“Awkward Age” / Joe Jackson
Last week I made up some new iPod playlists, lining up fresh tunes to exercise to. (Spring is here; I must eliminate every excuse to avoid the gym.) Well, today in mid-workout this Joe Jackson song (from his 2003 album Volume 4) dialed up -- and right there on the elliptical trainer, I suddenly homed in on what a brilliant track it is. Joe Jackson songs tend to sneak up on you like that.
“I should have known you were only just fifteen,” Joe starts out the song (that’s GOT to be an intentional echo of “Well she was just seventeen, you know what I mean”). But with its frantic pace and octave-jumping melody, this is no simple teenage love song. He sketches in more details: “You had a scowl like a Klingon beauty queen / Old enough to stand out / But too young to stand with pride / So uncomfortable in your messed-up skin.” I see the spotty complexion, the ill-at-ease posture, the defensive glower. I know that girl. I’ve been that girl. And just like Joe says, in a line that soars yearningly upward, “And the cool parties never let you in…” Joe, you’ve been reading my diary again.
“Don't cry,” he consoles her/me in the chorus, “You're just at an awkward age.” But in verse two, Joe really nails my heart, as he brings himself into the scene: “You look at me like I know what's going on.” I visualize Joe Jackson – tall, thin, pale, gawky, balding – and it’s like one of those toys you wiggle it back and forth to make the picture change: I see the teenage Joe lurking under the adult Joe, just like the teenage me always moping around beneath my adult face. “I got a mind that goes out to lunch for days / And a body that sometimes disobeys.” So what has changed now that we’re older? Not a helluva lot, Joe ruefully points out. “I get into the parties / But I hate them 'cos I'm shy / Oh my... / I'm still at an awkward age.”
Now comes the killer bridge, with its jerky punk rhythms and a melody that staggers down the scale: “We're supposed to be happy / Supposed to be tough / Supposed to be flawless / And buy the right stuff.” Joe is absolutely right. Psychologists blather on about adolescent peer pressures, but who do you know who isn’t still vulnerable to them? And Joe can only offer enormous empathy – “It's a scary mountain to climb up without a guide / Besides... / We live in an awkward age.” Just a little few words changed, and suddenly it’s not our fault, it’s the world around us.
When I was in high school, I had a secret weakness for boys like Joe Jackson – the skinny shy nerds with wicked senses of humor. Maybe I knew even then that someday they’d turn out cooler than anybody else.