Woody Guthrie. Bob Dylan. Rickie Lee Jones?
If someone asked you to listen to a song called “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act NOW),” you’d probably cringe at the possibility--indeed, the likelihood--of a preachy message being delivered over the relentless strumming of an acoustic guitar and the incessant banging of a tambourine. Has the Kingston Trio been revived? Maybe it’s an outtake from “A Mighty Wind,” Christopher Guest’s film parody about a reunion of time-warped ‘60s folkies. You read the lyrics for a clue:
Now they want us to just get in line
behind a president,
when you know they spent millions of dollars
condemning and accusing
the last one from the other side.
Tell somebody, tell somebody,
what’s happening in the USA.
I want to know how far you will go
to protect our right of free speech?
Because it only took a moment
before it faded out of reach.
So you brace yourself to withstand the song and . . . hey, what’s this? A thumping bass line, a funky guitar riff--and then a familiar voice chimes in. Could it be? No way . . . yes! It’s that unmistakable drawl, hailing from the far side of coolsville--Rickie Lee Jones!? Carefree jazzbo, green-eyed soulstress, incurable romantic, bard of the bittersweet lullaby, the terminal hipster whose rendering of “I Won’t Grow Up” sounded as if she meant it--Rickie Lee Jones has become a protest singer.
Her new album, “The Evening of My Best Day,” comes out Tuesday, and many critics likely will describe it as “vintage Rickie Lee.” Her signature sound is all there--the finger-snappin’ rhythms, the aching ballads, the poetic lyrics. It’s clearly her strongest new work in a decade. But in making this record, Jones had an awakening. It was no longer enough just to create, or to entertain, or, as she puts it, to “heal.”
Jones’ evolution is revealed on the album’s first cut--a brooding jazz groove. You think she’s about to channel Betty Carter with a throaty lament about a lost love. But the song is titled “Ugly Man,” and it’s about the President of the United States of America:
He’s an ugly man
he always was an ugly man.
He grew up to be just like his father
an ugly man.
And he’ll tell you lies.
He’ll look at you and tell you lies.
He grew up to be just like his father
“I have never cared about politics,” says Jones, sitting on the back patio of her home in West Los Angeles. “I have stayed away from it as far as I could. I felt my job was to play music, that if I waved any flags it would drive people away, and I didn’t want to do that. But I definitely changed my mind the year that George Bush got elec- . . ."--she pauses to choose other words--". . . took the election.”
Unlikely as it may seem, Jones has found and unleashed her inner radical. Her new stance doesn’t dominate the album--only three of the 12 songs have overt political references. But those three numbers will define this record, which arrives just as the nation’s political tension is rising over the war on terrorism and the 2004 presidential campaign looms. In “Little Mysteries,” Jones recounts what led to this juncture: the pivotal 2000 presidential election. Again, she manages to marry pointed lyrics with seductive sound, this time slithery R&B;:
A trail of lies leads us to Orlando
but we are days too late
And when the boys came over from Texas
they said, We’ll take everything we can take.
And while everybody’s looking up
in a race too close to call
the election quietly slips into
the third door down the hall.
So here we go again--another artist has decided to enter the political fray. There is a long tradition of social commentary in pop music, but that road is also littered with good intentions, bad decisions and bleeding naivete. At the very least, Jones may be accused of preaching to the converted.
“Well, then, let’s get them galvanized,” she says. “I’d be happy to know that there’s any converted out there. ‘Hello . . . anybody still there?’ I’m not trying to provoke, I’m just trying to say, ‘Hey, where’s our community? Where’s our ethical nature? You’re on the right, we’re on the left, but we both know that being a bully and suppressing free speech is wrong, don’t we? There must be some places that we as Americans agree . . . don’t let this moment in time sweep that away.’ ”
Jones’ album undoubtedly will resonate with her fans, and not only because they will recognize the comforting sound of her music. Her work has matured, and Jones acknowledges that she has too. She’s in a better place musically and personally, having endured a journey familiar to the fortysomething crowd that comprises her core audience. She’s landed securely, empowered by her growth and rejuvenated by her new embrace of L.A.--the city where she found fame and all of its consequences, both good and bad.
Still, the possibility of an ugly backlash exists. For all of her bona fides as a true artist, Jones invariably will be lumped as someone taking advantage of her celebrity, and she’ll need all of her newfound strength to withstand becoming a fresh lamb for the lions at Fox News Channel. Could this be Dixie Chicks redux?
“I don’t think so,” Jones says, laughing. “I don’t sell 10 million records, and my audience isn’t a bunch of rednecks that are gonna turn against me.”
It’s been almost a quarter-century since she burst on the scene, announcing her arrival with an album that was essentially the soundtrack to her boho L.A. life. “Rickie Lee Jones” was jazzy and brassy--unlike anything then on the pop charts. The up-tempo songs were joyful--lyrically dense and populated by a cast of raffish fellow travelers. The ballads were heartbreakingly sad, and if you were prone to blues in the night, you couldn’t stop listening to them.
The album, however, was defined by its massive hit single, “Chuck E’s In Love,” which provided the kind of double-edged success that can forever mark an artist. That song wasn’t a fluke, but it was an aberration for the young songwriter whose eclectic style didn’t fit any Top 10 formula. Instead Jones embarked on a path that has produced 10 more albums, virtually all of them earning critical acclaim.
But it has been six years since her last recording of all-original work. Even that effort, 1997’s “Ghostyhead,” with its trip-hop textures, had some critics and fans complaining that she’d abandoned her familiar sound and was pandering to pop’s flavor-of-the-moment. Three years later, she followed with “It’s Like This,” an album of cover songs that reflected her diverse and idiosyncratic taste--with everything from Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” to the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.” That record was made during Jones’ three-year sojourn to Tacoma, Wash., where she moved in 1997, in part to raise her daughter, Charlotte, in a calmer environment. Jones had lived in Tacoma for part of high school and much of her family had settled there. But when she sat down to record an album for the Artemis label, there was one little problem.
“I had nothing to say,” Jones says. “There was not a drop of song coming out of me. I’d sit at the piano--nothing. So I thought, ‘Well, I can still sing. I like these songs,’ ” she says, referring to her decision to do a cover album. “It was so humbling, [but] the great part about ‘It’s Like This’ is the song ‘Cycles.’ I won’t repeat the lyric because it’ll make me teary, but it was right exactly where I was. It was a reckoning.”
(Listen to Jones sing these lines and you too will have trouble keeping a dry eye: “Things can’t get worse than now / but I’ll keep on trying to sing / please just don’t ask me how.”)
“So then comes human motivation. I had a terrible manager once who described my career as ‘spiraling downward.’ ” Jones cackles at the memory. “So I’m down at the bottom of the spiral . . ."--she suddenly gets quietly serious--"and what I wanted was redemption, to be healed from the sorrow of my life. For whatever reason, it was so sorrowful. And not just my life--my mother’s life, my ancestors, the family sorrow that I carry around and my part in it. I had been praying a lot and looking for the right prayer. The right prayer is, ‘You take me where I need to go, please, because I am ready.’ You can’t say, ‘I want to go there,’ because that may not be where you need to go.”
Apparently, where Jones needed to go--at least geographically--was back to L.A. The charm of Tacoma had worn off: “It rained and rained and rained.” So she returned to the place that she has come to call home. “You leave L.A. to get away from this lifestyle, and then you get away from it and you miss it,” Jones says.
By then, however, Jones was without a record deal. She had completed her contractual obligation to Artemis with “Live at Red Rocks,” her second live album in six years. Critics started to wonder when she would write new music. Jones didn’t realize it at the time, but she was also now on the road to where she needed to go artistically and spiritually. After the 2000 election, she started posting social commentary on her personal Web site, which quickly became a magnet for gadflies of all political stripes. As an offshoot, she started a new Web site, www.furnitureforthepeople.com, as a place for discussion, advocacy, and even for unsigned musicians to showcase their work.
David Kalish, an old friend who had collaborated on her 1981 album “Pirates,” was working on some songs for the site and asked her to help. But then, a funny thing happened. “I was having so much fun,” Jones says, “that we ended up making my record.”
Jones took the risky step of financing the recording herself, which could not have been cheap, given her propensity to use a lot of musicians and to spend an eternity in the studio.
“I said, ‘I’m betting everything that I’m gonna do this right and that I’m gonna succeed. It’s all or nothing. Why save this money and then it’ll be gone and I will have not tried my best?’
“I didn’t want the psychological hindrance of [a record label’s] expectations. The feeling that somebody at the label doesn’t know my work and they’re signing me ‘cause of ‘Chuck E’s in Love'--24 years later. Just shoot me! That’s how I felt.
“I wanted them to want it. And it was so much cleaner, so much better to have a thing and say, ‘You like this? You want to sell it?’ It’s better than [hearing], ‘We’ve signed you, and we might not like what you do, but we’re obliged to put it out.’ ”
Jones’ new managers, Kevin Gasser and John Dee of Benchmark Entertainment, had taken on a client who was at a career crossroads. Jones was struggling to find a place in an industry dominated by a handful of conglomerates obsessed with the bottom line. “We didn’t go to most of the major labels,” Gasser says. “We weren’t looking for a [traditional] situation.” Jones settled on the independent V2 label, which was started by Virgin Records founder Richard Branson and is run by veteran music executive Andy Gershon.
“She’s an incredibly important artist,” Gershon says. “I look at her in terms of the greats--Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen. Maybe not in a commercial sense, but her importance as an artist is immeasurable. I didn’t have to justify her [signing] because we don’t have to sell a million records and contribute to the P&L; of a corporation.
“You work with her because she’s an important artist and she’s made an important record, not just in the industry, but for what’s going on in the world at large.”
But there would have been no new Rickie Lee Jones record had the songs not started coming again. They were built on snippets she’d been carrying around for years, variations on tried-and-true themes, and the fresh blessings that come to an artist who has remained faithful to her vision. There are joyful songs again, and sorrowful ones--from the gently rollicking “A Second Chance” to the bluesy “Lap Dog,” a folky “Sailor Song” and the thrash of “A Face in the Crowd.” And then there are those three barbs she felt compelled to write.
“The  election was taken in very dubious circumstances,” Jones says. “A righteous man would not have said, ‘Thanks, I’ll take it. You just step back.’ And I didn’t understand why the Democrats just went, ‘OK, you can have it.’ It felt to me, from the very beginning, like people were being threatened or forced to accept this corporation taking over the presidency--everybody get out of their way ‘cause they had business they were gonna take care of. In my opinion, the Republican Party is the last on the list to care about the needs of old people and children and poor people.
“These are people who need money, while these people--these George Bushes and the banker-grandfather--these people swim in money. My fury about their policies isn’t even as horrible as my damnation of their way of life, and their arrogance, and the way they view this country as their corporation. They’ll take any state, any park--it’s theirs if they want to drill. I just became filled with How could this be happening in my lifetime?
“And then the Patriot Act started to bring in something new altogether. After the bombing of the World Trade Center, I felt they tried to use it as an opportunity--and to me that was blasphemous. To use the grief and sorrow and fear of a nation as an economic opportunity, as a political opportunity--it was all I could write about.”
Jones was reminded that, in this country, people often don’t like artists and celebrities to be political.
“Too bad,” she says. “It’s OK to not be political unless your country is falling apart. It’s like artists have less right to speak out, but I’m a citizen too. It can seem suspect to the audience--'We don’t want you to use this important thing to promote your career.’ Probably that happens once in a while, but that’s not usually what’s going on. People are just saying what they feel.”
Well, then, Ms. Jones, are you prepared for the day when Bill O’Reilly berates you on the Fox News Channel?
“As long as I’m not watching it,” she laughs. “You know, if I find my way to Bill O’Reilly, that would be fabulous.” Jones then affects the lilting accent she would use in defense: “ ‘But Bill, I’m an Irish Catholic like you. What are you thinking, lad?’
“I don’t know if I’m prepared,” she says, her laughter dissolving to wariness. “I know that I feel absolutely right in my point of view, so I guess that’s as prepared as I can be.”
Rickie Lee Jones has lived in Los Angeles off and on for many years and in many places. She was a longtime Hollywood denizen, but, by the mid-'90s, what had once seemed funky and hip to her was now undeniably seedy. “It was so decayed, and people were drinking and smoking and taking drugs, and there were Angelyne ads on the way to take Charlotte to school and it was just horrible to me.”
At one time, she says, “I couldn’t imagine living at the beach--it just seemed so white.” But when Jones returned from Washington, she knew it was time to change her L.A. surroundings as well.
“I was in Hollywood again, in the same part of town. I was looking to rent a house, and I came to the beach and I rented a terribly expensive house, just ‘cause that’s what I wanted to do, and I thought, This is the life. I want to look at the things that are L.A., I want to see them all the time--surfers and cars.” Jones says the change of scenery “was really healing.”
Rickie Lee sightings once added to the cachet of Eastside cool, so veteran Hollywood hipsters may be distressed to learn that she has settled on the Westside, on a block where the ocean can be smelled, if not seen. She has purchased a charming, modest house--a significant first for a woman with wanderlust in her veins. French doors on one side of the patio lead to her music room, where a couple of guitar cases and an electric piano await her next musical stirrings. It’s all perfectly pleasant, yet she constantly tugs at her shirt, trying to get comfortable in her chair and perhaps with the notion that--at 48 and the single parent of a now-teenage daughter--she has grown up.
On this sunny, late summer day, she walks through her lush yard, showing off the plantings she’s added. There’s a creek beyond her property, and Jones says that in the quiet of evening she can hear running water and a chorus of frogs. On one side of the yard is a wooden swinging bench, and one can imagine her there, strumming a guitar and singing the last lines to “The Evening of My Best Day”:
And it’s a good life
From now on
When I look back at you.
A good life,
the sky is almost blue.
“I’m so positive,” says Jones, somewhat disbelieving, but plainly grateful for her fortune. “I feel very up. . . . It’s about time.”
As reflected in her trilogy of Bush-bashing, Jones may feel that it’s twilight in America, but she wanted the album’s title--which comes from a song on the collection--to reflect her sense of optimism.
“This record is the culmination of a great deal of spiritual energy, of me wanting to have this rest of my life be a good life--and write a great record that cannot be denied,” she says. “As I went to make it, I was aware that records can heal--they do a good work. That’s what I wanted to do--to make a good work.”