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Joe Jackson: Can’t stop the ‘Invisible Man’
Hari Sreenivasan: English singer-songwriter Joe Jackson first hit the scene as a new wave rocker in the late 70s. but there's far more to his story than that. He's on tour celebrating a milestone anniversary this year, and he sat down with NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato to discuss not just his 40 years in the business, but also the twists and turns of youth that put him on the road he's on.
Tom Casciato: At a recent Joe Jackson concert in New Jersey, the singer/composer seems amazed he's been at it as long as he has.
Joe Jackson: "We've got lots of music tonight cause you know, we're now celebrating the release of my first album which is actually 40 years ago - 40 f-ing years ago!
Tom Casciato: And it's true, his first US top 25 hit goes all the way back to 1979...
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Is she really going out with him? Is she really gonna take him home tonight? Is she really going out with him? Cause if my eyes don't deceive me there's something going wrong around here.
Tom Casciato: But what Joe Jackson calls his musical journey started more than four decades ago. And it didn't begin with rock and roll.
Joe Jackson: If you're a working-class kid from the provinces you're not supposed to like Beethoven. But I did. Beethoven was my musical hero
Tom Casciato: In a 1999 memoir, he detailed a childhood in and around Portsmouth, a tough, naval city on England's southern coast. He has written and sung about it nostalgically in his song "Home Town."
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Back to my home town. Cause it's been so long And I'm wondering if it's still there.
Tom Casciato: But he has described his childhood as that of an asthmatic misfit, beaten up on the playground, his head pushed down toilets. His working class parents, he says, didn't know what to make of him. It was not exactly a Beethoven-playing household that you grew up in...
Joe Jackson: No. My, my family was completely unmusical. My whole background was completely unmusical.
Tom Casciato: But he became obsessed as a kid with all kinds of music -- from Pop to Rock, Salsa to Jazz, and he decided support or not, it was what he wanted to do.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) You can't get what you want. Till you know what you want.
Tom Casciato: It sounds like you had to invent a life for yourself, I don't want to say out of nothing, but out of--
Joe Jackson: It kinda was out of nothing, yeah. Yeah, I've often wondered about that. You know, like, if I, if my parents had been musicians, for instance, I wondered if it-- it-- it might have been the last thing I wanted to do. Who knows? It was a way to communicate in a way. It was a way to reach other people and hopefully be accepted.
Tom Casciato: He played his first piano gig in a local pub at 16.
Then was accepted to London's prestigious Royal Academy of Music where he studied classical music ... but he finished no closer to a professional career.
You also-- if I remember correctly, had some other things on your résumé. You worked in a laundry in a mental hospital, is that correct?
Joe Jackson: Oh my god. The job was actually sorting out the dirty clothes in-- in the laundry room of a mental hospital. Yeah, so, you know, I always figured making music would be better even if it led to-- complete poverty and obscurity, which is what I expected.
Tom Casciato: But did you have any other choice? Was there something else?
Joe Jackson: No.
Tom Casciato:: You were good at?
Joe Jackson: No. (LAUGHS) I wasn't good at anything else. It was-- sheer desperation.
Tom Casciato: Desperation turned to success not with classical music, but with his debut album "Look Sharp" and its frenetic rock n roll.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Tell me that you never wanted my loving.
Tom Casciato: "I'm the Man" came next. In the title song video he played a sleazy huckster character peddling whatever was saleable to whomever would buy.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) So give me all your money 'cause I know you think I'm funny. Can't you hear me laughing, can't you see me smile. I'm the man.
Tom Casciato: Jackson's image in the press was that of an angry young man... helped along no doubt by songs like "Mad at You."
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) I'm so, I'm so mad at you
Tom Casciato: Jackson had words for the press, too.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Well I got nothing against the press They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true.
Joe Jackson: I think that-- there's a lotta humor in it, you know, a lotta things that were interpreted as angry. I once had a drink with Joe Strummer with The Clash. And he-- he-- he told me how when they were writing songs together, him and Mick Jones, that they were cracking each other up. And-- and then the reviews would come out and they'd read the reviews, which were very serious and in-- interpreted it all as, you know, like, political commentary and all this. And they'd be cracking up even more.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) You can read it in the Sunday Papers. Sunday Papers.
Tom Casciato: But whether it was funny, sardonic or a bit of both, it gave no hint of where he was about to take his audience.
Joe Jackson: I mean, it was a vacation. You know, it was a little musical vacation.
Tom Casciato: His "vacation" was an album of swing and jump blues covers written before he was born.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING): Come on down, to Tuxedo Junction yeah...
Tom Casciato: That was right before he changed course again, and scored his biggest hits with an album of sophisticated pop, 1982's "Night and Day."
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Me babe, steppin' out.
Tom Casciato: As if that wasn't enough variety, he'd work Motown medleys into his act the following year.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Oh really I'm sad, sadder than sad.
Tom Casciato: In a few short years he had gone from obscurity to sensation. But he was a star constantly challenging listeners to follow wherever he led.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) The air buzzing with foreign tongues
Tom Casciato: All that shape-shifting would take a commercial toll -- particularly when he turned his back entirely on rock and pop with all-instrument album, 1987's Will Power. When Will Power came out People magazine said that you had been authentic when you were doing Look Sharp and-- and the early records.
Joe Jackson: It's amazing. Critics get very hung up on, to me, rather dubious ideas of authenticity. They-- they remind me sometimes of food critics arguing about, you know, whether a certain chef should be allowed to do-- use certain ingredients or not. And then they never talk about whether it tastes good. (LAUGH)
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Call it anything but wasted time.
Tom Casciato: Joe Jackson was proving that though he wanted to "be accepted," it would have to be on his terms. And in mid-career, he made records much longer on artistic ambition than commercial potential: everything from a Grammy-winning symphony... to a song cycle inspired by the seven deadly sins... to a cd of newly arranged Duke Ellington tunes.
None were hits. And at one point the Washington Post called Jackson's catalogue "impressively diverse yet confusingly eclectic."
Joe Jackson: If you keep doing the same thing, the-- you're criticized for that. If you change, you're criticized for that. Do you know what I mean? So you can't win. So at the end of the day you just have to do something -- what-- that you are proud of. You know, you feel good about it. You feel excited about it.
Tom Casciato: In a song from 2008 that he still performs, he even wrote about what appeared to be his fading star.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Hey can you hear me now. As I fade away.
Tom Casciato: I wanna ask you about the song Invisible Man.
Joe Jackson: Oh, yeah.
Tom Casciato: The invisible man, again, is you writing from the point of view of a character. someone who had been maybe-- a pop star at one time and was now watching younger people be pop stars.
Joe Jackson: Right. I mean, the most I ever really hoped for was to build enough of an audience that I could keep on making music.
Tom Casciato: That he has done, and on this night in New Jersey the sold out crowd of about 1000 is treated not just to the hits, but to songs as well from his new album, called "Fool."
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Fool, kicks off the carnival. Wise man goes to church. Fool.
Tom Casciato: And in fact, "Fool" is something of a commercial comeback -- his first album to crack the US top 25 since those long ago 1980s.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Just what he needs to live. Head like a sieve.
Joe Jackson: I've been very pleased at the reactions we've gotten. I mean, even-- songs that people have never heard before... that's the good thing about being semi-invisible, (LAUGH) you know? It's like I don't have as many people maybe as I woulda had in 1983. But the people who are there, I think they're there because they're genuinely interested.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Could it be that while we're, rushing round the world.
Tom Casciato: And do you think in the end, 40 years on, that the reason (NOISE) that that has worked out, the reason you still have an audience is that you have followed your muse and not made the same kind of record?
Joe Jackson: Yeah.
Tom Casciato: Again and again?
Joe Jackson: It probably does have something to do with that. And it also has to do with my own just sheer stubborn kind of persistence, and refusing to go away. I don't expect everyone to like everything I do, or anything I do. But-- as long as-- as long as I enjoy it I'm gonna keep doing it.
Joe Jackson: (SINGING) Can't touch can't touch the Invisible Man. Can't stop can't stop the Invisible Man