Saturday, May 16, 2009

Is She Really Going Out With Him?, Joe Jackson (1979)

Is she really going out with him?
Is she really gonna take him home tonight?
Is she really going out with him?
Cause if my eyes don't deceive me
There's something going wrong around here

This is a fine, fine example of blowing the doors off a done-to-death theme (romantic disappointment) in music. It's such a simple ditty but the effort Joe Jackson puts into Is She Really Going Out With Him? to freshen it up is impressive. When it hit the charts (billed as New Wave - and what is that, really?), I remember being struck by it from the first. Who doesn't love an original take on what it feels like to be on the short end of the stick when everyone seems to be more good-looking than you are?

I confess I knew nothing substantial about Jackson until I began this post. He's been kind of hiding in plain sight for decades, though. The music industry, with its pathological need to categorize everything, has never been able to get a bead on him because of his pervasive eclecticism, which apparently stems from his multi-nuanced musical background. So there's a ton of music out there, I'm finding, of which I was completely unaware. It's good - and it's not genre-specific.

I started wondering what became of him after I wrote a post about Todd Rundgren, wherein during the course of my research I discovered the two of them performing While My Guitar Gently Weeps on Conan O'Brien with the string combo Ethel. Oh my; see it while you can - it made my head explode.

Hailing from modest beginnings in working class Britain, Jackson decided early in life that he wanted to be a composer. He particularly favored classical music as well as jazz, and took piano lessons on a secondhand piano his parents bought him. He was a bit of an outcast due to frequent ill health, a contemplative nature and musical interests that were perceived to be way beyond his station in life. But being no snob, just a lover of music in general, he developed talents for more popular styles of music as well. He began playing piano in a pub when he was 16.

Having earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London, Jackson was able to study composition, orchestration and piano and major in percussion. It seems like he was always in a band of one kind or another, but he dreamed of having his own, and through sheer perseverance he did end up with the recording contract that ultimately brought his talents to a wider audience. The various milestones of his composing, recording and performing career since the days when he broke out would make your head spin. Read about it here if you have some time to kill.

In 1999, Jackson wrote A Cure for Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage, in which he tells the story of how a passion for music in all its forms saved him from becoming "one of those sad bastards you see milling around outside the pub at closing time, looking for a fight." From all reviews I've read, this is a heartfelt memoir on what a life devoted to being a serious musician (not to being a star) is like and everyone seems to rave about it. It's on the reading list.

He seems to enjoy writing as much as he does music, by the way. On Jackson's website I discovered that he's a bit of a thought leader on the subject of societal pushes to curtail smoking; his entertaining 20-page thesis on this topic is entitled Smoking, Lies and the Nanny State. Ever the iconoclast!


Wade said...

Thanks much for this one--I've been feeling for a long time that he is being criminally overlooked by me. All I knew about his was that (excellent) song and the one other hit that goes something like "I remember finding out about you" (that was him, right?) Some friends of mine in college had a band and did a great cover of "Is She Really," and my kids had the cutest routine where my son (5) would sing "Look over there!" and my daughter (3) would say "Where?"

I'm going to dig into his site and probably track down that memoir too.

Another memoir I read recently that is somewhat formless but very compelling and ultimately heartbreaking is "Bringing it all Back Home" by an English guy named Ian Clayton. My brother-in-law got it for me for Christmas and I read the whole thing before I left Scotland. I'm not even sure it's available over here--I think it was just short of self-published but may be found on

KarmaSartre said...

Great job Wendy. I always loved "Be My Number Two" and "Steppin' Out". And now, I love "Ethel"! They're crazy good.

I think the "I remember finding out about you" bit was by Badfinger.

Just J said...

Very interesting Estivator/Estivatrix. I've always enjoyed Jackon's music but never bought any of it 'til recently when I snagged a very nice original vinyl copy of Body & Soul at a garage sale.

Stitchwhiz said...

Thanks for the tip about his book. I was lucky enough to see Joe Jackson last year and blogged about it some at:
Best Regards,
Mary in TX