Melbourne, Rome.  1980s and 1990s

In 1985 I somehow came into the possession of an old TDK cassette that featured a bunch of songs that had been hastily taped off the radio.  I had ‘accidentally’ acquired the tape at a recent slumber party I had attended.  In most instances only parts of songs had been taped.  In what confused me for many years, a Jackson Browne song inexplicably morphed into a Joe Jackson song.  The catchy Jackson Browne tune Somebody’s Baby abruptly cut off just when you were getting into it.  Suddenly you were listening to the sound of bouncy synth-pop and a voice that sung:

Now
The mist across the window hides the lines
But nothing hides the colour of the lights that shine

I fell in love with this song.  I just didn’t know who the artist was, nor the title of the song.  In fact, for the next few years I actually thought the song was called Into The Light.  The song gave me a wistful, warm feeling and made me think of a certain girl in my class.  I played the song over and over in the summer of 1985-86 dreaming of a chance meeting with her.  But I kept quiet about the tape.  There was no way I was going to inquire as to who owned it.  It was mine now.

A few years later I discovered that the song was called Steppin’ Out and the artist was Joe Jackson.  At that time his new album Live 1980/86 was gracing the airwaves.  There were a couple of tracks from this album which I managed to tape off the radio: an acoustic version of  It’s Different For Girls, and an acapella version of Is She Really Going Out With Him?  The opening line of the latter pretty much summed up my existence (and insecurity) into just nine words:

Pretty women out walking with gorillas down my street

 By way of chance I learnt that a school friend just happened to have the two Joe Jackson albums Night and Day and Big World.  He was more than happy to lend them to me.  Initially, it was Night and Day that captured my attention.  I was thrilled to finally listen to Steppin’ Out in its entirety, as well as its close relative Breaking Us In Two.  There was something about the melody and the chord changes that linked these two songs for me.  And there was also a powerful piano ballad called Real Men that explored a range of thought-provoking topics that until then I had never contemplated.  It contained the brilliant lines:

And if there’s war between the sexes
Then there’ll be no people left

 Just when I was hoping he had forgotten, my friend asked for his albums back.  I promised to return them the next day.  I hadn’t even started on Big World – a live album of original songs.  I gave it a bit of a listen that night, but struggled to connect with it.  I needed more time.  However, there was one song that stood out.  It was called Hometown:  a beautiful melody with evocative lyrics, concluding with a delightful guitar lick by Vinnie Zummo.  That night I used my double cassette deck to copy and record the entire Night and Day album, as well as the song Hometown onto a 60-minute TDK cassette that I had pinched from my sister’s bedroom.  This tape would serve me well for many years.

Fast forward almost a decade and I am staying at a cheap pensione in Rome.  I am meeting a friend in Milan the following week, so am looking to pass the time.  It’s my first time overseas.  I am struggling with this country.  The irritability of its inhabitants.  The hawkers on every corner.  I feel no connection with the land of my ancestors.  There’s a couple of Irish backpackers staying in the same hostel as me.  We get talking.  One of them mentions that Joe Jackson is playing in Rome that night.  He had seen a poster at a nearby laundromat.

“Joe Jackson is the Philip Larkin of Rock and Roll,” he says grandly.  I am too embarrassed to admit I have never heard of Larkin, but later I will come to know what my fellow traveller means.  Something about the brilliant wit.  The irony.  The dash of English cynicism. Instead of revealing my unfamiliarity with Larkin, I express that I am a Joe Jackson fan too.  We make some inquiries.  Perhaps we could go?

A few hours later we are sitting in a quaint little theatre in downtown Rome, awaiting the entrance of Joe Jackson.  For a few seconds there is darkness, then the spotlight illuminates the frame of one Joe Jackson: resplendent in a black and white vest and bleached blonde hair, launching into some wondrous notes on his piano.  But what song is this? Real Men?  Breaking Us in Two? A Slow Song?

Then the penny drops … it’s Hometown.  But it’s different.  It’s a slower, more nostalgic version, whispering of Pachelbel’s Canon.  Stunningly beautiful.  Joe Jackson has the audience in the palm of his hand.

We never leave the past behind

We just accumulate

 

Stereo Story #541

Damian Balassone's poems have appeared in over 100 publications, most notably in The New York Times. He is the author of three volumes of poetry, including the 2020 publication Strange Game in a Strange Land (Wilkinson Publishing).