Thursday, April 15, 2021

The things I'm going through

Some songs renew themselves with virtually every listen. One of those songs for me is Joe Jackson's "Don't Wanna Be Like That," from his 1979 album I'm The Man. "OK, let me tell you about some of the things I'm going through," Jackson sings at the start, and it sounds less like an invitation than a demand. The brave guitar/bass/drums intro does its best to stabilize things, but fifteen seconds in the song feels as if it's headed down a steep hill—I love songs that sound as if the band's trying to catch up to what they're playing. The excitable, noisy blend of Gary Sanford's guitar, Dave Houghton's drums, and Graham Maby's bass score Jackson's frustrations and anger, build the humming foundation which he threatens to abandon before the song's even over. 

Recently, Greg Cartwright spoke about songwriting with Aquarium Drunkard. "To me, if you can find a way to talk about it that’s not specific, that’s the best kind of music," he said. "Because then the listener can project themselves into that framework, and it’s a much more cathartic experience to think about how the song reflects what you’re going through." You have yours, I have mine: "Don't Wanna Be Like That" for me is the sound being seventeen. Jackson's lyrics articulated just about everything my friends and I felt but couldn't name, what we knew as a racing pulse, knotted stomach, and speeding head but what we couldn't yet hang labels on to. Jackson had a knack for nailing the stuff I cared about. I went to a Catholic, all-boys high school, and girls spoke in a foreign language across town; when I listened to the gentle "It's Different For Girls," Jackson translated for me, and he seemed like a grownup while doing so. The spirited "On the Radio" described the kind of horizon-expanding set lists I was hearing daily on WHFS, the phenomenal progressive radio station five or so miles from my house ('HFS was then located on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda, Maryland, "Beneath the Twin Towers at Radio Park"). The righteous title track skewered consumerist culture in time with my own growing sense of irony (and superiority), and rocked like hell: the last line in the chorus may be my favorite hook in any song released in 1979, which is saying something.

Jackson's litany of complaints in "Don't Wanna Be Like That" was part social criticism, part personal, to me: mean girls, drug abuse, phonies, the shallowness of pop culture that I both abhorred and felt pressured by to consume and fit inside of. "Well, maybe it's time for getting out of line," he sings, and man did that cool, casually tossed-off sentiment feel as graphically urgent as anything in my life during high school, when my friend Marty and I discovered this album, a couple of years after it was issued. 

Take me away, I said take me away
I don't wanna be like that
Don't wanna be like that
That chorus is as exciting now to hear as it was when I was a kid. Though the demands are less urgent now, the urgent expression of them is still palpable, as was the thrill I felt when cranking this song in my bedroom or the car. There were so many people I didn't want to be like, so many gestures I didn't want to make, that the horizon Jackson's words drew was nearly limitless to me. But also the fear that I wouldn't have the guts to "get out," the way the singer does (or wants to, anyway.) At seventeen, eighteen, I didn't feel the need to get out town, out of my family's home, or out of school, but I sure as hell wanted to get out of the worst aspects of myself—enacting helplessly what Cartwright means about projection. The tense, eight-bar bridge, heralded by Sanford's acute guitar line that sounds like nothing less than a air-raid siren,
Some people get crazy
Some people get lazy
Some people get hazy
Some people get out
pays off with thrilling discovery as good as anything Bruce Springsteen and his band ever concocted, intensified in the breakdown near the song's end as Jackson howls and Sanford's siren cuts through the fraught air. As my heart pounded I did the math in the back of my head: craziness, laziness, and haziness weren't the beautifully decadent options that they appeared to be. Get out, instead, and find your true self in the things you're going through.

The are really two stories here: Jackson's desperation and his band's playing. On some days I feel that Jackson's arguments would've come through loud and clear even if the song had been an instrumental, so expressive and coiled is the group's performance, moving from excitement to nerviness to release to tension and back again. Here's the white-hot band tearing through the song on March 14, 1980 in Cologne, Germany, on the Rockpalast television show:

Photo of Joe Jackson by Paul Natkin (Archive Photos/Getty Images)


ritchie vanian said...

Graham Maby is a fuckin' monster on bass.

Joe Bonomo said...

Yes indeed.