Revisited: Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates
I couldn’t believe I no longer had this record.
I had a sudden hankering this past week to hear “We Belong Together”, the album’s opener, but was mortified to find Pirates missing from my collection – I must’ve got rid of it when I sold a whole whack of vinyl a couple of years ago before moving. Strange, since the record was such a huge part of my adolescence.
Growing up, I loved this album; listening to it today, I find it just as beautiful, wise and mysterious as I did as a teenager. Jones released it in 1981, two years after her debut; I think I might have bought Pirates because Rolling Stone gave it five stars (I was an inveterate Rolling Stone reader in those days). For a 16-year-old who was into the Clash and Elvis Costello, Jones’ sophomore record was pretty heady stuff. Then again I loved Steely Dan (couldn’t get enough of Greatest Hits) as well, and they’re a big influence on the record (Donald Fageneven plays synth), particularly in the penultimate track, the eight-minute jazz odyssey “Traces of the Western Slopes”.
But it’s the album’s street poetry that I responded to most – Jones’ visions of bohemia on songs like the title track, “We Belong Together”, and “Living It Up”. So many lines from this 30-year-old record have become part of my pop-culture hard-drive: “How could a Natalie Wood not get sucked/Into a scene so custom-tucked/Now look who shows up/” (“We Belong Together”); “Cleveland forgot/Memphis forgot/Where they were coming from” (“Woody and Dutch on a Slow Train”); “Oh my sad-eyed Sinatras” (“Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)”).
There are other things I love about this record. “We Belong Together” starts out like a forlorn, night-time New York piano ballad – but then, suddenly, midway through, it starts to swing! – but only briefly; but then, it swings again at the end. I love the moods of this record, how varied it is, from the street-poetry one-two punch of “We Belong Together” and “Living It Up”, which is followed by the brief, tragic “Skeletons” and the finger-snapping street-party mood of “Woody and Dutch On a Slow Train to Peking”. Jones opens Side 2 with “Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)”, which sounds to me now like her version of Bruce Springsteen‘s “10th Avenue Freeze-Out”, and ends with a perfect whisp of a song, “The Returns”.
Also on Side 2, “A Lucky Guy”, is probably the clearest thing the album has to a pop song; it reached #64 on the Billboard charts (“Chuck E.’s in Love”, from Jones’ debut, went to #4). I would imagine Pirates must have surprised people hoping for a repeat of her debut’s more traditional pop song approach. The album has never quite got its proper due, but I’m not the only one who thinks it’s one of the best records he’s ever heard.
Jones has released quite a few albums since, and many are notable, including the follow-up EP Girl At Her Volcano (which, I have to admit, I did not get at the time at all); The Magazine (which features one of my all-time favourite Jones songs, “It Must Be Love”); Flying Cowboys (which features another of my all-time favourite RLJ tracks, “Rodeo Girl”); GhOsTYhead (I think it’s the title track where she sings about doing Ecstasy); The Evening of My Best Day (“It Takes You There”); and 2007′s The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard.
I recall liking that last record, though I can’t remember a song; I listened to it while preparing for an interview with Miss Jones for one of the papers I was writing for at the time. I think I asked her about Olympia, Washington, where she spent some of her teens, and of course the record she was promoting. But I don’t think I asked anything about Pirates, which is a shame; today I would probably grill her about it. Then again, everything you need to know is there in the grooves.