Rickie Lee Jones
Interviews Ugly Earth by Terry McGaughey


 

 
by Terry McGaughey, Ugly Earth magazine
 
If you've only ever heard "Chuck E's in Love" by Rickie Lee Jones, then you probably couldn't be further from the nature of her music. From the dramatic, unprecedented sound-webs of Pirates, the exorbitant unraveling she wreaked on her definitive "My Funny Valentine", through her eighties explorations of time, alienation and space - right up to the stunning string of recent albums Ghostyhead, Naked Songs and the Grammy nominated It's Like This, Rickie peels back the essence of her own wonder, confusion and disdain at the world to create a unique and singular vision that is at once introspective and objective. Main photos by Pennyhead.
 
TERRY:On your website you have a section called 'The Book of Liars". Do you think that it's impossible to have autobiography without it being twisted into some sort of fiction through unreliable memory? Which do you think is better: The 'rigorous autobiography' of someone like Kristin Hersh or Sinead O'Connor, or surrendering to contextual errors?

RICKIE L-J:The Book of Liars is taken from Walter Becker's song 'Book of Liars', "there's a star in the book of liars by your name," he says. I know Walter, so I have an especially fond feeling when I hear this lyric.

The mystical nature of the Word...It seems to me that the nature of putting things down on paper is, in translation from thought to word, a breech, a corruption. There is something about writing anything down that is an elaboration, a fiction, a changing of it's nature. It's nature is being. I mean, the nature of things is being. To write them, then, is to change them. And so, in a sense, it's all the book of liars. And in another sense, any writer fictionalises, write his view, the way he wants it to look. It's an affection, to offer this much, to say, come all you liars and write me a story. Of course, it's meant for the most stunning of personal stories. It is a bringing into being of itself. The book of liars might inspire some truth saying. Something about the nature of calling it the book of liars allows people to confide in it. The book of truth, that would have been daunting.

My dad was a storyteller, a real one, loved to weave a yarn. My mother too, I grew up listening to stories about the orphanage, stories about the war, about drunken escapades, about failed criminal activities. It was all fiction, these true life stories, and that love of a story is what is essentially present in me. I love a good story.

If you correctly represent the spirit of the events you record, then you have done a good job. Difficult to resist. I have found, in any autobiographical attempts I have made, a a fictitious enemy always shows up, and no matter what I say , I can't just tell a story, there is always an issue. I don't like autobiographies, they are egomaniacal, and so, so mundane. They suffer from poor writing and settling scores. One wants to see events through the eyes of the perpetrator, but it ends up just so much more pop culture as religion. I have lived an amazing life, and it would be good reading, if someone else could write it as well as I could. But they can't, so, there ya go.

T:On Ghostyhead there's this song called "Howard", in which the protagonist is haunted by her abortions. Do you think there is an indelible psychic mark left by abortion, or that people have interconnections with others right from birth, whether they get pregnant or not? Have you had experience with that?

RLJ:That is a difficult question to answer in a public forum. I use to be much more open about my life, but after having the web site up for a year and seeing that the most horrendous and offensive 'ignoramousi' (the Latin of RICKIE plural for ignoramous, taken from the Norse Ignorantosk Internetik Annonimous) had access to my personal life, I have changed my mind about discussing my own life.

I am not sure about the nature of a foetus, if it matters, truly. One wants to hope it matters, because one wants there to be a god, a morality, a good and evil, and if foetuses mattered, it would give some sense that there is in fact more than meets the eye, that the invisible world is filled with spirit, that a being exists even in a couple cells. It may.

Or maybe not. For me, being prone to melancholia, I like to imagine all the little foetuses sitting in a park, partly formed, in party dresses, or with balloons, waiting still to be born, and wondering what happened. It's just a picture I have.

On the physical level, this is some kind of machine that operates without predictability and without conscious. It creates as many foetuses as it can. It doesn't care if the foetus is going to grow up and kill people, or if mother will die in birth, or if there is no food to eat in the house. Someone has to make the decision to take care of the foetus, either by not inviting it, or by creating a safe place for it to arrive. To just let all these foetuses come to this aching and violent world without any thought for their place, this is a sin.

T:You grew up in the desert, and it seems to give you much more of a sense of wonder about life...but I come from a rural area too and I it found very very constricting, so I ran away when I was 14. Do you think coming from a rural area or place with few people makes a person much more aware of one's surroundings, as opposed to coming from the city and being surrounded by people every single minute? Doesn't it make you more HUNGRY for life and experience?

RLJ: People who grow up in the city write as visually as farm kids. It has to do with what is in your eyes, which way your eyes are turning, inward or out. We all use what we have available, we are all lonely, and all find our way out of our labyrinth of loneliness from time to time. One person likes to hear about the sun on the water, and another likes to hear about headlights on a motel sign. They all mean the same thing. They are the way we tell ourselves about ourselves.

T:Have you ever found - in any form - 'The Western Slopes'? I have a theory that from 'Pirates'-onward, your music found a more central pivot...that, as you became a bit more happy or centered, the music became less, um...elliptical or searching? Is that the right word? And then you covered "Rebel, Rebel" and it seemed like the Volcano was settling down for a little while. What do you think?

RLJ: Well now the western slopes was a phrase my friend from Denver used to use to refer to whacked out people. "She's off on the western slope,' he might say. So did I ever find the western slopes? I came back with maps. I left a trail of bread. I made a poster for the tourist board. Now, I am not sure if I became more happy or centered, but the thematic presentation of the work changed, and the very mass of it's sun seemed to diminish. I suppose I do not interchange myself with fictitious characters, or maybe I don't make the reality into fiction anymore. ( But of course, there is the book of liars again. Once says something true, and as soon as you say it, it does not quite seem to be the truth.)

Whatever it is, it's not life and death. It is, though, still the difference between hope and disappearing. But living for twenty years since, I know that life goes on, and that there are just so many of those things you can do before you fall into the sea, like Klaus Kinski, and when you rise again, you are gone.

I don't want to be gone, so I suppose that is an indication of a kind of hope, which might lead to a kind of happiness, so I guess you can say that I might be a bit happier, (in answer to your question) simply because what I do is an indication of hope. To make a song is an act of hope. If you did not believe there would be a tomorrow, or at least a later on, you could not lift your hand to write. In contemplation, you know, I am the fiction I create.

T:Do you still believe in the jazz theory of 'scat-in-grace', sort of living for the now?

RLJ: I'm not sure what this means. Jazz side of life was quoted a lot. Too much. Living for now is a bit selfish if you have a child. You have to prepare the cave for the future. Your now is just preparing for their future. On the other hand, they get the best from you if you are at your best, and if living the jazz way shows you vibrant, that is what you should do. Children need to see their parents full of life. Trying to do the home thing, make your own peaches and be on time to school, that's OK if it's fun. And it was fun for me for a while, but nowadays to tell you the truth, I would like to be in New York city, staying out late, contemplating myself in the windows of sad restaurants, indulging my aimless hours, so that things might take shape. It's hard for things to take shape if you are trying to shape them. I guess I do believe in living for now lately. I just have to learn how to do it.

T:What about your family - how did they influence your life? Did you find that the older you got, a lot of what they said made sense (I found this: I recognise my father more and more each day)?

RLJ: Actually, the older I get, the more I realise that it is a miracle I survived my childhood. It was wild. They were truly living the other side, and we all held on to flying apron strings and Goodyear's on the nearest freeway exit.

T:What do you think of PJ Harvey? She expresses the same feelings a lot of people who come from big empty areas feel. And she's a fan of yours too.

RLJ: I have not heard enough to discuss it. I don't know it's emotion. I only see that, from a distance, she offers power and raw friendship through her face and her comfort with her emotions. Or I should say her insistence that emotion be the topic. That is courageous for one for whom emotion appears to be a reckoning. But this is conjecture. I am not sure if I am on the money. But yes, I like her all right.

T:Do you think it will ever be possible to have a female Jack Kerouac? Camille Paglia doesn't seem to think so, but I think it is possible!

RLJ:This was really the topic of some discussion here, as I don't know who Camille Paglia is, but my friend does, and wanted me to look her up. Well, I don't think it is necessary for there to be a female Jack. Jack existed in his time and place, and it was natural that a man blow that horn. A girl would not have caught anyone's attention. There were a lot of Jacks. My dad was one, in a way, traveling around the country, looking for a job, writing songs and stories, taking it all in, living here til it didn't work anymore, always moving, the automobile being the vessel of hope as much as anything else. Wandering around America, shattered with bits of family, writing on pieces of paper, working as waiters and moving men. This is an American story, and Jack is not unique (except that he is Canadian) the uncles, fights, drunks, funny characters, stuttering and broken teeth. In a sense perhaps Camille is correct, that the community that creates heroes prefers women, than women offer some other kind of comfort.

On the other hand, the children of these men, girls and boys, are going to grow like wild fire, full of poetry and fury, and really, it wont matter any longer, the beautiful sorrowful male persona, it won't be the necessary vessel for our lust and respect. My mother was a female Jack, if Jack means homeless, unconquerable, riding around in cars, trying to fit a square bed into a Pontiac key hole. And doing it.

Jack, remember, was marketed. I think it has to do with accepting the intelligence and power of women as the literary sexual being. We tend to be less attracted to that idea in women. But that kind of man will be attracted to that kind of woman, but it just requires telling the true stories of amazing women, the stories in the physical, not only emotional. An event either radiates out and effects life or it doesn't.

We live in a time where people allow marketing devises to take the place of real events, of real spirits. We allow vacant pop stars to harm the credibility of concepts, to reap the rewards of deeper, more meaningful artists, simply because some publicist evoked images that we identify with greatness. I saw this really flourish with Madonna, and spread like Ebola through the jungle land. I am still stunned, I don't understand why the pretender is just as meaningful to the consumer now- and the citizen - as the real thing. Is it because the real thing is so hard to come by, we want to feel like we're part of a real thing, too? Finally Madonna's real meaning is the virtue of being the one who forged the way for all pretenders. I am confused in these times. I am glad I stand outside looking in. George Bush, Madonna, the whole show of second best. I was never that interested in his writing, anyway. Perhaps because I was part of it.

T:Are you happier now on an independent label, rather than have a major label breathing down your neck?

RLJ: I don't know. Maybe.

T:Your website is really really fantastic. Its got a really personal feel, you can tell you obviously have a lot of input into it, rather than a bunch of blokes somewhere doing it. What are your thoughts on the Internet generally?

RLJ: I liked the idea of it when we created the web site. I felt it was an opportunity for a community to develop that might otherwise be scattered around the world. So in this sense, it has been successful. Graphically we stayed clear and concise, I don't like a lot of graphics you have to get around and wait to download. I want you to go to the site and find what you want easily. I wanted an interactive site, and I wanted media to be able to find things out they needed to know. The people who take care of the site are very kind, very ungreedy people, which seems unique on the web. People are really charging outrageous prices. Primeweb and their record company Great Big Island are communal, in a sense, sharing profits and responsibilities, doing their best for the sake of that and not based on what I can pay.

I try to use people like this as much as I can, to help them, to support these kinds of ideas. And I think it shows, ultimately. It becomes personal, and kind, in a way. Barry takes care of the site out of his home, his sons also helped create it, and Pennyhead worked on the design, and they stay on top of it, if I want to add a page or idea, they put it up as soon as they can. They are based out of Olympia, Washington, a logger/left wing town. It's very interesting.

T:Are we beginning a Third World War now - or are people way too brainwashed and paranoid?

RLJ: They just went, wow, keep spending money people. They are busy setting up oil deals, hiding truths, selling agendas. They USE. That is their nature, to use opportunities, even like the obliteration of thousands of their own people, to political advantage. You'll remember, George Bush Sr. referred to Syria as a 'burgeoning democracy.' George Bush Jr. forgot to include the Islamic Jihad on his list of terrorist organisations (hmm, must have slipped his mind.) The politicians, just a month after the tragedy, are already shaping it to a political tool, an oil opportunity, abandoning old friends, ruthless, shameless, conspiring.

What is amazing is that I imagine the designers going "Quick, open the factory"… flag purses, flag doggy bowls, flag jeans and shirts. You would not believe the ruthless commercialisation of this tragedy. Not so long ago, the bombing of Pearl Harbour, our parents would have rioted against stores that used the name of this horror to sell products. Its subtle, capitalism, how it corrupts, how as years go by, it just seems OK to sell anything. How could anyone dream of profiting in any way off of this? These Americans, some of them just don't see what's wrong with that. Don't believe that 90% approval rating. Approval of America, perhaps, but not of the idiot king.

In a way we are all like children here. We abide. This unimaginable horror we normalise, and we go on. It's a funny gift of God. While I watch this surging patriotism, or pac simili of, I wonder how they will market the waning patriotism when it comes. Will they say, OK, we won, and now lets move on to new products. They are showing united airlines people smiling at the camera, telling how much they love to fly, I guess, so that out of guilt, you'll go fly with them. Frankly, United Airlines is the rudest, most horrible airline I have ever been on. There is a case here of them throwing off a British transsexual, even though they knew it was him, because - well really because they could - he looked different on his passport, and his appearance might "unnerve" other passengers. I objected to the attitude of the ticket agent and she threatened to call security. I said call them, I have a right to object to your attitude. Given how much trouble they were, I imagine they have carte blanche to treat people now pretty badly.

The terrible thing is that the terrorist attack had nothing to do with the police not having enough rights to interrogate people. But the republicans have used this opportunity to bring about laws that will undo the rights we have fought hard to have here in this country. People will be able to be arrested on suspicion, held for days, something like in France, I know, and other European countries. Well, that will be just about anybody, and of course it will translate into them harassing Americans they don't like. It's much more frightening what is happening here behind the scenes, really. More frightening than the towers falling? Well, no. But potentially much more grave. And I have to mention, just for the record, that some of us believe Cheney, the fragile vice president, is dead. Where is he? Now the fact that they have hidden this really does seal the idea that they stole the election, prevented votes from being counted, played horrible games and moves in order to put their cronies in. To keep a thing like this from the American people... my god, it's all 1984. And these white men sitting around Starbucks driving around Santa Monica with dual flags on their fifty thousand dollar off-road vehicles, they don't see the irony in their fat cat attitudes. They think they are fighting for the right to be rich, I'll bet. Anyway…well I was going to end on a different topic! I hope the Yankees don't win the world series!

 
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