Sunday, March 7, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones, by Rickie Lee Jones

In the words of the inimitable John Lennon, “the 70’s were a drag, man.” The decade began with the ongoing debacle that was the Vietnam War, student shootings at Kent State, the escalating “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and “Watergate,” the first televised U.S. Presidential transgression (not counting this one). And the decade clumsily fumbled forward, not ending any better than it had begun, with a major U.S. economic recession, panicky lines at gas stations, a U.S. hostage situation in Iran, and, as a strategic move in the aforementioned “Cold War,” the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan.

In fact, much North American popular culture of the day reflected the overarching malaise that accompanied the close of that turbulent decade, from the maudlin theme music of popular television shows, like this one, to the bummed-out storylines for top films of the era. Even top 40 radio got up on the wrong side of the bed in the latter part of the decade with downer themes, like “Heart of Glass,” “I Will Survive,” and the deliciously-depressing, “Dust In The Wind.”

But suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, Rickie Lee Jones sauntered through the side door with a cool and inspired sorta jazz when she walked onto the Saturday Night Live music stage in the spring of 1979 and won America’s heart, singing her #4 pop hit, “Chuck E’s In Love.” That surprisingly spry, little hit record, nestled next to bleak pop songs and nervously edgy disco sounds that dominated the radio then, playfully hinted at a spirit of hope that inevitably accompanies the dawn of a new decade (Again, said John Lennon: “It can’t get no worse”).

And Rickie Lee Jones self-titled debut was the quintessential album for that moment in U.S. History, perfectly describing the sadness of the nation, mingled with childlike excitement for the new decade ahead. When music fans hit the stores to pick up the LP that spring and summer, they discovered an album that accurately reflected their frustration and disappointment, but that also gave them permission to smile again. Featuring an all-star cast of musicians, including Dr. John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, and Tom Scott, who provided the stupendous horns, vis-a’-vis Joni Mitchell’s sublime, Court and Spark five years earlier. Rickie Lee Jones debut is a jazzy, pop savvy, funky, little joint.

Jones seasoned her debut with sassy, swinging sucker-licks, like “Young Blood,” “Danny’s All-Star Joint,” and “Weasel and The White Boys Cool,” which provide perfect moments of levity, while, “Night Train,” the might-have-been hit single, paints an impressionist portrait of bohemian life, where eight balls, dark alleys, and riding the city train fills the days and nights of young turks, carving out recognizable niches for themselves in unfamiliar territory. The album, itself, is of a piece, perfectly describing the coming-of-age process in the big city, where the sidewalk ahead holds more doubts than opportunities, and the only thing to which the young musician can cling is to her memories and to her burgeoning talent.

While having its share of cheerful moments, the album remains, overall, a morose affair. The melancholy, “On Saturday Afternoons In 1963,” finds the twenty-something Jones waxing nostalgic about childhood spent laughing the afternoons away and reflecting on the treasure of old friends. The album closes with two somber songs: the aching melancholy of “Company,” a devastating breakup song, and the achingly lonely “After Hours (Twelve Bars Past Midnight),” where the singer sits alone at the piano, literally closing down the lonely bar, tiredly flipping down the light switch as she says “goodnight” to the ravaged decade and hails a cab home.