Rickie Lee Jones, born today in 1954, made a big Grammy splash with her eponymous debut album in 1979, though it was Pirates (1981) that made a bigger impression on me. She went from a Tom Waits-style Beat waif singing about “Coolsville” to Springsteen meets Steely Dan grand epics of jazzy intonations, with Steve Gadd on drums. Both albums, though, had its heart in the street, creating romantic scenes of “sad-eyed Sinatras” and that incredible wail in “We Belong Together”: “Now Johnny the King walks the streets / Without her in the rain / Looking for a leather jacket / And a girl that wrote her name forever.” Jones became the queen of the jazz-inflected pop odyssey.
She worked that groove into the Eighties, with Girl at Her Volcano (1983)’s heart-rocking version of “Walk Away Rene” and sultry covers of “Lush Life” and Waits’ “Rainbow Sleeves.” Then went for something a bit more slick and Eighties on The Magazine (1984), the fourth and final Warner Bros. album before the move to Geffen. Then my interest in her took a little hiatus. I suppose, for me, she was a chanteuse of the city and that’s not where I was at any longer, not even in my dreams. But Pop-Pop (1991) re-ignited my attachment as it went along with a cursory interest in jazz that overtook me with a CD player and a collection to build. I passed over Traffic from Paradise (1993), but got it later, after Ghostyhead (1997), a return to Warner Bros./Reprise and a collaboration with Rick Boston, involving electronic music, breakbeats, and loops, mixing trip-hop tricks with eerie vocal soundscapes. The album seems not to have done her any favors with her jazz-based fan base, but it worked for me—oddly enough, since I don’t seek out that style of music generally. I suppose it’s the fact that the effects it uses were simply part of the general Nineties sound that made the album seem a worthwhile attempt. In any case, today’s song comes from that album and is probably my favorite Jones track, ever.
The anthology of Jones’ work that Rhino put out in 2005 is called “The Duchess of Coolsville,” and “Firewalker” lives up to that name. Jones narrates the odyssey of Julie, a young girl seeking adventure, who works her way through Extacy, heroin, God, and finally “a sailor boy, sailed off to the deep blue sea.” Along the way, Jones packs in crisp lines about a life on the edge—“Everybody’s been a dog, everybody’s had to beg / Everybody’s been a moth, been a moth”—and moments that resonate with a thrill of discovery: “Love comes to the first thing love sees / Love comes to the first thing that makes it real,” and the soaring exhaustion of “Everybody had to drive all night / To reach L.A. in the morning light.”
She also gives us a spoken mantra: “Everybody starts out pure, starts out ridiculous / Starts out beautiful.” It’s a song from someone who has been there and seen the litany of hard knocks take their toll but also form a soul: “Nobody wants to be alone, out here I’m all on my own”—the line that comes fully charged as a cry to the heavens. The song’s tone alternates moods, from a kind of romanticized desperation to a knowing “coolsville” acceptance, to a fully locked-in groove, come what may. The latter is what kicks in at the end with the enigmatic “Firewalker . . . walk on me.” This is delivered in such as way as to give a sense of the thrill of submission—to drugs, to others (“When she woke up on her knees / Everybody made her say please”), to God or the great existential thread that binds us. It’s a song coiled around the pleasure centers while still seeking others. It’s a song that understands yearning and expresses it, while also letting us in on its way of—thanks, Rimbaud—deregulating the senses. “I was in a wild place where I go, I couldn’t hear you.” I never fail to get a thrill from this song.
And Jones’ voice has a way of doing that to me. It’s childish but with the drawl of the wise child, the streetwise kid, and it can also take on a pure angelic tone that winks at the demons under the surface. She can sound petulant, exultant, almost unhinged by feeling, and resolve on a cooing mutter that’s little more than a breath. On “Firewalker” the voice mainly sticks to the declamatory, and spices it with bathetic colorings and a confidential confession:
You remember the first one that you bought