Rock & Pop: The Devil in Miss Jones ; Rickie Lee Jones Has Always Had Her Demons - and Now She's Living in the America of George Bush and Jeffrey Dahmer, She Tells ANDY GILL
Gill, Andy, The Independent (London, England)
It's a cold Sunday evening a week or two before Christmas, and Rickie Lee Jones is playing the only UK show of her European tour at a small auditorium in London's Bloomsbury. The place is packed, but then there's not much of a place to pack, stark evidence of the singer's selective appeal these days.
Time was, following the release of her eponymous 1979 debut album - with its cover photo of Jones as an icon of bohemian cool, in a rakish beret and holding a thin cheroot - men wanted to romance her, women wanted to be her; everybody wanted to hang out with her. Boosted by a huge hit, "Chuck E's in Love", the album sold two million copies, and garnered her a Grammy for Best New Artist. She was the "new Joni Mitchell" - not quite as damning an accolade as being the "new Bob Dylan", perhaps, but still a hefty millstone to drag around. But you could see what they meant: like Joni, she couldn't be contained by the airy-fairy folkie damsel stereotype that had been de rigueur for female singer-songwriters since the days of Joan Baez and Judy Collins.
Instead, her vivid narratives of street-smart scufflers and hustlers with names like Woody and Dutch and Johnny The King were set to jazzy hipster grooves and delivered in a vulnerable but worldly-wise drawl whose insouciant charm was leagues away from the pious purity of Joan Baez et al. Instead of Baez's saintly but somewhat patronising determination to rescue poor underdogs from the plight society had thrust upon them, Jones celebrated them in warts- and-all portraits scraped from the Hollywood sidewalks.
Jones was a former teenage runaway and college dropout running with a fast crowd, poets, beatniks and barflies centred around Hollywood's legendary Tropicana Motel, a notorious rock'n'roll motel long since demolished to accommodate - oh, the irony! - a strip- mall of upscale boutiques. It was a hand-to-mouth, day-to-day kind of existence, with little thought paid to where it might lead. "I was pretty much just winging it," she recalls. "Looking to the next day to see if you would have money for gas, looking to the next week to see if you would get a job; always thinking about what you have to do to escape poverty, to create art that is going to catch the world on fire. You have to live in the moment totally to create a moment that is compelling, and though it may be kind of bohemian, it does make the `earth' of your soul richer."
The first the outside world knew of Rickie was when she appeared, languidly leaning back over the bonnet of a Corvette, on the cover of Tom Waits's 1978 album Blue Valentine. She and Waits were lovers at the time, a liaison of future celebrities which has effectively condemned them to be forever footnotes to each others' lives - something which used to be a source of some annoyance to her, but which she has since come to accept as part of pop's mythology. Although Waits did, she concedes, have an enormous effect on the development of her public personality. "I always tend to become whomever I am involved with, and so I think I took on his swaggering masculinity," she affirms. "It was a good coat to wear, a good thing to hide behind: myself being so very vulnerable, that big persona seemed safe."
Musically, her main influences were blue-eyed soul singers like Laura Nyro and Van Morrison. "I also got a lot from Taj Majal and Dan Hicks," she adds. "They both played a kind of home-made American music, the one totally blues, and the other a kind of jazzish, acoustic guitar-driven, precise singer thing."
Those influences are still evident in her music. Onstage in Bloomsbury, she's surrounded by an eight-piece band who bring a variety of home-made American elements to fit each song's individual needs. For the country- blues tune "Lapdog", it's the rootsy strains of mandolin, fiddle and dobro; for the funky "Little Mysteries", her choppy wah-wah guitar is joined by organ, trumpet and sax; and for "A Tree in Allenford", the warm tones of accordion, bass clarinet, electric cello and bass harmonica combine to form a warm, comforting bath of sound. …