Monday, 27 July 2020

The culmination of a lifetime of struggle

A Cure For Gravity: A Musical Pilgrimage It was going so well. In the Prologue to A Cure for Gravity Joe Jackson describes an eventful 1975 gig in Basingstoke. He follows up with musings on where his love of music came from, his first musical memories (The Runaway Train, and Exodus), his working class upbringing in Portsmouth and first attempts at gigging. And then, aged sixteen, he has to choose what to study for his A-Levels. It was an important decision, because what you chose to study in 1970s England could limit your further education choices and consequently what sort of job or career you ended up in. I should know. My own plans had to change for the sake of the headmaster's timetable. I discussed my future options with Mum, as did Joe Jackson, whose mother suggested he become a librarian. His reply? "A librarian! I might as well be buried alive."

Aaargh! Yet another writer relying on an over-used, sloppy trope. Here's an educated man who talks about the problems of musical labels such as "classical", yet is happy to classify a diverse group of people by their choice of career. It's surprising, since as a child, the "little branch library" was his "favorite place in the world", and he "didn't buy books" because he could borrow them from a library. As a poor student he manages to get hold of the score for Beethoven's Ninth from - you guessed it - the library. How did all that stuff get onto the shelves? How was it possible for a working-class lad to educate himself if he had a passion but no cash? It was because of a librarian! They come in all shapes and sizes, just like the musicians and music lovers that Jackson artfully portrays in his memoir.

There, I've got that off my chest, so what about the rest of the book? A Cure for Gravity only takes us as far as Joe Jackson aged 24, when he achieved success with his first album, Look Sharp!. I've been a fan since a friend introduced me to his album Beat Crazy. His writing style is engaging and he has some cracking descriptions, such as "Beethoven .... is like one of those inspired chefs who can just throw a tomato and an onion and a couple of herbs into a pan and somehow manage to produce, in a few minutes, something both original and utterly delicious. Brahms, by comparison, is the musical equivalent of jam-sweetened porridge." I enjoyed the book as much as I did Tracey Thorne's Bedsit Disco Queen and Mark Ellen's Rock Stars Stole My Life!. It brought back memories of my own brush with the music industry in the late 1980s; svengali managers, mad drummers, goth bands who were nice as pie, and smart young men who were rude, ungrateful and arrogant.

The book was published in 1999, before Simon Cowell decided that anyone with the right attitude could make it in the music industry. Jackson has experienced working as an independent musician in addition to as part of a promoted, industry-backed act, in the guise of Koffee 'n' Kreme, who came to fame on New Faces, a 70s precursor to The X Factor. His success came with the good fortune never to owe his record company money, which guaranteed that he could do pretty much whatever he liked. But that was the "culmination of a lifetime of struggle." His story is not about becoming a pop star, nor is it about fame. It's a warts and all exposé of the hard work that goes into making music and making money from it. Jackson concedes that there was a bit of luck in how he eventually "made it", but his book stresses the other elements of success: education, intelligence and hard work.

In the last chapter, Jackson muses on the future of music in a world where our cultural agenda is being shaped by "the bottom lines of big corporations who want to sell us stuff, and preferably stuff that’s easy to sell." He says, "if we want music to survive, we must teach kids to appreciate it." And so I'd like to end my review with a quote about learning, by one of the musicians that Joe Jackson admires. Frank Zappa said, "if you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library."



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