STILL THE MAN: A Q&A With Joe Jackson



BY KAY NOTHSTEIN After a nearly 40 year career, Joe Jackson — the witty, often wry and insightful Brit singer-songwriter of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” fame — is still going strong. Who knew? Probably his dedicated fanbase who consistently fill his shows. But not me. I left Joe Jackson in the late ‘80s somewhere between Big World and Blaze of Glory for no particular reason other than I was probably just listening to other things. In the course of nearly four decades, Jackson’s put out 20 studio albums, composed a symphony, won a Grammy, wrote a book, reinterpreted the work of Duke Ellington (with Iggy Pop and the late Sharon Jones as guest vocalists) and for the past three years has been writing a monthly blog featuring music essays on his website. That’s a lot to miss out on. But in the past few months I’ve been catching up with the prolific and ever-evolving Mr. Jackson.

It all started a few years ago, picking up a copy of I’m the Man in a second-hand store and realizing on first listen how great the album is, especially “It’s Different for Girls.” I listened to that song over and over again for the next several weeks and fairly regularly ever since. Then at the beginning of this year I was trading “Songs of the Day” with a friend. I’d text him something I was listening to and he’d send me his pick, continuing back and forth for a couple weeks until one day I thought of Joe Jackson. But instead of the usual one-off I sent three, all from the early albums that I knew, and all being a bit of a personal message to this former partner/current friend. I sent “It’s Different For Girls,” “Breaking Us in Two,” and “You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want).” Kinda summed up my feelings on the phases of the relationship and got me wondering what Joe Jackson had been up to since I saw him play the Spectrum Showcase sometime around 1988. So I texted a friend who I went with to that show and asked him what he knew. He said he’s been seeing him on every tour since (there’s been other tours?) and that Joe Jackson also had a website and a well-written blog that I might enjoy (he writes more than lyrics?).

I spent that afternoon watching Joe Jackson videos on YouTube: catching up with classic favorites, discovering old songs I had missed the first time around, and enjoying all the material I was unaware of for so long. I began reading his blog (love it!) and I even bought his book, A Cure for Gravity, (highly recommend, Mr. Jackson is as accomplished a writer as he is a musician, composer, and lyricist).

While reading his book, just a few days before I came to the end, I was listening to online radio where they played a non-Joe Jackson song I had never heard before. And when I interviewed Mr. Jackson I couldn’t wait to tell him about it. The song was “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” and when I told him the title he laughed. Sung by Kermit the Frog. He laughed even more. This is funny to him because on the second to last page of his book he mentions a transsexual named Baby Dee he used to see riding around the Village on a tricycle, pulling a concert harp on a platform. But she also played the accordion, and sang, always the same song. And you guessed it, it was Lydia, the Tattooed Lady. He told me the original was done by Groucho Marx. For me it was a strange coincidence and an interesting connection but also was a sign that maybe I was meant to interview Jackson due to my rediscovery and born-again fandom.

Then in March, Jackson announced his fourth tour in support of his latest album, 2015’s Fast Forward. On this most recent release, the music and lyrics have matured and grown, but the subject matter and array of influences remain wide and varied. And despite the title, this album is something of a return to the classic Joe Jackson that I know best: straightforward, laced-with-wit, insightful pop, but aged with all the JJ_ImTheMan_Cover_Retouchedpolish and intelligence that comes from the experience and learnings of a long and seasoned career. It is one of his strongest works to date.

For this tour, he chose to play locations he’s never played before or hasn’t been to in several years. In the case of tonight’s show at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, it will be his first time visiting the city. On his three previous tours for Fast Forward he performed a number of songs from the album, as well as from his extensive back catalogue—not quite every hit or audience favorite, but enough to keep most fans, old and new, happy and fulfilled. He even threw in some interesting covers and was his own opening act, starting solo at the piano, and after a few numbers his band members joined him one-by-one. So here we are, a week before the start of the tour and I asked him by phone how the show will be different this time around or if most things will be the same.

JOE JACKSON: “The band is the same and the general kind of structure of the show is pretty much the same. But we have learned four new songs for this part of the tour. And we keep mixing it up, so it’s a bit different from night to night. Plus, we’ve, well, actually never played Wilmington, Delaware before. I’ve never been there. So whatever we do it will be new to you guys I guess and to me too.”

PHAWKER: Can you describe Fast Forward in relation to your early work and on its own?

JOE JACKSON: Well I’m not quite sure where to start with that one, that’s a big question and I’m not necessarily the best person to even answer it.

PHAWKER: Well what do you think of it compared to, I guess, other material that you’ve done?

JOE JACKSON: I think it’s one of my best, honestly. I kind of went about it in a completely different way to any other album because it wasn’t supposed to be an album, originally. The original plan was something me and my manager cooked up which was to not even release an album but to release an EP. And then to follow it with another one and another one. So it was going to be four EPs. Each one recorded with different musicians in a different city. That was the concept that kind of evolved. And then pretty late in the game it seemed like no one really wanted to go along with that. Everyone wanted to put it together as one album, the record companies involved and so on. So, it’s ended up becoming an album that’s in four parts. I’ve never really done anything like that before but it wasn’t supposed to be that, that’s just what it evolved into.

PHAWKER: Even with all those differences and different people, it really holds together as one cohesive piece.

JOE JACKSON: Yeah, I think it does more so than I thought it would actually. It’s also very diverse.

PHAWKER: It’s probably because you’re the unifying factor.

JOE JACKSON: Well yeah I know. I always thinks people make too much of ‘oh Joe, he’s so diverse, he’s always changing, he’s so eclectic’ and this sort of thing. But I mean, of course there are things that hold it all together because it’s all coming out of my head. I’m not going to do anything quite the same way that anyone else would. It’s all me writing, it’s my point of view, it’s my voice, it’s my piano playing, it’s my tastes, it’s a lot of things that hold it together. Maybe the diversity of it is more superficial. Yeah, ya know this is all kind of subjective. It’s hard for me to be subjective about my own stuff

PHAWKER: But maybe it’s the diversity part that you need to keep it interesting?

JOE JACKSON: Yeah I suppose so. Yeah I’ve never been interested in having kinda of like a formula and just repeating it over and over again. If I had done that it would have been over by now a long time ago. Ya know what I mean, I think I wouldn’t be going back out on the road again.

PHAWKER: Your cover of Television’s “See No Evil” on Fast Forward, I really like it, I think it is a great cover. Can you talk about why you chose that song and your approach in covering it?

JOE JACKSON: That was all part of this sort of evolving concept of the four different EPs. At one point I thought about trying to do a song in each one that had some kind of relation to that city. That idea didn’t last very long because it seemed a bit contrived. And I only really know one song about Amsterdam and David Bowie already did that. Things like that. There is a German song in the Berlin sessions which is my translation of an old German song from the 1930s and that was a very interesting thing to do and that was from another project that I had in mind that never went anywhere so that’s sort of a survivor of that. So there’s all these different pieces kinda falling together.

And as far as New York goes there’s been a lot of songs about New York. I didn’t really want to do a New York song. But it did strike me one day that it might be kinda of cool to do something by a classic New York band. And the first thing I thought of was that song, actually the Television song and I went and I played it and started singing along with it and it actually worked in the same key for my voice. And I just kind of got this kind of wave of nostalgia from when I first went to New York. Ya know, with my head full of Television and Talking Heads and Ramones and Blondie and so on. I was just so excited to actually go there let alone play to an audience there and that kind of came back to me. So I guess that song is a little bit of nostalgia.

PHAWKER: You’ve talked about how you didn’t think your lyrics were as strong as your music and that you’ve worked at being a better lyricist. What did you do to improve there? And do you ever think then that you… now that you’re spending a lot of time focusing on that, that they ever become overworked?

JOE JACKSON: No I don’t think so, well I think a couple of things happened. One is I think I just matured a bit, ya know so what I wanted to write in the lyrics was not quite as, lame. Not quite as juvenile. But at the same time I think I got fussier. And much less inclined to say this sort of works, I’ll just record this and put it out. I got more particular as I got older. And I made an effort to write better Joe-Jackson-FTRlyrics and that meant sometimes just being much more ruthless on myself. If I find myself writing something that I’ve seemed to have heard before somewhere, or I think I’ve done something like it before, then I scrap it. Or if it’s not quite working, I scrap it. I don’t think ‘well it’s good enough’. I’ve sometimes scraped a whole lyric for a song and started all over again. Which is something I never would have done in the early days. So I think it is just a combination of those things. And I think some of my lyrics now are pretty good though, but they do take more work than the music.

PHAWKER: Do you have a favorite early song?

JOE JACKSON: Nah, I don’t have favorites. It’s kinda like, ya know, if you have kids ‘who’s your favorite kid?’ You can’t really say that. My songs are my kids. I can’t really tell you I have favorites. Anyone who’d been following what songs that I’ve been performing live let’s say for the last however many years—it’s been a long time I don’t even want to say. But the ones that I haven’t performed in a long time are the ones that I don’t like so much. You can kinda work it out. I don’t want to tell you a favorite. I tell him I think there is a favorite one of mine I may never hear again. But say that’s OK, I can watch it online and listen on record. He gives me a bit of a teasing “Aeh hae” but counters with a thoughtful, “Ya never know.”

PHAWKER: Yeah, I think there is a favorite one of mine I may never hear again. But that’s OK I can watch it online and listen to it record.

JOE JACKSON: Hey, you never know.

PHAWKER: I know that you also really love salsa and that it has really shown up as an influence throughout your music. What do you love about it and do think you’d ever make a full on Joe Jackson salsa record?

JOE JACKSON: No, cause I don’t think it works. There’s too many things about Latin music that are tied in with the language and tied in with certain things that don’t fit with what I do. David Byrne did a record with all New York Latin musicians but I thought it didn’t work very well personally and I didn’t want to do that. I don’t know. I’ve done some things where I’ve tried to mix in some Latin rhythms into my own musical world. That’s about as far as I think I can go, really. I don’t believe in trying to emulate a whole musical style or genre that’s something I’ve never done, despite what people often say. I think what I do is often a kind of a mixture of styles. That’s my thing. So, I wouldn’t do a Latin record anymore than I would do a reggae record or a country record or anything else. But there’s a lot of different influences in there because that’s the way my brain is. Just open to these things. And I love Latin music. And I love African music. I’m listening to a lot of African music now. And music from Colombia. There’s amazing music coming out of Colombia. And I don’t know it’s just like rhythmically, it’s so much more interesting than Western pop music — and happier. So much of contemporary pop music is just bloody miserable. I get really tired of it.

PHAWKER: It’s very true. I’m half-Mexican and grew up with the music of my grandfather, with conjunto and mariachi songs. Though I feel like an outsider to most of the culture and don’t speak Spanish, whenever I hear Latin rhythms it takes me back to my grandfather’s house and has a strong emotional connection for me.

JOE JACKSON: Well you think you feel like an outsider, how do you think I felt as a white guy from England coming to New York in the early 80s and going to like Latin dance clubs in Spanish Harlem. I just felt so out of place, yet I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Cause it was just so different to any music I heard growing up in England. And I wanted to understand it. I wanted to figure out how the rhythms worked. So I really put a lot of work into trying to learn about this music and I still love it.

PHAWKER: Being in New York in the ’80s and going to these clubs did you get to see a lot of the classic Fania players? [Fania was the premier salsa record label. Based in NYC, along with most of its musicians, its hey day lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when Jackson was in NYC.]

JOE JACKSON: Oh yeah yeah. I saw Ray Barretto several times. He’s probably my favorite. Tito Puente. Ruben Blades, who I became quite good friends with actually. Larry Harlow. Celia Cruz. Just everyone. I saw um. Oh god. I’m just reaching for names now. I saw loads of those big Fania stars. That’s some really great memories. And that isn’t happening any more in New York, that Latin scene. There’s one or two exceptions here and there. But nothing like that now. It was so exciting.

PHAWKER: Do you salsa dance, did you ever go salsa dancing?

JOE JACKSON: God no! I mean I was so self conscious. I would look at these people dancing. These gorgeous Latin girls like twirling around. And guys who looked great in white suits and could actually dance. I was so intimidated. I would just try to be a fly on the wall.

PHAWKER:: I’ve been reading your blog and I think it is a great resource for finding out about artists and labels. Can you talk about the blog? What got you going on writing the blog?

JOE JACKSON: Well I like to write. Ya know I wrote one book and people are always asking me when I’m going to write another one. And I’ve never really seen a way to write another book. I don’t know what it would be. I kind of said everything I wanted to say in the one that I wrote. But this has given me a way to write and to just do it in little chunks once month. It came out of when I changed management a few years ago. I think it was either my manager or his assistant, we were revamping my website. And I think it was either my manager or his assistant who said,’Do you ever think about writing a blog?’ We were just thinking about other things to put on my website, other ways to reach out to an audience. And I said ‘no, I don’t want to put my personal diary online for the whole world to read.’ I think there is too much of that kind of stuff right now. I think I’m entitled to have some privacy and be anonymous if I’m not performing or whatever. I know that’s an old fashioned idea. But then someone, I forget which of them said, ‘how about you just write about music?’ And I thought ‘oh’ that had never occurred to me. And I started doing it thinking that I might be lucky if I could find things to write for six months or a year, and here I am, still writing them. What, 3 years later? And I think some of them are pretty good. Like good little essays. And, actually a lot of people have pointed out that I do end up revealing quite a lot about myself in them as well.

PHAWKER: What’s next? Are you working on something new?

JOE JACKSON: We’re actually playing three completely new songs on this tour. Yeah, I’m trying to do some writing. Ya know it’s just a question of finding the time and the space, both the head space and the physical space to do it. For various reasons it’s a little tricky at the moment. But, I’m definitely writing. And I’m just gonna take my time. I can’t tell you there’s gonna be a new album at a certain date or anything like that. Whatever it is it will be ready when it’s ready.

PHAWKER: Do you have a guilty pleasure band that you love to listen to? And I will tell you mine, if you tell me yours.

JOE JACKSON: Well you can, if you want, but I’ll tell you that I’ve been asked this question before, and I think I have what I think is a pretty good answer to it. And no one likes it. In fact I was even asked to contribute to a book of musicians talking about their guilty pleasures, musical guilty pleasures. And I thought OK. And I started making a list. And then I thought, Wait a minute. I’m not guilty about this. I don’t think a pleasure is anything to be guilty about. That’s my answer. I think if you enjoy something that’s great. Ya know, it doesn’t matter what it is.

That reminds me. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine. We were sitting in a bar and this big Bon Jovi hit came on the sound system. “Living On A Prayer” I said ‘God, this is a fucking great single, a great song.’ And he looked at me like I had lost my mind. I said, ‘No, listen to it. The way it’s structured. For what it is it’s just brilliant.’ Yeah I mean something could be good for what it is. I don’t like the idea of preconceived tastes that are supposed to make you look cool, or whatever. Fuck that. If you
enjoy something you enjoy it. That’s precious. There’s nothing to feel guilty about.