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From Barnes & NobleHe's the Man
British musician and composer Joe Jackson is best known for a rapid-fire series of albums that emerged in the late '70s and early '80s. The first two, Look Sharp! and I'm the Man, were edgy, new-wave pop albums that placed him firmly in the then-emerging category of "angry young man" rockers such as Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Not wanting to be so strictly categorized, Jackson dabbled in a variety of musical forms—reggae, jump-blues, traditional pop—to enthusiastic but sometimes small cult audiences. His last major popular success was 1982's Night and Day with a jazz-influenced sophistication that launched the hits "Breaking Us in Two" and "Stepping Out."
Jackson was not content, however, to rework familiar musical formulas to repeat his earlier successes. He insisted on recording uncompromising, sometimes difficult albums, mixing and experimenting with musical traditions. Often these received critical acclaim, but his resistance to creating easily classifiable work meant his records often went unheard. The difficulty in marketing his music has meant that Jackson has by and large fallen off the music industry's radar in the past decade, though he continues to compose and perform.
With A Cure for Gravity, Jackson adds "memoirist" to his résumé. But those expecting an inside look into rock-'n'-roll stardom will have to look elsewhere—this new memoir largely ignores his years in an international spotlight. Jackson prefers to describe the earlier years—the goings-on in the back rooms and the wings—the journey that led him to the verge of stardom in 1978, just before the release of Look Sharp!
The gray, clammy Portsmouth, England, of Jackson's youth sets the stage for this story of his musical education. He was an asthmatic child and a clumsy outsider at school, successful neither at math, gym, nor the pursuit of girls. His well-meaning but distant working-class parents were baffled by their son's musical ambitions, though they were as supportive as they could afford to be (Jackson's first piano was, like a kitten, "free to a good home"). But the sometimes dreary conditions only dramatically offset what is a story of transcendence: Music was what lifted Jackson out of ordinariness and into art.
The book's subtitle is "A Musical Pilgrimage," and indeed music is the structuring logic of this engaging reflection. As Jackson says, "I have to write about music. My thoughts about music and my experiences as a musician are inseparable from any kind of memoir I might attempt." Though Jackson includes the coming-of-age markers of traditional biographies—sexual longings, early girlfriends, unrequited love—Jackson gives more emotional weight to musical markers: The first time he heard "Runaway Train" on his parents' radio. Discovering scratched Beethoven 78s in a thrift store. Listening to symphonies and reading along to sheet music, trying to decipher the secrets behind such exquisite melodies. The thrill, at age 16, of Jackson's first public performance—on a creaky piano in a pub that sat next door to a glue factory. The passionate intellectual, emotional, even spiritual import of these moments is what Jackson most wants to convey.
Music, he argues, is what gives him a glimpse of the divine. Jackson, a graduate of the prestigious Royal Academy of Music, has a solid technical background in both the study and composition of music, but he suggests that all the technical prowess in the world will not alter its mysterious beauty. "It's as though I've learned, like a carpenter, how to measure and cut and mould and join. But whereas a carpenter knows that wood comes from trees, my material is like some sort of Kryptonite from another planet."
To be sure, such musical alchemy also requires hard labor and sheer brute willpower. Though his philosophical reflections on music are where this account most comes alive, Jackson also seems to relish relating the often excruciating travails of a young musical hopeful. Buffered by the time and space that separates him from these memories, Jackson painstakingly describes all the indifferent pubs, hostile crowds, cheap equipment, unflattering outfits, and cheesy backup gigs, painting a memorable portrait of the joys and frustrations of an ambitious young musician.
These nuts-and-bolts, descriptive memories of Jackson's early career provide the ballast for his spiritual reflections on music; they supply the details required to provide a tangible sense of how music provided meaning to a particular life. Jackson easily traverses the distance between the strictly technical and the spiritually transcendent aspects of a musical career, creating a compelling, complex portrait of one man's musical history.
Caitlin Dixon is a freelance writer and filmmaker. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.