Monday 23 October 2017

Why fang-tastic Joe is singin' in the rain

Nick Kelly

It's nearly 30 years since Joe Jackson released Is She Really Going With Him?, that three-minute masterpiece that encapsulated that perennial theme of popular music: sexual jealousy and male angst.

The album on which it appeared, his debut Look Sharp!, helped usher in rock's New Wave back in 1979. Gritty subject matter allied to a keen musical intelligence not usually associated with its punk forebears lent it a degree of sophistication that has kept it still fresh after all these years.

Reared in Portsmouth -- where he has just recently returned to live -- Jackson belonged to that generation of literate English songwriters that included Elvis Costello and Graham Parker.

Since then, Jackson has wandered down many different musical boulevards, especially jazz and classical. However, on his new album, Rain, Jackson is reunited with two-thirds of his original band line-up, and the trio have gone back to basics. The result is one of Jackson's best albums in years; his piano-playing skills are still at the heart of his sound, with the tight rhythm section keeping it lean and mean.

Songs like The Uptown Train and Citizen Sane reflect the ups and downs of life in the city that Jackson has just left -- New York -- while the melancholy tinkling of Solo (So Low) has deliberate echoes of Erik Satie's sublime Gymnopedies from the 19th Century. Indeed, at one time Jackson was actually signed to Sony Classical, having essentially abandoned the pop world.

The cover of the new album features the 53-year-old singer, clad in a long black leather raincoat, sheltering from the elements under a large black umbrella. Speaking to Jackson on the phone in his house in Portsmouth, I ask him where the album title came from. After a trip to Ireland by any chance?

"Rain is something solid and timeless," he says "-- stripped to the raw essentials, which is what we hope the new record is. It's not a symbol of sadness. It's just that it rained all the time when we were making the album in Berlin last summer. The day we finished it was the day it stopped raining!"

Having abandoned his adopted home of NYC, Jackson currently divides his time between Berlin and his home town of Portsmouth. One of the things he likes about living in Germany is that they have yet to introduce the smoking ban -- Jackson has spent a lot of time zealously debunking the claims of the anti-smoking lobby. So much so that he has written a long impassioned article on the issue, which can be accessed on his website.

"I'm just pointing out the dishonesty of authority when it comes to the issue of second-hand smoke," says Jackson. "Their claims about its harmful effects are based on flimsy evidence. It's the nanny state acting in an authoritarian manner. They seem intent on banning everything pleasurable in Western society. It's just scare-mongering."

But fighting against sate-sponsored tobacco restrictions is not the only thing keeping Jackson busy these days. He has just finished penning the music for a new play about the life of our own Bram Stoker, titled simply Stoker.

The project is the brainchild of Ray Hardy, from Northern Ireland, and Julie Dolan, an Irish-American based in San Diego. They approached Jackson to write music and songs to accompany their script, which is a portrait of the celebrated author during the time he was writing Dracula.

"When they rang me up and asked me to collaborate with them," says Jackson, "the first thing I told them was that I hate musicals and I especially hate rock musicals -- such as Rent and the ABBA musical and Hedwig And The Angry Inch. I saw Tommy on Broadway and I didn't like that either. But they said this is different.

'So I did some research on Bram Stoker and I found out all sorts of things I didn't know about him -- especially about his Irish childhood." (Stoker was born in the north Dublin suburb of Fairview in 1847 -- where today there's a museum dedicated to the author).

"The theatre piece is set in 1897 and portrays the melodrama of the time. In the Victorian theatre there was always music. And our production uses music in an interesting way. The songs are sung in ways that are more convincing than usual."

Jackson says that switching from autobiographical songwriting to third-person narratives came easily enough to him because he had written in this way before, namely for his celebrated Night & Day II album in 2000, which was his homage to the music of Cole Porter.

Although Stoker has yet to be staged, Jackson would love to see it performed this autumn at the Dublin Theatre Festival as well as off-Broadway in New York. But first they have to find a financial backer.

Jackson will be in Dublin much sooner than that, though -- he plays the Olympia Theatre on February 29.

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