Rickie Lee Jones Makes Music That Makes Memories

Rickie Lee Jones: Partial discography as fashion accessory.
Rickie Lee Jones: Partial discography as fashion accessory. Robrt Pela

In the closet of the room where I keep all my record albums, I found a bracelet with Rickie Lee Jones’s name on it.

“What’s this?” I asked my husband.

“I bought that at her MIM concert, the last time we saw her perform,” he replied. “Or maybe it was the concert before that.”

“But you don’t wear jewelry,” I reminded him. “Especially not stretchy black rubber bracelets with someone else’s name printed on them.”

“The bracelet has a bunch of Rickie Lee Jones albums on it,” he explained. “The clasp is a USB plug, and if you stick it into your computer, you can listen to her sing.”

This explanation made me want to lie down in a dark room with a cold compress on my forehead. Instead, I plugged the bracelet into my laptop. A little screen popped up telling me that I could hear Rickie Lee’s self-titled first album, or Girl at Her Volcano, or Live at Red Rocks or Pirates or The Duchess of Coolville.

I unplugged the bracelet and put it around my wrist, then I got out my vinyl copy of The Magazine and put that on my best turntable. The Magazine is my favorite Rickie Lee Jones album, and I’ve been playing it a lot lately, ever since I finished reading Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour, Rickie Lee’s recently published memoir.

I’d heard that Rickie Lee, who's playing at the Musical Instrument Museum on Saturday, September 25, lived here in Phoenix when she was young. I didn’t realize we’d lived in the same neighborhood at the same time. I kept bumping into my own memories while I read about Rickie Lee’s childhood on what was then pretty much the edge of town. When she wrote, “The eighth-grade faculty at Manzanita [Elementary School] had devised new forms of torture for those of us entering puberty,” a voice in my head screamed out, “I hated going to that school, too!” When she described living at her Aunt Linda’s place, just up the street from the house where I was raised, I recalled playing in dirt lots surrounded by cotton fields and citrus groves and thought about the feeling of cool dirt between my toes.

After reading Rickie Lee’s memoir, I figured the songs on The Magazine would sound different, perhaps richer with meaning, now that I knew a little more about the woman who wrote them. I thought when I heard her sing about dumping a guy in “The Real End” ("I guess I hurt him / I guess I hung up / I guess I should have called him back / I guess I didn’t care) I could nod my head knowingly, having read about Rickie Lee’s troubled romances. Now I’d really be able to figure out what she meant when she sang “We walk in easy snakes / Through the roulette rattling of the ethyl / And now the arson smell of moon” in the gorgeous, meandering “Gravity.”

Instead, I kept sliding into my own past. Whenever I play this album, I’m reminded of the winter of 1984, when my best friend broke up with his lover and moved in with me to recuperate. He would come home from work every night and put The Magazine on, playing it over and over until bedtime. That winter, my home was full of my friend’s sorrow and of Rickie Lee Jones singing about loneliness and renewal.

I get it. Our own memories attach themselves to other people’s life stories, other people’s music — so much so that we sometimes miss the music altogether, caught up in the private reverie a particular song or album recalls. It’s more unlikely we’re going to say, about a song we love, “I dig the way he modulates in the second verse,” or “Listen to this use of power chords with a changed bass note!” than we are to think, “Oh, this song reminds me of senior year, when we were drunk all the time and I had that cool job at the ice cream joint.”

I asked the singer Karla Bonoff once how she felt about people hitching their memories to her songs, which after all she’d written about her own life.

Karla’s response was kind. “Isn’t that what music is about?” she asked. “Someone writing something other people can interpret, and make their own?”

My husband came home from work while I was writing this essay. His favorite Rickie Lee Jones album is Girl at Her Volcano. “Why that one?” I asked. He’s a composer and a musician, so I knew he would talk about Rickie Lee’s vocal phrasing and her instrumentation and her meter choices, and not about how he was living in London when that record came out and his first copy of it was a cassette he bought at Virgin Records, all of which is also true.

But while he talked about how Rickie Lee’s covers of “Walk Away Renee” and “My Funny Valentine” let him hear what she did vocally without having to think about her songwriting ability, and how on this album she uses her voice as an instrument rather than a storytelling device, my mind wandered. I was thinking about my own relationship with this record. When it was released in 1983, I was running a little record shop on Camelback Road. People who came in for the new Rickie Lee Jones record sometimes got mad when I’d hand them a copy of Girl at Her Volcano, because it was an EP pressed as a 10-inch disc, an industry standard of the 1940s that was briefly faddish in the early 1980s. “Where’s the rest of it?” I remember one customer asking.

I wanted to be the guy who wondered if I’d always somehow heard echoes of the Sonoran Desert in Rickie Lee’s music, a man who lingered on the pain in that high note in her version of “My Funny Valentine,” where she sings the word “stay” and it goes on forever, a plaintive cry for help that almost tells a whole story in itself.

Instead, I was thinking about record albums as jewelry, and whether I could get a copy of The Magazine as a pair of enamel earrings.

Rickie Lee Jones. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 25, Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard. Tickets are $54.50 to $74.50 on the MIM Music Theater website.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela