I first heard Rickie Lee Jones in 1979. When I caught the refrain of that song on the kitchen radio, I rushed to crank up the volume and listen hard through the gritty guitar licks. I grasped to hold onto the wink of rhymes ("Pantages/contagious") delivered with a nasal slur in a smoky baby-doll voice. What was she saying? Who's in love? Chucky? Chuck E?
That's how this love affair started.
This past summer I drove an hour north of Boston for my fourth Rickie Lee Jones concert in 35 years of devotion. Rickie was midway through a U.S. tour for "The Other Side of Desire," her first collection of new material in over 10 years and one well steeped in the streets, waters and haunted halls of her adopted city of New Orleans.
A buxom goddess in a purple mini dress and drapey shawl, Rickie Lee strolled onto the stage in Rockport, Mass., and opened with "Weasel and the White Boys Cool," a favorite from her eponymous first album that launched her illustrious career. It took some time to find the high end of her still impressive range, but eventually she got there, and, I, at the edge of my cushy seat, leaned in once again, listening hard.
Did she notice me amongst the 50something women in boho dresses and, in a few cases, berets? Did she know what she meant to me, this jazz-pop-R&B folkie whose 17 albums gave me the soundtrack to my life? Did she know she was mine? Mine, the way an artist you grow with becomes your muse, and her songs about her lovers and her life get linked to your lovers and your life? Of course Rickie couldn't distinguish me from 225 other fans that night, but I still can't imagine my life without her by my side.
After hearing "Chuck E's in Love" on the radio that long ago day, I rushed to Caldor to buy the album and would listen on the phonograph in my pink bedroom. I memorized "Coolsville" and "Last Chance Texaco," gutsy, tender songs that worked their way under my skin and into my soul the way the disco music of that decade never could. "Chuck E's in Love" landed on Billboard's Top 100 Chart at No. 4 that year and Rickie Lee nabbed a Grammy for Best New Artist.
She would go on to grace two Rolling Stone covers. On the first one in August 1979, she is crouched in heels, a black lace bra and a beret, a hipster before her time.
But who is Rickie Lee now?, I wondered, as I watched her move onstage with a slightly self-conscious swagger. In her album notes for the "Other Side of Desire," she writes: "So now, no beret, no boyfriends, no badass bravado. I am badass. But who cares. No one is taking my lifestyle to market. I am who I am."
Boomer men still love her, but I will argue it's us gypsy women on the far side of 50 who get Rickie in a different way. We nod at our soulful sister up on stage and see how everything—the talent, the drugs, the men, the music, the mind-blowing originality—have all been converted to wisdom. That's her currency now, and she's cashing it in with this album and tour.
"Are we going to look at the ocean tonight?" she asked early on in the Rockport evening, alluding to what lay behind the enormous burgundy backdrop curtain. We applauded hard; we knew it opened onto the Atlantic.
Rickie looked around for someone to do the job when a stagehand rushed up to whisper in her ear. "Oh," she said, turning to the audience with her trademark ennui. "If we open it now, the acoustics will sound like shit."
In 1982, I scored a ticket to see her at Toad's Place in New Haven and cruised past the bouncer with my older sister's ID. Because I got smashed on cheap beer that night, I am still fuzzy on the exact details of the evening. This I remember: Rickie Lee staggered onto the stage and started the show. But then, too wasted to perform and not happy with some heckling, hurled a bottle into the audience and staggered off again.
I was just lucid enough to be embarrassed for her, at the same time, Rickie's unapologetic brashness, if not her alcohol and drug addiction that she soon enough kicked in Paris, grew her appeal for me. I was starting to forge my own creative way as a writer and fell hard for the stories Rickie sang on her second release, "Pirates."
While the album was hardly a commercial success, I preferred it to her first. It was easy to bop along to "Chuck E," but it took a deeper commitment to spend time in the dark night of that songwriter's soul. And if "Lucky Guy" and "We Belong Together" from that album were her breakup songs with Tom Waits, they soon became mine for Mark, my olive-skinned lover who left me crushed that summer.
In 1984, "The Magazine" came out. I didn't fully warm to it, and only years later would I appreciate the breathy beauty of songs like "Gravity." And still, it was her music alone that could strike those minor chords of my longing then take me to a place where I would eventually be OK. It was a tough time in my life: my father was dying; Mark had come back and left again. I painted the lyrics to "Young Blood" across the pale blue walls of my dorm room.
Three years later, I found myself living in a loft off L.A.'s skid row with a sloe-eyed, singer-songwriter struggling to make it in the very clubs where Rickie had carved out her career. Like Tom Waits and Rickie Lee, we, too, lived on "the jazz side of life." Fun and fast—until we burnt out.
Rickie was living in California at the same time and working on "Flying Cowboys." "Satellites," from that album, is still how I introduce people to her. "Listen to this," I say. "You'll either fall in love or not." The song was my guide in a spate of lonely years, until fate reconnected me with Mark—my original Lucky Guy. He'd grown. I'd grown. We decided to grow even more together.
A tumble of years and two babies would follow with Rickie often singing my kids to sleep. I'd buy her new albums when released, but tended, in the wobbly world of early motherhood, to take comfort in the old favorites. "Stewart's Coat" on "Traffic From Paradise" still gets me up life's steep hills:
"Just give me many chances.
I'll see you through it all.
Just give me time to learn to crawl."
When I wanted to learn to play it, my 45-year-old piano teacher said she didn't really know Rickie's music. "That's so wrong," I told her.
I guess my own devotion flatlined somewhat as my own life got busier, but, even when she was gone from my CD player, Rickie Lee was never far away. She was my muse of too many years after all, and could always lead me straight into the stew of heartbreak or failure before helping me through to the other side.
Mark would see his first Rickie Lee Jones concert with me in 2007 at the chapel-like Sander's Theater at Harvard University. The songs she performed from "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard" were prayerful and heavy, and I continually leaned over to whisper apologies to my husband. "This is not my Rickie," I assured him.
The following year she did a three-night residency at Johnny D's, an intimate rock club five minutes from our house. We got there two hours early to get our place a few feet in front of the stage. If I reached out my hand, I could have touched her. I didn't.
But I studied her for two hours that night as I would again seven years later in Rockport, where the curtain behind her stayed teasingly closed until nearly the end of the show.
Finally she got two stagehands to pull the curtain aside, but it was late then, and the glass wall of windows revealed only the cool blackness of the late summer night. We all knew the ocean was there, but we couldn't see it. Like Rickie who might not always let the world inside, we who love her never doubt her depth or promise, as deeply roiled as the sea. And even in darkness, we never doubt that, like the imminent dawn, her light will come again.