Joe Jackson
I’m The Man
A&M Records

I came to Joe Jackson by chance. It was the summer of 1980, and I was in the passenger seat of my big brother’s forest-green Plymouth Barracuda. Dave was at the wheel, and we’d just pivoted south through the smog of Gary, Indiana, turning onto I-65 for the long run down to Columbus. We weren’t talking. We didn’t talk much. It was a yellow, overcast day, the air smelled of sulphur, and I didn’t want to be there.

I rifled through the pile of cassettes in the seat divider, each one with a carefully typewritten adhesive label and a scrawled index card. My brother, 18 years old and about to start college, was into what was then called “new wave.” He had almost every record in his collection on tape: Blondie, the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello. I didn’t know any of it. At eleven years old, I was scared of girls, and sex, and Elvis just sounded so lame.

Joe Jackson sounded safe, so I popped it into the cassette deck that my brother had patched into the Barracuda’s stereo, and hit play. The frenetic ska rhythms of “On Your Radio” rang through the roaring open-window slipstream as we sped through the industrial Midwest. That is how I came to know Joe Jackson.

In many ways, Jackson, and his second album, I’m the Man, are the redheaded stepchildren of the punk revolution. The Sex Pistols and the Clash were the political revolutionaries, the Ramones and the Damned were the partiers, Elvis Costello was the awkward poet laureate, taking up the torch from Television’s Tom Verlaine just as the generation of 1977 self-destructed, or moderated its attitude to fit the new, “new wave” reality.

Jackson, however, didn’t quite seem to fit in any pre-fab category or role. His first album, Look Sharp, released earlier in 1979, riffed on the British mod-revival aesthetic promoted by the Jam, while evoking Elvis Costello. It was raw and punchy, with angst-ridden paens to adolescent frustration (“Is She Really Going Out With Him?”) and commentaries on the decline of Western Civilization (“Sunday Papers”). I only learned later that Look Sharp was generally regarded as Jackson’s masterpiece. But I didn’t know that as my brother lit a cigarette from the dashboard lighter and, an hour out of Chicago, finally spoke.

“Listen to this, kid. Learn something.”

I listened, and I learned. And the music played on. I listened to the metallic treble sheen of Gary Sanford’s guitar and Graham Maby’s throbbing, up-front bass. My pubescent musical tastes rarely strayed far from what I heard on FM radio. So I knew the Eagles, and ELO, and that the best music, like Neil Young or Lynyrd Skynyrd always featured guitar pyrotechnics. Yet, on I’m the Man, Maby (the bass player!) played most of the leads, while the guitar, with a couple of exceptions, played rhythm.

From a lyrical standpoint, the songs on I’m the Man are far more narrative, and often more deeply personal than the polemics that had become punk/new wave’s stock-in trade by 1979. It was almost as if Jackson was reaching back a couple of years to Television and Patti Smith, if not for inspiration, then for the authorization to explore his interior self and a future that Johnny Rotten said he didn’t have. In “Blue Shirts,” twenty-five-year-old Jackson speaks to the children that he would never have about the soul-destroying frustrations of a working musician. “I guess someday my kids will ask me/’Bout the old days/I guess that I’ll tell them that/There ain’t much to tell/The waiters wore black dinner jackets and all that kind of thing/And the band wore blue shirts/And the music played on.”

He has no beef with it, of course. That’s just how the business is done, and Jackson struggles on, but “Fridays,” the song that closes out the album, reveals the existential hopelessness at the bottom of the singer’s cynical sangfroid. “Lazy Gilly was a flower child” whose friends just smile as they pass the bottle to wash the pills down. In some ways, it’s an “Eleanor Rigby” for the Blank Generation, and the grim matter-of-factness of Gilly’s despair speaks to the creeping disenchantment of the post-70s hangover. Other artists, like Joy Division and the Smiths, mined this vein with much more angst, but the quotidian simplicity of Jackson’s elegy for lost hope only underscores the tragedy. “It ain’t so bad when you get used to it/Once you clock in/You’ll take any shit, all right,” because she “gets paid on Friday.”

That was Jackson’s real connection to punk on I’m the Man. “On Your Radio,” and the swaggering, sarcastic title track, in which the singer takes credit for every recent innovation in popular culture, are a nod to the superficial form of the punk rock song. I even suspect that the “On Your Radio” was a parody of Elvis Costello’s “Radio Radio.” What makes I’m the Man such an exemplar of punk/new wave despite the honky-tonk piano on “Kinda Kute,” and the pristine (though slightly dry) production, is the way it encapsulates its moment. It is what Jean-Paul Sartre called Pure Reflection, and it is coldly terrifying.

Yet it was also a moment of purest liberation. With everything of rock and roll revealed to be dross, the restraints on popular music and the popular musician could no longer hold. The verse-chorus-verse rock song had no purpose except, as John Lydon would show in PiL, as a vehicle for its own subversion. The bare-chested rockstar god, strutting across the stage, was a figure to be lampooned. Even songs of teenage love and desire, so long a staple of rock and roll, had lost their power to the point that Jackson could turn the form inside out, while retaining its human pathos.

Over an arpeggiating guitar accompaniment that codes it as a love song, “It’s Different for Girls” flips pop formula, gender expectations, and sex on their heads. The conventional wisdom holds, today as much as in 1979, that adolescent boys and girls want different things from relationships. Boys want sex, as Meat Loaf’s 1978 single “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” made abundantly clear. However, we all know, “It’s Different for Girls.” They want love and romance.

So Jackson’s song begins predictably enough with a teenage couple arguing about sex. “What the hell is wrong with you tonight?/I can’t seem to say or do the right thing/Wanted to be sure you’re feeling right/Wanted to be sure we want the same thing.” The boy asks “don’t we all want the same thing?” and in one of the great gender reversals in rock music history, his paramour impatiently replies, “Well, who said anything about love?/No, not love she said/Don’t you know that it’s different for girls?”

In today’s more liberated, gender-fluid culture, it can be difficult to fully appreciate how revolutionary this anti-love/pro-sex song was. Only a few months before, the Knack had had a top-20 hit with the leering single “Good Girls Don’t” which reinforced both the dominant narrative of romance-driven female sexuality and conventional, puritanical morality, and the idea that women who are interested in sex for its own sake are somehow deviations from the rule: “good girls don’t, but I do!

Jackson’s reframed love song was only possible in the wake of punk’s assault on all the sacred cows of popular music. When the Sex Pistols defiled the Queen of England and Patti Smith turned erotic craving into a Catholic mass, an aesthetic space opened that allowed for a conceptual reconfiguration of rock and roll’s foundational tropes. Jackson, along with so many of his contemporaries, rushed into that space. The tinkling guitar, and gentle singing of the opening lines were deceptive. Jackson was an heir of the punk revolution.

I could imagine the girl in “It’s Different for Girls” in her Doc Martens, plaid pleated skirt, and Bromley Contingent bob, saying “just give me something/Anything/Well give me all you got but not love.” It was unsettling to my pre-adolescent mind the first time I heard it, driving down the Interstate, and I could tell that my brother found it just as disturbing. Yet that brief shiver marked a moment of change. I can still hear it in that music, the tipping point between the “Me Decade” and the “Age of Reagan,” when my brother would go off to college, and as I entered adolescence, in that song, and in every other track on that album.

I kifed that cassette from the car when we got back from Columbus, and I played it constantly until it broke and got tangled in my off-brand Walkman a few years later. I can’t even remember what was on the other side of the tape, but I’m the Man was something special, and today it remains one of the most honest, unflinching looks at a time in history, and in my life, when it seemed that everything was grim, yet anything was possible.