Classic albums of the eighties: Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates
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.
Ricke Lee Jones was the epitome of boho cool when she released this, her sophomore record, in 1981. This was two years after her debut. Perhaps I bought Pirates because of a rave in Rolling Stone (I was an inveterate Rolling Stone reader in my teen years). For a 16-year-old who was into the Clash and Elvis Costello, Pirates was pretty heady stuff.
Then again I loved Steely Dan as well, and they’re a big influence on the record and Jones. Donald Fagen even plays synth; Walter Becker would go on to produce Jones’ Flying Cowboys. Traces of Steely Dan are most audible in the jazz ambitions of penultimate track, the eight-minute “Traces of the Western Slopes”.
Street poetry and boho cool
But it’s the album’s finger-poppin’ street poetry that I responded to most. Jones writes colourfully of bohemian life 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 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.