Rickie Lee Jones
“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 20, 2004, in Los Angeles.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. Our guest today is the Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Rickie Lee Jones. Welcome.
Rickie Lee Jones: Thank you.
Paulson: Particularly welcome is a new CD that marks your first collection of new material since 1997. Where have you been?
Jones: Living. Living the life.
Paulson: Was there a period in which you just weren’t moved to write new music?
Jones: I would say all that period, yeah, from the — after “Ghostyhead,” which I think was ’96, I just quit writing. I didn’t have any ideas. So I moved back up to be near my family, with my daughter.
Paulson: I can’t imagine anything to be more terrifying for somebody who makes their living as a songwriter than not to have any ideas.
Jones: Yeah. Every time — until this time — every time I wrote, it’s — it’s the end. You know, when I was done, I was done. And the landscape’s barren, and I don’t have any sense that I’ll ever write again, so that’s kind of how it always is after a project. But this time, it actually took — you know, bore the barren fruit of no work. And I think it’s also ’cause I just needed to live for a while and get out of L.A. and not try to compete and let some new life grow.
Paulson: Well, “The Evening of My Best Day” is the name of the CD. And it’s gotten remarkably positive reviews. You’ve got to be encouraged by all that. Some have said it’s your best yet.
Jones: I think so. But, you know, I mean, I think it is my best yet, and yet I think part of the things that shape how people feel about a work is its relation to what’s happening at the time. So Pirates was very profound for its time. And you listen to it 20 years later, it’s still a great record, but maybe it seems more relative to its time in some respect, though it’s still good. So this one, maybe it’s not — I think a lot of my later work becomes more relevant as years go by, so this one is really good now, and in three years, it’ll probably be greater. There’s something about them that they grow into the future.
Paulson: The last CD that you did in the studio was not as well received critically.
Paulson: Does that hurt?
Jones: It did. It did hurt. I felt maligned and misunderstood. Mm-hmm.
Paulson: Which may have been true. When you — when people watch this show — and they certainly know your name — you’ve won multiple Grammy Awards. And yet probably the song most people associate with you is “Chuck E’s in Love.”
Paulson: Big hit, 1978.
Jones: Nine. ’79.
Paulson: Because in ’78, just about a mile from here, Warner Brothers saw you at the Troubadour.
Paulson: And did you have any idea that that was the beginning of the kind of career you’ve had?
Jones: I guess I had a feeling. You know, I was very excited. I was a kind of — it’s not that I’d already lived the life and saw it happening again, but there was this sense of everything I hoped for was coming to pass.
Paulson: Everybody who wrote about you at the time said, “She’s so mature for somebody who’s really, you know — ”
Jones: That must be why I’m associated with the generation older than me.
Paulson: [Laughter] Well, there’s a first review in The New York Times where they said, “She’s a lovely soprano. And we just hope her voice holds up.”
Jones: Wow. I’m not a — never been a soprano. I’m totally an alto, so it didn’t hold up if they thought I was a soprano.
Paulson: Well, it’s a good thing you’re still recording and have a very vital recording career. I have to ask, a song like “Chuck E’s in Love,” which is a staple on — forgive me — oldies radio —
Jones: You know, I hope it is. ‘Cause I never hear it on oldies radio. I feel like I’m so… I don’t know; I feel like I’m always the outsider, so I don’t even hear it on oldies. So if it’s a staple, that’s terrific.
Paulson: And — well, the hipper, oldies radio stations. But, you know, it gave you tremendous visibility at the beginning of your career. But it also kind of sentenced you to performing that all the time for a long, long time in your career. Did you abandon it quickly and say, “I’m not going to do my hit”?
Jones: You know, it wasn’t — for me, it was a song like any other. They’re all the children. So I did it as long as it was relevant to me to do it. I didn’t have to do it, and I didn’t have to not do it. But I put it away like the beret. Because for a while, it was just too confusing. So I do it once in a while now.
Paulson: And your audience was accepting of your not doing the hit?
Jones: Yes, definitely — mostly.
Paulson: I noticed you did it on your Red Rocks CD.
Jones: Sometimes, yeah.
Paulson: And a different arrangement than people would have known if they’d bought the record in ’79. And I guess that’s a real blessing in that it’s a great song. It truly is.
Paulson: And if your — and you think about, you know, somebody like a Chuck Berry whose only No. 1 was “My Ding a Ling,” you know.
Jones: Was it?
Paulson: To have to do that — yeah — to have to do that on any kind of repeated basis would be — luckily he’s got other songs he can fall back on.
Jones: I didn’t know that was — I would have thought — he’s so influential. I wouldn’t have thought that.
Paulson: He did very well. But No. 1 was elusive for Chuck Berry.
Jones: You know, after so many years, when I hear “Chuck E’s in Love” now and people still come up and go “Chuck E’s in Love” 25 years later, now I’m at peace and delighted with it. I think, “What a prof — what a powerful little song.” What a powerful little song.
Paulson: Mentioned the Red Rocks — Live at Red Rocks CD — which is a great live recording. And if people haven’t listened to your music since — let’s say the late ’70s — if they bought your first album and have not checked in with you lately, that’s a nice sampler of the range of your work. The great surprise for me on that CD was your encore of “Gloria” — in the first place because you really rocked. [Laughs] And secondly, it’s just not a song I would have immediately associated with Rickie Lee Jones. I have to ask, knowing that you were born in the Chicago area, are you doing the Van Morrison Them version or The Shadows of Knight?
Jones: That’s nice because The Shadows of Knight was the first one. No, I’m doing Van.
Paulson: The Shadows of Knight were the pride of Chicago with that song.
Jones: That’s amazing you remember that.
Paulson: Oh, that was an anthem for an entire generation. And I guess you have some affinity for Van Morrison as well.
Jones: Yeah, yeah. And so that wasn’t hard to pull out.
Paulson: I’m curious. I’m sure — I’m sure the hairs on the back of your neck sometimes raise when you see yet one more allusion, reference to Joni Mitchell. But are there references to other performers that you go, “I like that”? Which ones flatter you and make you feel good about the comparison?
Jones: Well, I’m not — Joni seems to be the only person I’m compared to now, which has been a strange retelling of the history. Because when I first came out, there wasn’t — there was only initially a, you know, female songwriter comparison, but it was clear that I came more from the Laura Nyro/Van Morrison school, so somehow through — in history retelling, Laura’s been completely washed away as if she never existed, and all songwriting emanates from Joni Mitchell, so … [Laughs] so she shows up a lot. I don’t — I guess after 25 years, it’s either I’m so incredibly unknown that it’s still necessary, or it’s — I don’t really — you see my arms go here. I don’t — I don’t dig it, you know? I understand Joni is totally unique, and so, OK, here’s another totally unique singer/songwriter, but it would be like comparing Frank Sinatra to Bing Crosby in 1965. At some point, it’s no longer necessary.
Paulson: Well, and —
Jones: So is there one I like? Well, I always love being compared to Thelonious Monk if you ever do that — being compared to, um — “She’s like, she’s like, she’s like…” I guess “she’s like” just means you don’t know what she’s like.
Paulson: I have seen the Laura Nyro and Van Morrison references. I mean, which — that’s as positive as you can be. It’s interesting you should say Laura Nyro’s, like, fallen off the planet. Because it’s such an extraordinary body of work and yet never really got her due. I guess I read somewhere that your earliest influences were Laura Nyro and West Side Story.
Paulson: Which is a pretty good one-two punch.
Jones: And also you got to put the Beatles in, because otherwise it would be rather Broadway-esque, so it’s also got a little Beatles.
Paulson: A little John Lennon. It’s critical to any mix. Well, I want to talk about the new CD. You know, I’m curious. Did the floodgates open at one point? I mean, my sense, from listening to the CD, is, the floodgates opened ’cause you got ticked off. I mean, there’s some irritation and anger fueling a number of these songs, and it’s a remarkably political CD as well. Where did that come from?
Jones: Well, I think the gates of your music and poetry open on a personal level. It’s not that I got angry and I’m going to write a protest record. I’d already — I decided it’s time to write. And those are personal reasons — life is — I’m getting poor or I need to move from this place to this place. So that’s what happens. And then once you make that decision to move, then you take in what’s going to — you know, what’s the impetus for a particular song. So I had already started some political discussion on my Web site in 1999 before the Bush fiasco. And there was a lot of debate going on and really aggressive right-wing attacks. And so I learned early on that if you went up against — you know, if you went up against these people, they would attack you viciously on a personal level. They would not engage you politically. So I closed the site down for a while. And I rethought it —
Paulson: We’re talking about Furniture for the People.
Jones: And after the election — so-called election of George Bush, and I felt there were so many acts of evil being perpetrated in the name of the United States and the people of the United States that I decided to create a Web site. I thought, if I can — one person, one American, doing this one little strand of good, activism in the world, maybe these are the kinds of things that, you know, affect the balance of good and evil in the world. That’s how I was thinking. So I identified — I went online and looked at orphanages and things we could contribute to. I knew my fans were very active and really wanted to be involved. And so we started Furniture for the People, an opportunity for them to, you know, get together and support each other and support people in the world and talk about politics, because it seemed like all avenues, all media, were saturated with right-wing opinion. And nobody from the middle of the road to the left had an opportunity to hear their opinion reflected in the media. So that was mostly why I did it.
Paulson: Interesting to hear you say that. Because there are many who say it’s the left-leaning liberal media.
Jones: That’s just rhetoric. You know, that’s like stealing, you know, your wallet while saying, “You’re stealing my wallet.” Well, that’s all they’re doing, you know? Perhaps it was leaning left in a couple of things, but you can’t say that media owned and controlled by Rupert Murdoch is leaning left. He doesn’t allow it. He’s made his opinions clear that he supports Bush. And all the newspapers that he owns, if you read the headlines, the way that they craft the headlines, it’s all leaning to subtly support — subtly or not so subtly support George Bush.
Paulson: You look at your body of work over 25 years, there aren’t a lot of political songs.
Jones: No, no, no. I just couldn’t take it anymore. You know, Fox News, a channel created solely — [Laughs] as the — you know, solely to support the right wing as the loudspeaker of right propaganda while saying, “We’re the only nonpartisan channel” and clearly being the partisan channel. That’s a technique that they use. And Clear Channel buying up all avenues to do your shows in and what else do they own? They own radio, they own — So it was just suddenly my country in nine months was totally, utterly changing. And there was — You know, I was a Camp Fire Girl. At heart, I am a kind of, you know, patriotic person. For me, politics is like business as usual. You know, I like the ideology of Democrats, but it started to seem like “Who cares?” You know, ’cause they’re all a bunch of guys in suits, and they’re all going to serve themselves. But at this point, I felt and do feel democracy and the country and the nation and the world as we’ve known it are in terrible jeopardy. And to not speak out now would be a sin. People always say, “How could the Germans not say anything as Hitler took over?” And I go, “Well, you’re not saying anything now. Look at all the things going on around you, and you’re not say — ” Look at the Patriot Act. Look at Medicare. Look at the Vietnam veterans, all their money, you know — and nobody’s saying anything. But more importantly is the fabric of the character of the nation is being degenerated by this ruthless onslaught of ill will being perpetrated through the media by, like, Fox News — you know, just the way that they speak, the way they speak to each other, the way they accuse. Their whole temperament is not the way we grew up. We didn’t grow up that uncivilly. And I think they’re part of creating really uncivil America.
Paulson: People who don’t identify with you read about your comments, and I think you got a backlash from an interview in the New York Post.
Jones: A little bit, yeah.
Paulson: Did that involve threats?
Jones: A little bit. It did.
Paulson: Death threats have got to get your attention.
Jones: Evidently, yeah. It really — You know, I don’t even know if I should — but it freaked my daughter out. That’s who — it hits your family. You know, I didn’t — I wasn’t worried. And I took it on, so I was — if I take it on, I’m prepared for what comes, but she was not. And she took it really hard. It was very hard for her.
Paulson: And your daughter’s in high school now.
Paulson: I’m curious. Does she appreciate your music?
Jones: She likes some of it. You know, she doesn’t really know it at all. I’ll say, “Oh, this song I wrote the words to. Do you know that song?” “No.” She does — I don’t even know if she’s heard “Chuck E’s in Love.” Because she’d only hear it by me playing it. She hasn’t listened to my records. [Laughing] It’s kind of cool, really. She only knows me as Mom.
Paulson: I can’t get my kids to watch this TV show either. It’s a universal — In that interview you did with the New York Post, I was struck by the interviewer saying, “You know, folk songs didn’t stop the Vietnam War. They had no effect on the Vietnam War.” And I’m not sure I believe that.
Jones: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I disagree too.
Paulson: Yeah, I think music has made a difference in people’s spirit and approach to changing the world. I mean, it’s been inspirational as much as anything else.
Jones: Yeah, I think it’s the banner and the torch that things gathered around then to affect change. And I think it still is. Once again, it affects an individual. It affects their hearts. You can also use it to — you know, to speak to a mass point of view, but you’re working with this secret language, you know. Music is the secret language, and you know, it’s powerful. And I remember very well, you know, the folk songs, Bob Dylan — it was all the — and even before them, before it was super popular, at least to my generation, Woody Guthrie. You know, it’s always been a point to get people to relax and listen and gather.
Paulson: It’s funny. For a man who had a guitar which bore the legend “This Machine Kills Fascists,” he’s the man who wrote “This Land is Your Land.”
Jones: Which ended up being their — It’s kind of like “Born in the U.S.A.” too, you know.
Paulson: Right, right. All these subversive songs that got turned around, turned on their head because they sounded patriotic on the surface. Of course, people don’t sing Guthrie’s original lyrics. They sing the ones that talk about the beauty of the country, but they don’t hint at the injustice that he saw in his travels. You know, one of the songs on the new album is a song title I didn’t think I’d ever — I’d ever see, which is about the U.S. Patriot Act.
Paulson: And it’s … it’s very effective. And it’s a great sound to it. I mean, it’s just — you know, if you weren’t paying a lot of attention to the lyrics, you’d just be up and dancing to this song about calling for the repeal of the U.S. Patriot Act.
Paulson: Before you write a song like that, do you sit down with Newsweek and Time and the original draft of the U.S. Patriot Act and take it apart and decide, “I really need to understand this before I call for the repeal of it”? Or is it more a matter of spirit that you write the song and say, “I don’t like the feel of this legislation”?
Jones: Well, in this case, I’m familiar with it. We’ve been discussing it a lot on “Furniture for the People.” We printed it on the Web site as well. And the webmaster, my friend Lee Cantelon, pointed out the similarities between the Patriot Act and something called the Enabling Act of 19 — from Germany in 1938, which basically also gave the Nazis in a time of, you know, social unrest in Germany, gave the Nazis this kind of blanket power to stop terrorism and the enemy from without, however that might manifest, whatever that might be. And once you get to the point in your country where you’re doing that kind of legislation — there’s an unnamed terror. We don’t know what it will be, but we want to give ourselves complete power to stop you before you do what I think you might do, then you know you’re right on the precipice of fascism, I think. And so we tried to point that out to people. We’ve been trying to gather people. You know, I think legislation and laws are so daunting to people, Americans. They think once it’s in place, what could I do about it? I say, “You better be out on the street, and you better do something about it.” Because all laws eventually get used for evil, don’t you think? And so it’s a matter of time before — and even if it was only directed at a so-called enemy, whatever that enemy might be, it breaks international law; it’s against everything we’ve stood for; it defies the Geneva Convention. It doesn’t allow Red Cross to visit prisoners. It makes us into the most — you know, our idea — our idea of an evil country’s behavior towards prisoners is what we’ve become. So, and this gives us the legal right to do it. I think we have to maintain our democracy while fighting for it. We can’t disassemble it.
Paulson: Interesting line on your CD where you said, “The depth of our democracy is only as good as the voices of protest she protects.”
Jones: Is only as deep as the voices it protects.
Paulson: That’s — and I’m — you know, I hear your point of view about the war. I don’t — interestingly, I don’t hear a lot of other voices … joining you. I don’t hear a lot of musicians saying that. But I also don’t hear the flip side. I mean, this show’s all about free expression. The next guest could be very pro-George Bush. But I don’t hear a lot of musicians and artists even wanting to enter the fray of politics. Why is that?
Jones: I think it’s the same reason Americans aren’t saying anything. There’s been some kind of shadow, an umbrella, that’s fallen over free speech since George Bush took office. He — I think because he has so much media brainwashing people, affecting, you know, what they say that they’re afr — and he’s aligned himself with the word “patriotism.” Now, how a guy like that could is, like, Al Capone aligning, as far as I’m concerned. But, and Hitler did the same thing. If you’re against Hitler, you’re against Germany. If you’re against George Bush, you’re unpatriotic. I don’t think so. I think we have two sides. We should have more. We have free speech. If I don’t like you, I get to go vote against you. And I get to tell everybody I don’t like you while you’re in office. And if it becomes unpatriotic for me to do so, then you’re changing the fabric of my country. And then it’s more crucial to get you out. We have to be keeping able — and I don’t say malign him. But I say you have to be able to criticize and discuss the guy that’s in office.
Paulson: You sound as engaged in politics —
Jones: I know.
Paulson: — as you’ve ever been.
Jones: I’m just totally — I think about it a lot. And I worry. Because we’re so asleep here, we think our country is going to go on forever. My feeling is that the enemy is coming from within. It’s not an enemy from without. And the enemy from within is changing the fabric of our country. And we have — you know, I heard or read someone say how proud they were that Americans didn’t take to the streets in the election of 2000. And I think that was our shame. I think when the election was disputed and policemen were stopping people from voting, we should have been in the streets and called for another election. We didn’t because we were exhausted, I think, from seven years of attack, relentless attack, on Clinton, so all we wanted was to be relieved of the discussion of presidents for a while. And I think they counted on that.
Paulson: Could we hear something from the new CD, perhaps one of the political songs you’ve got?
Jones: [Acoustic picking] So this is called “The Ugly Man.” I wrote it in about an hour. [Sings] “He’s a ugly man,/ always was an ugly man./ Grew up to be like his father./ Ugly man./ And he’ll tell you lies,/ and look at you and tell you lies./ Grew up to be like his father,/ ugly inside./ Hey, ugly man./ What’s the plan?/ If people knew…/ what would they do with the ugly man?/ Are you having fun?/ Will we be here/ when you’re done with me?/ Yeah./ Revolution,/ yeah./ And now it’s finally gonna come./ It’s everywhere,/ but you’re not liking revolution./ All right./ We’ll take it back./ And now we’ll take the country back./ And everywhere/ but you’re not liking…/ Ugly man./ Ugly man./ Ugly man./ Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah./ Bah-dah, bah-bah./ Bah, bah, bah, bah./ Bah, bah, bah, bah.”