Sunday, September 29, 2013

“The Magazine,” by Rickie Lee Jones

Rickie Lee Jones was the talk of the town when her debut album exploded onto the scene in 1979, and deservedly so. Her 1981 follow-up album, Pirates, was equally strong and much heralded upon its initial release, even boasting a “Chuck E.’s In Love” caliber single, "Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking," which was criminally-ignored by top 40 radio (that, apparently, much preferred the featherweight rubbish of “I Love A Rainy Night” and “9 to 5” to Jones’ smart pop masterworks), and sadly, the exceptional album, while reaching number 5 on the album charts and achieving “gold” status solely on the momentum of Jones’ popular debut, faded quickly into obscurity after just a few months. It remains a long-forgotten pop gem.

And Jones spent the remainder of 1981 and most of 1982 touring to promote Pirates while struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. By 1983, after a lack of “hit” singles from Pirates and fearing the fickle, record-buying public might forget about Jones altogether, Warner Brothers put out a “mini-album,” Girl At Her Volcano, in 1983, which featured covers of pop standards as well as a few live tracks and leftover outtakes from earlier album sessions. And to be honest, the scrapped-together album was actually quite good, still holding up 30 years later: a testament to Jones’ remarkable gifts. Moving to France for the remainder of that year, Jones kicked her addictions and got back to writing new songs for the next album, 1984’s sublime and regrettably overlooked, The Magazine.

Co-written and co-produced with James Newton Howard, who had previously worked on Elton John’s late 1970’s/early 1980’s albums and who would go on to broad acclaim composing film scores (e.g., The Prince Of Tides, The Sixth Sense, The Hunger Games, etc.), the sweeping concept of this album, at times, sounds like a movie score: a movie score to a quirky, personal, joyful, and sometimes painful movie - kind of like how life is. This stands to reason, as Jones has said that each album she records is like the soundtrack of her life during the time she’s making it. And while the lyrics may be a bit opaque at times, and the whimsical narratives may lead to a few dead ends, the catchy songs (“Gravity,” “Juke Box Fury,” “It Must Be Love,” and the single, “The Real End,” which landed on the lower end of the Hot 100 charts) and the pretty musical interludes (“Prelude To Gravity,” and the mysterious, moody “Rorschachs”) hang together well, shifting moods throughout and keeping the project wholly engaging.

This great album, too, was lost on pop radio that summer and fall, losing ground to the synthesized blips and beeps of horrid earworms, like the squeaky, “Break My Stride,” or the song that was popular solely because Michael Jackson sang on it and anything he touched that year was going to sell a million copies, “Somebody’s Watching Me,” and possibly the worst pop song ever, particularly because it hailed from one of pop music’s former geniuses, “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” And while the album was certainly of a piece with film scores of the day, pop fans that year were far more interested in throwaway blockbuster movie themes, like the cheesy, fight-for-your-right-to-dance-and-have-teenage-sex call to arms, “Footloose,” and the just plain stupid, “Ghostbusters.” But all of this is to say that overlooking Rickie Lee Jones in 1984 was a mistake, plain and simple, as so many missed out on this sumptuous, imaginative, playful, and tender album.

And bonus points for The Magazine for cajoling me into a making a brave leap early in my career. As a new professional in the mid-1990s, I suddenly found myself in the middle of an organization that I no longer recognized. A number of us were disoriented and discouraged, reeling from new leadership. I no longer felt welcome in a workplace that suddenly seemed unfriendly and unfamiliar. To stay would have been a discouraging chain of professional disappointments, but the thought of leaving was paralyzing. While practically intolerable, it felt safer, somehow, to just hang out, albeit unhappily. But the last refrain of Jones’, “Runaround,” haunted and seduced me that year: “Take a deep breath and break the chain, uh-oh, ooh-oh; take a deep breath and break the chain, uh-oh, ooh-oh; take a deep breath and break the chain…” And so I did, and I’ve never looked back. And that, my gentle readers, is the life changing power of music.