Portrait of the Artist as an Angry Young Man: My Goodreads Review of Joe Jackson's A Cure for Gravity

A Cure for Gravity: A Musical PilgrimageA Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage by Joe Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of my friends probably wouldn't buy it, but I was a pretty melancholy kid. Stuff affected me pretty heavily, from the offhand comments of kids and adults who didn't know they were being mean to the scenes from movies that didn't know they were being poignant. My melancholy extended to music and particularly music videos, which I watched with cultlike devotion. Among the more resonant are a couple of Joe Jackson songs off his album Night and Day: "Breaking Us in Two," in which a woman packs her things and walks the long cobblestone road to the train station to start a new life, only to then gain some fresh perspective on her current life; and "Real Men," in which a young boy (probably about my age) struggles in vain to understand what constitutes masculinity. It wasn't till twenty years later that I actually bought any Joe Jackson music, first the single "Common People" that he did with William Shatner (buy it; it's killer) and then the two-disc retrospective of his long career, which includes his hits "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" and "You Can't Get What You Want (Till You Know What You Want," and a wide variety of other songs. Jackson is an eclectic songwriter, drawing on his classical training and jazz interest while working hard to remain true to his working-class roots and connected to a real, popular-level audience. And yet he's something of a perennial outsider, never quite at home in any environment. The videos for both songs that resonated so strongly for me have him not as the love interest or the protagonist but as narrator/commentator, in but not of the story being told; his pop music has always reflected his appreciation for other genres, and his forays into other genres have never shed his identification with pop.

That homelessness carries through his book A Cure for Gravity, written before "Common People" but well after "You Can't Get What You Want" fell off the charts. I found myself comparing the book regularly to Steve Martin's Born Standing Up, which covers a similar time period and point in an artist's blossoming career: Martin writes up to the point where he moves from stand-up comedy to film acting; Jackson writes from childhood through to the release of his breakout album Look Sharp! Both writers are philosophical about their craft and the culture they inhabit, but the books remain quite different, demonstrating the divides of chosen art form, age (Martin is nine years older than Jackson, a fact reflected heavily in how each experienced the 1960s), place of origin (wide-open Texas for Martin; working-class north England for Jackson) and outlook. Martin writes seemingly from retirement, with the voice of someone looking back on a life of relative ease; even his hardships are cast as welcome learning opportunities, and his point is, more than anything, appreciation for life and what comes of it. Jackson's book is roughly twice as long and reflects a hardscrabble life, a perpetual outsider's look back on what he's struggled to make of his world. His portraits of influential people aren't uncharitable but they are sometimes startlingly frank. He's not retiring or even resting as he writes; his long passages of memoir are frequently supplanted by well-considered arguments about the public role of music, the responsibility of artistry, the twin temptations of both a cultural aristocracy and a consumerist culture that rejects challenge and demands to be catered to. Martin writes a memoir; Jackson writes an "agendoir."

I don't mean that as a critique, although I did occasionally find myself silently accusing Jackson of the pretentiousness that he often defends himself against throughout the book. I find his argument for/against pretentiousness pretty compelling, however. From pages 84-85: "All those old structures [of musical training and apprenticeship] have broken down, and now anyone with a few quid to spend can simply walk into a record shop [note: written in 1999; now you don't have to walk anywhere] and choose from five centuries' worth of music from all over the world. . . . All very well for the 'consumer,' but how often do we consider how it affects the artist? Where does he start, when everything is transient and disconnected? How does he know who to be, when his roots are themselves rootless? . . . Sometimes I think that categories are proliferating to such an extent that nearly everyone, eventually, will be a subgenre of one. Maybe then we'll appreciate content a bit more than style--or rediscover the true meaning of style."

Leave it to Joe Jackson, perennial outsider, first-person observer/narrator of the vicissitudes of life, to take the opportunity to write a memoir and turn it into a manifesto for artists. The book is at times abrasive, occasionally self-indulgent, sometimes indecipherably British. But it's one of my favorite books of the year, partly because Joe Jackson has proved throughout his career that he knows how to get to me, and partly because he's more or less right about the public role of music, the responsibility of artistry, the twin temptations of both a cultural aristocracy and a consumerist culture that rejects challenge and demands to be catered to. Partly, also, because I was too young to enjoy the New Wave that Jackson represents as it was happening, and I relish every window into it I come across. So, for all its pretentiousness, for all its uncomfortable frankness, for all its commingling of autobiography and cultural agenda, I'm thankful to Jackson for writing A Cure for Gravity, and I anticipate dipping back into it now and again to revisit my own past and to get insight into my own future.

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Mark Nielsen said…
I've been a JJ fan since Night and Day at least, if not before. Good to have this overview, as I add yet another book to my queue.

Regarding outsider status: does he talk about sexuality in the memoir? I've been led to believe he's gay or bisexual, but never been sure what to make of that as far as his lyrical content or overall outlook.

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