Think of what you are about to read as a documentary film of sorts, replete with close-ups and fade-outs, starring the premiere song-stylist and songwriter of her generation, Rickie Lee Jones.
In this film we see: Rickie Lee Jones’ face, her distinctive mouth, and her thick, beyond shoulder length blonde hair as she walks down a road in a bucolic section of Tacoma, Washington, where she currently resides. It is springtime. She does not wear shoes. She carries a guitar. The sky overhead is as shiny as mica. As Jones searches for a place to sit and play in the sun, we see various aspects of her contemporary life come into frame, engaging Jones’ attention as she smiles, and listens, and reflects. We see her daughter, Charlotte Rose; Jones’ mother and siblings; various friends. All of these people come and go, passing in front of, and behind, our primary focus: Rickie Lee Jones playing her guitar and singing any number of her award winning songs: “Chuck E.’s in Love”, or her interpretation of the classic, “Making Whoopee”, for which she won a Grammy in 1990.
As Rickie Lee Jones sings, we hear, in voice over: Rickie Lee Jones is the second of three daughters and one son who are of Welsh and Irish ancestry. She was born on November 8, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents, Richard Loris Jones and Bettye Jane Jones, both had peripatetic childhoods: her father lived from hand to mouth in a number of transient hotels, and rode the rails, wandering the country. Her mother was an orphan. She has described her family as “lower-middle-class-hillbilly-hipster.
The late Mr. Jones was a performer who supplemented his income as a waiter, furniture mover, and gardener. (Richard Jones’s own father was a one-legged vaudeville and carny dancer named Peg Leg Jones. Jones says of her paternal grandfather: “I have one clipping of him, advertising his act, where his name is bigger than Milton Berle’s.”)
Bettye Jones worked as a waitress; later, she became a nurse.
Between jobs, Richard Jones taught his musically inclined daughter how to sing. And to honor that, Jones used to perform, in her early concerts, “The Moon is Made of Gold”, a lullaby her father wrote for her. Since her family led a largely marginal existence, Jones lived in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Arizona, and Olympia, Washington by the time she entered high school. By all accounts, Rickie Lee Jones was an extremely solitary child who was especially close to her older brother, Danny. Nevertheless, she preferred the secret world of her imaginary friends and playmates. In an interview, Bettye Jones said that her daughter’s imaginary playmates had “strange names like Bashla and SlowBeeSlow.” She continued, “[Rickie] would take them with her to church.”
When he was sixteen, Rickie’s brother, Danny, suffered a motorcycle accident that left him with one leg and partial paralysis. At the time, Rickie lived with an aunt. But she visited her brother in the hospital constantly. Her mother recalls that she would sing in the hospital’s elevator shaft. “You could hear it all around the hospital,” Bettye Jones has said. “It was the eeriest sound I think I ever heard.”
When Rickie was fourteen, she was living in Arizona with her father. Jones has said in an interview that her mother was always afraid she would run away - a heartbreak she couldn’t take - and so sent her to live with her father; her parents were separated by then. Jones recalls that she once ran away from her father as a result of his need to control his wildly imaginative young daughter, her burgeoning sexuality and charisma, and powerful talent. In an interview for a Rolling Stone cover story published in 1979, Jones said: “I never knew when I was gong to leave. I might be walking over to a kid’s house, when of all a sudden I would just stick out my thumb and hitchhike across three states.” In this, Rickie resembles Cissy, the heroine of Tom Robbins’ classic novel, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, the story of a young girl trying to find the world through the kindness of strangers offering her a ride to anywhere but here.
After high school in Olympia, which she had returned to in her mid-teens, Jones began singing more and more. She also wrote lyrics in a little notebook she kept. Sometimes, she’d sing the entire score of West Side Story, to amuse herself.
By the time she nineteen, Jones was living in Los Angeles, waiting tables and occasionally playing music in out of the way coffee houses and bars. All the while, she was developing her unique aesthetic - music that was sometimes spoken, often beautifully sung, and while emotionally accessible, she was writing lyrics as taut and complex as any by the great American poet, Elizabeth Bishop. In her voice and songs, we saw smoky stocking seams, love being everything but requited. And it was during these years that Jones’ song, “Easy Money”, caught the attention of one musician and then the music industry. The song was recorded by Lowell George, the founder of the band, Little Feat. He used it on his solo album, Thanks, I’ll Eat It Here. Warner Brothers auditioned Jones and quickly signed her to the label.
Her debut on Warner Bros., Rickie Lee Jones, released in 1979, won the Grammy for Best New Artist. She was hailed by one critic as a “highly touted new pop-jazz-singer-songwriter” and another critic as “one of the best - if not the best - artist of her generation.” In addition to the album’s brilliant songs, including the exceptional “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, the haunting “Last Chance Texaco”, and the popular “Chuck E’s in Love”, Jones was becoming a figure whose life was bearing a great deal of emulation by young women and men who found, in her deep and personal and idiosyncratic life and work, a model for the new generation of hipster: She was heralded as a trendsetter in dress (beret, sundresses, heels) and in lifestyle, given her by then famous relationship with two boys she helped to make famous, too: Chuck E. Weiss, a Los Angeles character, and the singer and songwriter Tom Waits, about whom Rickie has said: “We walk around the same streets, and I guess it’s primarily a jazz-motivated situation for both of us. We’re living on the jazz side of life.”
Two years after the release of Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates (Warner Bros.) appeared. It was even darker, and deeper, and richer than the first album, and included the haunting “We Belong Together”, and “A Lucky Guy”, which Jones has said grew out of her life with Waits.
The brilliant characterizations she builds in the lyrics for “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking”, and “Traces of the Western Slope”, are amplified by her voice, which, at times, has the lonesome sound of a train whistle on a wind swept prairie and, at other times, sounds like nothing so much as laughter winding down into a whisper, or a sigh. The album confounded expectations. Jones was fast becoming a poet of the disenfranchised who eschewed any purely commercial considerations when it came to making a song. Ironically, Jones has always had a strong and solid fan base that has always purchased the album Rickie Lee Jones means them to have.
On Pirates - indeed, all her albums - one has to listen to what Jones has to say, which is not a hallmark of most popular music. She has always been different because she conveys meaning not solely through her well-crafted songs, but through pure sound as well. In this way, she anticipated such innovative contemporary artists as Tricky and his primary vocalist, Martina, who riff on the texture of the singer’s voice. Jones’ vocal work also hearkens back to the great singer-song stylists of an earlier generation, ranging from Billie Holiday to Laura Nyro, who were intent on making us absorb reality from their lived point of view.
In 1983, Jones released her mini-LP, Girl at Her Volcano. The title was inspired by Malcolm Lowry’s brilliant autobiographical novel, Under the Volcano. The album was a rich selection of pop standards (the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee”) and jazz standards (Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life”). The album is emotionally risky, a walk in a mysterious emotional terrain that is alternately joyous and melancholy, peppy and spirited. Indeed, these are all the qualities that one finds again and again on Rickie’s next two albums, which again defied the music industry’s expectations: 1984’s luminous The Magazine and 1989’s Flying Cowboys (Geffen).
On The Magazine (which includes the revolutionary “Rorschachs: Theme for the Pope”, which predates her innovative work on her 1997 masterpiece, Ghostyhead), Rickie Lee Jones reached the apotheosis of her art - until then. Raw and sophisticated, the album is best viewed as a suite, one which begins punctuated by a journey. On The Magazine, girls walk down to Alphabet City in Manhattan to hang and talk with the street people she is separate from and not separate from and identifies with. On The Magazine, Jones is as much inside the scene as she is reporting on it. It is the penultimate album about urban alienation, and the poeticism inherent in going your own way.
Flying Cowboys, on the other hand, is the work of what initially seems like an entirely different person. On it, Jones has become wedded to the world. She is not as isolated as she’s been before. Prior to the album’s release, Jones married the French musician Pascal Nabet-Meyer, whom she met while on holiday in Tahiti (they have subsequently divorced). She also gave birth to her child, Charlotte Rose, for whom Jones wrote the moving “The Horses”, just as Richard Loris Jones had written “The Moon is Made of Gold”, for his daughter years and years before.
A sold-out world tour followed the release of Flying Cowboys. And in becoming the artist she meant to become - one who was rich in the history of show business lore, the bright lights and dark hearts of the carny world, hitting the road and not looking back - Jones paid homage to the tradition she had grown out of when she released POP POP, her long-awaited jazz album, in 1991. As Jones has written of it, the album was “a completely different treatment of jazz tunes than the usual piano, bass and drum setup,” in other words, Jones was reinventing the sound of the jazz standard by de-standardizing it, and finding the emotional core at the heart of frequently heard songs, such as her definitive cover of “My Funny Valentine”, and the hilarious and heartbreaking “Hi-Lily, Hi-Lo”, which sounds like a direct commentary on an old form: French bal musique. Like any writer, any artist, Jones evolves, personally and artistically; one works in tandem with the other.
Traffic from Paradise (1993) was produced, mixed and recorded by an all-female crew and has the energy less of a committed feminist than a woman who has grown comfortable in her skin, and who once said that her vulnerability as an artist, and as a woman, made convention seem like the least of her problems. And it is that nakedness - almost unbearable at times, in fact - that characterizes 1995’s Naked Songs (Reprise), perhaps the best live album ever made due to its extraordinary intimacy: you can hear the audience hanging on every note. Recorded over two nights at the Filmore in San Francisco, the album is comprised entirely of Jones penned-tunes, including astounding renditions of “The Magazine”, and “Last Chance Texaco”. The album is less a retrospective than a reckoning, of sorts: a perfect melding of past and present. The accretion of experience on Naked Songs, vulnerabilizes the listener, just as Jones’ most recent release, Ghostyhead (1997) is an amalgamation of her skills as a songwriter, song stylist, and engineer of sound.
Ghostyhead transgresses the idea of the artist Rickie Lee Jones was to become - an artist with enough laurels to rest comfortably in a glorious past and halcyon present. Again, she redefined her audience’s expectations. In Ghostyhead, which is the aural equivalent of painter Georgia O’Keefe’s most rigorous and beautiful canvases, Jones stands alone in her commitment to exploring the always new world of sound borne out of a profoundly original imagination. As Jones has written, “There is no fear before and no fear after. We give our best.” It is her credo, it is her gift to us. – by Hilton Als
After Ghostyhead, Jones largely retired from public view and admitted that she had battled writers’ block. She spent much of her time at her home in Olympia, Washington, tending her garden and bringing up her now-teenage daughter Charlotte.
Released on the independent V2 in October 2003, The Evening of My Best Day featured influences from jazz, Celtic folk, blues, R&B, rock, and gospel, and spawned a successful and lengthy spurt of touring. The album peaked at US #189 on the Billboard 200. The CD helped to swing her career away from an apparent middle-of the-road perception, a posture she seemed furiously bent on avoiding. She invited punk bass icon Mike Watt (the Minutemen, Iggy Pop) to perform on “It Takes You There”, while “Ugly Man” was a direct aim at the George Bush ‘regime’ evoking, with an anthem-like Hugh Masakala arrangement, what she termed ‘the Black Panther horns’, and calling for ‘revolution, everywhere that you’re not looking, revolution.
Renewed interest in Jones led to the three-disc anthology Duchess of Coolsville: An Anthology, released through reissue specialists Rhino in June 2005. A lavish package, the alphabetically-arranged release featured album songs, live material, covers, and demos, and featured essays by Jones as well as various collaborators, as well as tributes from artists including Randy Newman, Walter Becker, Quincy Jones, and Tori Amos.
Also in 2005, Jones was invited to take part in her boyfriend and collaborator Lee Cantelon’s music version of his book The Words, a book of the words of Christ, set into simple chapters and themes. Cantelon’s idea was to have various artists recite the text over primal rock music, but Jones elected to try something that had never been done, to improvise her own impression of the texts, melody and lyric, in stream of consciousness sessions, rather than read Jesus’ words. The sessions were recorded at an artist’s loft on Exposition Boulevard in Culver City. When Cantelon could no longer finish the project, Jones picked it up as her own record and hired Rob Schnaf to finish the production at Sunset Sound in 2007, and the result was The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, released on the independent New West Records in February 2006. It included “Circle in the Sand”, recorded for the soundtrack to the film Friends With Money (2006), for which Jones also cut “Hillbilly Song”. The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard debuted at #158 on the Billboard 200 and Number Twelve on the Top Independent Albums tally. Writer Ann Powers included this on her list of Grammy-worthy CDs for 2007.
It’s astonishing to think that Rickie Lee Jones would turn out an album this organic and free of cynicism 30 years after her debut with the star-making, retro-hipster hit “Chuck E.’s in Love”. Particularly since her songwriting has always been so acutely self-aware.
Nonetheless, Balm in Gilead (2009) needs only her sweet muted-trumpet voice and optimistic viewpoint to sail gracefully through its ten songs, which range from the ’40s-style guitar chamber jazz of “The Moon is Made of Gold” to the moaning, feedback-dappled hymn to transcendence that’s “His Jeweled Floor”. So it’s a bonus that Vic Chesnutt and Victoria Williams join her to form a chorus on the latter, and that Ben Harper adds his honeyed pipes to “Old Enough”, a song about an ebbing relationship, with a sunny doo-wop arrangement.
Alison Krauss also appears, crystallizing the country weeper “Remember Me” with her warm, expressive violin. Brimming with hope, Jones’s fourteenth album is a balm indeed.
Balm in Gilead (2009) features all-new material by the highly regarded and two-time Grammy Award-winning cult heroine Rickie Lee Jones. The album includes guest artists Allison Krauss, Ben Harper, Victoria Williams, Bill Frisell, Jon Brion and Vic Chestnutt.