In the closet of the room where I keep all my record albums, I found a bracelet with Rickie Lee Jones’ name on it.
“What is this?” I asked my husband.
âI bought it at her MIM concert, the last time we saw her play,â he replied. “Or maybe it was the concert before.”
“But you don’t wear jewelry,” I reminded him. “Especially not the black stretch rubber straps with someone else’s name printed on them.”
âThe bracelet contains a bunch of Rickie Lee Jones albums,â he explained. “The clasp is a USB plug, and if you plug it into your computer, you can listen to it sing.”
This explanation made me want to lie down in a dark room with a cold compress on my forehead. Instead, I plugged the wristband into my laptop. A small screen popped up telling me I could hear Rickie Lee’s self-titled debut album, or Girl at her volcano, Where Living in Red Rocks Where Pirates Where The Duchess of Coolville.
I unplugged the bracelet and put it around my wrist, then took out my vinyl copy of The magazine and put that on my best turntable. The magazine is my favorite Rickie Lee Jones album, and I’ve been playing it a lot lately, since I finished reading Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American troubadour, Rickie Lee’s recently published memoir.
I had heard that Rickie Lee, who performs at the Musical Instrument Museum on Saturday, September 25, lived here in Phoenix when she was young. I didn’t know we had lived in the same neighborhood at the same time. I kept coming back to my own memories as I read Rickie Lee’s childhood in what was then pretty much the edge of town. When she wrote: “The eighth-grade faculty of Manzanita [Elementary School] had developed new forms of torture for those of us entering puberty, âa voice shouted in my head,â I too hated going to this school! When she described living with her Aunt Linda, just up the street from the house where I was raised, I remembered playing in dirt pitches surrounded by cotton fields and citrus groves and j thought of the feeling of cool earth between my toes.
After reading Rickie Lee’s memoir, I understood the songs on The magazine would sound different, perhaps richer in meaning, now that I knew a little more about the woman who wrote them. I thought when I heard her sing about dropping a guy in “The Real End” (“I guess I hurt him / I guess I hung up / I guess I should have call it back / Guess I didn’t care) I could nod knowingly, after reading Rickie Lee’s troubled love stories. Now I would really be able to figure out what she meant when she sang “We walk in easy snakes / Through the clatter of the ethyl caster / And now the arson smell of the moon” in the beautiful and winding “Gravity”.
Instead, I continued to slide into my own past. Every time I play this album I remember the winter of 1984 when my best friend broke up with his lover and moved in with me to recover. He came home from work every night and put on The magazine turned on, playing it over and over until bedtime. That winter my house was filled with the grief of my friend and Rickie Lee Jones singing about loneliness and renewal.
I understand. Our own memories get attached to other people’s life stories, to the music of other people – so much so that sometimes we miss the music altogether, caught in the private reverie that a particular song or album is recalling. It’s more unlikely that we’ll say, about a song we love, “I dig the way it modulates in the second verse” or “Listen to that use of power chords with a modified bass note!” That we don’t have to think, “Oh, this song reminds me of senior year old, when we were drunk all the time and had that cool job at the ice cream bar.”
I once asked singer Karla Bonoff how she felt about people who attached their memories to her songs, which after all she had written about her own life.
Karla’s response was kind. “Isn’t that what music is for?” she asked. “Does anyone write something that others can interpret and make their own?”
My husband came home from work while I was writing this essay. His favorite Rickie Lee Jones album is Girl at her volcano. “Why this one? ” I asked. He’s a songwriter and a musician, so I knew he would be talking about Rickie Lee’s vocal phrasing, his instrumentation and his choice of time signature, and not how he lived in London when this record came out and that his first copy was a tape he bought from Virgin Records, which is also true.
But as he spoke about how Rickie Lee’s covers of âWalk Away Reneeâ and âMy Funny Valentineâ allowed him to hear what she did vocally without having to think about her ability to perform. songwriting, and how on this album she uses her voice as an instrument rather than a storytelling device, my mind was wandering. I was thinking about my own relationship with this record. When it came out in 1983, I ran a little record store on Camelback Road. People who came over for Rickie Lee Jones’ new record got angry at times when I handed them a copy of Girl at her volcano, because it was an EP pressed into a 10-inch record, an industry standard from the 1940s that was briefly in vogue in the early 1980s. âWhere’s the rest? I remember a customer who asked.
I wanted to be the guy who wondered if I had always heard echoes of the Sonoran Desert in the music of Rickie Lee, a man who dwelled on the pain in that high note in his version of “My Funny Valentine”, where she sings the the word “stay” and it goes on forever, a plaintive cry for help that tells almost a whole story in itself.
Instead, I thought of record albums as jewelry, and if I could get a copy of The magazine like a pair of enamel earrings.
Rickie lee jones. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 25, Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater, 4725 East Mayo Boulevard. Tickets are $ 54.50 to $ 74.50 on the MIM Music Theater website.