Steppin' out again

Joe Jackson returns with Night and Day II

All these characters in the new songs, says musician Joe Jackson, "are combinations of people that I've met or seen, or heard about, or imagined, or been."
Taking a short break from a rehearsal for his current tour, Jackson is talking enthusiastically about Night and Day II, the just-released sequel to his 1982 success Night and Day. He wrote the original album — a colorful sonic picture of New York City — while he was still a recent transplant to the city, bringing an outsider's perspective to the subject. These days, however, Jackson calls New York home.
"I think I've got to know it a lot better," Jackson says, "but ultimately my perception is really the same — that it's a place that is incredibly glamorous and romantic, but at the same time there's a dark and scary side to it. I think both of those sides are there on the original Night and Day, though I think the new album is kind of a richer, more detailed portrait of it."
The New York transplant originally hails from England, where he attended the Royal Academy of Music on a piano scholarship and recorded his 1979 breakthrough Look Sharp. He cheerfully admits that the disc's memorable single "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" (which reached No. 21 on the U.S. charts) was inspired by the first British punk song ever released, the Damned's "New Rose" (1976), which begins with the question in Jackson's title.
"They got it from 'Leader of the Pack' by the Shangri-La's and I was aware of both," Jackson recalls. "I thought that would be quite a great title for a song."
In 1981 Jackson released Jumpin' Jive, which anticipated the mid-'90s dance/swing-music craze by nearly 15 years. However, Jackson consciously sat out the recent fad.
Jumpin' Jive did, however, bring him to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who hired Jackson to write the score for the 1988 film Tucker. Jackson enjoyed that collaborative project and went on to score several other films.
Not surprisingly, movie references abound in Night and Day II. The opening song, "Hell of a Town," quotes Dustin Hoffman from Midnight Cowboy ("I'm walkin' here!") as well as a Leonard Bernstein song from the Frank Sinatra musical On the Town. But where Bernstein had announced joyfully, "New York, New York, it's a hell of a town," Jackson gives the same words a different spin.
"Mine's sort of a tongue-in-cheek way of saying it actually is hell," Jackson laughs. "Welcome to Hell — but lovin' it at the same time. There's a lot of humor on the record, all these different sides of New York sort of colliding with each other — funny, bizarre, romantic, dangerous ... "
The city's funny and dangerous sides meet in "Just Because ... ," where Jackson imagines a man whose brain has been fried by the pressures of city life. "That's another of the many sides of New York — burnout," Jackson says. "I think of him as one of these guys you occasionally see on the street, ranting and raving at passersby. To me he's both a comic figure and rather scary."
In many ways the new album's most scary number, however, is "Love Got Lost," a haunting ballad sung with broken, palpable world-weariness by Marianne Faithfull. Written from the perspective of an aging, lonely businesswoman, it's an unsettling portrait of a longtime New Yorker desperately clinging to dignity during her twilight years.
"My idea is that she's holding on," Jackson says. "But she has no love in her life, no friends. It's actually quite a detailed character study. She has a romantic side which she doesn't really like people to know about. She's saying touch me, but don't touch me, at the same time. I think there's a lot of lonely women out there."
Jackson writes about another lonely woman in "Happyland," a song inspired by the true story of a disastrous 1990 fire in a Bronx nightclub. "It was all over the local news when it happened," Jackson says, "and I remember being so horrified by it, imagining all these people going to a nightclub to dance and to have a good time, and this fire breaking out and being trapped, people dying ... I guess it just stuck in my mind."
He pauses reflectively. "Then I had this idea — I don't where know any of my ideas comes from — but I thought of a song about someone who survived the fire, but her boyfriend didn't. So what does she do? She's gonna keep on dancing — going out dancing — no matter what. She's not gonna let it stop her. There was a certain feeling I was going for, which was sad but defiant. I feel like I really hit it as well. It's one of my favorite songs on the album."
But the most intriguing female character on Night and Day II is actually a female impersonator. "Glamour and Pain," a song about the private sorrow of a cross-dressing streetwalker, is performed by guest performer Dale De Vere.
The photo of "De Vere" included in the CD's booklet, however, looks remarkably like a certain English pop composer. It's an uncanny resemblance, one which suggests that the chameleonic Joe Jackson is quite the character himself.
Joe Jackson performs at the Roxy, Sat., Dec. 2. Tickets are $30. For more information call 404-233-7699.

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