A Cure For Gravity

A Cure For Gravity (1999)

Joe Jackson

I’ll just admit right here at the top that this is a blog post on a book that is, shall we say, “in progress.” Hey, I’m on page 81! I just have been so terrible at updating this blog, I thought I could jumpstart my writing by commenting on something that is really fresh in my mind. So fresh, I’m still reading it!

I’m no Joe Jackson aficionado, though I liked a lot of his songs they played on KROQ back in the day. I haven’t closely followed his career, so I know very little about what he is doing currently and I know nothing about his personal life. I have, however, been thinking a lot about him in relationship to the New Wave masculinity project I’ve been (embarrassingly slow in) working on. As the project currently stands, I have Jackson and Elvis Costello grouped into the same category: Dorks Who Want Revenge. I’m not sure about that category title but I do think it characterizes a lot of Costello’s early work and though Jackson isn’t “dorky” in the same way Costello is, his early work does include an examination of masculinity that is particularly biting. They both wrote songs that featured narrators who wanted revenge: on the girls who rejected them, on the world that confused them, on themselves for being so uncertain about who and what they are.

In a paper I delivered at the last Popular Culture Association Conference, I included some thoughts on Jackson because I’d titled my paper “I’m The Man,” not thinking that profoundly about what a weird song about capitalism it actually was (“I’m the man who sold you the hula hoop!” is a truly odd and wonderful lyrical refrain). Jackson’s album I’m the Man was released in 1979 and contains several meditations on manhood including the titular song and “It’s Different for Girls.” Jackson has a marked preoccupation with investigating definitions of masculinity which go beyond reflections of  heteronormative romance or a patriarchal need for control. Jackson’s “It’s Different for Girls”, is, for example, an epic instance of mansplaining captured in song. In the lyrics, a man urges a woman to rethink her desire to have a one night stand with him. She’s down for it but Jackson’s man is there to remind her that he was always told that “it’s different for girls.” She couldn’t possibly want just sex because he knows better! Women want to be in love! The woman, in turn, laments throughout the song “who said anything about love?” while the man continues to argue that sex should mean something because “it’s different for girls,” ably turning a rock cliché on its head.

Jackson’s men are, like Costello’s, often losers in the war of the sexes and also like Costello, Jackson uses a wry intellect to skewer his masculine subjects. In The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records, Jackson’s songs are described as “tough and wiry … mixed with an edgy sensibility with a self-deprecating wit that put[s] him in a class apart from his serious, serious peers” (149). Jackson frequently uses a “regular bloke” persona to create ironic portraits of modern masculinity in a state of flux. In “I’m the Man,” Jackson embodies the persona of a hustler and inventor who has graced the world with fads like the hula hoop, the skateboard, and kung fu (it’s truly a wild song). A vision of capitalism in human form, Jackson’s “man” is locked in a cycle of invention and failure; a cycle that nonetheless successfully separates the masses from their money, and perhaps also reflects how capitalism separates men from more complex and sensitive forms of masculine identity. In “I’m the Man,” Jackson’s man is framed as someone to mock and pity, a man for whom masculinity is a performance deployed to part a sucker from his money. Like any variety of disguises, dressing as a man is no more powerful than any other choice. Jackson drains traditional masculinity of its importance leaving behind an empty suit, neither useful nor fashionable.

One of the things I didn’t know about Jackson before I started reading his autobiography is that he identifies as bisexual. This revelation has added an interesting layer to my thoughts about his work, particularly in a song like “Is She Really Going Out With Him.” Suddenly, the song takes on extra depth when imagining Jackson alternately longing for the “she” or the “him” in the title. A song which directly engages with Jackson’s sexual identity is “Real Men,” the lead single from 1982’s Night and Day (which also contained the hit “Steppin’ Out”). Notably, in this song, the narrator queries his listener: what is a man?

Take your mind back, I don’t know when
Sometime when it always seemed
To be just us and them
Girls that wore pink
And boys that wore blue
Boys that always grew up better men
Than me and you

What’s a man now, what’s a man mean
Is he rough or is he rugged
Is he cultural and clean
Now it’s all change, it’s got to change more
Cause we think it’s getting better
But nobody’s really sure

The song is a ballad, sung as a mournful recounting of a lost traditional masculinity and a confusion about what a modern man might be. As the song goes on, however, Jackson twists this expected narrative of “sad man longs for the past when men were men” as his song turns to a contemplation of gay men, correcting those who call them “f*gg*t” (unless you’re a “friend,” implying Jackson has insider knowledge of how the word could be deployed within the gay community), and finally ends with a reminder to men that women are surpassing them:

Time to get scared, time to change plan
Don’t know how to treat a lady
Don’t know how to be a man
Time to admit, what you call defeat
Cause there’s women running past you now
And you just drag your feet

Though Jackson evinces an understanding for those men contemplating what it means to be a man now, he doesn’t feel sorry for them. He asks them instead to step up and move forward into modernity with women. His early work is filled with observations about a world that is just about to turn feral (just look at the lyrics for “Look Sharp”: “Big shot, thanks a lot, gotta go, it’s getting late/ I got a date with my tailor now, thanks for putting me so straight/ Tell me how they rob me blind on every street/ But check your watch and wallet now before I go and you’re too late”) and attack those of us who live in it.

              His autobiography, A Cure For Gravity, was written in 1999, 15 or so years after these early cynical songs were written. Jackson narrates his life story with a wry but kind and generous eye for his past. As with most of the postpunk/New Wave autobiographies I’ve read, Jackson reflects on his working class background and how it contributed to his desire to play music. Just as his career has been punctuated by peripatetic experimentation in everything from jazz to classical music, so too was the young Jackson interested in a range of sounds. He states, “It wasn’t that I didn’t know, at seventeen, that my tastes were broader than those of my peers. I just didn’t care. After all, my musical heroes were eclectic, and I think I grasped the essential fact that in being so, they were being true to themselves” (72). It seems clear that Jackson has remained true to himself as he followed his eclectic interests throughout the albums he’s released over the years. I’m eager to read about his adventures as I progress through this book.

I’ll leave you with a favorite of mine:

Some Fantastic Place

Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze

Chris Difford

Squeeze in 1980

One of the tropes of music writing I dislike the most is the “the first time I heard this band” story. I equally hate the “collection of moments from my life that are tied to a band’s songs” thing. These techniques are used as a way to prove not only how meaningful the band is to the writer but also how good the band is in general. If the writer felt something, then the reader understands that the band is worthy of contemplation and adoration. I get why it’s popular. Listening to music is a personal, subjective experience and falling in love with a band is a heady experience and it feels good to share it. I’ve avoided talking too much about my personal likes and dislikes on this blog as much as possible because I have just gotten tired of reading those stories on other blog posts, in books, and magazine articles. But here I am ready to betray all of my principles by posting a personal recollection about a band!

Our family vacations were always interesting because my parents liked to go places we could drive to (there were a few trips – England, Scotland, and Wales, Jamaica, Hawaii – which needed a plane ride) from our Southern California home. My parents were interested in the Southwest primarily for the history, Native American culture and art, and the scenery (my dad was a very gifted amateur photographer — see the glamorous family vacation shot below. We look like Ansel Adams went on the trip with us!). We went to investigate the most obvious of the Southwest – the Grand Canyon – but also explored sites like First, Second, and Third Mesa among many other places.

My mom and I enjoy the Grand Canyon

These trips required a lot of time in the car either driving or waiting for my dad to finish photographing something alongside the road. Once the radio stations started to give out in the more rural areas, I got to play DJ. Before we left home, I carefully selected the cassette tapes that would be played throughout the trip, looking to old favorites and new obsessions to clear away the boredom of highways that took us through miles of desert landscape. My command station was the backseat where within two plastic, pastel colored cassette boxes (one mint green, the other light pink) , I would carefully consider which cassette should brighten up a half hour or so. For more than one summer, I handed the cassette of Squeeze’s Singles: 45s and Under up to my mom to pop into the car’s cassette player. I was obsessed with Squeeze after hearing some of their songs on the local alternative station, KROQ and seeing them on Saturday Night Live (November 20, 1982). When I hear one of their famous songs like “Pulling Mussels From the Shell,” “Goodbye Girl”, or “Up the Junction”, I automatically begin to play the next song on 45s and Under in my head. Even though I eventually bought all of the Squeeze albums and I’ve heard all of those singles in the context of their respective albums, I still think of them tumbling one after the other; one fabulous single at a time.

My next major Squeeze memory is Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook (along with Keith Wilkinson, Jools Holland, and Gilson Lavis) appearing on that VH1 show Bands Reunited from 2003. I’d followed them a bit through their makeups and breakups but in pre-and-early Internet days, you had to work a little harder to keep up with music gossip unless the story was really spectacular and made Rolling Stone or Spin. But here Squeeze was right on VH1 and I settled in to watch my old favorites play together again.

I was shocked to see how much tension there was between them. Glenn makes a quip in the clip about how fans thought Glenn and Chris were like The Waltons as if they snuggled up next to each other, sweetly bidding one another goodnight. The reality was much different. Though they didn’t reunite on the show, Difford and Tilbrook are back together as Squeeze, releasing albums and touring frequently.

Chris Difford’s autobiography, Some Fantastic Place: My Life In and Out of Squeeze, was released in 2017, though my edition is from 2018 and includes a “new final chapter” in which Difford reflects on the publication of the book and his current relationship with Glenn and Squeeze.  As the main lyricist for Squeeze, Difford’s writing skill is obvious and he brings his facility for word play coupled earnest emotion and wry observations in his autobiography. Difford’s book is nice. He’s nice. He’s nice about his relationship with Glenn (and largely takes the blame for the breakdown of friendship and communication between them), he’s nice about his childhood (which was so nice!), and he’s nice about other bands even when criticizing them.  He’s fairly relentless, though, in condemning himself for his alcoholism and in taking stock of what it was like for friends, family, and band members to be dealing with him while he drank. He’s funny, charming, and seems both humble and aware of his songwriting talents.

Difford covers the requisite “getting the band together” story but fills it in with lots of sweet details about his friendship with Glenn. Like a lot of bands forming in the 70s, they were caught between wanting to be like Bowie or more folky, hippie bands and trying for something new. Punk became the driving force of change, though not in the “Sex Pistols were amazing!” kind of way. Difford recalls:

Suddenly, in 1977, punk happened […] but I never really liked the music. I was always looking for the lyric and I felt there was no depth to it; it was just kids trying to get a record deal. The music sounded like it was falling down the stairs. […] It was until Dot, my flatmate, played me the first Clash album that I heard a punk record that I loved. It had a depth and energy to it that was totally lacking from stuff like Sex Pistols. (77-78)

Difford wasn’t interested in writing about politics, he was rather hoping to capture simple human moments that had “depth and energy” like The Clash but which were more, well, fun. He and Tilbrook began writing songs together but eventually settled into a pattern in which he would give Tilbrook lyrics and Tilbrook would come up with the music. As their relationship disintegrated, this process would take place via the mail with each sending their part back to the other! It says something about their creative chemistry that good songs were still made in this rather remote working relationship.

I was skimming through The Trouser Press Guide to New Wave Records (published in 1983) to see what they had to say about Squeeze, and unlike so much press coverage of the band, Trouser Press was not impressed by the duo of Difford and Tilbrook. Squeeze’s entry in this encyclopedia of new wave music begins:

Squeeze’s songwriting team of Glenn Tilbrook (melody) and Chris Difford (lyrics) has been compared favorably to Lennon and McCartney that’s not only a reflection on their abilities but also an indication of how little real craftsmanship can be found in rock’n’roll these days. Like their supposed models, Tilbrook and Difford are blessed with enormous talent, which has enabled them to get by on less-than-full expense of effort. What has often passed for ingenuity in Squeeze has in fact been little more than glibness. When the competition’s weak, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference” (300).

The entry goes on to say that “Black Coffee in Bed” is one of Difford and Tilbrook’s “worst ever” efforts. Oof. Difford records his memory of “Black Coffee in Bed” (from the album Sweets From a Stranger) in his book. He notes that the song was originally:

too long but did get some plays on the radio after a brutal edit. Record companies were in the habit of playing with your art without you knowing about it. We first heard the new version of the song when a promo cassette arrived through the post. It was hilarious and very, very wrong. We were livid. Elvis [Costello] and Paul Young dropped in to sing on ‘Black Coffee in Bed’, and that was the highlight of the recording for me. […] It was a friendly afternoon filled with back-slapping banter, but I felt like I had fallen from the lyrical challenges of the previous album and had delivered some lazy writing. I was not on my game and had gone backwards into a safe but untidy mind. (127)

Difford is often hard on himself about his songwriting. What fans would deem classic songs filled with clever lyrics (I always love “I want to be good/is that not enough? from “Another Nail in My Heart” as if the desire to be good is the same as actually being good), though Chris cites that as a slight song that benefited from Tilbrook’s catchy, hook-filled music), Difford often calls a disappointment. The above memory, then, gives you a good sense of the book in whole. Elvis Costello pops up a lot! Difford is self-deprecating. And fans get a nice glimpse inside the writing and recording of favorite songs. Difford also writes about his celebrity encounters (the stuff about Bryan Ferry is WILD!), his love life, and his work with the band The Strypes (who broke up in 2018) among other topics. If you’re a fan of Squeeze, I highly recommend the book.

Not only do I love Squeeze, but I also read Difford’s book with an eye toward using it for my current project on new wave masculinities. I’m presenting a paper at a conference in the spring on the topic which I would also like to turn it into a larger endeavor. This blog is a way of keeping track of everything I’m reading and thinking about in terms of post punk music in general and New Wave and New Romanticism specifically. I’ve been gathering ideas about different categories of New Wave men – the avenging nerd, the pretty boy, the gender bender, etc. – and I believe the men of Squeeze fit into the first category. Squeeze always leaned heavily on humor in their videos and their songs are frequently written from the point of a view a smart but damaged man.

Difford reflects on the band’s image in his book, saying:

MTV was the thing to be on and we were on it all the time, along with Sting and Dire Straits, Duran Duran and the other all-male bands that wore make-up. On the screen we had none of the seriousness of some of our contemporaries – thankfully. Our childish take on life served us well and kept us apart from the pouting pencil-thin band that filled the MTV screens across the world with their well-tailored collars sticking up. (147)

Squeeze certainly wasn’t polished like Duran Duran and their lyrics reveal a world that is far less rarefied and abstract than the ones Simon Le Bon conjured up. Squeeze and Duran Duran also represent two ends of the New Wave spectrum with Squeeze more closely associated with punk and Duran Duran with pop. (See Like Punk Never Happened for an overview of New Pop in the 1980s). In his book Are We Not New Wave?: Modern Pop at the Turn of the 1980s, Theo Cateforis clarifies that:

To the major labels, punk appeared to be virtually unmarketable. In its stead, the music industry embraced new wave groups like the Talking Heads, Blondie, Devo, Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and Squeeze, all of whom shared punk’s energy but tempered its vitriol with more accessible and novel songwriting sprinkled with liberal doses of humor, irreverence, and irony. Like their punk rock forebears, new wave musicians openly rejected the tired clichés of rock star abundance and bloated stadium extravaganzas that had come to dominate the 1970s. (10)

Difford concurs with this assessment when he reflected on the band’s first visit to America:

We became a ‘new wave’ band when we went to America, along with Blondie, Elvis Costello, The Stranglers and other great bands that had both the attitude and the musicality that punk lacked. We were comfortable with that tag. […] We were riding that new-wave wave and getting credibility on the back of it too. But Squeeze were always a pop band in my eyes. (90-91)

So is Squeeze a new wave band? A pop band? For my purposes, I’m selfishly keeping them in the new wave category. Cateforis remarks that this confusion is common:

As new wave has increasingly become equated with the nostalgically aged technological modernity of 1980s synthpop, new wave’s deeper roots in the late 1970s have become obscured. Groups and artists like the Pretenders, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, Squeeze, and the Knack—all of whom essentially launched new wave in the United States—are much more likely to turn up on a classic rock playlist than they are to show up listed as an influence on some new wave revivalist’s MySpace page. As we find new wave increasingly collapsed, for the sake of convenience, into a mélange of synthesizers, MTV videos, and overarching 1980s nostalgia, the earlier new wavers have drifted backward into a closer association with 1970s punk. (220-221)

This is ironic given Difford’s nearly wholesale rejection of punk in the book. His dismissal of the Sex Pistols is the first I’ve found in the autobiographical reading I’ve been doing. That fits Difford, though. In his own quiet, unassuming way he has bucked the system one song at a time.

On that note, I’ll leave you with Squeeze’s latest!