I fell in love with Rickie Lee Jones a long time ago. I remember the exact moment. And no, it wasn’t when I heard “Chuck E.’s in Love” or the rest of her first album. It should have been. I just relistened to it, and it is the best début album by a female solo artist that I’ve ever heard. I even saw her sing on SNL, “Chuck E.’s in Love” and “Coolsville.” I did marvel at her playing those Chuck E chords on an acoustic guitar. I know, what was wrong with me, right? How could I now have loved her then?
And no, it had nothing to do with the way she looked. At the time, I didn’t know that people called her the Mae West of Rock & Roll. And she’s never been one for glamour shots. Only a few of her albums even have her picture on the cover. And those that do are more about her inner life than her appearance. The iconic shot with her closed eyes lighting a tiparillo on the cover of her first album; with half her face in shadow on The Magazine and then again on the Duchess of Coolsville 20 years later. The closest thing to glamor is the cover of The Other Side of Desire. But even then, it’s just from the nose up with just the corner of her smile.
I remember the moment, though. I was studying in the lounge of my dorm. Must have been fall 1981. This girl that a knew a little — she was a transfer student – and she came into the lounge and said, “do you want to hear something amazing?” I think her name was Darcy. Smart guys would, of course, just say “yes” to a question like that. But idiot that I was, I said, “what is it?”
“Rickie Lee Jones.” I must have made a face expressing, I know her album; it’s ok, but . . . . Darcy wasn’t having that. She said, “come on, just listen” and she handed me her headphones. I put them in my ears, and Darcy cued up side 1 of Pirates. I listened to the whole first side of the cassette. She was right. It was one of the best album sides I’d ever heard. I took a quick trip to Flaming Groovies the next day and bought the LP with the iconic porch light photo on the cover and the little picture of Rickie and Sal on the back.
I couldn’t wait to hear side 2. “Pirates” the song blew me away. “He’s got a ’57 Lincoln that has a radio that hurts, and the girls try to touch it to find out if it works.” This girl had the goods. A jazz singer with a rock and roll heart and no pretension. She never approached the greatness of Pirates again. Not that anyone else has. It didn’t matter to me. I’ve loved everything she’s done, and I saw her play live every time I could.
Maybe 10 years ago, my friend was helping her build a house in LA. I kept thinking I should ask to go with him. I could meet Rickie and get her to sign my copy of Pirates. But the years hadn’t made me any smarter. I never did it. But I was smart enough to ask him to get us tickets when she played a local bar to try out some new songs.
After playing a set of mostly unreleased stuff, but also an amazing performance of “Stewart’s Coat,” she sat down at the piano and played “Horses.” Then, she said, “what do you guys wanna hear?” Idiots were shouting out “Chuck E.’s in Love.” And Rickie had to say, “come on, I’m sitting at a piano.” So, I shouted “We Belong Together.” And she played it.
Now, I didn’t see it. But afterward my friend told me that when she heard me shout it, she smiled and gave a thumbs up. So, that was my moment. Even though I didn’t see it, it was enough.
Naturally, I was thrilled about her writing an autobiography. Now normally, I don’t care about the artist growing up or any of that. I want to hear about their relationship to music. Rickie’s book doesn’t get to her music until about three quarters of the way in. But I loved it anyway. Her writing is poetic, lyrical in spots. It just sounds good, and it bristles with an edge of the fantastic that makes it even realer for being just a bit unreal. As Rickie puts it “I lived volumes long before I was famous.”
And Rickie’s story is amazing. Her home and school life were a struggle. But who’s isn’t. What makes her so interesting is that after turning 14, she spent about half her time on the run and half with her family sort of like a normal kid. She hitchhiked everywhere. Once, she went from Cali to Toronto once just because a guy said that the hippie group she had been living with in a cave in Big Sur should gather at this park in Canada on a certain day. She was the only one who made it. Or so it seemed. But then she met one other guy who did too.
And then, somehow, she ended up back with her folks, just a high school student again. Sitting in class and taking tests. And impressing the other rock & roll girl with her ability to play the intro to “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” in standard tuning. It’s a story worth telling, and man does she tell it.
And then, it really gets interesting. As far as I know, Rickie has never wanted to talk about her relationship with Tom Waits. But that just made us want to hear the details all the more, right? Well, in this book, she delivers the goods.
Waits and Jones were in some ways perfect. Like her, he’s a jazz singer with a rock and roll heart. Both are poets with a remarkable ability to rhyme in unusually attractive ways. Both had a flair for writing with a musical complexity that blended genres and explored the world of outsiders. Those who lived “on the corner of living on the run,” as Rickie would put it. And their voices, my god, both had such amazing range. I’m not talking about pitch, though Jones had that too, but emotional range from humor to joy to sadness. Sometimes, you could imagine one singing the other’s songs the emotional energy was so similar. Some tracks on Wait’s Foreign Affairs could easily have fit on Pirates. And can you image “I Never Talk to Strangers” with Rickie doing the duet with Tom. OMG.
It should come as no surprise that there is no truth to their relationship and how it ended. If there ever was, and there probably wasn’t, Rickie can’t remember it. But she takes us as close as one can get. First, she fesses up to absolutely adoring Waits. She doesn’t blame him for anything and sticks up for him in some ways. That back cover shot on his Blue Valentine album has always struck me as borderline exploitative. But she takes the blame, such as it is, explaining that he was getting frustrated, unable to get the shot he wanted for the album. She approached him to try to relax him, bringing her hands down the sides of his body and leaning back against the car. It worked. And knowing that she pulled him in makes it ok.
When it comes to the breakup, she takes the blame. Sort of. It seems that when they first hooked up, Waits saw it as just a one-night stand. But after Jones recorded her first album, they were all in. She never suggests that he was jealous of her success, or that her debut album was better than any of his records, even though his stuff was damn good.
After she returned from her first tour, they rented a house together. Jones describes Waits with a hose “watering the weeds” in the backyard while she cooked dinner. But she had dirty little secret that she told when things went bad. When she returned from her first tour, she started taking heroin again. As she describes it, returning from a tour is like coming home from the war. Adjusting is hard, especially the first time. And the junk can make it seem easier. She leaves it as maybe a better man could have gotten past it. But not Waits. Still, she knows she was wrong and doesn’t minimize it.
But then, there’s another level. She reveals that Waits was “always performing.” He played a drunken loser, and he played it well. But he wasn’t one. Rickie didn’t perform. She was all those things that she sang about. Down to the last dollar, and then some. Waits was a come-on-up-to-the-house guy, really. Rickie wanted to be that with him. But could she? Is that why she started using when they moved into the house? Did Waits realize that? She lays that out. Not in so many words. But she does it, and it made me love her even more.
Read the freakin’ book. You won’t be sorry. The descriptions of her youthful adventures; playing SNL for the first time; recording the first two albums; her first tour. It’s star dust memory that will make you cry.
My only complaint is that it ends with “and they all lived happily ever after,” after Pirates. She mentions The Magazine, Flying Cowboys, and her career taking a bad turn in the ’90s. But almost in passing. I wanted to hear more about what it was like to work with Becker, and the Cowboys tour where they had the table set up on stage with wine, bread and cheese. When a musician wasn’t playing, they sit at the table in indulge. Her experience as a mother. She’s played SNL two more times. How did they compare. What’s life like now that she fired my friend – rightly or wrongly – as her architect and moved to New Orleans.
I can hope for a volume two. But it’s not going to come. That’s ok, she gives us her soul in this book and on every record and in every performance. And you can buy a lot of them on her website where a copy of Pirates on vinyl is $6. About what I paid in 1981. The world is a cruel and joyous place, somehow. And this book makes sure you remember that.