Rickie Lee Jones
From the jaunty tilt of her scarlet beret to her languid drawl, Rickie Lee Jones was the epitome of effortless cool in 1979.
That winter, pop radio and the Billboard Top 100 that winter was a hodgepodge: Rod Stewart rasping about his sexy quotient, the sleek glitter-ball grooves of disco, and the softballs of what's now kindly dubbed yacht rock.
On the more outer fringes of fanzines, downtown record stores, and adventurous FM, the choices were boundless, whether the insolent thrash of punk, the jagged riffs of Talking Heads, or the Sugar Hill Gang's seeds of hip hop. But Jones's jazzy shuffles, embroidering blithe, bluesy and savage tales of streetwise souls, strolled into all worlds: mainstream radio latched onto "Chuck E.'s in Love" (written for her L.A. compadre, the singer and songwriter Chuck E. Weiss) while everyone else swiftly picked up on tracks like "Young Blood," "Weasel and the White Boys Cool," and "Danny's All-Star Joint." The album's wistful jewel, "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963," even showed up on the soundtrack to 1980's "Little Darlings." (And improbably, "Chuck E.'s in Love" even made an appearance in a 2014 blind audition for NBC's "The Voice.")
The songs on Rickie Lee Jones, which turns 40 at this writing, were not so much sung as viscerally lived by Jones. There's an vibrant immediacy to the record that still feels fresh today, whether the elegiac "On Saturday Afternoons in 1963" or the street hustle of "Young Blood," with its sassy after-midnight strut. The desolate "The Last Chance Texaco" is a hundred Edward Hopper paintings tucked inside of a single song; never has anything that lonely sounded more beautiful.
When Jones appeared on "Saturday Night Live" in April 1979, singing "Chuck E.'s in Love" and the rueful, hushed "Coolsville," the aftermath was as seismic as Kate Bush's ethereal performance on the show a handful of months earlier. Each musician cast light on her unicorn-like uniqueness, unapologetically nonconformist and forthright in their femininity.
Jones's wild child mystery was both her superpower and her fortress in her early twenties. She won a Grammy for Best New Artist in 1980, the only woman nominated in an ocean of testosterone (her fellow nominees were Dire Straits, Robin Williams, the Knack, and the Blues Brothers), but she remained skittish with her sudden surge of fame. In early interviews, she longed for her artistic authenticity to be acknowledged — she was not a schtick, beret be damned — and sometimes expressed her frustration with other musicians, like Joni Mitchell, who she felt didn't understand jazz or rough living as Jones did. In retrospect, it's curious to read the mystified description of Jones offered by her ex-lover Tom Waits in Rolling Stone, published the summer her debut album blew up on the charts.
”I love her madly in my own way — you’ll gather that our relationship wasn’t exactly like Mike Todd and Elizabeth Taylor — but she scares me to death," said Waits to writer Timothy White. "She is much older than I am in terms of street wisdom; sometimes she seems as ancient as dirt, and yet other times she’s so like a little girl.”
When asked about Waits's quote years later by The Guardian, and why she might have scared her then-boyfriend, Jones replied, "Well gee, I dunno. I know he loved me… but I probably wasn't the safest of personalities, you know? And I was a pirate."
Perhaps Jones's feral instinct, that pirate's bravado, saved her, enabling her to survive that jarring trampoline bounce to fame. While girlish insouciance flashes through some of Jones's songs on 1981's Pirates, her astonishing second album, it's a brilliantly mature work for such a young musician. Jones and producers Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman (who had also produced her debut) knew they likely couldn't match the runaway success of Rickie Lee Jones, so they freely experimented, restructuring the shape, terrain, and space of her songs and the nuances of her labile voice. Jones's lyrics not only excavated the pain of her breakup with Waits, but immortalized drug buddies and bad habits, as she explained to NPR back in 2017. "It's not possible to walk the footsteps I walked back then," she said.
Pirates opens not with a punch, but a full-throated plea via three songs of infinite contemplation: "We Belong Together," "Living it Up," and "Skeletons." Jones revels in her vocal versatility, track by track, relishing the brash scatting of "Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking" and surrending to gossamer gasps that barely hold "The Returns" together, before the song dissipates like morning mist.
If anything, Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates gave Jones the determination to be herself, a proud originality that followed on releases like the winding romantic vexation of the 1984's The Magazine and the exquisite dreamscape Flying Cowboys, produced by Walter Becker, which followed five years later. Jones smartly gathered dozens of like-minded collaborators along the way, like her longtime friend Sal Bernardi, Leo Kottke, Syd Straw, Dr. John, David Hildago, Alison Krauss, and Lyle Lovett. (Lovett and Jones's 1992 duet, "North Dakota," from Lovett's Joshua Judges Ruth, might be one of the prettiest songs ever recorded.)
Beginning with her earliest live shows, Jones has always covered the songs she admires. Beginning with the release of her 1983 EP, Girl At Her Volcano, she has recorded songs written by other people too. Favorites frequently appear on albums, like David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," from 1994's Traffic from Paradise, which she seizes and slyly transforms as one of her own urban legends. She released two entire album of covers, 1991's Pop Pop and 2000's It's Like This and she is not casual about that decision; as she told the New Yorker in 2012, she doesn't even really like the word "cover" for what she considers its own art form. She's revisited and rearranged her own songs too, on 1995's acoustic Naked Songs. A master of the perfect — and perfectly complicated — love song, she can be steely and glib ("The Real End") and besotted too ("Stewart's Coat").
In September when the rain comes
and the wind blows
I would see you walking in your coat
And if you'll let me
I will keep you here inside the stars
I will love the sound of my sheets
since you have moved beneath them.
- "Stewart's Coat," Traffic from Paradise
As much as Jones railed against her voice being sampled in the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds," back in 1990, her own adventures in electronica were a welcome surprise on 1997's Ghostyhead, finding the right balance between the melancholy and the ethereal on trippy tracks like "Matters" and "Little Yellow Town." Since 2000, she has released seven albums — including Live at Red Rocks and her most recent album, 2015's The Other Side of Desire, which broke a nearly decade of writer's block, and gave Jones the platform to ponder spirituality, motherhood, posh shoes ("Jimmy Choos"), loneliness, aging, unreliable decisions of the heart, and her dear dog Juliette.
Born in Chicago, raised in Arizona, and by the time she was a teenager, roaming California on her own, there is a peripatetic trait to Jones's songs. She's absorbed the energy of locales like Paris, New York, Florida, the Pacific Northwest, and New Orleans, the latter serving as the catalyst for The Other Side of Desire. She's also always colored her songs with the sunset pastels of her childhood in the American Southwest.
Out on the range
The quiet, endless still
Where the wild S.S.I
Whispers from these hills
It's a petrified forest
Trailer parks and fords
And there ain't no goin' back Rodeo girl.
- "Rodeo Girl," Flying Cowboys
It's admittedly reductive to always consider the affect of a female musician solely on other women: an artist's impact and body of work should never be confined by gender. But Jones's perspective, and the rolling mountains and valleys of her mutable voice, did touch her female listeners in a specific way. The free spirit that guides a young girl as she approaches adulthood, that wild horse or pirate, can be sublimated or destroyed by the whims, demands or desires of men. Jones understood that pain, and her songs were often in pursuit of unfettered liberty again.
In that same 2011 Guardian interview, when asked if she identified as a feminist, Jones replied, "I guess I do. I was raised by a strong mother and I never felt like I had to be a role, you know, I was just me, who I am. [Laughs.] Maybe that's what scared Tom."
In January 2019, AWAL Recordings re-released Rickie Lee Jones and Pirates on vinyl — shockingly, both albums have been out of print for years. For her four decades of bewitchery and brilliance, and making a few old boyfriends uneasy with her illimitable talent, FUV celebrates Rickie Lee Jones as an FUV Essentials artist.
#FUVEssentials: Rickie Lee Jones (Spotify playlist compiled by FUV's Rita Houston)