Rickie Lee Jones
Tragedy, beauty, and woozy sensuality
by Jacqui Hinchey
It's not true that only love can break your heart. The right song, the right singer, can make you despondent with longing for understanding and connection. Rickie Lee Jones does that.
Jones started out singing jazz standards in clubs around L.A. Her style grew out of the tradition of jazz singers personalizing standards, many of which she recorded in her 1983 album Girl at Her Volcano. But she's also very rock 'n' roll, and certainly pop; "Chuck E.'s In Love", from her eponymous 1979 debut, reached No. 4 on the Billboard charts. It's utterly charming but also has a compelling depth that few pop artists reach. Her voice is all woozy sensuality, lingering over some lyrics while passing over others, and her songs are layered with both the tragedy and the beauty of impassioned living.
When my sister was still in high school, in the late 1980s, she saw Jones perform at Meadowbrook. Jones was feisty and scolded audience members in the front row for talking among themselves. She said, "this is so hard" and abruptly stopped the performance and left the stage. She then sent the band away, returned to the piano, and did an amazing solo rendition of "Coolsville" that subsumed and overcame the audience's earlier disregard. My sister says that this was the moment in her life when she knew she needed to be a performer. Talk about power.
Sexual and substance abuse, as well as sinister yet joyously playful camaraderie amongst victims and perpetrators, are central themes in her early work, as in "We Belong Together" from Pirates:
Now it's daddy on the boozeThe refrain "we belong together" both sums up the emotional experience the song celebrates and draws the listener
And Brando on ice
Now it's Dean in the doorway
With one more way he can't play this scene twice
So you drug her down every drag of this forbidden fit of love
And told her to stand tall when you kissed her
But that's not where you were thinking ...
into its morally ambiguous web of exploitative mutuality.
Many of Jones' recent songs are about the mixed blessings of middle age. In "Wild Girl" from 2009's Balm of Gilead, a mother looks back on her own life on the eve of her daughter's twenty-first birthday:
Well it's hard to be older and poorIt is a beautiful song, at once heartbreaking and reassuring, resonating deeply with an awareness of life's interwoven pain and beauty. On a humid summer night when you're feeling a bit melancholy, you can listen and be reassured that you are not alone. Thank God for Rickie Lee Jones.
I don't dig it that much anymore
But everyday of my life I'm so proud I became his wife
Because I got to raise Charlotte
Jones performs at the Ark Aug. 26.
[Originally published in August, 2013.]
On August 27, 2013, Carolyn Venditti wrote:
Rickie Lee Jones has been a favorite of mine since the late 70's. She laid the groundwork for so many of today's female vocalists, but rarely gets the accolades she's due. Thank you for this wonderful article about a gifted woman.