Born again

Rickie Lee Jones doesn't want to be here. Well, here, maybe--in the Novel Cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica, a nice site for a cup of coffee or a light lunch. Rare and used books line the walls, and patrons keep to themselves. It's a pleasant enough spot to kill an afternoon.

Jones just doesn't want to be here--in front of the tape recorder, answering questions, speaking on the record about her record. Even with friend and collaborator Rick Boston, the former Low Pop Suicide frontman since gone solo, by her side, she's uncomfortable in such an artificial setting, revealing intimate things to a stranger with a notepad. Better she talk over the phone, where she can't look you in the eye, watch the way you sit, see your reaction to her answers.

"I'm really engaged in you: Are you happy? Do you like me?" she explains. "Those kinds of things happen more in person, because once you're in my presence, I begin to care. And when there's a purpose, the conversation is corrupted. There's a purpose in promotion. I want everyone to hear the record, but I have a kind of humbleness and a kind of integrity that don't want to promote it."

It is not so surprising that Rickie Lee Jones would prefer to keep to herself. Until only a few months ago, she lived in Ojai, out in the dusty nowhere about 80 miles northwest of L.A., for eight years. She moved there for her young daughter, to raise her away from a Hollywood in which Jones herself essentially came of age. But she came back--she needed adult company, needed the taste of a martini, needed to play again in the small clubs to the friendly faces. She came back to, for lack of a better phrase, find herself, to recreate Rickie Lee Jones in her own image. She wanted to make new music, to leave behind that lone hit single and the records that followed; she wanted to find an unknown audience, one that didn't expect her to return as she had left.

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So she shows up at Largo, an intimate L.A. club, every now and then, playing the occasional three-hour-and-forever gig that ends only when the martinis pull the covers down on her drunk, sleepy eyes. Not that she's living the lush life once more--not at all; call it the occasional indulgence, a little blurry fun every once in a while. Last October she tried out a couple of songs from her then-forthcoming record, Ghostyhead, and played till she literally wept, closing down the Fairfax Avenue joint at three-something in the a.m. with an old Dylan song, crying with such unabashed glory that those who remained felt like voyeurs. "That was my martini night," Jones recalls of that evening, smiling at the memory of a memory.

Ghostyhead provides rare proof that even the most entrenched artist can be reborn in middle age. Those who would accuse Jones of jumping on the techno bandwagon--as so many reviewers are already doing--miss the point: Ghostyhead, with its loops and samples, is the ambient inevitability, the record Jones was born to make ever since she stood up on tiny L.A. stages in the mid-1970s and began delivering on-the-spot monologues. It's more like a collection of short stories and poems set to daydream melodies and nightmare vibrations, a record haunted by junkies and abortions and faded photographs and lost ghosts drifting through abandoned neighborhoods. Everybody's looking for something better--and, of course, doomed never to find it.

Through it all, Jones' voice dips and dives through sputtering beats and metallic echoes and guitar loops. Yet the record doesn't sound so different from what came before--this isn't David Bowie desperation here, a fading artist trying for one more dance in the spotlight--and it doesn't smack of mere trend-hopping. Rather, Ghostyhead is what happens when a musician reinvents herself out of necessity, when she stops trying to fulfill faded expectations and begins writing only for herself once more.

"The circle started to get smaller and smaller," she says. "I was doing what I had always done, but the amount of interest was getting smaller and smaller. Popular music is renewed by new generations, and as that happens, your generation gets smaller. There was a lot of reckoning--I didn't want to just be part of that generation. I didn't want to stand for a generation. I didn't like that. And there's tremendous pressure to stand for things and not change.

"Aside from yourself--How do I create new things?--it's pressure from others. It's like, 'We question your integrity if you change. What did you stand for if you change? And why are you changing? For attention?' Well, you're changing for all those reasons--all those are good reasons. I had spent a long time trying to be very pure in thought and intention, but it wasn't necessarily getting me to where I wanted to go artistically. So there was a lot of building up to get to the point where I was new enough to be receptive enough to new ideas. New ideas challenge and destroy the old way, and if you are the old way, what are you gonna do? Be challenged and destroyed, or are you gonna be new? I didn't want to be the old way."  

Ghostyhead is not a record made for fans who want to hear "Chuck E.'s in Love" or "It Must Be Love" one more lousy time. She didn't want to sing those songs any more. Rickie Lee Jones claims she never wanted to be a superstar; rather, she wanted to cultivate a cult following that would gradually, almost imperceptibly, build into an audience. She liked the idea of loyal fans who stuck with you throughout a career, not merely a single; she didn't want to be the one-hit wonder, the out-of-the-box sensation who would be forced by her label, by her fickle fans, to repeat yesterday's moves.

But such was not to be her fate: In 1979, on the eve of the release of her self-titled debut, "Chuck E.'s in Love" sat among the top five singles in the nation; in an instant, the woman on the cover of Tom Waits' Blue Valentine was a platinum superstar--Van Morrison in the guise of a 25-year-old woman raised in Phoenix and elsewhere, a new bohemian who brought bebop vocals and beatnik arrangements to pop radio. She came along at a time when California rock was Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, when L.A. folk meant Joni Mitchell, when disco and punk were battling it out on the Sunset Strip, when the Tropicana was still home to some of L.A.'s most famed heroes and forgotten zeros.

She got lucky, some might say--hit it big with an accidental gem. But her career would suffer for such providence: Though 1981's remarkable, intimate Pirates went to number five on the album charts, the records that followed--Girl at Her Volcano, The Magazine, Flying Cowboys, Pop Pop, and Traffic from Paradise--sold poorly by comparison, each one doing a little worse than the last. By the time of Pop Pop in 1991, during her period on Geffen Records, Jones had to struggle with the fact that her own label was putting big money behind Edie Brickell, a woman who sounded like a parrot raised on Rickie Lee Jones.

"What was lost to me was the elusive title of Queen of Pop that was in my lap for a while," Jones says now, wincing at the thought. "And I think there's been a shade hanging over it because of 'Chuck E.'s in Love' and the incredible amount of attention given it. Eighteen years later, and people still remember 'Chuck E.'s in Love.' There were great expectations on me as a pop icon that I could not carry, that I was not made to carry. I continued on making great work, but great work wasn't the expectation. So I lived with the, 'You were supposed to wear that crown.' And so maybe making a new record, a different kind of record, will let that resolve itself. That would be a great thing.

"I don't know if that's just something I carry in my mind, or if that's real, but if that disappears, that'd be a great thing. I don't know if I set out to be the Beatles--I probably did, because they were my idols--but when I got there, it wasn't what I thought it would be, and I didn't want to be that. Who would want to be Michael Jackson or Madonna all of a sudden? What creatures want to become those things and are happy pursuing those things day after day? I didn't want to do it. And it's OK for them, but I didn't want to become that. But it has been hard, because in a sense among people in business, it was a failure. I could have been but wasn't, and so I was shunned. People didn't want to hear from me."

So she does not mind being forgotten now. She would prefer instead to be discovered, not simply remembered. When she hits the road in support of Ghostyhead, she will not perform any songs that predate the new record--no more "Weasel and the White Boys Cool," no "We Belong Together" or "It Must Be Love," damned sure no more "Chuck E.'s in Love." That part of her life is behind her now: 1995's Naked Songs: Live and Acoustic found Jones saying goodbye to her children, setting them free with wonderfully alone renditions of the old standards. They had grown up, and now it was time to kick them out of the nest.  

"When Naked Songs was over, as it was ending, I was feeling such fear and pain, because to change and grow into something new is what I wanted to do, but I was at the end, and I didn't know what I would be and how to be it," Jones says. "I knew that was done. I didn't want to sing those songs any more. I had gone as far as I could go down that road. And it was wonderful. I could feel it. I actually did a lot of praying, a lot of talking to God...see, this is when it becomes too personal," she says, laughing. "It's OK. I don't mind. Once it's said, it's said. I did a lot of talking to God about: Am I prepared to move forward?"

The genesis for Ghostyhead occurred during last summer's H.O.R.D.E. tour, when Jones played the second stage to audience members who had never heard her name. She wanted a guitarist who would help her find a new sound, a new her; and Boston agreed to perform with Jones only if she wasn't going to play the old songs one more time, if she was serious about getting off her well-beaten path. At H.O.R.D.E., Rickie Lee Jones found she could start over.

"I played the B stage, and that was a great thing, because it took all pressure off me to, in any way, behave or do a thing I was supposed to do," she says. "I didn't do any of my songs, and many kids didn't know who we were, because we also played under another name. I got what I needed--I had kids come up and say, 'Your band was the best band here...What's the name of your band?'" She laughs.

"We were in the studio," Boston adds, "and Iggy Pop came to do vocals for a soundtrack, and Iggy's just sort of in that Iggy world. One night we had a small listening party, and he and his girlfriend ended up in the room listening, because it's very neighborly there, and all the studios are set up with a nice walkway and gardens. He sat there and listened to three or four things, and he had seen us for four or five days in the hallway, and not much was ever said. But one day I walked into the kitchen, and he said, 'So, that thing you guys are working on--that's some vocalist you've got there.'" Boston breaks up. "Like we were some band from the Midwest getting our big break."

"Isn't that nice?" Jones says, smiling.

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