Schleppin' out

Joe Jackson lugs the baggage of a onetime pop star into an ambitious middle age

He throws it out there, like a pitch that doesn't quite make it to home plate, then he walks away from it. Only later, when the interviewer brings it up again, does Joe Jackson explain what he meant when he said: "I went through a time when I couldn't listen to music, because it all sounded like noise to me."

Perhaps it doesn't sound like a grand revelation; perhaps it brings to mind the grumblings of a middle-aged rock-and-roller whose time at the top of the pops came and went so long ago there aren't many around who remember the name Joe Jackson...or who care much about it, anyway. But, in reality, it's not at all a gripe; rather, it's just a sobering declaration coming from a very gifted, unfortunately forgotten man who realized late in his career that he would never--could never--again make a hit record.

Joe Jackson--best known for albums released in the late 1970s and early '80s, such records as Look Sharp! and I'm the Man and Night and Day--can no longer make records for the old-timers who pine for the days when he asked, "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" He's given up on the charts and the videos and the screaming fans, and begun writing albums more ambitious than anything he's ever attempted before. For a while, he even considered forming his own label; if nothing else, at least he wouldn't have to answer to anyone when his records tanked.

Yet, in the end, Sony Classical decided to release the brand-new Heaven & Hell, Jackson's schizophrenic, conceptual take on the seven deadly sins that features Suzanne Vega, Brad Roberts, and Jane Siberry--alongside classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. And if it does not recall his heyday--it's far grander than anything Jackson managed before it, a classical-pop concept album that addresses gluttony and lust--you must at least respect its size. And if you do not like it, if you prefer the punk sneers and pop romances of old, then at least you must admire Jackson for exposing himself in public. For, if nothing else, Joe Jackson literally suffered for his art, withdrawing from performing and writing for years until he came up with a record all about envy and anger.

"I really feel like I'm coming into my own now," says the man who had a few hits way back then. "The older you get, the more music becomes really...shit, how can I put it?...a more spiritual thing or something. It becomes less about trying to impress people, trying to make people love you, you know, less about superficial things and more about...whew, it's hard. It becomes more..." His voice trails off.

"My words are failing me," the 43-year-old Jackson says, not really apologizing. "It's very hard to explain. It becomes less superficial and more..."

For yourself?
"Well, it's for everyone," he corrects. "It's for an audience. It's not just for me. But there's a big difference between writing for an audience and pandering to a theoretical audience thinking you know what they want. There was always the element of, 'What do people want?' and so on, but not anymore."

Jackson recalls that he nearly gave up on music after the tour supporting his 1991 record Laughter and Lust, his first release for Virgin Records after more than a decade spent on A&M--and the album on which he tried to capture yesterday's lightning in a broken bottle. Though hardly an embarrassment, Laughter and Lust sounded very much like a man trying to walk backward in his own footsteps. It recalled Look Sharp!, I'm the Man, and 1980's Beat Crazy, but recalled was all it did; it made you want to go back to the older records, the better records. No point in listening to an echo. When Rolling Stone remarked that it was "a more polished version of some of Jackson's most memorable early work," the compliment was unintentionally damning.

After all, Jackson had spent the better part of the 1980s trying to prove he was far more than a pop songwriter: 1981's Jumpin' Jive was a joyous salute to the jump swing of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan; Night and Day was a Latin-jazz mood piece; and Body and Soul, with its Sonny Rollins homage on the cover, was all Tin-Pan pop and Broadway soul. There were the intimate sociopolitical statements ('86's Big World, recorded in front of an audience ordered not to applaud); the classical excursions (Will Power in 1987, a record far better than its reputation); the soundtracks for Mike's Murder and Tucker; the essential live best-of; and the grown-up rock-and-roll fantasies of '89's Blaze of Glory.

Through it all, Jackson didn't evolve as much as he bottom-to-top recreated himself every time out. He was a chameleon, latching onto an idea for one record, till something better came along for the next. He didn't write hit singles; he penned elaborate, assiduous symphonies that lasted first for three minutes, then for 30. Yet despite his ambitions, despite his unbounding talent, he still wanted to be all things to all people, and when no one bought his records, he finally paid the price for his desires.

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