He'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 formsreggae, jump-blues, traditional popto 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.
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 elsewherethis new memoir largely ignores his years in an international spotlight. Jackson prefers to describe the earlier yearsthe goings-on in the back rooms and the wingsthe 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 biographiessexual longings, early girlfriends, unrequited loveJackson 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 performanceon 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.
A Cure for Gravity is witty, smart and crisply written.
Lerley has compiled an invaluable work for the general reader on an
New York Times Book Review
To the credit of popular 1980s British singer/composer Jackson ("Is She Really Going Out with Him?" "Steppin' Out"), there is little melodrama to this book--his hit recordings, beginning with
Look Sharp! in 1979, receive only brief mention in the final chapters. Instead, Jackson presents a portrait of the artist as a young geek, detailing the quiet undulations of his life as an intensely introspective, gifted musician growing up outside of London, studying at conservatory and touring around in much derided bar bands. We see the 14-year-old Jackson obsessing over Beethoven's Eroica symphony ("As the fanfare comes to a halt, there's a pregnant pause: What's this lunatic going to do now?"); we see him on his way to the Royal Academy of Music ("As the ferry docked, the workers poured like a sluggish plague of locusts through the Dockyard Gate, and I boarded the London train"); and we see him pouring beer on drunk women during bar fights in obscure locations. Fellow musicians, no matter their chosen genre, may see themselves in Jackson's accounts of pathetic pub gigs and unpleasant music industry dealings. Jackson is an easy, natural writer, sometimes an excellent one. He is often funny, and though a bit digressive, the book is worth reading for its style alone. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Famously private English rock musician and songwriter Jackson recounts his life and career. He describes himself as a Beethoven fanatic when a teenager and tells of his early club gigs and touring bands, and his rise to fame with the release of his album in 1979. He does not index or reference his autobiography. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
An antidote to the chest-puffing fantasy of many rock memoirs.
Clear, precise, and often witty.... Jackson certainly has the talent to be a literary star.
One of New Wave's original "angry young men," Joe Jackson highlights his journey from Portsmouth, England to the Royal Academy of Music to pop star in this lively musical memoir. Jackson, who emerged in the late `70s as a contemporary of Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, and went on to score pop success with such songs as "Is She Really Going Out With Him?," "Steppin' Out," "Breaking Us in Two," "Jumping Jive," and "I'm the Man," has proven to be one of rock's most enigmatic performers. In fact, he's often been accused of being confrontational and pretentious. The latter trait is evidenced early in
A Cure for Gravity, and often slows down the flow of the book, as Jackson eschews the linear autobiographical route for sometimes lengthy digressions into a form of music criticism (on subjects that range from Steely Dan, whom he calls one of his biggest influences, to Beethoven). It's not that his views aren't interesting, as he clearly knows his material; it's that they disrupt what is a sometimes comical, dead-on portrayal of coming of age as a musical outcast. Growing up in a portside town as a young asthmatic, Jackson was gawky and unathletic, a deadly combination that often attracted what he calls the "hardnuts" (bullies who ostracized him for being different). However, by the time he was a teenager, he'd discovered his musical gift, first playing solos in local pubs (despite being underage), then looking for bands to showcase his talents. His tales of the horrible gigs he had to take early on, as in a Greek restaurant where his group backed up a screaming singer and a belly dancer, are often as hilarious as those in The Commitments. Jackson has a remarkable recollection of hisdays as a struggling musician, and those anecdotes not only entertain, they make Jackson remarkably human, a characteristic not even his fans have always seen. A Cure for Gravity should be required reading for anyone who's ever attempted to start a band, either for fun or to make it as a professional musician. And even those who've only thought about it as a passing fancy will find much delight in this touching musical journey. (Author tour)