The wondrous world of the poet songwriter
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Rickie Lee Jones concluded her 2008 tour, in support of her 2007 CD The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, with shows at the Cerritos Center September 25 and Escondido's California Center on September 26. Those performances came 29 years after she had been introduced to record-buyers with a self-titled vinyl core-sample.
Rickie Lee Jones capped a decade of recordings by pop poets now labeled singer-songwriters. Those ten years had been the salad days for a pantheon of writer musicians who crafted painfully revealing tunes and adamant political statements in privacy, then performed them in public before hundreds, thousands and occasionally hundreds of thousands of strangers. While their singer-songwriter labels have been pasted over with "Classic," the work of folks like Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Curtis Mayfield, Randy Newman, Lowell George, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne and dozens more continue to provide fertile worlds to explore. And, except for Mayfield and George, they continue to scratch out their personal messages for anyone who'll listen.
The one who most embraced a poetic sensibility – in general, arguably, but of a Beat tradition certainly – was Jones. The huge following she attracted off the first track of that first album slimmed down pretty quickly. “Chuck E’s In Love” remains her only hit single. It was a catchy cup of cool – clean and clear, yet heady and intoxicating. It tweaked the imagination as it freed the feet, and helped earn her a Grammy Award for Best New Artist of 1979. (She would receive only one more, for a duet of “Makin’ Whoopee” with Dr. John.)
The facts of her life, as outlined on the All Music Guide site, are printed at right. The real story lies between those lines, in spaces poked at by her poetry. Her songs glimpse her pursuit of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” (Imagine: a poet-President!)
Angels are a frequent image for her. Sometimes they are spirits, sometimes people. Sometimes, chillingly, as in a line like "I lied to my angel and now he can't find me," it could go either way.
Following her entire journey can get rough. Some have been turned off by her voice, or performance, which can turn inward on its own reflections to the apparent exclusion of the listener. But by starting with the words it carries, the voice is always understood. Whether she is playing siren, alarmist, or good-time girl showing the way to the next whiskey bar, chasing her across her eight original albums, three albums of covers and two live reworkings of her own material is a treasure hunt that pays off.
Hers was a carnival childhood. Her grandfather was a minor Vaudevillian who performed despite a peg leg. Her father was an amateur musician who wrote songs for his kids. But every life on the midway is one part neon-lit crowds and ten parts empty stalls and dragging your trunk to someone else's hometown. Abandonment was in the genes of her orphaned mother. She would inherit a predisposition to loneliness as she watched both parents wait tables, taking orders from strangers. Rickie would have it different. She'd decide what abandon meant for the artist; not taking orders from anyone.
She's paid the price of independence. A marriage in the 1980s produced a daughter, Charlotte Rose, but not a lasting relationship with her husband. Relationships with alcohol and drugs have been more sustainable, but were broken off some time ago. We met in September 2008, in a single exchange of writing in the weeks before her tour's end. Set up in advance of her Southern California dates the interview was a different kind of "Intermission." I sent four pages of text divided into eight broad questions or conversation points. She responded in kind. What follows is that Dialogue, with minor clean-up from both of us. It may be a truer picture than lengthy exposition would render -- the kind of unfiltered portrait that accident and gravity create when two old cans of paint tip towards one another. You'll want to read between the lines. Or duck.
RICKIE LEE JONES. First, once in a while a journalist offers up some piece of the puzzle in such a personal way that I am reminded how grateful I must remain for the chance to talk to anyone because of my music. It would be a lonely old life if I had not been tapped on the shoulder periodically and made to go out and dance.
CRISTOFER GROSS. I have worked in theater and found an interesting parallel in playwright Beth Henley, who emerged around the same time as you, populates her work with characters who are similarly recognizable and yet extraordinary, and had the challenge of huge commercial success right out of the box: winning the Pulitzer Prize for her first play. Beth draws from her Mississippi background to create a Southern Gothic world in the manner of Flannery O'Connor. How did early life shape your views or style and give your characters their quality? Did that early success help or harm your writing?
RICKIE LEE JONES. Funny, I met Beth at a New Year's Eve party at her house in ... 1983 or so. I had just become drug free, was living at a hotel, and ventured out. I always thought people were judging me, badly. The thing with the Golden Fleece was that it made me feel even more outside than I had already felt.
So success and failure affect us profoundly. But our poems, they are our imaginary world, and only if we allow in judging, and the anticipation of judging, are they affected. I protected them as best I could, and I guess that happens when they protect us. When you have to write or you may die, then your song or your poem is serving you as it always did. When you write because you are caged, or lonely, or have a great deal to say and no one to say it to, these are the reasons 12-year-olds and 70-year-olds write. I think.
Success looming as a result -- money, glory -- might make you think twice about a weird twist you are inclined to put, that no one else puts, and that you yourself judge. Later you learn that weirdness, that "not perfect" quality that was weird for the times, is what made a mark and is now repeated [by others]. What is perfect for the time, like say Steely Dan, so high, so cruel, funny, smart, is not seen that way now. They went into the blood of things. They helped decree how it would be. But the weird stuff, that is what is visible from here. That today is respected. That is what listeners now say was important. Whether or not it was at the time. People listen to 'You Sexy Thing' because of a movie, but never heard of 'Gaucho.' Well, history is a big revisionist.
So your question is evocative but impossible to determine. My life was affected, and if I had not had success, the possibility that I would have been a waitress and never written is more than high.
CRISTOFER GROSS. Is it possible to characterize the way your poetry comes to you? Is it ciphering (sorting out what comes through the conduit from beyond)? "Smithing" (working anvil, hammer and tongs to bang out each word, phrase and stanza from "found" items)? Or something else?
RICKIE LEE JONES. Ahh. I am more a cipher and a collage artist. I like to paste things on for my own amusement, imaging that the true language of [the] thing is still to be revealed. I like to use the Moment, what is happening right now, and then be done with that. I do this on stage as well as when I write. The smithing of it, I am only just starting to return to. It could have been laziness, or the practicality of being a parent that called for me to say it quick before the baby returns. But I also have learned and like to teach that we know what we have to say, and we should just say it. The rest, excuse me, is a kind of masturbation. We like to just stay there and keep trying to say it, 'cuz it's fun and feels good. But we know just what we have to say. Let it out. And go on.
I did a little writing exercise with some actor friends. Said you have five minutes. I want eight lines and here is the rhythm you are using. A second exercise was the same, and I said, here is the chorus that will be. And in five minutes we had made two beautiful songs. Each verse was very different, and yet, like Dylan, bound by the chorus for its meaning. Or the melody cast a shadow that made it all one. This is true for all writing.
I think the jazz aspect of my character, or the artistic aspect, is that I like to Believe, I have Faith, and I like to practice that. Let's believe we are one, that we have a purpose, and proceed as such. Let go of your ego, your particular guitar lick, and be part of the one. Fly with me and let me fly with you ...
The pop part makes me shy [away] from absolute chaos, on behalf of the audience. But it is very fun to play that kind of thing. Ghostyhead live was some of my greatest moments.
CRISTOFER GROSS. A brief, one-question return to the early records. I have a particular fondness for Pirates. Maybe it was where I was at the time, or its filmic qualities. But my spirit never fails to be stirred to bursting during that early section of "Belong Together" where certainty emerges out of uncertainty. It's the part with the lyrics "a scene so custom tucked . . . now look who shows up, in the same place, in this case, I think it's better to face it . . ." It's a merging of sound, statement and performance that has specific focus and yet is relevant on many levels to the meanings within the song.
With that pre-ramble, can you talk about the musical side of your creativity and how the music arrives to carry the poetry?
RICKIE LEE JONES. Well, in this case, I heard it all as one: The piano part and the rhythm of the lyric. The speaking of it, which it is, a spoken melodic thing. Uh, it's an interior picture, full of close-ups, landscapes, extras, and it came out that way. The movie of my real life. The real life of my fictional life of my big success and love affair and all of them made into characters, fire escapes, movement, shadow. If I had set out to do it.... But letting it out, that is the shape it took.
CRISTOFER GROSS. I find Best Day [2003's The Evening of My Best Day ] to be filled with exuberant cheer, and yet the songs are laced with your most scathing attacks of specific, contemporary political players and events. Fun references to Steely Dan share the stage with First Family name-calling and questions about the their possible involvement in a plane crash. The title, too, has an elegant half-empty, half-full playfulness. Evening could represent that your best day is over, and/or it could be the best part of that best day. So, with that background, can you talk a little about the strange place we're in politically? How we arrived here? Whether Americans can find respect after electing a George W. Bush, a man of modest intellectual gifts, the leader of the free world? And how such tragedy inspired you to make such an embraceable LP?
RICKIE LEE JONES. I am afraid that I have lost faith in the process. I have swung totally left. I see the entire middle as moving so far right. The numbing of Americans and in their desperate faith they continue to reach for any flotsam to hang on to.
I think Bush did so much damage that we cannot even begin to count it here. But from the larger issues, which include the Patriot Act, or the legalization of torture, to the smallest loss of faith in our own culture, like, well, the count seems to be in question, should we not do this again? No, I am president, that's it. And then the series of things that happened, the "bombing," which quite obviously is a detonation, yet so unspeakable that no one will discuss it, believe it, like the Germans with Hitler, they cry "we did not know."
But we do know. There was a coup. Someone detonated the World Trade Center, not too many were killed. Then a lot of gold went missing. And then the president seemed to be involved. Because when they told him NYC had been bombed, he kept reading to the kids, since he had been told that he would leave there before he got the news, and did not know what to do. For NO ONE IN THE WORLD kept doing what they were doing when they heard New York City had been bombed, except President Bush and the children.
And I see the same mechanism in place, I am afraid, for Obama. The same machine that discredited Gore discredited Hillary and drove her out and placed this guy instead. The fact that he is not as terrible as Bush does not seem to move me as much as the fact that a machine seems to decide. AOL picked Obama and published silly pictures of Hillary. What if they had made fun of his suit? or worse, of his nappy hair? Why is it ok to be sexist and not ok to be racist?
Women around the world have been subjugated so long. We are tortured, murdered, raped every single day in every city in every country around the world.
To me it was a more important social victory to elect a woman, but only because she was immensely qualified. I admit that toward the end she seemed to be under the advice of her enemies, saying and doing weird things. But maybe they wanted Obama, too. I mean, her staff.
I only know that universal health care almost destroyed her husband's presidency, and stopped her campaign. This so called black man, and forgive me for this, because I do not find him to be very black, only rather racist, is not for universal health care. He is a part of the machine of men in suits, of wealth, of privilege. And while I agree that his speeches are good, they are empty vessels, and do not ever really say what exactly he will do. Except, heck, he still intends to go to war. So how different really is he? Not too different, and that is why he was selected like Bush, and Hillary driven out.
So I have lost faith in the process. They put someone so frightening as the Republicans have on the other side. I mean, we are not out of the woods, in spite of Obama, none of these people is a true and right candidate. We are caught in a vortex and we are being sucked out of the world we knew 20 years ago into a new and terrible one. I hear people say they like him because he is a good speaker. OK, I understand that. But what does he say? What is he going to do?
No one can say.
McCain sure says what he is going to do, and that, while I admire the honesty, is some pretty frightening and terrible stuff. Why must they be so awful? Kill the bears, cut the trees, there is no such thing as pollution. I mean, come on!
CRISTOFER GROSS. The most recent record is inspired by a book that has strained The Bible's text of all but dialogue spoken by Jesus. (Talk about hooking up the conduit!) While such direct religious symbolism seems new to your work, there have been plenty of references to the spirit world, the human physical laws, and especially ghosts and angels along the way. My belief is that existence carries an implicit commandment for excellence, justice, compassion et al. I think you may have summed it up better than I've ever seen in something I read on your site: "[We must do good]. . . For no particular reason except that it is the business of the living to do this." Can you talk about this realm and the artist's role in accessing it for others? Especially given how hard it is to talk about spiritual meaning with so much of that subject commandeered by profiteering pulpit-pounders
RICKIE LEE JONES. Pulpit pounders have little to do with faith, Christ, God, love. They are like little demons who wait at the door of heaven and try to steer you away. They remind you of these earthly things and all you can HAVE and all you can JUDGE and all you can GIVE to THEM ... It's very, very strange. I guess people feel so lonely and powerless they want to be part of community, so they take this one. But it has little and nothing to do with spirit. I give that I do not have all the facts or answers, but I can see a jackotrades, and a jackal in a camel hair coat is still a jackal. These people take the alms and buy themselves and their families new cars, tailor-made clothes, and lots of wall-to-wall carpeting. Who the heck are they and how to they continue? I see how they appeared, in rural areas one hundred years ago, with all the booze using men's salaries, and the poverty before the union, I understand. But how did it continue? Wow.
I guess I believe that it's the responsibility of people -- especially people who Believe, have faith, who Know, and See -- to act. Because others are acting all the time. The story is on. The balance is being wrangled.
CRISTOFER GROSS. Speaking of your Web-writings (thank you for all that access), I love your challenge to come up with a list of influential singer/songwriters. Three more I think are unappreciated are Lowell George, Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott Heron. I know you have a pivotal relationship with George. Could you comment on one or more of these three if they have any special place in your heart?
RICKIE LEE JONES. I must choose Curtis Mayfield, because I have a longer relationship with him. He is part of the blood of my translator; how I translate my feelings onto paper. Sometimes I like to sing like him -- same register -- and I FEEL him, you know. I dig his politics, his black power stance, his R&B, his loving family kind of riff. I don't know if this was true, but I like it from the outside. I know he was a bit of a whitey hater, which is really unfortunate, but I see this as an evolution to get to a place of glory and love. Having been hated one must rise against it. For a moment, maybe, hate them to get the strength to rise. But then it would only eat you alive. [You] must love them, love the enemy, with all your might.
I love the junkie stuff ["Superfly"], his kind of movie themes, they were just a tiny bit square at the time, but ring true so well as years go by. I like him a lot.
CRISTOFER GROSS. Do you think today's singer-songwriters are thrust into a vast commercial "sink or swim" situation before most have time to incubate their art in a protective bubble of obscurity?
RICKIE LEE JONES. It is changing so fast now. The companies, like the Berlin wall, and probably, unfortunately, like our democracy, are crumbling. [On the other hand,] singer-songwriters really can be heard by the whole world instantly now. It's amazing: the Internet.
CRISTOFER GROSS. This question of success in the marketplace vs. success on the page and in the sound is an area of concern. You and Joni Mitchell both have been adamantly true to the art. You have a sentence in your online "Book of Liars" about your grandfather that I think captures the dichotomy: "On the stage there would always be laughter, his ghost would always stay a little longer for the real cord of their appreciation to sink in, and when he left, he would hobble down the alley with the fury of the one-legged." Has it been hard to keep that "real cord" of appreciation in sight? How do you know when you get it?
RICKIE LEE JONES. Wow. Thank you for sending me this writing of mine. I have not seen it. I guess I write it and then ride away. Nice writing!
Well I guess this is talking about staying for the glory, the love, the appreciation. I imagine the Vaudevillians loved applause and made no bones about it. I am teaching myself to stay for that part, to allow it to wash over me. To stand there and look at them. I always want to run away before they stop or before someone throws a tomato. Figuratively, I mean, not to invite someone to bring vegetables. Though that would be a funny tradition to bring back. Better than being shot.
CRISTOFER GROSS. Finally, a question about critics and their usefulness, if any. . . I've started writing theater reviews after decades of reading (mostly dreadfully uninformed) criticism. I have to believe it's a function that can help chronicle, interpret and, of course, promote.
Have you been well-served at all by music critics? Have they improved or changed at all since your first release?
RICKIE LEE JONES. My work has been very well served by critics. I believe they have been generous. From this generosity I have learned this thing – they want to love. They welcome the unique and original, they are not there to destroy you. But they do not want a lot of fodder either. They are the sharks, and I happen to love sharks a lot. I swim with sharks.
In fact I hope to become a voice to save this oldest of living creatures before the Chinese and crazy Australian kill them all. That didn't mean Australians are crazy, I meant to refer to the crazy ones.
I saw a film recently where the man held a great white shark, its eyes darting about like a child being kissed by a sloppy aunt. It was so moving, terrifying, and important. When we are made to realize the escalation of the effects of our attitudes, behaviors, on the animal kingdom, we sometimes rise to great and immediate resolution. We did this with the whales. We can, and must do this with the sharks. For though they may scare us as much as the whales scared our ancestors, they are the oldest unchanged living thing. For hundreds of millions of years they have lived and cared for the sea, their home, the main biosphere of this planet.
We have killed so many species off in the past 25 years, since Jaws, certainly, and since the Chinese decreed that the peasants could eat shark fin soup. Outlaw shark fin soup, or make the price of sharks prohibitive. Save this animal. I Know that Costa Rica is also interested in this cause. For it you ever saw a film of them cutting off the fin of this regal animal and throwing it, alive, back into the water, I think your heart would break, just a little more, for one more broken jewel in the crown of humanity. If we have dominion over the creatures, why don't we act like it, and be a steward to the land and the living things?
But, to get back to critics . . . Critics have opened up to me in amazing ways, offering their best. Critics have dismissed me, which is the greatest of sins. But I figure that was only uneducated kids. Critics have guided me, and misguided me. And, in the end, we are all just people doing our very best now.
Our very best.
Wonderful questions and remarks. I must go tend to my horses now. Adios