It’s obvious why a young Tom Waits fan would have picked Rickie Lee Jones out of the four-for-£20 rack in Leigh-on-Sea’s Fives record shop 10 or so years ago. Jones, I knew, had been in a relationship with Waits at the start of her career, and I’d heard that her music mined similar territory to Waits’s, with storytelling lyrics drawing on a life spent within a Los Angeles beatnik demi-monde that had somehow still magically existed in the era of The Long Run and the Nervous Breakdown EP.
I was disappointed. While it contains some great songs, Rickie Lee Jones’s debut is a bit of a mess. The heavy-hitting Warner Brothers production team, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, had assembled an awesome array of instrumental talent* to play on her album, the same session kings that also featured on mid- to late-seventies records by LA titans like Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Randy Newman (including Newman himself). But as with Joni’s Wild Things Run Fast, the result – heavy on tinkly electric piano and, gasp, slap bass – was polite and bland. On low points like Young Blood, musicians run through their licks but seem to exist in a different world to Jones’s vocal. I can’t imagine the demo to that one wasn’t hugely superior.
(In full disclosure, the Waits records of this era that use electric band arrangements, such as Blue Valentine, are a similar turn-off to me; if Waits is in jazzbo mode, I want double bass and acoustic piano and nothing else will do. I love those sounds in the context of Steely Dan and Newman’s Trouble in Paradise, though, so make of this what you will.)
That wasn’t the only problem, though. Jones wasn’t writing uniformly strong melodies (her songs have never really found favour with other performers, especially compared to those of a certain other songwriter I should probably stop mentioning at this point) and her drawled vocals sometimes sounded less like jazz and more like pastiche or like an idea of jazz. In fairness, this was her debut and she hadn’t had time to grow into herself or her persona yet; even with as sympathetic producer as Waronker at the helm, she couldn’t help but come off as callow.
On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 is, then, the standout moment on the album, Chuck E’s in Love aside. Certainly it’s the song that has the biggest emotional wallop. Recorded live at TBS a month after the main tracking sessions for the record, and like After Hours (the other song recorded this supplementary session) featuring only piano, vocal and strings, it benefits hugely from its sparse arrangement and straightforward vocal performance. Jones sounds, appropriately given the song’s themes, more at home here. I don’t know that I can make much literal sense of the lyric, but that’s relatively unimportant. The song’s power comes from the repetition of “years may go by” – the sort of micro-phrase that invites the listener to attach their own associations, positive or negative, wistful, nostalgic, regretful, joyful, whatever – over that piano riff and the supporting orchestration. Meaning is suggested simply by the way Jones hangs on to the word “years”. What may have happened in the time since the childhood being invoked here? A novel’s worth of possibilities is contained within that one word.
So many successful songs work this way, because the writer paired the right phrase with the right snippet of melody. Maybe some tunes are so charged with inherent meaning that they lead the writer to pick the correct lyric to pair them with. Fortunately for Jones and for her listeners, when this tune spoke to her, she listened.
*Let me run through some of the credits for you: Dr John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, Victor Feldman, Tom Scott, Steve Gadd, Buzz Feiten, Andy Newmark, Jeff Porcaro, Willie Weeks and, inevitably, Michael Boddicker. Some of these guys are among my favourite players ever. I’ve written about almost all of them in glowing terms elsewhere on this blog.