One more time

With his new book and live CD, Joe Jackson fans can finally get what they want

Were the book a work of fiction, no doubt it would have been hailed as the majestic debut of a promising young writer able to tell a poignant tale while keeping the maudlin at bay. (For a look at how not to write such a book, read Camden Joy's new Boy Island, a smug and charmless fiction about the author's days spent playing with Cracker.)

At times, Jackson writes of his musical career as though it's over, past tense ("it was an attempt to connect"); when he wrote this book in 1998, he most likely thought it was. He had been dropped by his longtime home at A&M, then again by Virgin, only to be picked up by Sony Classical when no one else had any interest. He then turned out Symphony No. 1, which came and went like a summer shower. It might as well have been released at the Nice Price.

But a funny thing happened to Joe Jackson on the way to the cutout bins: He stopped running from his past, turned around, and embraced it like a long-lost lover.

This week, Sony Classical--in partnership with Jackson's own label, Manticore--releases Summer in the City, a live-in-New-York disc featuring Jackson, bassist Graham Maby (a member of the original Joe Jackson Band), and drummer Gary Burke (around since Body and Soul). There are no string sections, no background singers, no guest guitarists better suited to Ozzy Osbourne tours; it's just Joe and the boys, back to basics. The album plays like an expurgated overview of his career. It ends at the very beginning, in fact, with "One More Time," the first track off his first album. The song, about a lover who refuses to believe his girlfriend's about to leave him, sounds nothing like a vestige; stripped of its punching guitar chords, it has lost none of its force, none of its glory.

Some of the set list looks as it might have in 1976: The disc opens with a playful cover of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Summer in the City"; it features the prerequisite Beatles cover ("Eleanor Rigby"), the Ramsey Lewis Trio's "The In Crowd," and a Duke Ellington tune ("Mood Indigo"). It merges "Fools in Love" off Look Sharp! with the Yardbirds' "For Your Love," and it's a rather brilliant move--an admission of guilt, 21 years after the fact, that his first album is built upon the "echoes of the Beatles, Steely Dan, and Graham Parker," as he writes in his book. To that end, Summer in the City also contains a cover of Steely Dan's "King of the World," from Countdown to Ecstasy.

Jackson and his small, tight band also trot out some of the old songs, hits and misses, on that New York stage: "Obvious Song," "Another World," "Down to London," "Be My Number Two," "Home Town," the still-amazing "It's Different for Girls," and his last Top 20 entry, "You Can't Get What You Want." For a man who despises looking backward lest he turn to salt and vinegar, Jackson has made it a point to play to the past this go-around, and the results are bracing. Perhaps, like Elvis Costello, who refused to play any of his old songs for decades until he could no longer resist the urge or the audience's demands, Jackson needed time to step away from his back catalog to realize how vibrant it remains. This is a "live" album in every sense. It's easy to take for granted that which stares at you--bothers you, haunts you--all the damned time.

Three years ago, Jackson insisted he was off the pop for good. He was Joe Jackson, Classical Composer, chagrined that people still wanted him to be something else. "I quite often get portrayed as, you know, 'Joe Jackson thinks he's too good to give us some good three-minute pop songs,'" he told the Dallas Observer in the fall of 1997. He was, at the time, laughing like someone who didn't think what he just said was too funny. "And I'd rather have a good three-minute pop song than a bad symphony, but people are different and have different abilities, and I'm trying to be true to my own abilities and ambitions. I think when you're younger, you want to be part of the in-crowd in some sort of way. Even though I always had this reputation as being a defiant misfit or something, I think we all want to have an audience--we all want to be accepted and loved."

Two years after he said that, Symphony No. 1 was released, then ignored, then forgotten. Now, at this very moment, Jackson is working on two projects: He is playing piano, singing, and arranging on Rickie Lee Jones' forthcoming album of standards and covers. And he is in the middle of recording another album due in the fall, which will feature the likes of Marianne Faithful and three other guest vocalists, Graham Maby, and a string section. The album, as Jackson describes it, will recount 24 hours in New York City as seen through the eyes of several characters. It will be titled, of all things, Night and Day 2--yes, it is a sequel. And, no doubt, it will be accepted and loved by those who thought Joe Jackson, Pop Star, was dead. For the first time in a long time, he most assuredly is not.

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