MUSIC

Rickie Lee Jones and All That Jazz

Talking with the singer-songwriter about her breakthrough album in ’79, her memoir, touring again, and life in New Orleans

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Something came over me in the middle of singer-songwriter Rickie Lee Jones’s recent concert at City Winery in NYC. At the end of her song “Living It Up,” I wrote in my notebook: “Was I the only one who wanted to weep at the presence of this woman, this person, whose mind.…” I didn’t know how to describe her mind so left it at that. She had moved me beyond words with her performance of this complex song, in which the story of three streetwise but hapless characters evolves into a poetic exploration of what it means to be “living it up.”

But I could not have been the only one there stunned by Jones’s genius, even though some of us have been experiencing it since 1979, when the catchy, jazzy single “Chuck E.’s in Love” and her self-titled debut album transformed her life—and, some would argue, popular music. To quote myself, in a piece for Vanity Fair’s website more than 10 years ago, Jones sang like Billie Holiday on a rock bender. And somehow the world was ready for it: Her album went platinum and she won a Grammy for best new artist. Since then her fame has at times waned, but she’s continued to record and tour. And last year her memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour—written as carefully and creatively as her lyrics—brought renewed attention.

“These are happy days…. It’s a good job and we’re happy to have it,” Jones told the City Winery audience, referring to herself and her band: Mike Dillon (percussion), John Leftwich (bass), and Kai Welch (keys, guitar, trumpet). She added, “I feel like my only job is to come out here and love you.” And so she did, with her stories, witticisms, and of course those remarkable songs—mostly familiar (“Young Blood,” “We Belong Together”), but one, about people talking through their pets, composed on the spot.

Over Zoom a couple of weeks before the concert, Jones, 67, spoke to me from her home in New Orleans. When I had interviewed her in 2011, in a Village café, her pink sweats belied a gravitas, even sadness, in her expression—and an edge when she stated, “I am a badass motherfucker.” But now she was relaxed yet animated, her face occasionally lighting up when discussing such topics as Van Morrison’s “wall,” the lasting effects of West Side Story, and why you (yes, you) just might have too much money. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Mary Lyn Maiscott: I read your memoir and was struck anew by your lyric “I was just a baby / When I fired my gun.” You had many harrowing experiences from the time you were 14, when you first started running away. Was writing about all that difficult for you?

Rickie Lee Jones: It wasn’t so much emotionally difficult as it was difficult to turn real life into a narrative. This was a story of a family in the 20th century, from vaudeville to the ’50s and on to the ’70s. It’s hard to get readers to go: I really don’t care about your childhood but I’ll read about your childhood. To get them to even start the journey, it had to read like fiction.

There’s a kind of mythology around you. Rolling Stone, when you were first on the cover, had the phrase “runaway success,” but I was startled to see what it really meant for you to be a runaway. So I think your book pierces through some ideas people have.

In some ways people thought that not much had happened to me—there was an etherealness about me. On the other hand, I still read vicious comments: “I saw her at Berkeley and she was so high it was disgusting.” I never took drugs and performed, ever. There is that one unfortunate tour I drank, and that Janis Joplin image has become part of how people saw me. But, hey, it’s rock ’n’ roll. The book wasn’t written for redemption or to correct anything. The part I find liberating is that I just don’t give a damn what people say. I don’t mind that they say I took drugs or take drugs. [They think] that’s the most romantic part of Billie Holiday—that’s unfortunate for them because a drug has nothing to do with people’s spirit and soul. Except it does of course, it’s their self-destructiveness.

When I spoke with you 10 years ago, you told me that when you come to New York, because of memories from when you lived here, it’s hard for you, like as soon as the plane lands, you feel a heaviness—

It was but it’s not anymore. That was the last of the flirtations with that.

Addiction, you’re talking about.

It’s gone now. I mean, I shouldn’t say that, it might be waiting right outside the door—“You think I’m gone, huh?” But it seems like there’s no trace of it. The lure of getting high is that this moment right now is so unbearable you’ll take a drug. But I’ve managed to attach the next hour to that fantasy, where you’ll go, what have I done? So that part’s over. Can we go down a different road?

Sure. I wanted to ask you about West Side Story, because that played such an important part starting from when you were a child.

That’s the greatest example of music being the carrier of the seed of identity. My dad read Shakespeare and I knew Romeo and Juliet, but I never connected [the actors] to Romeo and Juliet; they were living teenagers to me—remember, I was 8 or 9. And the beautiful set, the color of the Coke bottles, the jacket that Riff wore, everything became part of how I would see the whole wide world forever. I’d watch for that jacket, I’d watch for that boy who was so sweet and unassuming who would get on the wrong end of a gun. It’s kind of “Skeletons,” in my more tragic vocabulary.

Your song “Skeletons,” from 1981, about the police killing of a Black man.

Yeah…. The incredible thing is that when I went to do Saturday Night Live [in 1979], West Side Story was on the television when I got back from the filming. It was as if angels had written the whole thing, said, All right, we’re gonna give you this, are you ready? And the hotel room had a balcony, so I went out on the balcony and that movie was playing and the Jets were everywhere!

And West Side Story also figured into when you first met Tom Waits, outside the Troubadour with a group of people. Was it you who sang the first line of “Jet Song”?

I think it was, [after my friend] Ivan said, “It’s like the Jets and the Sharks out here.” But the wonderful thing is that everybody answered each other, it was like the Jets and the Sharks! If somebody sings it back, you know it happened to them too, the magic of the thing happened because they not only saw it but they remembered it. West Side Story has been, for so many events, the room from which I came. And others as well, standing in the same waiting room.

You wrote in the book about music bringing you solace in your childhood and beyond. You mentioned the Beatles, Laura Nyro, Van Morrison. Have you met any of them?

I haven’t met a Beatle, and I had a limo ride with Van, but I don’t know if that even counts. Didn’t get to meet Laura, though my engineer went to work for her and we passed a couple hellos back and forth.

I saw a post you put up in 2020 criticizing Morrison for his anti-mask extremism.

You know, you can love somebody’s music, but in the music community he’s always been known for being an asshole, it’s just understood. And it’s almost like a divine spirit takes him when he sings, he just enters people’s hearts, and it doesn’t have anything to do with his human male behavior, which is kind of crass and unpleasant. He always seems to be behind a wall and he can’t even look out, but when he sings he’s free. So I always forgave him for that stuff.

You made the comment in the post, “dicks can be great artists.”

[Laughs.] Sometimes I say stuff and maybe I should have edited it.

What are your plans after your tour? Are you going to do any recordings?

What happened was—’cause we’re going to play some of these festivals here in Louisiana—I decided to bring in my old bass player. With the amount of money I make it’s hard to employ more people, but I went ahead and now I have a combo and it’s so good, oh my god! I’m so inspired that I think I’m gonna be happy touring more. I have a little collection of songs; I’m working on a jazz record now. I’m gonna do it with my old producer Russ Titelman.

Your producer, co-producer with Lenny Waronker on the first album. I wonder what it was like for you, having had those songs in your head, playing them on your guitar, to hear those recordings for the first time.

In some cases I listened and went, That wasn’t how I thought it would be. But then I realized my only relationship to my songs was emotional, a feeling I would have when I heard them. I did not know how to think about what a drum would do, what a bass would do, so I would say every single song was correct. But something like “Danny’s All-Star Joint” I probably thought [should be] more Elvis-y, rougher. Everything they did was so perfect, precise. It wasn’t really how I heard myself. But it is the way audiences who like my [early] work like to hear me. It’s hard to find a fan who loves the whole scope of being precise and perfect and being rough and improvisational. When people like Ghostyhead or The Sermon [on Exposition Boulevard], they don’t like that first record, and vice-versa. So when I’m writing I think of Tiffany, a great local singer. She said, “I left my home and was living in my car after Katrina, and the only tape I had was Ghostyhead”—sorry, I’m getting tearful—“and I played it over and over and over again…. It saved me.” Messages like that say your diversity matters. It’s filled me with this confidence I never had, about my work and my place in the world. It could be because I’m approaching 70 and there’s some kind of peace about [heading] there and going, it don’t matter what people say about me. I just walk onstage and I know exactly who I am. I’m having fun now because the end is in sight, even if it’s in 20 years. And now, we can party!

I felt you were really there for your fans during quarantine. I would see your livestreams and you always looked very serene, always smiling. Was that time hard at all for you?

For the most part my life didn’t change. I did lose the ability to go out and play, but as hard as it was I enjoyed being part of what was happening to everybody. There’s some kind of strength in “I hope we all have enough money to pay our rent.” Whereas when you have money and you go, “I’m glad I don’t have that worry,” it sets you apart. I did not have enough money anymore so I had to worry with all of humanity—it’s not like I have money in the bank and can sit around here for a year. And that’s as wonderful as it was before, when I had money and went, I don’t have to work for four or five years. They’re both just lessons, and who are you ultimately? In the pandemic, oddly enough, I saw people come out—they have masks on, but they’re looking at each other. I wrote a song about it. It’s gonna be one of my best songs, about looking at neighbors walking by. If you look ’em in the eye and share their lives with them, I, anyway, found this other strength I’ve never had.

You did say in your book that money isolates.

I’m thinking of Los Angeles, which is a lifestyle of isolation: If you get some money and you don’t have to, why do you want to go out—“I’m just gonna close the gate.” If you can have money to know that if the shit hits the fan you won’t be in a breadline, but no more than that, and keep your feet in the street and your toes in the lawn, you’ll have a better life. Money doesn’t give you anything, just isolation and a great big diamond ring.

Did you move from L.A. to New Orleans for that reason?

I moved because I didn’t have any friends. It was a bad time and I was struggling, and I just went, How is it that I’ve lived here for decades and I don’t have one fucking friend who’s willing to be uncomfortable with me while I go through this hard stuff? It was a metaphorical thing happening—you’re either gonna go down or you’re gonna become a butterfly. And the thing about [New Orleans] that is life-changing for me is everybody you walk by says hey. Whatever their age, whatever their background, they acknowledge your existence—a 12-year-old on a bike says ma’am, Miz Rickie. It was so healing for me, as if the world was saying, Come out. And I came out, like Boo Radley. It’s a celebratory town. And music is intrinsic to the culture.

Do you think of yourself as a jazz singer?

I was looking up jazz singers on Google and I wasn’t there. I guess to be called a jazz singer you have to only do jazz. When I began, in ’79, I sang jazz ballads onstage. These kids had never heard “My Funny Valentine” or “Lush Life.” And I thought, So we’re going to show people that they don’t have to categorize people. I’m a jazz singer and I write songs and I’m a performer like Mick Jagger. And it seemed like it floated very well for a few years, and then it coagulated again and you have to be [just one thing] because it’s easier for them to sell it that way. If we let marketing people tell us how we think of creativity, it’s going to become smaller and smaller. So yes, I am a jazz singer!

And it’s probably underestimating people. One critic said that your initial smash success was unparalleled because you were not singing in a genre that was popular at that time.

[Actor-writer] John Cameron Mitchell is a friend I’ve made here in New Orleans, and he said to me, “What I loved about you when I was a kid was that you did every kind of music.” A critic would say, The pure purple color of your royalty is diminished because you’re too thinned out. But I think my love of radio and all the diversity that came to me as a kid made me kind of the first of a new kind. I went, I’m not a folk-rock revolutionary and I’m not dancing, I am whatever I decided I would be. And for some reason they said, OK, you can come to the party. I hope that impacted what happened afterward. I think it did.   ❖

Rickie Lee Jones will perform May 7 at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Mary Lyn Maiscott, an NYC-based singer-songwriter, has played such clubs as CBGB, Pianos, and Bowery Electric. Her latest EP is Dream: Live Recordings from the Map Room. She often writes about female singers, for Vanity Fair and other publications.

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