What were the skies like when you were young?

It’s Monday night, and I have been standing outside the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for an hour and a half. Yesterday evening I decided to take advantage of the Indian Summer and shave my head grade zero. This morning Siberian winter set in and the temperatures went sub zero. I have big red ears quickly turning blue from the cold, my date has blown me out, and the last time I saw Rickie in concert she was appalling. I huddle disconsolate next to some guy who obviously assumes I am gay and moves off. Why, I wonder, do I bother?
At eight, the doors finally open. An hour late. We are all herded into the school-hall-like standing area, and I rush off to buy a triple whiskey to warm myself up. The barmaid puts ice in it and I stammer “n-n-no.” Not because I am a whiskey snob who can’t stand bruised whiskey (which I am). But because ice is the last thing I want at the moment. I down the drink and secure a place in front of the stage. I pull my sweater over my head and breathe on my hands. I slowly warm up and fall asleep.

At nine-fifteen, I am awakened by a commotion in the crowd. I arise and stare at the stage. It looks promising. These is a large drum kit. A large mixing desk. A double bass. When I saw Rickie two years ago, she performed a solo acoustic set to promote her solo acoustic album Naked Songs. But Rickie is frail and childlike at the best of times, and naked children are illegal. As Rickie overindulged herself the audience left. Within half an hour the auditorium was only half full. By the close, only I and a handful of paedophiles remained.

But the time I saw her before that, she was wonderful. The best concert I have ever been to. I dehydrated myself with the tears I shed during the two hours she played. That is why I came back tonight. That is why I will always come back, bear frostbite and loneliness, as long as Rickie continues to perform. And the main reason why things were so wonderful that night, apart from the presence of Rickie herself, was the backing band, led by a double bass. And that is why things look so promising.

Rickie Lee Jones recorded her first, eponymous album in 1979. It opened with her first and only chart hit, Chuck E’s in Love, a song for which she has become undeservedly loved, a song you may well find propping up the midday schedule on Radio 2, Melody FM, Capital Gold, or any other station your parents listen to. The other songs for which Rickie is undeservedly loved are It Must be Love, which crops up on the Frankie and Johnny Soundtrack, and The Horses, which is featured in Jerry MacGuire. All three are middle-of-the-road bland: good reason for her to be as little known as she is; good reason for her not to make it into the pages of a cutting edge student newspaper.

But listen on beyond Chuck E’s in Love, and you’ll quickly be seduced. Listen on though that first album, right through to the closing song Eight Bars before Midnight, hear Rickie’s voice crack as she intones the closing words “And I’m standing on a corner. All alone,” and if you’ve got a heart, feel it break. When I send compilation tapes to my foreign friends, I always end them with Portishead’s Roads (“Got nobody on my side, and surely that ain’t right”) , followed by Eight Bars before Midnight. Yes, I’m a drama queen. But I get airmail like nobody I know.

Rickie continued the melancholy magic with Pirates (1980) but then premature middle age set in. The Magazine (1984) and Flying Cowboys (1989) were graceful but unexciting, full of mediocre songs saved only by Rickie’s extraordinary vocals. Rickie smoothly scats and then stumbles, squawks and shrieks, screams and squeals. Her music is jazzy, folky, brushes hips with bop. It waltzes with Waits, with whom Rickie had an intense relationship at the beginning of her career. But at its loneliest, it is lonelier than that of Waits. Tom Waits always has his bottle of Whiskey for company. Rickie has no-one and nothing. And though I obviously want her, I’m sure she doesn’t want me.

The best track on Flying Cowboys is a cover of Gerry and the Pacemaker’s Don’t Let the Sun Catch you Crying. As if admitting songwriter’s block, Rickie’s next album, Pop Pop (1991) was a collection of cover versions. But whereas previously, bad songs had been saved by great vocals, here, great songs were destroyed by overindulgent singing. But the concert, that concert, was great.

And then Rickie hit the nineties. Or rather, the nineties hit her. The Orb sampled her for Little Fluffy Clouds and she sued. Sheryl Crow released her Chuck E-a-like All I Wanna Do and went global. And drunk or drugged, Rickie fell comatose off a stool two strums of her guitar into a festival in San Francisco.

Then, in 1993, she released Traffic from Paradise. This time the cover, of Bowie’s Rebel Rebel, was the weak link. Rickie had made things up with her muse, and her fans rejoiced. So did the critics. And this years flirtation with trip-hop, Ghostyhead, has been equally well received. No-one knows who she is anymore, so no-one buys her records. She pissed off most of her original fans with the three albums following Pirates. The venues she plays are becoming steadily smaller. But none of this matters, because when she arrives on stage at the Empire, nearly two hours late, Rickie is mesmerising...

Michael Ellis Sander walks out and grabs the bass. Rick Boston thrashes at his electric guitar. The drummer begins banging and the DJ starts scratching. Out of the cacophony a groove emerges. A dirty, relentless groove, hypnotically sexy, like Sherilyn Fenn writhing at the bar in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Just when I begin to suspect I’m at the wrong concert, Rickie ambles on. Rickie, disturbing in a middle-aged velvet suit and heels, girly long blonde hair and bangs. She seizes the microphone and starts talking. The talking turns to scat, the scat to screeches. The little girl lost image is intact, but confused. Rickie has hit Carrie’s puberty. Rickie Lee has finally become Jones.

But she is enjoying it. The opening song goes on way too long but not long enough. It is followed by similar grooves, Roadkill and Sunny Afternoon. And then by Running from Mercy and Ghostyhead, songs which hint at her folksy past, but see it dragged relentlessly into the here and now. Both begin acoustically but build into massive soundscapes. Both are as haunting as her old songs were, indeed they almost sound haunted by those old songs. But both sound happy to be new. As indeed Jones does herself.

This is a Jones I haven’t seen before. She smiles. She even dances a little. When I saw her before, even when she was so wonderful, she took herself too seriously, stomping off for five minutes when someone took a flashlight photo whilst she was singing. But now she seems liberated. Liberated perhaps by her dwindling success. My only fear is that she will be tempted to sing some of her earlier numbers. Numbers that wouldn’t suit the ambience of the evening. Numbers like Chuck E’s in Love.

After only fifty minutes, Jones stops. “What a wonderful evening. What a wonderful show,” she remarks. But this is not arrogance. More acceptance. Relief. As the cries for an encore increase, so does my fear. The bassist walks out. Rick Boston thrashes at his electric guitar. The drummer begins banging and the DJ starts scratching. Out of the cacophony a groove emerges. And I heave a sigh of relief. Rickie Lee Jones is growing up. And she’s not looking back.

Clive Johnson


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