Beatniks, Bohemians and Barflies

Rickie Lee Jones comes into her own on her stylish eponymous debut

Rickie Lee Jones Rickie Lee Jones, Reprise 1979

In hindsight, Rickie Lee Jones’ eponymous debut now seems like audacious. But when it was originally released, it felt like a wannabe attempt from an innocent waif eager to find herself and ready to adapt to the seedy street life that Southern California held for her at the time.

As a young artist, she had recently heeded the region’s call, bringing with her a Kerouac-like curiosity that instilled in her an affection for beatniks, bohemians and barflies with all the wanderlust she could muster.

Looking back in retrospect, Rickie Lee Jones isn’t as much a work of great ambition as it is a set of songs that emulate a life she clearly aspired to living. Although she would eventually evolve over the course of her career into a confident chanteuse, it was clear even early on that she was enamored with those individuals that typified a freewheeling lifestyle she was eager to embrace. Tom Waits’ nocturnal tales appeared to have the greatest influence, as did the various eccentrics and outcasts that hung out in the bars and boardwalks of her newfound environs. In the midst of all the caricatures and characters she encountered along the way, she found her own personal source of inspiration in Chuck E. Weiss, a fellow drifter and colorful character with whom Jones would eventually strike up a romantic relationship. Weiss became her muse, and indeed, he would eventually inspire the classic song that became a cornerstone of that initial album, the cocky and carefree radio-ready hit, “Chuck E.’s In Love.” It would eventually be embraced by mainstream music lovers and propel Jones into a world where novelty and name recognition were of equal standing.

To her credit however, Jones was determined to be more than simply a beret-wearing hipster. She employed a wide-ranging, freewheeling stylistic sensibility, one that was inherent and essential in developing her expansive musical motif. It gave her a verve and versatility that helped transform her into an artist of an elite stature, a quality that took her from the realms of jazz and cabaret to folk, pop and practically all settings in-between.  

Yet even despite her reverence for those classic confines, it was her freewheeling image and descriptive delivery that enabled her to create an indelible initial impression. The public readily embraced it, considering her a novelty of sorts without demeaning her prowess and perspective. The approach worked well, eventually rewarding her with sales of some 2 million albums, not to mention near unanimous critical acclaim and a career that made her an enduring artist for every decade that followed. In short order, Jones found her niche and expanded it in ways the ensured obvious appeal. Rickie Lee Jones proved that even on first outing, a namesake album had the ability to establish a persona that was both intuitive and intriguing.

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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