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Posts tagged ‘Rickie Lee Jones’

Woman at her typewriter

Mom was my greatest champion right from the very beginning. Except for drugs, I shared every event with her. Boyfriends, famous friends, triumph, and regret. My mother subscribed to Rolling Stone for an entire decade, complaining that I was not on the cover again. Watching me fade from the limelight seemed harder on her than it was for me. She didn’t understand that careers must be pliable. If an act insists on not changing and making the music audience come to them, they can end up an oldies act. I always wanted my music to be a place un-aging. The real danger of early success is that our parents, our children, our friends also reap what we sow. I had watched the trajectory of every member of my family change as they chased the fairy light of my success.

I weathered the storms of humility, the people who did not offer backstage passes anymore, or the people who did not even know my name anymore, and I kept on working. Mom told me I should just quit. Finally, I asked:

“And do what, Mom? This… this is what I am.”

Here is the tone and texture of Last Chance Texaco, Rickie Lee Jones’s new memoir. Subtitled “Chronicles of a Troubadour”, it’s one of the most remarkable I’ve read from a musician, a first-person commentary on the life and early career of this extraordinary artist, full of romance and adventure, misadventure and indiscipline, anecdote and reflection — just the stuff we want from those free spirits who live the life so that we don’t have to, inviting us to stand and watch in fascination, half admiring and half appalled.

If you want to know what prompted Steve Gadd to devise that drop-dead-laconic snare-drum lick on “Chuck E’s in Love”, or precisely how her first producers, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, teased and moulded the songs that made up Pirates into a classic album, this is not the book that you might have hoped for. Most of the albums after those first two don’t even get a mention. She does tell you how some of the songs came into being (“Last Chance Texaco” itself resulted from a first meeting with Tom Waits, dancing together under a streetlight on Doheny Drive, before she drove away in her yellow Chevy Vega). But there’s rather more to her autobiography than a recital of facts.

The fact that we’re 260 pages into a 360-page book before we even get to signing with Warner Bros for the debut album that made her an overnight sensation at the age of 24 indicates that the emphasis of the narrative is firmly on her childhood and adolescence. This works because her early life was so peripatetic and picaresque, travelling with her perennially malfunctioning family through Oklahoma, Arizona, California and Washington State, sometimes enrolling at three new schools a year, running away and coming back and running away again and eventually staying away but without being able to sever the bonds to her father, the child of a vaudeville performer, and his wife, who had been brought up in an orphanage. They were a couple who “had learnt as kids to avoid government, big institutions and authority” and who “used cash to avoid declaring income and… avoided obligations beyond next month’s rent.” We know where that less than stable background got her, but the journey to her destination makes for compelling and sometimes distressing reading.

She’s good on how music took a hold of her, most significantly through the Beatles (“I fantasised all the ways I could meet Beatle Paul… In melodramatic scenarios I abandoned my hopes and dreams for the sake of Paul who would eventually come find me as I lay dying and realise how much he loved me”) and, later, through seeing Laura Nyro on TV: “(She) seemed to send a message to me that day that said, ‘Come you young girls who are not like the others because you love Broadway as much as rock ‘n’ roll.'” Other influences: an English teacher who got her writing poetry in one of her several high schools, and picking up a book at her sister’s house — Dick Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me — that “told me I was not the first to go for this bohemian life of hitchhiking, pranksters, pot smokers, rebellion and free love.”

There are vivid descriptions of her early experiences as a performer, including her first gig with her first band, playing to an audience of deaf people, her first professional engagement as, briefly, the only white member of Little Caesar and the Romans, famous for their doo-wop hit, “Those Oldies But Goodies (Remind Me of You)”, and the fraught appearance on Saturday Night Live that made a hit of “Chuck E” and a star of Rickie Lee in 1979.

Her lovers — from the famous, including Waits, Lowell George and her heroin buddy Dr John, who shot up with her after being assured that she’d tried it once before, to the lesser known — are given due and intimate consideration. As with her treatment of family members, she’s both generous and unsparing. “We stayed in character throughout our entire romance,” she writes of Waits, “and our characters were sometimes cruel and selfish.” She is wry and realistic about his disciples: “Was I going to be another ghost, sitting around in Tom Waits’s peripheral vision, hoping he looked directly at me?” It led her to a conclusion about the problematic relationship between performer and listener: “I don’t want to have sex with someone who has mistaken me for my song.”

The book sent me back to the albums — the first two, of course, then the great covers collections of Pop Pop, Girl at Her Volcano and It’s Like This, and Traffic from Paradise and a later favourite, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard — and to the memories of one of the finest concerts I’ve ever attended, at the Dominion Theatre in London in 1992, and one of the most hair-raising, at the Jazz Café in 2007. Most of all, without being unnecessarily literal-minded, it gave me a much clearer idea of the life went into the making of songs like “Coolsville”, “Traces of the Western Slopes”, “The Horses”, “Stewart’s Coat” and “The Evening of My Best Day”: one in which, as she says, “most of the dangerous choices I made were in fact lesser evils.”

By the time she came to read On the Road, it was a disappointment. She’d already lived the story herself. On the journey from the three-year-old lapping up applause for her performance as a snowflake in a children’s ballet to a recovered addict with a Grammy on her mantelpiece, via deportation from Canada as a teenaged hippie officially described as being “in danger of leading a lewd and lascivious life”, she’d learnt that “fame brings no solace, no love, and no warmth” and that money can cut you off. “You may say, ‘So what?’ and ‘I’ll take it if you don’t want it,'” she writes. “I do want it, fame and money and all that goes with it. It’s just that they weren’t what I thought they would be.”

* Rickie Lee Jones’s Last Chance Texaco is published by Grove Press. The photograph is from the album It’s Like This, released in 2000, and was taken by Lee Cantelon.

Remembering Laura Nyro

Laura Nyro 1Laura Nyro had missed her intended flight from New York to London, forcing her to take a plane that arrived at six o’clock in the morning. Now here she was, barely 12 hours later, warming up before recording a performance in front of an invited audience in a small auditorium at the BBC’s Television Centre, for a series called In Concert.

This was in May 1971, three months after she had made her British debut at the Royal Festival Hall, giving a solo concert in which the first set was performed by her then boyfriend, Jackson Browne, who was also appearing in the UK for the first time. It had been a wonderful recital: she started with “Stoney End”, included “Timer”, “Been on a Train”, “Emmie”, “Map to the Treasure” and “Christmas in My Soul”, read a poem called “Coal Truck”, and finished with a lovely medley of “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “Spanish Harlem”. Such range, such composure, such deep connection with her audience seemed exceptional in one who was still only 23 years old.

She readied herself for the BBC’s cameras in a voluptuously flowing mauve and lilac dress with lace half-sleeves: a typically dramatic costume. As she sat at the piano, I was struck by the way that she could turn her head to look like at one moment like a exquisitely soulful contessa from a Velasquez painting and at the next like a lusty young maid from one of Chaucer’s tales.

As well as her manager of the time, Richard Chiaro, there was a new boyfriend along for the ride. “You’ve got to sit somewhere I can see you,” she told him. But a few minutes later she was scolding him for singing along while she ran through some of her numbers.

In such an intimate setting, the evening was unforgettable: opening with a medley in which “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” sandwiched “Natural Woman”, she sang “Buy and Sell”, “Stoned Soul Picnic”, the then-unrecorded “I Am the Blues”, “Christmas in My Soul”, a medley of “Timer”, “Ooo Child” and “Up on the Roof”, and “Mother Earth”; she delivered “Stoney End” as an encore. It was transmitted on BBC2, but in the intervening years it seems to have vanished. Long ago I asked Alan Yentob, a senior arts person at the corporation, to see if he could unearth it, but there was no trace.

It was 23 years later, in November 1994, that Laura made her final British appearance, accompanied by her three backing singers in the ideal 19th century Gothic environment of the Union Chapel in Islington. The set finished with her lovely version of “Walk on By”. And then she was gone, to be carried away by ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.

She remains a powerful and enduring presence among those who fell under the spell of her extraordinary talent. One of those fans is Billy Childs, an American jazz pianist — known for his work with Freddie Hubbard and Dianne Reeves, among others — who has just released an album called Map to the Treasure, on Sony’s Masterworks label, in which his arrangements of 10 Nyro songs are delivered by different singers.

It’s a risky undertaking. Nyro’s first success came with other people’s versions of her songs (the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” and “Wedding Bell Blues”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, Barbra Streisand’s “Stoney End”, Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”), but it didn’t take long for her listeners to realise that the composer’s own versions far outstripped those of her interpreters. Nyro’s full-strength personality suffused her writing, as became apparent in her two masterpiece albums, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968) and New York Tendaberry (1969), and their successors. Only she could properly explore the duality of the Madonna/streetchild persona (which she encouraged through her choice of jacket photos for those two albums). So to attempt cover versions at this stage of the game might seem otiose. Who, after all, can add anything new to such cherished pieces as “The Confession” and “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”?

Amazingly, Childs manages it — not by attempting to match or emulate the raw, romantic power of the originals, but by looking for facets of the songs to which he can apply his considerable resources, and by recruiting a group of singers who do not set out to sound like Nyro but bring their own voices, along with an unmistakeable admiration for the source of the material.

A string quartet appears on every track, with guests soloists featured alongside the singers: Wayne Shorter’s soprano saxophone with Esperanza Spalding on “Upstairs by a Chinese Lamp”, Chris Botti’s trumpet with Shawn Colvin on “Save the Country”, Steve Wilson’s alto saxophone with Susan Tedeschi on “Gibsom Street”, and Jerry Douglas’s dobro with Alison Krauss on “And When I Die”. Childs is the pianist throughout, supported by the impeccable rhythm team of Scott Colley (double bass) and Brian Blade (drums).

Childs jumps in straight at the deep end by opening the album with “New York Tendaberry”, one of Nyro’s most personal songs, delivered by the operatic soprano Renée Fleming and the cellist Yo Yo Ma. So right away you know we’re not in for a set of mere recreations. The beauty of Fleming’s tone and the sensitive formality of her phrasing takes the piece away from Nyro’s uptown-soul sensibility and into a different dimension.

That’s one of the highlights. Another comes straight afterwards, with Becca Stevens’s equally poised but comparatively uncorseted tilt at “The Confession”. At the centre of the whole thing, in structural and emotional terms, is Rickie Lee Jones: out of all the singers in the project, she is the one who most resembles Nyro in style and delivery (and, as she has often said, is most influenced by her), making her perfectly suited to bring out the tragedy of “Been on a Train”, helped by a most imaginative arrangement for the string quartet. Her presence makes me wish Childs had also called upon Mary Margaret O’Hara, the other singer I think of as an heir to Nyro’s legacy.

But once you get the measure of what Childs is up to, there isn’t a bad track here. What he gives us is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed song cycle, a fitting tribute to one of the most original and gifted artists of our time. Yes, it’s polished thing, far more polished than Nyro’s own records ever were, but that polish is no superficial gloss: it’s the patina of a profound respect. And beneath it beats the heart of an extraordinary woman.

Laura Nyro BBC ticket

* The photograph of Laura Nyro comes from the cover of her 1984 album Mother’s Spiritual and was taken by Irene Young. The ticket for the 1971 BBC TV concert is mine. Anyone who loves Nyro’s music and hasn’t already read Michele Kort’s excellent biography — Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro, published by Thomas Dunne Books in the US in 2002 — should do so. And here, for free, is a link to an interesting piece by an academic, Patricia S. Rudden, from a 2006 edition of the newsletter of the Emily Dickinson Society (you’ll need to scroll down to the third page). Clips of Nyro on YouTube tend to get taken down quickly, but here’s a beauty: her performance of “Poverty Train” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, giving the lie (despite a lame band of session men) to the myth that it was a total disaster. And here’s a real oddity from 1969.