La Toya, the Least Talented, Most Relevant Jackson, Gets Reissued

[caption id="attachment_29869" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="La Toya Jackson performs at the Michael Forever concert in Cardiff, U.K., October 2011. Photo: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images"]La Toya Jackson[/caption]

To hear her tell it sometimes, La Toya Jackson never wanted a recording career. In her first memoir, 1988's salacious La Toya, she said that it was "thrust upon" her by the Jackson family patriarch Joseph. La Toya wrote that she was "dismayed" when presented with her first single, 1980's "If You Feel the Funk," because it contained the line, "If you feel the funk, shake your rump." She took exception not because those words are stupid, but because she felt her staunch faith as a Jehovah's Witness at the time precluded her from commanding people to shake their rumps. She was special from the start, that La Toya.

"The very idea of taking the music of La Toya Jackson seriously enough to make it pristine and completist would seem to many like an exercise in camp, or maybe where polishing a turd and electing Carrie to prom queen intersect."

It's difficult to know just what to make of anything La Toya Jackson says, as her most effective medium has been public speaking with a special niche in flip-flopping. She'd go on to tell Barbara Walters in 1984 that despite her initial apprehension, she was loving "every minute" of her music career. Her first memoir would be largely recanted in her second memoir, Starting Over, in which she claimed that the prior book was written under the influence of her abusive former husband/manager Jack Gordon (she went as far as to suggest he'd given her mind-altering drugs). Yet in Starting Over, she does consistently claim that music was never her first love and she never felt that she embraced it. She admits the ridicule that came as a result of her art (or whatever it was), saying that at one point she was ready to turn her back on it for good. It only took her nine albums to realize it.

Two of those albums are now being treated more nicely than they ever have been by R&B reissue label Funky Town Grooves. The Brooklyn-based Sony imprint has just put out remastered and expanded versions of 1984's Heart Don't Lie and 1986's Imagination. Funky Town Grooves specializes in going deep, and yet the very idea of taking the music of La Toya Jackson seriously enough to make it pristine and completist would seem to many like an exercise in camp, or maybe where polishing a turd and electing Carrie to prom queen intersect.

That's not quite the case for Heart Don't Lie, which more often than not is a solid, funky entry in the post-disco, pre-house window. The finest song La Toya ever recorded was its lead single, "Bet'cha Gonna Need My Lovin'." Though it doesn't buzz with technology as hard as much of its boogie brethren of the time, its limber bass line is electrified enough to sound fresh today. Something of a cross between Jean Carn's "Was That All It Was" and Junior's "Mama Used To Say," it whooshes and cowbell-clinks and pops with a four-on-the-floor immediacy.

"Bet'cha Gonna Need My Lovin'" would work as a straightforward dancefloor warm-up, were it not for La Toya's irrepressible eccentricities. She didn't write "Bet'cha" (it and most of the album is the work of Kay-Gees guitarist Amir Bayyan), but she also clearly didn't protest about the trite rhyme and daffy redundancy of its chorus: "I knew it from the start you need my carin' heart." La Toya's vocal comfort zone is confined to about half of an octave. Anything above and her voice curdles or adopts a moany falsetto a la Miss Piggy. Anything too low is virtually undetectable by the human ear. Her interpretation skills seem to have resulted from her hearing the word "sultry" and attempting to infuse her work with that sensibility, despite not really knowing what it means. That said, there is something exciting about her singing not being bound by rules of taste -- it feels feral and unpredictable. It's exciting to hear in a time where virtually every vocal sound you hear in pop has been corrected in post production. "You'll believe in meee! Eee! Eee!" she shrieks, sounding like a cross between a titmouse and something not of this world.

Another of Heart Don't Lie's singles that La Toya did have a hand in conceiving is the similarly ebullient and lean "Hot Potato." In the leftfield boogie tradition of songs like Gwen Guthrie's "Hopsctoch" and "Peanut Butter," as well as Karen Young's "Deetour," "Hot Potato" is just plain weird. The central imagery is muddled. "Gonna drop you like a hot (Hot!)/ Hot potato (If you don't stop messin' around)," sing La Toya and her back-ups, resorting to schoolyard games to express grownup decisions (also, her dude is hot and a potato?!?). A chanted refrain is even more bizarre: "Let the doorknob hit cha where the dog shoulda bit cha!" This is reinforced by rhythmic barking noises. Seriously. La Toya's character seems to gain confidence over the course of the song, at first issuing a warning, then muttering a spoken request to...some ally ("Get him out of my life/ I don't want any parts of him") and finally directly proclaiming, "Get out of my life!"

[caption id="attachment_29868" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images"]La Toya Jackson[/caption]

La Toya's dependence on men (usually the wrong ones) is on record and her elusive confidence is apparent in her frequently heard nervous baby giggle, and so it's tempting to read "Hot Potato" as something that approaches actual expression as opposed to the act of desperation her music is generally regarded as. In general, Heart Don't Lie isn't heavy, but it is an appropriately strange record for the black sheep of the Jackson family. It features her biggest pop hit (the reggae-lite title track peaked at No. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100), an adequate Prince cover ("Private Joy," first on Controversy), a ballad that approximates the melody of DeBarge's "Who's Holding Donna Now" ("Without You") and plenty of pleasant post-disco filler. Like La Toya herself, its quirks prove endearing the more time you spend with them.

"La Toya Jackson's entire time in the public eye has consisted of one amazing turn after another, seemingly guided by dream logic."

Its follow-up, 1986's Imagination, is flat-out insane. Settling for the flabby, speedy new-wave inspired mediocrity of mid-'80s dance music (think incidental music for TV aping "Meeting in the Ladies Room" and "She Blinded Me with Science"), its replay value is about one 10th of Heart Don't Lie. But as a self-contained listening experience, there is so much to enjoy. The hilarity that results from bemusement is not unlike that which comes from listening to the wackiest Italo disco. Mike Piccirillo and his partner Gary Goetzman, previously responsible for MOR fare from the likes of Smokey Robinson and Robert John, helmed Imagination. This album veers far from the middle of a road and into a ditch. The title track, in which La Toya's object of desire is praised for his inventiveness and for owning a "futuristic car of the year," is little more than an excuse to have La Toya screech several variations of "Eeeee!" "How Do I Tell Them" is a song about being dumb, as La Toya's character struggles to invent scenarios that will make her failed relationship sound less humiliating to her friends. "Do I say he joined the army? Or lost in Katmandu/ I gotta find a story that's better than the truth," moans the former Psychic Friend/admitted fabulist. "On a Night Like This" is Caribbean like a store called Jamaican Me Crazy is Jamaican. This Conway-quality bastardization of "Rhythm of the Night" (again with the DeBarge!) opens with one amazing declaration: "I'm thinkin' I've had enough of this livin' in the city, uh huh / I'm thinkin' this world's too tough, I wanna feel soft and pretty." During the bridge, we get to the root of the psychology of La Toya, a woman who claims little responsibility for much of what she's done with her life: "Tropical breezes always make me feel/ Like I've got the world on a string." Who could blame her for chasing control?

And then there is "Love Talk." Oh boy, is there "Love Talk." The music approximates a Balearic version of Kool & the Gang's "Joanna" and is crying for a contemporary re-edit. It opens with La Toya's patented giggle and soon she's promising whomever she's singing to that she will show him "What it's like to be a man." She attempts to accomplish this by talking love talk (literally, the chorus goes, "Let's talk love talk"): "Just relax, settle back/ I'm gonna give you all the natural facts." This would probably be worth doing just to find out what the hell she's love-talking about. But the best, most absolutely hilarious moment on either of these re-issues is La Toya's ad-libbing at the end of "Love Talk," after an obligatory sax solo. This is what she says in full: "Oh, I love what you're saying to me. Oh. That's it, keep on whispering in my ear. Aw. [Giggle.] Oh, I like what you're doing! Oh yeah. Tell me what you said, please say it again. Aw. Oh! [Giggle.] I'm loving every minute of it. [Half giggle.] Tell me what you said, please say it again. Did I really say that? You've gotta be kidding me. Yeah ..."

She can't even believe herself, and with good reason. La Toya Jackson's entire time in the public eye has consisted of one amazing turn after another, seemingly guided by dream logic. She may be the least talented member of her family to have seriously pursued a career in music, but her sense of spectacle rivals that of any of her siblings. For that reason, her music is more relevant than ever in a time when attention is a form of currency. The slightest genetic shift could have made La Toya another Janet, but the so-close-yet-so-far effect of her work in contrast to her family's makes La Toya Jackson the ultimate outsider. Even she didn't want to be inside of her music. Her work is a Bizarro World, a what-if scenario, an unintentionally by-any-means-necessary commitment to entertain. Listen and marvel.

Heart Don't Lie and Imagination reissues are out now on Funky Town Grooves. Rich Juzwiak created this soundboard of La Toya Jackson soundbite to celebrate the release: