Rip-offs, royalties & rabbi Jesus

A true survivor in a profession of fly-by-night charlatans, Rickie Lee Jones is returning to Israel, bringing her unique, straight-shootin’ style to the Red Jazz Festival.

311_Rickie Lee Jones (photo credit: Courtesy)
311_Rickie Lee Jones
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rickie Lee Jones has learned to let go of her anger. Sort of. For years, she possessed the pent up bitterness of a musical visionary who turned invisible amid the inevitable artistic rip offs, the nicked mannerisms and subconscious co-opting of her singular style by the following generations of artists. That finger-snapping jive and little girl beatnik chic which enthralled an unsuspecting audience in the late 1970s and propelled Jones to iconic status with her trademark song “Chuck E’s in Love,” has sprouted up in ensuing years in the expected places – Suzanne Vega, Edie Brickell, Norah Jones to be sure – and in more unlikely avenues. Artists as diverse as Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Jewel, and even Diana Krall owe some of their stylings to the 55-year-old American singer/songwriter who peaked commercially in the early 1980s but has continued a satisfying off-kilter career that effortlessly weaves her folk, jazz and pop leanings into a gripping whole.
“Sometimes I feel that other artists have gotten a lot further doing RLJ than RLJ,” she told The Jerusalem Post last week in an email exchange ahead of her appearance Tuesday night at the Red Jazz Festival at the Tel Aviv Port. Her writing/speaking style is similar to her singing rhythm – a flurry of run-on sentences, breathy asides, articulate riffing and bare heartache.
“There was a flux of Rickie-influenced voices,” she said, referring to the 1990s work of Liz Phair, especially her landmark Exile in Guyville, “obviously a note to Coolsville [Jones’s song from her 1979 debut album].
“Then there’s Alanis Morrisette, again a lyric-driven personality, narrative, kind of street-ish, and of course Sheryl Crow, and Jewel, all Rickie pronunciation and imitation. I heard me in Tori Amos too, Tori did Kate Bush and me for many years ‘til she found her voice.”
But, the abundance of backhanded compliments are just that to Jones – compliments – and she doesn’t begrudge the success of her protégés even though “most kids today have no idea who I am,” a concept she finds perplexing and which can still make her boil over into angst as she struggles to stay afloat in a troubled economy for troubadour musicians.
“My voice was so unique, as well as the ‘hey mister’ style of the early work, and the fact that I did jazz. I mean please, in 1980 singing “My Funny Valentine,” all the women came out with jazz records after my debut. So I know... capital I and the people who were involved, but then they forget, or who cares, and it is not written down and recorded correctly. So that part is.... bewildering. Do I really need a publicist to tell my history?” she asked rhetorically before delving into more critical assessment of the younger gunslingers.
“Regardless of who knows my name, my work became part of the world. I was a pop singer, and this kind of music becomes part of people – that ‘Chuck E’ thing, that attitude, heck you hear it in Shania Twain for crying out loud. And that voice of Diana Krall, she learned jazz singing from me, not Joni Mitchell for sure, there are no slurs of note, no slow wide vibrato from Joni, this is my style I hear. [Krall] just has the emotional range of a fish. Forgive me, to see Krall singing jazz and people forget my opening that door from the dead and bringing it back to pop life – yes, that is irritating.”
A CONTRARIAN outlook and a feisty spirit have played integral parts of Jones’s life since she was born in Chicago in 1954 to what she described as “lower-middle-class-hillbilly-hipsters.” Musical from an early age, she gravitated toward California where she dabbled in country rock in the mid ’70s. But she quickly found her own voice and by the end of the decade, she had signed with Warner Bros. who touted her as the streetwise cousin of Joni Mitchell, appeared on Saturday Night Live, performed at Carnegie Hall and began to be called the female Tom Waits, a similarly spirited artist whom Jones began a long-term romance with around the same time.
With the massive success of ‘Chuck E’ came Rolling Stone cover stories, top 10 albums and worldwide acclaim. But then a fallow period followed, as her musical experiments into jazz and dissonance along with a broken post-Waits marriage and bouts with hard drugs, left her outside the mainstream for good.
Still, Jones would like to be acknowledged for the trendsetter that she was, and she wouldn’t mind reaping the rewards from it. However, she realizes that her personal brand of musical history doesn’t synchronize with the much of the corporate rock & roll hall of fame version of things.
“It’s easy to rewrite who you want to have been the ‘thing,’ and not who was,” she said. “Hey, Paul Revere and the Raiders probably sold a lot more than The Yardbirds. I like Patti Smith – a lot. But she no more influenced popular singing than Ted Kennedy. She was a performing artist. To give her credit for the past is incorrect. Give her credit NOW, she is great NOW.”
“Joni Mitchell – she influenced the decade leading to the 80’s, but come now, her career is treated nostalgically. That is a crime. She is an important writer, like Bob Dylan, like me. We deserve better. So you ask am I bitter? I don’t think so, no. I am thoughtful, engaged, and clear."
“I will die, like everyone else. What’s the use of a legacy? Well, not for me, I will forget this place. Not even for my children, they must earn their own way. But for other singers and writers, and for other human beings who this story might engage, and inspire. I worked hard to come from the dirt to this place, and I do not give up no matter what’s going on. I have a lot of hope, a lot of heart, and a great performing spirit, and this kind of voice should not be in revisionist history,” she added, referring to an “outrageous” article in Rolling Stone a few years back on ‘women in rock.’ “They put Blondie and me in a kind of also-ran paragraph, and Joni and Sheryl Crow got the bulk of the article. I mean, please. That is not the truth… I deserve credit, and honor – and money. But hey get in line. A lot more important people than I are unknown and hungry today.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I get respect and honor. When I say I deserve it I am not saying I don’t have any. I do. I get it from fans, who wait after shows and weep when they see me. I get it from the audience. I sense a good deal of respect. This was what I wanted most. I am for the most part pretty content right now, though I could use money. I’m broke. Any rich folks out there want to be my patron, I would not refuse, I don’t think.”
WHILE SHE talks about it in a tongue in cheek manner, money, or the lack of it, plays a prominent motivator for Jones, who’s performing in Eilat with her ‘power trio’ featuring famed bassist Rob Wasserman. Despite her early successes, she claims that a series of unpaid royalty agreements and bad management deals have left her living from tour to tour.
“A TV show in the ‘80s used the front lines of ‘Chuck E’s in Love ‘for its show theme. I returned from living in Europe and heard my music all over TV. Then a popular sci-fi movie uses the basic four bars of music from ‘Theme to Gravity’ for their film. Their composer changed a note, maybe. But it was discouraging to be ripped off, to be copied,” she said.
Even a sample of her vocals in 1993 on a hit single by Scottish electronic duo The Orb called “Little Fluffy Clouds” went uncredited and upaid.
“God bless them, they made a lot of money off of that thing, and the girl whose voice they sampled doesn’t have a dime,” she told a Scottish newspaper earlier this month.
Her financial and legacy issues notwithstanding, Jones continues to sparkle artistically, as proven on her latest album, 2009’s Balm in Gilead. A slew of younger indie types like Victoria Williams, the late Vic Chesnutt, Alison Krauss and Ben Harper paid their respects to the divine miss RLJ by collaborating with her on tracks that bridge the generation gap.
“This collection is not a concept but a purposeful extension. I wanted and want to be part of people,” said Jones. “There’s so many talented people, why not play with them? You know them, or someone knows them. Heck!” Jones said she feels energized and most alive when she’s performing, where the past doesn’t matter and the future doesn’t exist.
“I enjoy touring more than I ever did. I have lost most of the fear. I know what I do and why. I keep myself engaged by always doing a new thing on stage,” she said.
“It is in my nature to do what is unexpected, I do this in the studio as well. If I book myself in a folk setting, I will probably show up with electric guitars.
It’s a kind of my contrarian nature, or rather a way to give myself definition. I don’t like to have to keep expectations, I guess. But lately I am going easier on myself. I try to do what I set out to do.”
One thing Jones set out to do on her many previous visits to Israel, was to learn about the country that she enjoys returning to and to try and understand what makes it tick. She’s come away with many personal observations, in line with her lyric-writing skill of paying attention to detail.
“I believe that though it is leaning against the gate of the Third World, Israel is rather caught in the middle between the desert and New York City. You have to measure one person at a time,” she said.
“I always like it here, I meet good people, always engaging people, I also meet racist people, all kinds, just like anywhere. I mean, isn’t it a war zone? Israel is founded from a war, and into a war, and is surrounded by enemies. She must be diligent. The thing she cannot be is the evil that she beholds. And this is what has happened now in the US. We have legalized torture. We have legalized unlawful detainment. We have made a democracy into a corporation. It’s over, in many ways, the country I knew."
“In Israel, the problems are not that simple. But when I talk to some Israelis, I hear parroted from youth the kind of racist attitude toward Arabs I would expect in Alabama in 1955 toward black people. That makes me worry for the country. I understand how easy it is to translate this fear into hatred, and hate your Semitic brothers, but those peaceniks are your only hope. Not that peace is at hand, but that is the only way to the future."
“I understand if you are afraid every Palestinian is going to blow you up, you get nervous. But then you become the evil, and they are your victim. So which will you be? I like the rabbi Jesus – he said, ‘hey I will die before I will become the evil I behold.’ Of course he might have had second thoughts up on that cross.”
You can almost hear Jones chuckle as she logs off, closes her laptop and makes her way to another soul-baring show.