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.



Sweet Inspiration: Winona Ryder

winonaActress Winona Ryder burst onto the scene in the 1980s and quickly made a name for herself with quirky, alternative film roles. As her star continued to rise in the 90’s, she became nearly as well-known for her relationships with other celebrities—musicians, in particular— as for her acting skills. Some of her famous paramours wrote songs for her, while other musicians were inspired by their crushes on the actress. The trend of “songs about Winona” reached its fever pitch when Ryan Adams’ 2001 album Gold was rumored to be almost entirely about his passionate affair with the actress. He later explained that he had never dated Winona at all.

Matthew Sweet released the song “Winona” on his third album, Girlfriend, in 1991. He later confessed that he’d named it after Winona Ryder, although the two never dated.


After her high-profile relationship with fellow actor Johnny Depp, Winona dated Soul Asylum lead singer Dave Pimer. The band’s song “Just Like Anyone” is said to have been written about Winona, although the video features Claire Danes.


Old 97’s lead singer Rhett Miller claims to have written their song “Rollerskate Skinny” after his first date with Winona. The song’s title is a reference to The Catcher in the Rye, one of her favorite books.


Beck dated Winona briefly in 2000, then wrote several songs about her that appear on his Sea Change album. “Lost Cause” is just one of the many sad songs from this classic album.

Sweet Inspiration: Judy Collins

judy2One of the biggest folk stars of the era, Judy Collins was known for her pure voice and penetrating blue eyes. As an early fan of Joni Mitchell, Judy recorded and made hits of “Chelsea Morning” and “Both Sides Now” before Joni had even recorded her own versions. Along with her boyfriend, Stephen Stills, Judy was part of a literate group of pop stars who brought poetry to rock n’ roll. Stephen had admired Judy from afar for years before they began their relationship in 1967; that year he was riding high on the success of his band with Neil Young, Buffalo Springfield. They hit the top of the charts with their counter culture classic, “For What It’s Worth”.

judystephenTwo years later, in 1969, things were not going so well for Stephen Stills. Buffalo Springfield had splintered, leaving him without a band, and he could feel that his relationship with Judy was doomed, as well. He crafted a series of songs about their relationship that he later merged together into a suite; he tossed in a reference to Judy’s most famous feature and titled it “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”. “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now”, he wrote in one section of the song, before intoning “This does not mean I don’t love you/I do, that’s forever” just a few lines later. His strong ambivalence about the end of the relationship turned the song into a masterpiece. The only problem was, he had no band to sing the harmonies, and so he couldn’t record it.

Stephen believed in the high quality of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, and began looking for potential bandmates. David Crosby, who had left the Byrds, soon agreed to join. Crosby and Stills, deciding that they needed a third harmony voice, continued to recruit other band members with limited success. One night, as Cass Elliot’s house, they performed one of their new songs for the small group of guests. Among them was a former member of the Hollies, Graham Nash. After listening to the song a few times, Graham chimed in with a high harmony part. No discussion was needed, and Crosby, Stills & Nash was formed. They recorded “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for their first album, and performed the song at Woodstock, where it became an instant classic.

Judy Collins continued her successful singing career, and in 2011 she released a bestselling autobiography. She titled her book Sweet Judy Blue Eyes.

Sweet Inspiration: Chrissie Shrimpton

chrissieMick Jagger had the ability to write very touching songs for his girlfriends—he wrote the  sweet “Wild Horses” lyrics for paramour Marianne Faithfull—but he seemed incapable of writing anything nice about his first main squeeze, Chrissie Shrimpton. The sister of famed British model Jean Shrimpton, Chrissie modeled also. She met Mick while he was still an art school student, in the pre-fame days of the Rolling Stones. Although they were still just teenagers when they began dating, Mick quickly showed signs of being controlling. He considered Chrissie his trophy, since she was a famous model and he still a nobody. As the Rolling Stones rose to international fame, Chrissie stood by his side. Mick dictated who she could speak to and who she was allowed to be friends with. Despite his ill treatment of her, Chrissie came to care for him deeply, so it must have hurt when he unveiled a new song called “Under My Thumb”. The song was included on the massively successful Aftermath album from 1966. The lyrics told the tale of a once-carefree girl, now wilting under the control of her gloating boyfriend:

Also on the Aftermath album was a song called “Stupid Girl”. Again, the song was written about Chrissie, and again the lyrics were nastily boastful:

By this time, unbeknownst to Chrissie, Mick had met and begun dating Marianne Faithfull. She was aware that something was very wrong in their relationship, though, and in late 1966 she took an overdose of pills. Chrissie survived her suicide attempt, learning about Mick and Marianne as she recovered in the hospital. When she had recovered enough to return the apartment she shared with Mick, she was unable to collect her belongings— the locks had been changed. Their three year relationship was over.

After the dissolution of her relationship with Mick, Chrissie went on to date Steve Marriott of the Small Faces. She later married and now lives a quiet life. Mick, of course, would go on to marry Bianca Jagger, then Jerry Hall, all the while conducting dalliances on the side.

Sweet Inspiration: Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash

grahamjoniMore than forty years after it happened, Graham Nash can still vividly recall the night he met Joni Mitchell.

“I first met Joan in Ottawa, Canada in 1967.  The Hollies were playing a show there and Joni was playing at a local club. There was a party thrown for us after our show, and when I entered the room I noticed a beautiful woman sitting down with what appeared to be a large bible on her knees. I kept staring at her and our manager at the time, Robin Britten, was saying something into my ear and distracting me from my quest. I asked him to be quiet as I was checking Joni out.  He said “if you’d just listen to me I’m trying to tell you that she wants to meet you.” David Crosby had told me earlier that year to look out for Joni should I ever get the chance to meet her.  Joni and I hit it off immediately, and I ended up in her room at the Chateau Laurier and she beguiled me with 15 or so of the most incredible songs I’d ever heard.  Obviously I fell in love right there and then.  She touched my heart and soul in a way that they had never been touched before.” 

grahamIt would take two more years before they met again, but the second time was the charm. Graham moved to L.A. in order to form Crosby, Stills & Nash, and encountered Joni again. The two became an item, sharing Joni’s home in Laurel Canyon. Their love was idyllic, and the two songwriters shared the piano in the living room as they wrote their songs. Graham wrote “Our House” about this happy time, and it appeared on the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young megahit Deja Vu:

Joni returned the sentiment with songs like “Willy” (her nickname for Graham), which appeared on her Ladies of the Canyon album. But it was her album Blue that would provide the most insight into her relationship with Graham, as it chronicled the ups and the downs alike. “My Old Man” is a warm tribute to their love affair:

But as Joni was writing the songs that became Blue, something else happened. Graham recalls that time:

“Joni’s grandmother had always wanted to be a creative person. But in those days, you had to be a wife and a mother, and you had to bake and take care of the kids. You had to stay home while your old man went to work. She had never been given the chance to express herself artistically.

And Joni recounted to me that she remembered the story of her grandmother kicking the door viciously, out of frustration. Joni, I believe, saw that as one of the downfalls of marriage.

I also believe that somewhere in Joni’s mind she thought that I would demand that of her. Which is completely false. How in the hell could anybody with a brain say to Joni Mitchell, “Why don’t you just cook?”

So even though we talked about marriage, I think the reality of it — from Joni’s point of view — was very scary.”

Joni MitchellJoni eventually travelled to Europe, alone. She sent Graham a telegram ending their relationship. “River”, from Blue, transparently shares Joni’s side of this struggle, with lines like “He tried hard to help me, you know he put me at ease/He loved me so naughty he made me weak in the knees/I wish I had a river I could skate away on/I’m so hard to handle, I’m selfish and I’m sad/Now I’ve gone and lost the best baby that I’ve ever had”:

Completely devastated, Graham found solace in writing more songs. They became the backbone of his first solo album, the classic Songs for Beginners. “I Used to Be a King” was a reference to Joni’s “I Had a King”, and “Sleep Song” sadly recalled Joni’s leaving. “Simple Man” echoed the things he must have told Joni: “I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down”:

He looks back on his time with Joni with great fondness, although the sadness still shows:

To have had the love of that woman was such an incredible feeling for me. I was flying. I was on cloud nine — no, I was on cloud 10! I felt insanely lucky. Many people have said “You know, when you and Joni walked into a room, the whole room lit up.”

“Listening to “Blue” is quite difficult for me personally.  It brings back many memories and saddens me greatly.  It is, by far, my most favorite solo album, and the thought that I spent much time with this fine woman and genius of a writer is incredible to me.”  

Sweet Inspiration: Carly Simon and Cat Stevens

carlycatCat Stevens, a star in his native England, was preparing for his first American shows at the Troubadour in Los Angeles when he met an up-and-coming performer named Carly Simon. Chatting after his first gig, comparing notes on songwriting and the music business, the two hit it off. They were an on-again/off-again item for seven months. The story of their relationship appears in the songs they wrote for each other.

carlyCarly, the daughter of the wealthy family behind half of Simon & Schuster Publishing, had been performing with her sister Lucy as The Simon Sisters. Recently solo, she had just released her first album and had a top ten hit with “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be”. The press was calling her “the first feminist pop star”, and Carly was eager to follow up with a second album. After meeting Cat Stevens that night in L.A., the pair made plans for a date. Sitting in her hotel room, Carly began strumming her guitar, nervously awaiting Cat’s arrival. By the time he knocked on the door, she had the beginnings of her next hit song, “Anticipation”. The lyrics expressed hope for the future of their relationship, tempered with a dash of realism. It would eventually climb the charts to the top five.

Carly’s new album would contain a second song written about Cat, the loving “Legend in Your Own Time”. It told the story of Cat’s rise to fame, through the eyes of someone who adored him:

catAfter the end of the relationship in 1971, Cat Stevens released his groundbreaking album Catch Bull at Four. Though the album is known today for its inventive and early use of synthesizers, “Sweet Scarlet” was a simple ballad, written about Carly. While her songs about the relationship were more enigmatic, Cat was very direct. He described her curly hair, her shawl (seen in the photo above), and her feathered hat, as well as their breakup: “All those dreams are gone, but the song carries on.”

In 1976, Cat nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu. After this close call, he left pop stardom behind and became a devout Muslim, changing his name to Yusuf. He recorded a comeback album in 2006, and continues to perform under his new name. Carly would go on to marry James Taylor, and became one of the biggest celebrities of the 1970s. Her hits included songs like “Nobody Does It Better”, “You’re So Vain”, and “Haven’t Got Time for the Pain”. She continues to record with great success. Carly and Yusuf remain friends.

Sweet Inspiration: Renée Fladen-Kamm

“And when I see the sign that points one way, the lot we used to pass by every day…”

leftbankeIn the summer of 1966, radio listeners were treated to a heavenly slice of baroque-flavored pop when the song “Walk Away Renée” hit the airwaves and became a Top 5 smash. The group responsible, The Left Banke, was formed in New York City the year before. Keyboardist Michael Brown, who was just 16 years old, wrote the lyrics about bass player Tom Finn’s girlfriend, Renée. Michael later said of her, “I was just sort of mythologically in love, if you know what I mean, without having evidence in fact or in deed…But I was as close as anybody could be to the real thing. My hands were shaking when I tried to play (during the recording), because she was right there in the control room. There was no way I could do it with her around, so I came back and did it later.” One year after the release of “Walk Away Renée”, the Four Tops recorded it and the song once again reached the top five.

reneeMichael’s love for his bandmate’s girlfriend inspired him to write another hit song for the group: late 1966’s stunning “Pretty Ballerina”. It also climbed the pop chart, peaking at number 15.

Michael Brown departed the group after their first album, and later worked with the band Stories. Renée Fladen-Kamm became a singer and vocal coach, working mainly in medieval music. The rest of The Left Banke soldiered on and recorded one more album before calling it quits. Their influence can still be felt in the use of orchestral instruments in pop music today.