Listen to this track by spiky new wave piano man and skillful pop composer Joe Jackson. It’s “Home Town”, a track originally taken from his 1986 album Big World, with this version recorded live in New York City in 1999 and featured on the album Live in New York: Summer In the City.
The original is a bright, effervescent pop song full of buoyant guitar. Yet, the song holds a certain world-weariness that the original version masks. Ordinarily, this is a welcome contrast.
But, as good as the original is, something entirely new came out of it when he rearranged it for a new musical context. When it came time to get together in the summer of 1999 to perform some of his tunes in a casual series of club dates “just for the hell of it”, the songs were reinterpreted for a trio; himself on piano and singing, backed up by stalwart sidemen Graham Maby on bass, and Gary Burke on drums.
Yet on this song, it’s all Jackson, a middle part of a suite of songs (“Be My Number Two” and “It’s Different For Girls” bookend it) played solo. Instead of the irony that can be picked up in the original, here the solo version reveals an entire country of emotions waiting for the listener underneath.
You might think that Jackson had removed his signature element of surprise to be found in his music up until this point by interpreting this song as a straight up ballad, rather than a poppy guiter driven tune that hides some melancholic undercurrents. But, you’d be wrong. Here’s why.
First, Jackson is up to his old trick of eschewing guitars, and recording his take on his own music, and the music of others, in a context that is more suited to jazz than to pop/rock music. There aren’t too many artists attempting this and succeeding with it. He dabbled with this idea on his famous 1982 Night & Day album, with a percussionist Sue Hadjopoulous (among others) to bolster the sound of that “jazz trio on a pop record” sound. Many years later, he’d record a whole album with this set up without extra percussion in 2008 with Rain, and succeed with it again.
But, second, and most importantly, is that Jackson’s reputation for cynicism, sarcasm, and of being lyrically disgruntled, which makes up some of his best work (“I’m The Man”, “Is She Really Going Out With Him”, “Fools In Love”, “Invisible Man”, “Sunday Papers”, “Real Men”, “Happy Loving Couples”, and so many others) is misdirected in this song. It’s still there, yet not in the form of a keen sense of irony as may be expected. What really lies at the heart of this song is quite the opposite. This is instead about the impulse to yearn for innocence, and to seek to unlearn the things that have taken innocence away from us as we get older. Jackson is here a man alone with his thoughts, stripping away his usual turn as a jaded cynic to affect this very thing.
As we “accumulate” all of the good and bad that life throws at us, new treasures are picked up along the way. But in the process, some of the treasures of the past are often lost in the shuffle; memories, childhood feelings, friends, and loved ones long gone. When he sings “I wonder if it’s still there” he may well be talking about his home town as he remembers it. But, one gets the impression that he’s talking about something ineffable, deeper, and more personal too.
Sometimes, we find we’ve travelled too far out from where we came from. Sometimes we long to go home again. It’s a powerful, and universal human state of mind. To be fair, these are themes of innocence under pressure that he’s touched upon before, and in one of his biggest hits, “Steppin’ Out”, a tune of innocence at large in the city. Yet, “Home Town” always held this same kernel of childlike longing in a less overt way, hidden behind an upbeat arrangement. It’s fully realized to my ears in this version as it’s laid bare by just piano and voice.
And also, with a return to some of the music that inspired him as played on these dates (The Beatles, The Yardbirds, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Dobie Gray, Duke Ellington, and Steely Dan are all represented) it’s not hard to imagine that Jackson was tracing the threads of his life together during this time through his music, and the music of others who provided inspiration to him. This series of shows was a sort of musical homecoming. It’s no wonder that “Home Town” sounds so honest and straightforward here.
For me it packs a double punch as I appreciate where this track is coming from, and from growing up hearing Joe Jackson on the radio and loving his records. Listening to him sing of a mythical past, I remember my own home town that is no longer there in the way I knew it. All the while, it was his voice that helped form the soundtrack to the time I spent there; that hazy country of childhood which still lives in my mind. I don’t have to wonder about it. It really is still there every time I bring it to mind.
Joe Jackson is an active musician today. Check out his site at JoeJackson.com