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Joe Jackson Has Been Busy Making Other Plans

I'm Joe Jackson A Cure for Gravity is Joe Jackson's love letter to music, the tell-all tale of an early infatuation which soon grew into a life-consuming obsession. With 1979's Look Sharp! and the succession of smart pop albums that followed, Jackson sold millions of records, but his book spends hardly ten pages on the lot of them. Now, twenty years after his debut album, he's just released his first symphony on the Sony Classical label - but he didn't write about that, either. Instead, A Cure for Gravity focuses on his early musical career, from childhood up to his twenty-fourth birthday.

Writing about his initial aspirations and the strange musical road that led a scrawny kid from "a gloomy place of soot-blackened brick and slag-heaps" to pop stardom, Jackson gives us an altogether different, humble rock story, one likely to please curious music audiences and emerging artists equally well. "A book about music thinly disguised as a memoir," as he calls it.

"Good critics are knowledgeable and passionate about their subjects, and motivated by a desire to help others enjoy them more," Jackson writes - about music critics. His first book about music more than meets that high standard.

Dave: Why write a book?

Jackson: When I first started writing, it was therapy. I wanted to get some things out of my system, get some stories down on paper before I'd forgotten them all. So in other words, I was just doing it for myself. By the time I got to the third draft, I was starting to think of it as being a book - but only at that point did I start thinking about a potential reader and a potential publisher. It went through six drafts.

There were actually many reasons. As I got further into it, I realized that I had a lot to say about music. This was giving me the opportunity to do it, as well as telling my own story because it's all so interrelated with music. After about thirty years as a musician, I felt that I'd earned the right to say a few things.

Dave: It's doesn't pretend to be a biography.

Jackson: It's not.

Dave: It's more about one person's evolution as a musician than a typical rock biography.

Jackson: Right. It's not a rock biography at all. I tried very hard not to do that.

Dave: Reading it made me think a lot about the jobs I've had and the various forms of training I've had as a writer - the jobs any beginning artist takes to support his or her work, really. At one point, you take a job backing cabaret acts at The Playboy Club, for instance. It wasn't what you wanted to be doing, certainly, but it's impressive and fortifying to me how much you manage to glean about craft and showmanship from those shows.

Jackson: Definitely. John Lennon once said that life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, which is really true. Everything goes into the pot, it becomes part of you.

Dave: Do you see direct influences from those jobs in your later work?

Jackson: I don't know how direct, but everything's an influence, really. When people ask what are my influences, it strikes me as a very difficult question. I'm influenced by everything, including things I hate. I might hear a piece of music I can't stand, but there could be three notes in there that spark something in my mind. Then it'll be so disguised and mutated by the time it turns into something of mine that it's hard to tell where it came from.

Dave: What about as an author? Were there books you used as guides or some style you had in mind?

Jackson: Not when I started. The third draft was the most difficult part of this - about halfway through the writing - because I realized that I didn't have a voice, which is this really clichéd thing, right? Every writer's trying to find a voice. But it struck me that I was trying to be too clever, and I needed to simplify it.

One of the things, though, that really did help me was reading a book of interviews with Graham Greene. He was always one of my favorite writers, and I think I've probably read most of his books. He said that when he was writing he would always, at regular intervals, read out loud from what he had written. I started doing that and it was incredibly helpful. It helped me find a conversational tone. Greene's idea was that if there was a false note in the writing, it would be really obvious when you read it out loud.

It's true. I started thinking of it as if I weren't writing a book at all; I was just talking to a bloke in a pub. That was very helpful.

Dave: The book recounts the quest to find your musical voice. What it really brings out is how one person reaches that point of understanding. Because you certainly didn't get there directly. Maybe no one does.

Jackson: No, I had to swim through many rivers of shit, but the great thing is that now I can be very smug and say, "Oh, I paid my dues." So it works out!

I wanted to write an accessible and entertaining book with some serious things to say, as well, but not beating anyone over the head with it. It's amazingly easy to come across as being pompous or didactic. I had people reading my earlier drafts telling me that I was coming across that way, and I was horrified. But it doesn't take much to get those accusations flowing.

Dave: Your fans might be interested to hear your personal story, but there's a lot more to the book than that. The story speaks to anyone interested in what it takes or what it's like to earn a living from a career in art.

Jackson: I wanted it to be accessible to non-musicians without being boring to musicians. But I think fans would enjoy it.

Dave: You don't talk about Look Sharp! until the next-to-last chapter. But throughout Cure for Gravity, you open many of the chapters in the present, in the mid-nineties, which constantly grounds the reader in that retrospective position. Because of that, even though you've skipped the intervening years, it's easy for a reader to make the leap and understand how you've gotten to where you are now. It worked for me. Was that a structural device you had in mind from early on?

Jackson: It was another thing that evolved. I used the structure of a memoir as a framework on which to hang ideas about music and, in a way, a manifesto. In other words, saying, "This is what I'm all about." Talking about the first twenty-four years of my life turned out to be a good way to do that, as opposed to talking about what came after that, which I think is quite boring, actually. It's the same old story: touring and recording, touring and recording, having parties, taking drugs . . .

Dave: Toward the end, you talk about letting "Joe Jackson, the Pop Star" die. Did that take a long time?

Jackson: It was a struggle, yeah.

Dave: Because you've taken a step that many musicians don't or can't make. You're still a musician, a recording artist.

Jackson: I'm still writing stuff that has a lot of pop elements, too. It's not inaccessible to people who like pop music. All I did was make a conscious decision to step away from the rules and regulations of the pop world. I stopped thinking in terms of singles and airplay and radio formats and charts and all the rest. Now, I'm having a really good time. It's actually fresh and exciting again.

Dave: Is it money? Is it ego? To walk away from that position and say that's not important anymore, to say you don't need to be on MTV every third hour, and do what you want to do?

Hear Joe Jackson talk about his new book on Real Audio.

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Jackson: I don't really not need to be on MTV; I don't want to be on MTV anymore. I think it's not so much about money - although some people have one hit and get themselves ridiculously into debt; I never did that - but I'm not sure it's really about money for many people. I think, as you say, it's more about ego. Needing to fill some kind of emptiness in your life with success and adulation. It's unfortunate because even when it happens, it rarely lasts very long, no matter who you are or what you do. In a way, success makes things even worse when it's gone.

I think it's very important for every artist to have your own definition of what success is, to be very clear about it, because, otherwise, you're in trouble. The pop world defines success in very big terms. Because there are a few people who sell ten million albums, record companies feel like everyone should. If you sell 100,000 or 200,000, they can make you feel like a failure. And that's not bad, to sell 100,000 albums! It's not bad to sell ten thousand, or ten, for that matter. And that's one of the reasons I wanted to get out of pop.

The last album I made for Virgin sold about 150,000 or 200,000 copies which, considering the kind of record it was and the fact that it wasn't promoted very well, is actually pretty good, I thought. But as far as they were concerned, it was a failure because Janet Jackson was about to come out and she was going to sell five million.

I had to get away from that. I don't want to walk around feeling like I'm a failure for making a record that I'm proud of and selling a couple hundred thousand copies of it. That's just crazy.

Dave: Symphony No. 1 is on the Sony Classical label. How is that different for you?

Jackson: It's my second record with them. We have an interesting and, in some ways, experimental partnership. Their agenda is to broaden what a classical label can do. Peter Gelb, the head of Sony Classical, whom I greatly admire, is smart enough to know they've sold about as many copies of Beethoven's Fifth as they ever will. What are they going to do now? His idea is that a label like Sony Classical can reach out and embrace music which is eclectic or doesn't really fit, music that is a crossover in some way or another. Music that isn't pop.

They were excited about working with me, and when it comes down to it, I want to work with someone who wants to work with me. It's an interesting set-up because they're not coming from a pop mentality. To them, I'm helping them reach out to a broader audience.

It's a funny twist. To them, I'm a populist.

Dave: You made a conscious effort to be a populist when you were younger. You chose popular music over classical, which was really your first love.

Jackson: At one point, I did - when I was younger and more arrogant.

But I think it's okay for an artist to have some diversity, and that's a hard sell these days. If something's harder to market, you'll just hear, "Oh, there's no audience for it." Of course, there is. I don't see any reason why a composer can't write songs in a more or less popular idiom and also write a symphony. Plenty of people have done exactly that. If it's a hard sell, tough shit.

Dave: It's the exact same situation in the book industry, of course. If a book isn't easily marketable and the big chains can't sell a gluttonous number of copies, it's highly unlikely it will even get published. It's just the same.

Jackson: Exactly. I had a terrible time getting this published in the States. In the UK, I got a really good publisher almost immediately, but in the States I had a lot of trouble for exactly that reason. I got a pile of letters from editors, every one of which says that they love the book, but none of them would commit to publishing it. Because it doesn't quite fit one category or the other. And the thing is, if it had been a really trashy pop star biography and I had a big hit record at the time, they'd snatch it right up. That's a fact. It's depressing, but I try not to take it personally.

Dave: When you play live now, what kind of stuff do you play? I saw on your web site that you'd recorded some very small shows in New York.

Jackson: There's a live album coming out in February, hopefully. We just finished mixing it. It has some new versions of old songs and some cover versions, as well, which might surprise some people.

Dave: Care to give some examples?

Jackson: Then they wouldn't be surprises, now, would they?

Dave: There's a great scene in your book when you talk about your first-ever lead vocal, singing "When I'm Sixty-Four." Just the image of it...

Jackson: ...with the microphone taped onto a folding music stand, falling over.

Dave: The band didn't let you do the lead vocals again after that.

Jackson: No, it was bad.

Dave: You're still playing with a lot of the same people that were in bands with you in your teens and early twenties.

Jackson: Well, "still playing" implies that there's some kind of ongoing thing, which there isn't - everything is on a project-by-project basis - but the same names do crop up over and over again. Certain people, they're very good, and they're versatile enough to deal with the various things I do. And they're friends, as well.

Dave: Do you have any ideas about what direction your career might take in the future?

Jackson: No, I don't have an agenda or a plan that's more than a year ahead. The next album I'm doing is more of a song-oriented one. Really, I'll just continue building this body of work, or whatever you want to call it. I'll definitely write another symphony. But it's not like I have a checklist of Things I Want to Do.

Dave: Do you want to write more?

Jackson: Yeah, I don't know what it will be, though. But I want to do more just because I enjoy it so much. Now, people are telling me that I write well. Who knew? But I think I did a decent job. My publisher in England says I should write a novel, but I don't know. There are only so many things you can do without falling on your ass.

Dave met above the Annex with Joe Jackson prior to his appearance at Powell's City of Books on December 1, 1999. Joe looked much sharper than Dave.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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