Sweet Inspiration: Rickie Lee Jones and Tom Waits

rickietomWhen Rickie Lee Jones met Tom Waits, they seemed to be a match made in heaven.  They shared a love of beat poetry and jazz, and their songs were mired in the same cracked, ragged romanticism that colored their worldview. He was a struggling singer-songwriter with half a dozen albums under his belt, and she was an unknown performer who’d been invited to sing some of her songs at the famous Troubadour club in Los Angeles. Watching Rickie Lee perform that night in 1977, Tom was impressed by her good looks and talent, and the two became an item soon after.

While they shared many common interests, they came from very different backgrounds. Tom was a middle-class kid who was slumming it by living in the notorious Tropicana Motel in Hollywood. In contrast, Rickie Lee was a former teenage runaway who waited tables to make ends meet, sleeping under the Hollywood sign when she couldn’t pay rent.

Along with their good friend Chuck E. Weiss, also a singer-songwriter, Rickie Lee and Tom were inseparable. When Tom released his 1978 album Blue Valentine, Rickie Lee and Chuck E. were included in the photos for the record’s cover. The album included a song called “Red Shoes by the Drugstore”, an evocative Yuletide story inspired by Rickie Lee.

rickieleeShortly after the release of Blue Valentine, Rickie Lee began to attract the attention of record companies. Her song “Easy Money”, along with several others on a demo she’d been shopping around, earned her a record deal. The girl who was formerly known as “the mysterious blond” on Tom Waits’ album cover was about to become a star in her own right. When Rickie Lee’s self-titled debut was released in 1979, it was an immediate sensation. Filled with breezy songs like “Young Blood” and “Danny’s All-Star Joint”, mingled with gorgeous ballads such as “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963”, the album painted a vivid portrait of street life. Released to radio in a year that was dominated by disco and new wave, the jazzy single “Chuck E’s In Love” sounded like nothing else on the airwaves. The album, and it’s debut single, both reached the top five on Billboard charts. A performance on SNL and a Grammy for Best New Artist cemented her reputation as the fastest-rising star in rock. On tour, Rickie Lee was dynamic. Chuck E. remembered, “She could move people so quickly. At shows, I used to watch people in the audience just crying their eyes out when she sang.” The press also fell for her personal style, with her trademark berets, fingerless gloves, and vintage shoes. But while she made the cover of Rolling Stone, troubles were brewing. Her life of instability and poverty had left her unprepared for success, and she began to cope first with alcohol, then with harder drugs. Chuck E. recalled that her record label didn’t seem to care what Rickie Lee was doing to herself, as long as she kept touring and writing songs. Her relationship with Tom suffered. He was unable to deal with her success (her debut had outperformed all of his albums, many times over), as well as her drug problem. Sometime in late 1979, they broke up. Perhaps scared straight by watching Rickie Lee’s struggles, Tom moved to New York and sobered up.

rickieleeExhausted and heartbroken, Rickie Lee wrote songs and kicked her drug habit. In 1981, she released her masterwork. Pirates was a top five album; the world was glad to have Rickie Lee back again. Many of the songs on the album were inspired by her breakup with Tom. In a style that had evolved from the bebop of her first album to a sound that evoked early Bruce Springsteen, Rickie Lee laid herself bare. The epic “We Belong Together” hurls words at an imaginary Tom Waits:

I say this was no game of chicken
You were aiming at your best friend
That you wear like a switchblade on a chain around your neck
I think you picked this up in Mexico from your dad
Now it’s daddy on the booze
And Brando on the ice
Now it’s Dean in the doorway
With one more way he can’t play this scene twice
So you drug her down every drag of this forbidden fit of love
And you told her to stand tall when you kissed her
But that’s not where you were thinking…
How could a Natalie Wood not get sucked into a scene so custom tucked?
But now look who shows up
In the same place
In this case
I think it’s better
To face it
We belong together

“Lucky Guy” laments the ease with which Tom moved on, and “Livin’ It Up” regales the listener with stories of Rickie Lee, Tom, and Chuck E. But it’s the title track that contains the most explicit references to the relationship, with lines like “I’m holding on to your rainbow sleeves”; a sly nod to “Rainbow Sleeves”, the song written by Tom Waits that he gave Rickie Lee to perform. She went on to comfort him about his lack of commercial success: “You keep the shirt that I bought ya, and I know you’ll get the chance to make it/And nothing’s gonna stop you, you just reach right out and take it.” In the end, the album documents not only the end of a relationship, but the strength of a woman who had the courage to be so staggeringly honest; a woman who knew that her talent was worthy of the success she reached out to take.


 

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The Impact of Linda Ronstadt

lindathreeWhen Linda Ronstadt announced that her battle with Parkinson’s had left her unable to sing, the world mourned the loss of one of music’s greatest voices. By turns powerful and delicate, but always beautiful, Linda’s voice brought her phenomenal success in a career that stretches back almost fifty years. Critics and fans alike rightly lauded Linda’s ability to interpret a song, but few noted the impact she had on other musicians of the day, as well as today’s alt. country movement.

When Linda left the folk-rock band the Stone Poneys and embarked on her solo career in 1969, she established herself as an interpreter of songs. Taking a cue from alt. country pioneer Gram Parsons, she  recorded a mix of rock and country songs that set the tone for artists to come, including her friend Emmylou Harris. She covered Waylon Jennings, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Dusty Springfield, and Carole King with equal love and respect. On top of the music, Linda’s innovative “country cool” image had an impact that can still be felt today, with artists such as Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood as heirs apparent. Then, of course, there was the time Linda’s backing band decided to strike out on their own. They called themselves the Eagles and became one of the most successful bands of all time. Below are some examples of Linda’s early country-rock hybrid sound.

In this early music video, Linda performs her debut single “Baby You’ve Been on My Mind”, a Bob Dylan cover.

Johnny Cash introduced Linda the solo artist to the world on his show in 1969. She performs Waylon Jennings’ “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line”, then duets with Johnny on the folk standard “I Never Will Marry”, to a rapturous audience.

Linda returned to the Johnny Cash Show the next year to perform “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”.

Linda appeared on the Glen Campbell show to perform her first big hit, “Long Long Time”. She also duetted with Glen on James Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind”.

Linda appeared on Playboy After Dark to perform “Walkin’ Down the Line”….

…and “Living Like a Fool”.

Good Influences: The Dum Dum Girls

dumdumgirlsAlthough they’re currently based in New York, the Dum Dum Girls make perfectly Californian pop with a punk edge. Comprised of members Dee Dee, Jules, Sandy, and Malia, the ladies have two albums and two EPs under their belts and a growing fan base. The fuzzed-out, lo-fi sound of their debut might have been traded in favor of more straightforward garage rock, but the strong tunes remain intact. Lead singer and songwriter Dee Dee Penny started the band as a bedroom solo project, then recruited other band members along the way. Hearkening back to the golden days of rock while retaining a fresh lyrical perspective, the Dum Dum Girls wear their influences on their sleeves.

With the lo-fi sound on their first album, the Dum Dum Girls were heavily influenced by indie artists like Talulah Gosh. Formed in England in 1988, Talulah Gosh ushered in the golden era of K Records and twee pop. The hazy sound and high energy of the genre won over fans like Kurt Cobain, while influencing many bands to come. After their breakup, the members of Talulah Gosh regrouped as Heavenly, and then once more as Tender Trap. The influence of each of these bands can be heard in the music of the Dum Dum Girls.

One of the most loved bands of the 1980s, The Pretenders were mainly a rotating group of backing musicians for lead singer and rock icon Chrissie Hynde. With her smoky voice and edgy look, Ohio-born Chrissie formed the Pretenders in England in 1978. A string of hit records followed, and the band remained at the top of the charts for more than 15 years. They continue to perform today. Dee Dee’s voice bears more than a passing resemblance to Chrissie’s, and the jangly guitar sound employed by the Pretenders has surfaced in many Dum Dum Girls songs.


Blending Hollywood Noir with British punk and a dash of Americana, X were one of the premier west coast bands in the 1980s. Exene Cervanka shared lead vocal duties with John Doe, and caused quite a stir with her multi-colored hair and ripped clothes. The Dum Dum Girls have mined similar west coast punk and surf styles to emerge with a sound similar to X’s.


Like every all-girl band, the Dum Dum Girls owe a debt of gratitude to the girl bands of the 1960s who paved the way for female musicians of the future. One such band was East Los Angeles’ The Girls, four sisters who had been playing music together all their lives. Rosemary, Diane, Sylvia and Margaret Sandoval recorded two singles (“My Baby” and “Chico’s Girl”), performed for troops in Vietnam, and earned a sponsorship from Fender guitars and amps. They also played at Bob Dylan’s birthday party in 1966. They still perform together as Not Your Average All Girl Band.

Pure Bathing Culture: “Moon Tides”

pbcAs the summer winds down, popsicles and swimming pools give way to the ennui of the dog days. An eagerly anticipated season has overstayed its welcome yet again. Pure Bathing Culture has crafted an album perfectly suited to the waning summer, suitable for weekend drives and one last visit to the lake.

Consisting of vocalist Sarah Versprille and guitarist Daniel Hindman, PBC captures the best of 80s-era Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of Kate Bush. The mystical lyrics of songs like “Pendulum” and “Temples of the Moon” paint a dreamy picture of the collision of nature and the spiritual world, while the gently chiming guitars recall hazy early-90s pop by the likes of the Cranberries and the Sundays.

moontidesWith strains of 80s synth-pop bleeding into many of the songs on Moon Tides,  the sweetly catchy choruses could easily have scored a John Hughes movie. While “Scotty” wouldn’t sound out of place on 1988’s hit list, “Only Lonely Lovers” manages to merge Phil Spector’s 1960s girl groups with Echo and the Bunnymen. “Temples of the  Moon” summons Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”; a fitting end to an album that seems to revel in the bittersweet end of a golden season.

Although clearly adept at melding styles of the past, Pure Bathing Culture still claims a spot of their own in the music realm. This debut makes summer’s farewell sound sweeter than ever.