Sharing the same name with a certain “shoeless” baseball player, Joe Jackson has probably suffered a time or two from an identity crisis. For this Mr. Joe Jackson, the English singer-songwriter, composer, and pianist, he’s probably fine that his otherwise common name provides him a sense of creative freedom.
Despite being lumped into the new-wave category early in his career with the likes of Elvis Costello and the stylish punk of The Jam, Jackson has diversified his songbook into a catalog that includes film scores (Mike’s Murder, Tucker: The Man and His Dream) classical music (Night Music, Will Power), jazz (Symphony #1), swing (Jumpin’ Jive) and unabashed pop (Body and Soul).
While his creative endeavors rival almost any artist in terms of eclectic flavors, Jackson’s early work with the Joe Jackson Band helped create the voice of an angry young man with his first two albums Look Sharp! and I’m the Man. Holding an outsider’s view of the world, Jackson reversed the macho roles of males in relationships and examined their dutiful side in “It’s Different For Girls” where the female protagonist pleads, “Don’t give me love.” As a jaded loner, Jackson molded spite and courage in “Happy Loving Couples” where he wrote, “Happy loving couples make it look so easy / Happy loving couples always talk so kind / Until the time that I can do my dancing with a partner /Those happy couples ain’t no friends of mine.” And of course there is perhaps his most pronounced hit, the jealousy anthem “Is She Really Going Out With Him,” that growls, “Is she really going out with him? / ‘Cause if my eyes don’t deceive me / There’s somethin’ goin’ wrong around here.”
All bitter themes aside, Jackson is also a talented piano player and while living in New York during the 80s, he captured the essence and soul of the city (pre-Giuliani) in the dashing Cole Porter tribute single “Steppin’ Out” or with his brave ode to sticking with one’s vices in “Cancer,” that shows the champion of cigarettes and real ale simplifying our fates. In fact, Jackson is such a strong advocate of smoking that he moved from New York City after the smoking ban took place and now resides in Berlin, Germany, a city that he still feels retains a pro-smoking flavor and veers from certain big government influence. An urbanite and cosmopolite, Jackson’s music has always reflected a mature sophistication that ruminates of sidewalk cafes, busy diners, and conversations with random strangers at 4:00 A.M.
On his latest album, Rain, Jackson lets his piano skills flourish in the bustling “Downtown Train,” a song that pays homage to jazz pianist Horace Silver and a composition that follows in the footsteps of Jackson’s brave “Down to London” that tinkers with the Ramsay Lewis classic “The In Crowd.”
Joe Jackson has always been a musical maverick, from his daring role as background vocalist for William Shatner in a cover of Pulp’s “Common People,” to the author of A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage, described by Jackson as a "book about music, thinly disguised as a memoir,” or penning the 2005 pamphlet The Smoking Issue and a 2007 essay “Smoke, Lies and the Nanny State.”
Having his songs covered by both Tori Amos and Anthrax, Jackson’s fans are both random and devoted. At 54 years old, his next work is scoring a theater piece on the life of Bram Stoker, and after that, we might just get another Joe Jackson Band album (the band reunited after a 23 year break with 2003’s Volume 4).
After 30 years of recording music, Joe Jackson’s still got the “time ticking.”