes, "It's Different for Girls." Alone at the piano, his voice quavery and beautiful, his fingers danced across the ivory unable to resist a baroque musicality far beyond the song's simple pop architecture.
Then he launched into a gorgeous cover of the John Lennon song "Girl," injecting the song with the truth of his ever lonely soul.
Jackson has a new album called "Fast Forward," a concept album of 16 songs broken into four sections of four recorded in four cities: New York, Berlin, Amsterdam and New Orleans. Originally the idea has been to make a series of EPs. There are string quartets, a horn section, a duet with a 14 year-old boy, and lots of other signs of an endlessly curious mind. Tonight he played a few old hits but also some selections from his new album.
The album's first single "If It Wasn't For You," was rejected for airplay on the BBC because it contains the phrase "sad bastard," presumably an autobiographical reference: the song ends with the line "and I'd be one too if it wasn't for you." The lyric might have been written for a woman who saved a loser from a life of loneliness, or it could have been written to the music itself.
I would think that while Joe Jackson isn't making $400 million a year playing stadiums, it must be nice to be able to make the music you want to make without any compromises and fill up small clubs with people who want to listen and pay attention to dense lyrics and less than obvious melodies. It's certainly rare.
And as he sang all those years ago, "if my eyes don't deceive me, there's something going wrong around here."