"Rickie Lee Jones" Turns 40

Hard to believe, but Rickie Lee Jones hit the national stage 40 years ago this week, with the release of her eponymously titled debut album. My first thought was, “My Lord, am I really old enough to have a favorite album hit middle age?” My second thought was, “Time to take Rickie Lee Jones out for yet another spin.”

Glide magazine remembers it this way:

It was an album bolstered by a big promotional push – in addition to iconic music videos, there was a memorable performance on Saturday Night Live, not to mention a Time magazine feature for Jones’ professional live debut – and a cover image heaven-sent for huge billboards.

The influence of Rickie Lee Jones on a generation of songwriters that followed is palpable; you can hear the idiosyncratic, emotional abandon in Tori Amos, the commitment to authenticity and a light sprinkling of jazz in Fiona Apple, the poetic details in her lyrics that showcase a keen eye for observation in someone like Suzanne Vega, the hazy Americana speak-sing style in Sheryl Crow, the spectral neo-folk in Joanna Newsom. Rickie defies categorization, and did so even then, and her career as a whole has revealed that she really is the antithesis of a slick, big bucks-making machine.

That’s one of the reasons why her self-titled debut LP is so fascinating – here is the sound of a maverick original, a true artist, being given the budget and the musicians to make the raw beauty of her songs come alive.

I’ve written about two songs from Rickie Lee Jones right here at VodkaPundit in my old Friday Night Videos series. (Maybe I ought to bring that back? -ed.) My all-time favorite song of hers is a lovely vignette of wasted youth called “Young Blood.” Here’s the video, and what I wrote about the album back then:

It’s one of my five-star desert-island albums, for the simple reason that I don’t think anyone ever put together such a solid collection of songs about wasted youth. These aren’t my memories, but they sure as hell could be, if only for how well Rickie Lee relates them. Oh, and it probably doesn’t hurt that the list of performers includes Michael McDonald on backing vocals, Tom Scott on horns and arrangement, Steve Gadd on drums, Dr. John on keys, Victor Feldman, Randy Newman, Chuck Findlay — the list goes on. The credits read like a Who’s Who of ’70s rock and pop. Rickie Lee had her own little Rock ‘n Roll Hall Of Fame playing on her very first outing. Not bad for a 24-year-old girl nobody had heard of, who’d come to L.A. just a couple years prior.

The stripped-down funk of “Young Blood” grabs you, but it’s the lyric which keeps you coming back for more.

On the other end of Rickie Lee Jones‘ musical tour is a tender ballad I initially resisted but eventually came to love:

For years I didn’t bother with it, because I was a teen and it was one of those awful syrupy piano ballads. (“What about Billy Joel when you were a teen?” “Shut up. That’s different.”) But then even as I got older and finally noticed how pretty it was, the lyric was bothersome.

In this part, it sounds like she’s grieving a dead lover. In that part, it sounds like her lover dumped her.

“Well, which is it?” I wondered.

I finally figured out a couple decades ago, when coping with my first real heartbreak, that it doesn’t matter which is it. Emotionally, the effect of either loss is exactly the same: Something that was supposed to last forever is suddenly gone, and all you’re left with is the shock, the ache, the Big Empty in the middle of your gut, which also somehow feels like a medicine ball filling up your insides.

Filled up with empty, that’s it.

Whatever you might think of Rickie Lee’s politics — HINT: She’s a farging loon — her debut album remains just as intimate and listenable as it was in 1979.

Give it a listen on Spotify or Apple Music or wherever, and I think you’ll see what I mean.