Is Joe Jackson really going out with him?
The other Joe Jackson talks to Joe Jackson about his fluid sexuality, his passion for music and the misery of being a misfit in Portsmouth.
IT'S HARD to believe anyone with a name like "Joe Jackson" could write "a beautifully observed and touchingly real account of a life sustained, through the worst of times, by an enduring, enquiring passion for music". (Or maybe write anything at all!) But that's exactly what one critic says the British Joe Jackson did with his 1999 autobiography, A Cure For Gravity. And it's true.
In fact, the book is so good I finally forgive the guy for "stealing" my name which led to half a lifetime of lame-brains "wittily" saying, on meeting me: "Yo! Joe Jackson! Is She Really Going Out With Him?" In other words, repeating, ad infinitum, the title of Jackson's first hit in '79. The truth is, he was born David Ian Jackson in Burton-on-Trent in '54 and later changed his name to Joe. The impostor!
Even so, if, like these two particular Joe Jacksons, you love pop, jazz, classical and rock and a damn good story you'll adore A Cure For Gravity. Because it really does tell the tale of a life sustained, almost totally, by music. It started with "the sound of mid-Sixties British Pop", specifically the "fuzz guitar sound" in the Kinks' You Really Got Me, a delicious dissonance Jackson also later recognised listening to the Stones performing Satisfaction on Top of the Pops during the summer of 1965. Indeed, at the time, sitting in his living room, he said out loud: "When I'm older, I'm going to have a group like that." His mother, knitting nearby, merely mumbled: "That's nice, dear."
So where does "the worst of times" come into the equation? Not long afterwards. When the 11-year-old Jackson started attending Portsmouth Tech, his "hopelessness at maths and sports" were ridiculed by fellow students. And his "advanced reading age and interest in books and drawing" were "sullenly resented". He was labelled a weirdo, a tag that gained greater currency when Jackson joined a violin class.
"But I only got into the violin to escape sports at school," Jackson protests, "because when I did sports they'd kick me instead of the ball! Because I was awkward, skinny, 'a weirdo'. I joined violin class to get away from all that and was bashed for playing violin. You can't win!"
Worse still, in maths class one day, Jackson was told to recite the eight times table, finally felt his mind go blank and, under increasing pressure from the teacher, began to cry.
"Every face in the class turned towards me with an expression of sheer loathing," he recalls. "They didn't care that I was a mathematical idiot. But crying was another thing. I'd gone from being a weirdo to an outcast, an untouchable. Crying was the worst thing I could do. Then the next day, kids'd say, 'Are you going to cry today?' It was totally humiliating. But instead of crying I adopted the 'British stiff upper lip.'"
Joe Jackson also discovered his first great musical hero, Beethoven, with whom he deeply identified, thinking, "He's an ugly bastard, a misfit and no one understood him." This is where Jackson's life really began to be sustained by music.
"Beethoven has always been a heroic figure, who struggled through terrible odds, such as going deaf," he says. "And I did feel like a total misfit. That's how a lot of people feel when they're young. But you don't realise that at the time. You think you're the only one. Yet my love of music and whatever talent I had in that area pulled me through. You have to follow whatever makes you feel most alive. In my case, that was music. I may have been bashed because I was playing violin but I could still listen to Beethoven's Violin Concerto and think, 'It's worth it.' And you can win people's respect with persistence. By the time I left school, some of the kids who used to beat me up had a grudging respect for what I'd done. So sticking to your guns can pay off, eventually."
Maybe. But even though, musically, Jackson's life took flight during his late teens he began to play piano publicly, formed a band, became a percussionist in student orchestras and joined London's Royal Academy of Music the guy still felt like an "ugly bastard". So he turned to his parents for some self-assurance.
Actually, Jackson never talked about such things with his dad but did once ask his mom, "What's wrong with me?"
"Nothing," she said. "You've got nice features."
"Like what?" he asked, only to hear, "Nice hands."
Which "didn't help!" says Jackson. Yet even though the 47-year-old singer can now laugh at such memories, he agrees that a phrase he uses in his book, about "floundering around in the early terrors of adolescence" probably perfectly captures what he was feeling as a kid. Certainly in terms of the "guilt, shame and terrible yearning" Jackson associated with sex. And the vexed question of losing his virginity. Y'see, from the time of his early teens Jackson had "strong sexual feelings" about girls and boys. Though girls did excite him more. Sadly, those feelings were not reciprocated.
"For some reason, girls seemed to regard me as a safe alternative to other boys, the normal boys, ruffians who were always trying to get into their knickers," Jackson says in his book. "I would attempt some bumbling overture, only to be laughed off, or told about their boyfriends, or, worse still, asked for advice about their boyfriends. They seemed to assume I was gay, or perhaps asexual. As much as I liked girls, I began to wonder if I was gay. People were always calling me a poof or a queer. I was somewhat effeminate, but not a pretty boy. Rather, I was awkwardly androgynous and wouldn't have minded being a poof if it meant I could be a sexual being. It was hard, though, to see how I was ever going to lose my virginity when I was too shy to impose myself, and too odd-looking which for a lot of people is the same thing as ugly to be an object of desire."
Reflecting further on those days, Jackson admits that "even though it felt strange" to have young girls treat him as their gay or asexual buddy, he liked it: "It was a bond with girls, anyway."
But not the bond he wanted, right?
"Definitely not! In fact, it was maddeningly frustrating, sexually. One girl always sent me home with a knot in my groin and the sound of Marc Bolan records ringing in my ears!"
TELLINGLY, it was the sight of the decidedly effeminate Bolan that left many an adolescent male rock fan, such as Bono, "heterosexually turned on" at the time, as he once told me. Other glam-rock icons of the early Seventies no doubt also left many a teenage boy either heterosexually turned on or homosexually liberated. Which was it for Jackson?
"Until that point, I couldn't figure out whether I was gay or straight. It was confusing," he says. "I didn't realise you could be both. So glam-rock was liberating. But I didn't know how to act on it until later. Because around the same time I got together with my first girlfriend and that went so well I thought, 'I guess I'm straight."'
Joe Jackson also had the last laugh. In an adolescent sense. Because when he finally lost his virginity it was to Jill, who was the ultimate teenage "sexual fantasy figure" everyone fancied.
"I was 20, she was 16 when that happened," he recalls. "Though for years I told people I lost my virginity at 19 because it sounds more legit! At least it's still in your teens. But that relationship with Jill was good. For a while."
And when it went bad, Jill was replaced by Ruth. In fact, if we're to believe A Cure For Gravity, these were the only two women Jackson was really involved with.
"Where the book ends is where I started to diversify!" he explains.
But hadn't Joe just gotten married to Ruth when he started to "diversify"?
"That marriage was a disaster," he responds. And this is where the British Joe Jackson becomes relatively tight-lipped. Not surprisingly. In his book, all he says on the clearly sensitive subject of the "couple of years" he was married to Ruth is that it was "a leap of faith which seems, in retrospect, to have been more of an act of desperation. I couldn't thaw her out. Suffice to say that if Ruth was a troubled woman, I was a fool. I flattered myself that I could give her some sort of stability at a time when I was blatantly incapable of it."
What, exactly, does "couldn't thaw her out" mean?
"I don't want to get into it all that. It just didn't work out," says Jackson. "But I do also say, in A Cure for Gravity, that I could write another book about the marriage. Yet it's not a book I want to write. I don't want to be dishing dirt. I'd rather take the high ground in all that."
Fair enough. But this still leaves a couple of questions Joe Jackson doesn't address in his book. Or anywhere. I know it is intrusive and, as such, journalistically unacceptable to blatantly ask a person, "Are you gay?" but one can't help but wonder if Jackson's marriage ended because he decided he wanted to be with men more than women.
"I didn't decide. I've always been fluid, in-between, never made any big decision about it," he says. "In fact, even when I decided, with Jill, 'I must be straight,' it wasn't that I felt it's better to be straight than gay. Even from an early age I didn't see anything wrong with being who you are. I just didn't know who I was. Sexually. But now that I'm in my 40s, certain things seem obvious that didn't before. I think I was always bisexual, which I also think is a very natural thing to be. And my problems were not so much within myself as 'How am I going to fit in with other people? Or find a partner, be perceived and work this out in the world?' I had no problem being what I was. It was just the question of other people having a problem with that."
Is he involved with anyone at the moment?
With a woman or man?
So be it. And this relationship, says Jackson, has lasted "for the past few years".
He has lived in New York the subject of his latest album Night and Day II for the last decade. And loves it. Partly because, having felt like a "total misfit" living in Portsmouth, he realised "I'm actually normal!" when he moved to that city of misfits.
Joe Jackson also believes that had he stayed at home, he probably couldn't have had the man-to-man love affair he's having now, without encountering "at least some" of the prejudice he experienced as a boy.
"The pool of talent would have been a lot smaller, too, had I stayed in Portsmouth!" he jokes. "Or, should I say, the choice of partners! That's why gay people go to big cities."
While we're on the subject of "talent", Jackson who, let's not forget, once saw himself as an "ugly bastard" believes there is a "hierarchy of beauty" among gay males.
"Male beauty is more important in the gay world than the straight world," he explains, adding that had he been a "a pretty boy" he might have gone for the gay world long before his 20s. Maybe even back when he was a "knot" of frustration listening to those Bolan records.
"But I didn't know what I was at that stage," he says. "I definitely didn't think anyone fancied me. And was terribly shy. So I wasn't the pursuer or aggressor. But maybe if I had been confident or a pretty boy, I would have been pursued."
Either way, now you know the true source of all those tensions that define classic Joe Jackson recordings such as Is She Really Going Out With Him?, It's Different For Girls, Real Men and Trying to Cry. And, in the end, as in the beginning, his life was not just sustained but, ultimately, saved by music. Towards the end of A Cure For Gravity, Jackson tells of a time he "plunged into depression" and "couldn't write anything" or "even listen to music". And alcohol took him "even lower". How did he recover?
"It's a long story, but after trying everything, I ceased to care what other people thought," he says, "and gradually got back into listening to music and thinking, 'What music do I love? What music really moves me? Regardless of whether it is popular or fashionable?' And slowly found my way back in. My dad also died at the time, so a lot of things piled up. But really the question was, 'Where do I go from here, as an artist?' And once I got back to playing the music I love, everything fell back into place. Just like it did when I heard Beethoven, as a kid."
* Joe Jackson will be, eh, Joe Jackson's guest on Under the Influence at midday Saturday July 14 on RTE Radio One