So there we were at the Rickie Lee Jones concert in San Francisco a few months ago – my pal Ann and I. We thought we were going to be late, but it turned out Rickie Lee was even later. Apparently her band’s bus had broken down 8 hours away and had finally chug-a-lugged it into San Francisco just in the nick of time. At one point the crowd – having waited an hour – starting chanting her name – Rickie! Rickie! – which must have inspired her because suddenly there she was, her golden tresses a little shorter, her frame a little softer, more middle aged, and good golly, had she had some work done? It looked that way, but hell, let’s cut the lady some slack.
She’d skyrocketed to stardom in 1979 when the song, Chuck E.’s in Love hit #4 on the Billboard 100. The album itself went to #3. She was on the cover of Time Magazine that year, and they dubbed her “The Duchess of Coolsville.” She played Carnegie Hall, appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, and won Best New Artist at the Grammy’s.
That was year one. Can you imagine who you’d have to be to hold all of that energy and projection? A few years before that she’d been living in a cave in Big Sur, and I’d read that she sometimes slept under the Hollywood sign because she had no money.
Over the next 36 years and 16 albums there were plenty of highs and lows – albums that people loved, many they didn’t. She had a major heartbreak with Tom Waits, as well as substantial drug use that had derailed her, then a marriage, a child and a break-up. It hadn’t been easy, but she’d stayed in the game.
I’d come to the show curious. I’d read that a few years back she couldn’t stand up straight on stage – maybe from booze – I think it was that. So I was wondering whether she had gotten back on her feet. I hadn’t come to judge, rather to connect with Rickie Lee’s raw, vulnerable, brand of beauty that comes from falling down and getting back up, from scraping and scrapping to shining.
Listening to her that night, her music sounded like it was scraped right off her heart with a razor blade. It was so pure and exposed, songs that came from wishing hard, and things not working out. And that interests me. I admire that. I think it takes guts to make art from that place and then to share it. It’s like offering up your baby to the world and saying, “look what I’ve made.”
Honestly, the show wasn’t great that night. Her band was unremarkable, and the new songs didn’t grab me. The crowd wanted to love her, and some did, but it was a little hard to connect; she mumbled sometimes, swaying to the sound of something that only she seemed to hear, sometimes sitting down looking a little tired when her band played their solo stuff.
I found myself wanting to protect her that night. Not out of pity, but out of a kind respect for showing up.
Most people went crazy for the old tunes. The new tunes got a more tepid reception. But Rickie Lee seemed not to notice; she was happy, almost innocent and unaware that the crowd had thinned by the end of the show. She told us she loved her band and her new music. She told us that she tried to write a Christmas song that would get years and years of airplay so that “I’ll have some money when I get old.”
She laughed when she said it, but what artist, what person who makes things for a living doesn’t understand just a little bit of that? If I admire anything it’s that she can’t be anything but herself, and in that way she’s true. She reminds me of Joni Mitchell and other musicians who’ve had the courage to follow what was inside of themselves instead of morph into what the market wanted from them. Or someone who’ll mimic their successes instead of trying something new. And then there’s Rickie Lee who had the courage to show up after she’d fallen down again and again.
Who knows, maybe she’ll have a huge Renaissance when she’s 70 – a la Leonard Cohen. Or maybe she doesn’t mind being a smaller act now. Maybe she’s just grateful that she can fill a small hall, or that she has a touring bus that can make it around the country, or that she’s sober enough to get through a show.
I walked away from that concert with something more than just a few old songs I loved. I saw the humility and the grace, the fighting, singing spirit of the girl who used to sleep under the Hollywood sign.
She’s still the Duchess of Coolsville. She’s brave and she’s still making music and sharing it. I’ll be happy if I’m doing that into my 60’s.