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A Joe Jackson playlist, beyond the hits
Musician Joe Jackson was drawn early to classical music before achieving fame as a frenetic rocker, then going on to develop one of the broadest compositional palettes in contemporary music. In the midst of his 40th anniversary tour, Jackson reflects on a unique career with NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato. This piece was produced with the help of BRE Presents Camden County Board of Freeholders City Winery.
English singer-songwriter Joe Jackson first hit the scene as a new wave rocker in the late 70s. but there's far more to his story than that. He's on tour celebrating a milestone anniversary this year, and he sat down with NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato to discuss not just his 40 years in the business, but also the twists and turns of youth that put him on the road he's on.
At a recent Joe Jackson concert in New Jersey, the singer/composer seems amazed he's been at it as long as he has.
"We've got lots of music tonight cause you know, we're now celebrating the release of my first album which is actually 40 years ago – 40 f-ing years ago!
And it's true, his first US top 25 hit goes all the way back to 1979…
(SINGING) Is she really going out with him? Is she really gonna take him home tonight? Is she really going out with him? Cause if my eyes don't deceive me there's something going wrong around here.
But what Joe Jackson calls his musical journey started more than four decades ago. And it didn't begin with rock and roll.
If you're a working-class kid from the provinces you're not supposed to like Beethoven. But I did. Beethoven was my musical hero
In a 1999 memoir, he detailed a childhood in and around Portsmouth, a tough, naval city on England's southern coast. He has written and sung about it nostalgically in his song "Home Town."
(SINGING) Back to my home town. Cause it's been so long And I'm wondering if it's still there.
But he has described his childhood as that of an asthmatic misfit, beaten up on the playground, his head pushed down toilets. His working class parents, he says, didn't know what to make of him. It was not exactly a Beethoven-playing household that you grew up in…
No. My, my family was completely unmusical. My whole background was completely unmusical.
But he became obsessed as a kid with all kinds of music — from Pop to Rock, Salsa to Jazz, and he decided support or not, it was what he wanted to do.
(SINGING) You can't get what you want. Till you know what you want.
It sounds like you had to invent a life for yourself, I don't want to say out of nothing, but out of–
It kinda was out of nothing, yeah. Yeah, I've often wondered about that. You know, like, if I, if my parents had been musicians, for instance, I wondered if it– it– it might have been the last thing I wanted to do. Who knows? It was a way to communicate in a way. It was a way to reach other people and hopefully be accepted.
He played his first piano gig in a local pub at 16.
Then was accepted to London's prestigious Royal Academy of Music where he studied classical music … but he finished no closer to a professional career.
You also– if I remember correctly, had some other things on your résumé. You worked in a laundry in a mental hospital, is that correct?
Oh my god. The job was actually sorting out the dirty clothes in– in the laundry room of a mental hospital. Yeah, so, you know, I always figured making music would be better even if it led to– complete poverty and obscurity, which is what I expected.
But did you have any other choice? Was there something else?
: You were good at?
No. (LAUGHS) I wasn't good at anything else. It was– sheer desperation.
Desperation turned to success not with classical music, but with his debut album "Look Sharp" and its frenetic rock n roll.
(SINGING) Tell me that you never wanted my loving.
"I'm the Man" came next. In the title song video he played a sleazy huckster character peddling whatever was saleable to whomever would buy.
(SINGING) So give me all your money 'cause I know you think I'm funny. Can't you hear me laughing, can't you see me smile. I'm the man.
Jackson's image in the press was that of an angry young man… helped along no doubt by songs like "Mad at You."
(SINGING) I'm so, I'm so mad at you
Jackson had words for the press, too.
(SINGING) Well I got nothing against the press They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true.
I think that– there's a lotta humor in it, you know, a lotta things that were interpreted as angry. I once had a drink with Joe Strummer with The Clash. And he– he– he told me how when they were writing songs together, him and Mick Jones, that they were cracking each other up. And– and then the reviews would come out and they'd read the reviews, which were very serious and in– interpreted it all as, you know, like, political commentary and all this. And they'd be cracking up even more.
(SINGING) You can read it in the Sunday Papers. Sunday Papers.
But whether it was funny, sardonic or a bit of both, it gave no hint of where he was about to take his audience.
I mean, it was a vacation. You know, it was a little musical vacation.
His "vacation" was an album of swing and jump blues covers written before he was born.
(SINGING): Come on down, to Tuxedo Junction yeah…
That was right before he changed course again, and scored his biggest hits with an album of sophisticated pop, 1982's "Night and Day."
(SINGING) Me babe, steppin' out.
As if that wasn't enough variety, he'd work Motown medleys into his act the following year.
(SINGING) Oh really I'm sad, sadder than sad.
In a few short years he had gone from obscurity to sensation. But he was a star constantly challenging listeners to follow wherever he led.
(SINGING) The air buzzing with foreign tongues
All that shape-shifting would take a commercial toll — particularly when he turned his back entirely on rock and pop with all-instrument album, 1987's Will Power. When Will Power came out People magazine said that you had been authentic when you were doing Look Sharp and– and the early records.
It's amazing. Critics get very hung up on, to me, rather dubious ideas of authenticity. They– they remind me sometimes of food critics arguing about, you know, whether a certain chef should be allowed to do– use certain ingredients or not. And then they never talk about whether it tastes good. (LAUGH)
(SINGING) Call it anything but wasted time.
Joe Jackson was proving that though he wanted to "be accepted," it would have to be on his terms. And in mid-career, he made records much longer on artistic ambition than commercial potential: everything from a Grammy-winning symphony… to a song cycle inspired by the seven deadly sins… to a cd of newly arranged Duke Ellington tunes.
None were hits. And at one point the Washington Post called Jackson's catalogue "impressively diverse yet confusingly eclectic."
If you keep doing the same thing, the– you're criticized for that. If you change, you're criticized for that. Do you know what I mean? So you can't win. So at the end of the day you just have to do something — what– that you are proud of. You know, you feel good about it. You feel excited about it.
In a song from 2008 that he still performs, he even wrote about what appeared to be his fading star.
(SINGING) Hey can you hear me now. As I fade away.
I wanna ask you about the song Invisible Man.
The invisible man, again, is you writing from the point of view of a character. someone who had been maybe– a pop star at one time and was now watching younger people be pop stars.
Right. I mean, the most I ever really hoped for was to build enough of an audience that I could keep on making music.
That he has done, and on this night in New Jersey the sold out crowd of about 1000 is treated not just to the hits, but to songs as well from his new album, called "Fool."
(SINGING) Fool, kicks off the carnival. Wise man goes to church. Fool.
And in fact, "Fool" is something of a commercial comeback — his first album to crack the US top 25 since those long ago 1980s.
(SINGING) Just what he needs to live. Head like a sieve.
I've been very pleased at the reactions we've gotten. I mean, even– songs that people have never heard before… that's the good thing about being semi-invisible, (LAUGH) you know? It's like I don't have as many people maybe as I woulda had in 1983. But the people who are there, I think they're there because they're genuinely interested.
(SINGING) Could it be that while we're, rushing round the world.
And do you think in the end, 40 years on, that the reason (NOISE) that that has worked out, the reason you still have an audience is that you have followed your muse and not made the same kind of record?
Again and again?
It probably does have something to do with that. And it also has to do with my own just sheer stubborn kind of persistence, and refusing to go away. I don't expect everyone to like everything I do, or anything I do. But– as long as– as long as I enjoy it I'm gonna keep doing it.
(SINGING) Can't touch can't touch the Invisible Man. Can't stop can't stop the Invisible Man
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Tom Casciato is an Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and television executive who has created critically acclaimed nonfiction projects that have appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, TBS, Showtime and more. He recently directed and produced two stories within episodes of the second season of the Emmy Award-winning climate-change series, "Years Of Living Dangerously." His 2013 film with Kathleen Hughes and Bill Moyers for Frontline series, "Two American Families," was called by Salon “... one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries” of the year. Tom previously worked at WNET from 2006 until 2012, serving variously as director of News & Current Affairs and executive producer of two PBS series, "Wide Angle" and "Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports."
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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