I’m not sure I can begin to express how much this album spoke to me when it came out in 1989, and how much it continues to to this day. It’s a latter-day “Quadrophenia” for me, an album that seemed at the time to be speaking directly to me. If one ever gets to have that experience with music, it’s a gift (as well as an illusion), but often what happens is that later on in life, I realize the illusion and can feel foolish for having invested that much in something that, in retrospect, wasn’t as deep as it seemed. But for “Blaze of Glory,” that is so not the case. This was brilliant 32 years ago, and it’s brilliant today.
Some call it a concept album; it’s at least thematic. It’s about the transition from angry young man to somewhat disgruntled adult, the transition from idealistic to realistic politics. It’s about growing pains. It captures that beautiful, magical first flush of true love and togetherness in “Me and You Against the World,” and closes with a plea for the simplest thing, the thing we’re all wishing for today: “The Human Touch.” (My bid for greatest album closer ever, by the way.)
So: where was I when this came out that it struck me right in the heart? I was in the transition from angry young man to vastly less angry, considerably less young adult, trying to make my way in the world. I was 28 and in the midst of a huge transition, a transition of career, location, outlook.
My college years ended in a cloud of dust and confusion. In the middle of them, I was forced to take a financial break, and during that time I questioned whether the career I had chosen was the career I really wanted. As a first generation college student (my father didn’t even finish high school), there were huge parts of education culture that were opaque to me, and that I didn’t even realize I couldn’t see until years after the fact. I found some models here and there for how to get into college, and I followed the path that opened up to me as a result.
I identified fairly early on as a good writer (evidence of this blog notwithstanding), and being closed out of any number of options by my struggles with advanced mathematics in high school (struggles that could have been overcome with tutoring, it turns out), I was encouraged by my association with an Explorer post focused on advertising, journalism and public relations to develop my talents in that direction. In those post-Watergate years, journalism was considered a somewhat glamorous, respected trade, and we all wanted to be investigative heroes. So even though my high school didn’t have a newspaper, I had some opportunities to practice and found myself at a two-week summer camp for high school journalists held at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. That thing led to another thing that led to me winning a very significant scholarship to attend Newhouse. So there was my path, that was where I would go, what I would do. I’d be a newspaper major. There was no Plan B, or even a thought of one. I didn’t apply to other schools or think about other majors. I literally didn’t know how to do anything else.
Once I got to Syracuse, I immediately became immersed in the newspaper world, getting a job at The Daily Orange before school had even begun and getting to know every aspect of newspaper production (which I already had a pretty good handle on). And so when I came to my crisis of confidence, when I decided I was probably not going to be the guy moving from city to city, from newsroom to newsroom, covering zoning board meetings and asking people how they felt about their family members dying, I cast about for other options, while working for a newspaper publisher. I found none. In the end, my only practical option was to finish my newspaper degree – I was too far in to switch majors. There was no additional scholarship money, and federal support had just been slashed. So, the only way out was through.
No regrets: a newspaper degree was essentially a broad liberal arts education, the kind that is eschewed today and has made every bit of difference to my life. And as I finished college, I was continuing to work in the production side of the newspaper business. For years, I had supported myself through various jobs in print production. Just before we were married, I made the jump to a dedicated typesetting shop and became a skilled, proud (and still opinionated) typographer (do not get me started on kerning these days). And I could have been happy doing that the rest of my life, but technology had some other ideas. It soon became clear that specialized typesetters would soon be replaced by anyone with approximately 10 fingers and a keyboard, and I was thinking about what my next act should be.
Having been trained to cover public service, I had always been interested in it and drawn to it, and one of my problems with journalism was that it was made up of people who criticized, but never did. (That’s just how it is.) And I wanted to be someone who did, who put themselves out there and took some risks and succeeded or failed. So I pointed myself in the direction of public service and went back to the same university, and to the most important school of my undergraduate years, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
There I worked toward my Master of Public Administration degree (initially while still working as a typesetter). I finished that program in June 1989, right after this album was released. I went on the roller coaster ride of looking for a new job in the public sector (not for the faint of heart or those in a hurry), and landed a fellowship with the New York State Senate in Albany that would begin in September. Always with an eye on that falling through (a previous “sure thing” had been lost to budget cuts), we prepared for that huge next big step. If I was going to work in Albany without a guarantee that would go on, we would spend a year somewhat apart, and in order to afford two apartments in two cities, and travel in between, we had to take a smaller apartment in Syracuse.
We gave up our beloved two-story in the old Victorian on Green Street, and moved around the corner into the ground floor of a converted carriage house (owned by the same wonderful landlord). Half our stuff went into storage until I could move it to a ghastly fourth-floor walkup in Albany. And then I had two and a half months to do . . . pretty much what I wanted. I took a series of temp jobs, all typesetting related (the business was so big back then there was a temp agency that focused on production arts resources), all over Central New York. On days when I didn’t have work, i went for hikes at Clark Reservation, went pretending to fish, rode my bicycle around. I learned to bake bread, and enjoyed lovely summer mornings in the little garden entryway of our apartment, sipping my coffee, letting the sun wash over me . . . and listening to this album. Over and over and over.
It was absolutely the summer of Joe Jackson for me. “Blaze of Glory” had just come out, and I snapped it up on CD immediately as a gift to myself in a time when we were practicing some pretty extreme austerity. I also got the two-disc “Live 1980/86” set that had come out the summer before. And that summer, I played them constantly.
“Blaze of Glory” hit me right where I was, right on that cusp, where that fun swagger of youth (“Down to London”) was fretfully giving way to true adulthood (“The Best That I Can Do,” for instance). There’s a wide variety of song styles in this album, but they somehow all tie together into a cohesive whole. While it doesn’t appear that Joe’s focus on this record was on live recording, as he had committed to on “Body and Soul” and “Big World,” I can tell you that when we got to see him perform this album that very summer, on Lee’s birthday, at Albany’s Palace Theatre, it was an absolutely perfect note-for-note complete performance of the album, beginning to end. (A posting at Setlist says he played “Breaking Us In Two” in the middle, and “I’m the Man” as the closer. Surrounding shows seem to have had more diverse setlists, but I agree with the poster who says this was a complete performance of the album.)
This has been an album I have returned to over and over. Any time I’m in a Joe Jackson mood, it’s this one, “Laughter and Lust” (on CD only, unfortunately), or “Body and Soul,” with “Big World” thrown in if I have the time. Because this came out in 1989, I did not have this on vinyl back then. This copy came to me only a few months ago, when we made a November run to Siren Records in Doylestown, and now that I’m back to primarily listening on vinyl, I was very glad to find it. In addition to the nine Joe Jackson albums I’ve featured here on vinyl, I have another 11 on CD only. While obviously some receive much greater play than others, they’re never less than interesting. And, like this one, they all encourage me to open up an emotional vein.