Joe Jackson Not Going Out in a Blaze of Glory

And they say it’s a tragic story
He just wasn’t there one day
But he went out in a blaze of glory
And you and I, you and I just fade away

Blaze of Glory by Joe Jackson (1989 Sony Records)
Joe Jackson, circa 1979

It’s hard to witness your heroes fading away. Heroes seem larger than life. Unbreakable. Immortal. But the truth is, they are not immortal — like everyone else they are human and age takes its toll on all of us.

Joe Jackson understood this, as his 1989 song Blaze of Glory articulated. There is a certain mythology that comes with dying young (just ask James Dean or Jimi Hendrix) and old Western films served to ingrain this archetype in the zeitgeist.

I set out on the evening of March 9, 2019 to see my musical hero, who when I think of I still envision as that angry early 80s punk in the pointy shoes. But the truth is, Joe Jackson is 64 years old and from what I could see he isn’t a young 64. Yes, he’s touring the world and making new music at that ripe old age and that’s a hell of a lot more than I could do at 53 let alone 64. But the biggest takeaway I had from the gig was that Joe Jackson is getting old and it’s too late to die young in a blaze of glory. He has already begun to fade away.

This is not to say he didn’t put on a tremendous show at the Orpheum Theater in downtown Phoenix that night. On the contrary, at times he was downright manic, firing off fast pace lyrics and slamming the piano keys on early-career songs like One More Time, Sunday Papers, and especially I’m the Man. But during those same songs he forgot lyrics and repeated the same line more than once instead of singing the correct line. And of course, he stayed seated behind the piano for the entire show, never venturing out to engage the crowd of mostly Baby Boomers and older Gen X fans. Sitting behind the piano is fine for ballads, but you kind of want to see some movement during the fast songs.

You’re probably thinking…Len…give the guy a break…he’s 64. And you’d be right. And I loved the show. But the overwhelming feeling I came away with on this, the fifth time I’ve seen Joe Jackson in concert, was that this may be the last time I see him perform live. And that makes me sad. And nostalgic. And feeling a bit old myself. I didn’t have that feeling when I saw him last just a few years ago in Scottsdale. There was something different about the Joe Jackson I saw on the stage on this night and it was bittersweet.

Joe Jackson, circa 2019

Joe looked all of his 64 years. A lifetime of smoking his beloved cigarettes have taken a toll on his skin and truthfully he looks like he’s maybe had a little work done. That said, his piano skills are still world class and he can still belt out a song, including some with fast-paced lyrics that require at times a scream and at times a falsetto. You can certainly see his inner punk is fighting hard to stay relevant.

So about the music. Joe delivered on his “Four Decades Tour” a magnificent journey across more than 40 years worth of great music. He deftly sprinkled in songs from his new record, Fool, in between classics from the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The set had something for everyone, and while it’s impossible to fit in everyone’s favorites, he knew which hits the fans would respond to most. The aforementioned early songs were met with cheers and standing ovations. During the encore he brought out his original old drum machine from the early 80s and recreated Steppin’ Out just as it sounded back in 1982.

He picked a handful of favorites from the 90s and 00s like Stranger Than Fiction from the underrated Laughter & Lust record, and Citizen Sane and Wasted Time from the Rain album.

Then there were the tracks from his new record Fool. I have been listening to Fool over and over since its release a few weeks back and it is a real throwback to his earlier days. I mean, 40 years on and he can still write amazing songs that would have been well received had they been on Laughter & Lust (1991), Blaze of Glory (1989), or Big World (1986). It’s a beautifully crafted album with ballads and sarcastic anthems and an edge that has been missing on the past few albums.

He opened the show with the luxurious ballad Alchemy, about turning junk into gold.

Thrill, to secrets never told
Taste, the bitter turned to sweet
See, the dross turned into gold
Hear, a B sharp turned to C

Alchemy by Joe Jackson (earMusic 2019)

It set a soft mood but in classic Joe fashion he launched directly into One More Time and Is She Really Going Out With Him? as if to remind us he has not gotten soft. He did Big Black Cloud and Fabulously Absolute from the new record, two songs I really love (the latter he performed on the Tonight Show a few weeks back). Again, he gave us just enough new and old to keep us wanting more.

I will give him credit for delivering a pretty long set. He played for about 90 minutes with no opening act and I came away fulfilled with his song selection. It’s never easy to please a longtime fan like me with deep cut favorites, but he did play a few of mine (including my all-time favorite Joe song Real Men) so it’s hard to argue with that.

I hope I’m wrong and Joe was just experiencing some “senior moments” on stage. But given how long he’s been smoking (he’s a fierce advocate for smoker’s rights) I have to admit when he forget a huge chunk of one song I thought maybe he was having a stroke (that’s a byproduct of working for the American Heart Association).

I should also mention that Joe put together a bang-up band for this album and tour, with the remarkable Graham Maby on bass (he’s been at his side for 40 years), Teddy Kumpel (Rickie Lee Jones, Feist, Janet Jackson, Tower of Power) on lead guitar and the powerhouse Doug Yowell (Suzanne Vega, Duncan Sheik, Judy Collins) on drums.

Overall, it was a great night for nostalgia and Joe Jackson is, and always will be, my favorite musical artist. Not too many musicians have put together a more eclectic and musically gifted discography over a 40-plus year career. And while for the vast majority of music fans he’ll likely be associated as an 80s one-hit wonder for Steppin’ Out, for those of us who knew him before then and followed him after Night & Day we have been treated to a lifetime of a musical genius.

Setlist

  • Alchemy
  • One More Time
  • Is She Really Going Out With Him
  • Another World
  • Big Black Cloud
  • Fabulously Absolute
  • Real Men
  • Stranger Than Fiction
  • Drowning
  • Cancer
  • Citizen Sane
  • Wasted Time
  • Fool
  • Sunday Papers
  • King of the World (Steely Dan cover)
  • You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want)
  • Ode To Joy
  • I’m the Man
  • Steppin’ Out
  • Got the Time
  • Alchemy (reprise)

The Definition of Eclectic: Steppin’ Out with Joe Jackson

All of us have a favorite band or musical artist, and more than likely there is a personal story behind why that artist is our favorite. I listen to a ton of music across a wide range of genres, and while certain artists may spend some time in heavy rotation in my collection there is only one artist that qualifies as my favorite — Joe Jackson.

If you’re not a fan of Joe Jackson, you may be thinking to yourself “isn’t that the guy from the 80s who sang Steppin’ Out?” Yep, that’s the guy. Like a lot of so-called one-hit wonders, there’s a lot more to the story. The truth is, Joe Jackson has been recording consistently amazing music for five decades and his newest album — a collection of reinterpretations of classic Joe Jackson songs from across the decades called Live Music— will be released June 7 in North America. It will be JJ’s 29th album all tolled. You can bet I will be downloading it on release day.

If you don’t know much about Joe Jackson, it’s probably because there hasn’t been much place for him on commercial radio since the early 80s. He has had six songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100, the first 1979’s Is She Really Going Out With Him? and most recently 1984’s Happy Ending. Chart success in his native U.K. hasn’t been much better — he’s charted eight times in the U.K. and not once since 1986 (Left of Center with Suzanne Vega). Yet I’d argue that no other artist has a more diverse and wonderful collection of albums. He’s a genre buster and mainstream music has little place for an artist that they can’t fit neatly into a little box. Just check out what Wikipedia lists for his genre: Punk rock/ska (early), new wave, jazz pop, jazz, and classical music! That is the very definition of eclectic in my mind (I’m still waiting for JJ Sings Nashville Hits)!

I “discovered” Joe Jackson in 1982 with the release of Night & Day, his most mainstream record ever and the album that brought us the aforementioned Steppin’ Out along with Breaking Us in Two. I was immediately struck by the jazzy feel and the witty lyrics. It wasn’t long before I went back to listen to his earlier work including Look Sharp, I’m the Man and Beat Crazy, an energetic trio of punk-infused pop classics. And then just when I thought I had JJ figured out he released 1984’s Body and Soul, a jazz pop album inspired by Blue Note greats like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. You may remember the one hit from that album — You Can’t Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want). I saw Joe Jackson for the first time on that tour at the outdoor amphitheater at San Diego State with Howard Jones, the first of three times I’ve been fortunate enough to see JJ live.

Over the next several years Joe released a series of great pop albums like Big World, Blaze of Glory and Laughter & Lust, and he threw in a few classical releases as well just to keep his fans on their toes. In 1997 he released Heaven & Hell, a collection of songs based on the seven deadly sins with guest vocalists including Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry and Brad Roberts from Crash Test Dummies. And then in 2000 he released a sequel to Night & Day called Night & Day II, which has since become my favorite Joe Jackson album. In 2000 he also released Summer in the City: Live in New York, a live CD made up of great takes on his own hits and covers as diverse as The Beatles, Steely Dan and Duke Ellington. His most recent studio release was 2008’s Rain.

I love Joe Jackson for his unique style, his brilliant and edgy lyrics and his musical fearlessness. His lyrics spoke to me as I was growing up. What did it mean to be a man? What was love about? What made life worth living? He wrote songs about politics (Right & Wrong) and songs about sexual desire (Jamie G). He wrote about the difference between men and women (It’s Different For Girls) and about recapturing youth (Nineteen Forever). He wrote about longing for home (Hometown) and about chasing your dreams (Go For It). Basically he wrote about the things I was thinking about. He may not have the best vocals of all time, but he can sure write a great song and he can play the piano like nobody’s business.

If you like Joe Jackson, then I’m sure you’re excited about the new record. If you don’t know much about JJ, give him a try. Start with the early punk stuff, move into the jazzier stuff, and then listen in to some of his latest work from the past decade or so. You won’t be disappointed! If you need a place to start, take a listen to one of his various greatest hits or live albums. You can find everything you need at www.joejackson.com. And let me know what you think.