Archive for October 2010
This is a video of Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling duetting on a song from his most recent album. The music is so melancholy that at first, before I had paid attention to the lyrics, I thought it must be about hopelessness and drowning—but it’s actually a very hopeful song, maybe a kind of modern-day sea shanty, about drawing sustenance from the natural world. When I watch this video, though, which was filmed in Laura Marling’s garden, I spend more time thinking about the garden than I do listening to the song: Why don’t I have a garden like that? How does one come to have a garden like that? I will probably never have a garden like that. I bet maintaining a garden like that takes a lot of work. I really wouldn’t have the patience to keep up that kind of garden. No garden for me, alas.
Last week I made a mix of songs and foisted it upon two new friends who are in their mid-20s. (Not a tape, not a CD, but just an arrangement of songs, sent as a zip file and untethered to any concrete object. I should probably be sad about this abrupt switch to the purely digital, and I do mean abrupt—one day not too long ago I was talking about making a mix CD and Caleb said, incredulously, “A CD? Nobody makes mix CDs anymore.” But I’m not. For one, I was always messing up the hand-lettering on the blank labels.)
My plan was to introduce these friends to some great but currently only semi-famous singer-songwriters whose work I imagined they might not know: Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, Judee Sill. I sequenced three Rickie Lee Jones songs at the end, but not without pause. I thought, who doesn’t know Rickie Lee Jones? Isn’t she kind of a household name? And then I realized that the question was, why would people in their 20s know who Rickie Lee Jones was? Where would they be exposed to her music?
The answer became, in this case, the same way that I was. I first began to listen to Rickie Lee Jones in my senior year of high school, when my friend Tristi made me a mix tape. At some point I lost the tape, but I still remember what was on it: The Big Chill soundtrack on one side, More Songs From The Big Chill on the other, and a few assorted non-Motown tracks appended to fill out the extra minutes on each end: Joni Mitchell’s “Blue Motel Room” and “The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines,” Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” something by Phoebe Snow, and the title song from Rickie Lee Jones’s album Pirates. (My pen hovers above the page—should I write this next part? At the end of the year, I copied out the following lines from “Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)” when I signed Tristi’s yearbook: “And I know we’ll get the chance to make it/Nothing’s going to stop you, you just reach right out and take it.” What can I say? We were graduating, sentiments were riding high.)
“Pirates” was the song that hooked me, but I’d actually been hearing Rickie Lee Jones for some years—”Chuck E.’s in Love,” the first song on her self-titled debut album, was a big radio staple back then. There were many songs that I heard and heard and heard, over store p.a. systems and while skipping around on the car radio—”Brass in Pocket,” “Seven Year Ache”—songs that I didn’t pay attention to until one day something else, usually a review in a newspaper or a mention from some older friend whose musical taste I admired, got me interested in the band or artist; then the old radio hit fell into context. Tristi’s tape made me a Rickie Lee Jones fan, and I went out and bought her first album and Pirates, but by then, the mid-’80s, she had already moved on to new kinds of songwriting and musical styles—by then she was already losing that big radio-hit audience. Still, over the years, whenever I mentioned her name to friends, they would say, “Oh! I know, ‘Chuck E.’s in Love’!” That song became Rickie Lee Jones, and as such, I kind of resent it. The other songs on those first two albums are wondrous, though. “The Last Chance Texaco,” from Rickie Lee Jones, is one of three songs I put on that mix last week. (The video above is a particularly excellent rendition.)
About ten years after her debut, on the cusp of the beautiful, wide-open ’90s, Rickie Lee Jones got another burst of attention for Flying Cowboys, an upbeat, blue-sky kind of album, and then she gradually settled into being a cult artist, for want of a better term, with a substantial but probably unfluctuating core of fans. I even wonder if her early fame was perhaps a kind of fluke, as sometimes happens to singers with idiosyncratic voices—if people liked “Chuck E.’s in Love” because it was good, yes, but also for some other, extra-musical reason. Maybe at that moment she was telling the culture something it wanted to hear. Maybe people felt the need to connect with some kind of bohemian ideal. When she dropped the L.A.-boho persona, when she became just a lady, the larger public wasn’t as interested in the music, with its poetry and complicated time shifts and experimental moments, or her intermittently slurry phrasing.
I used to want her to have that fame back again—I remember seeing one of the very first dates of the Flying Cowboys tour, at a Boston club packed with stringy hipster kids (well, hipster in a pre-grunge kind of way—I can’t recall what that looked like anymore), and love just bounced back and forth between Rickie and the crowd. But that might just be me wanting my ’90s back again. Times change, people get older. One of the other songs I put on the mix was this one, “Bonfires,” from Balm in Gilead, her most recent album. Hopeful last verse aside, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard anything so world-weary. Still, it’s one of the most gorgeous things she’s done, and the best I can do is pass it along.