Rickie Lee Jones
Originally released: 1989
I feel the way about Rickie Lee Jones' Flying Cowboys that other women feel about “their” Joni Mitchell record, be it Blue or Hejira. Part of my devotion is beyond analysis, tied to having received it in the twilight of girlhood as a vision of potent and creative womanhood that still, after so many years and self-conscious embarrassments, makes the blood sing in my ears underneath the songs.
Thinking back, I'm baffled as to why the record gripped me immediately and fiercely. I loathed “Chuck E's In Love,” the hit attached to Jones, gleaned from growing up in a home soundtracked by golden oldies radio. And I'd long spurned anything mainstream—especially American—preferring handcrafted music from college stations, hall shows and wilfully eclectic mixed tapes. Yet I was riveted by Jones bouncing through “Ghetto of My Mind” on Letterman (a doubly rare serendipity; I barely watched television). I bought the album and never stopped listening to it.
What's remarkable about the longevity and intensity of my relationship with Flying Cowboys is how much it continues to reveal within the frame of my original attraction to it; it still tells of the possibilities of discovery, genesis and autonomy in female and adult life. And I value it all the more operating in a culture that transparently seeks to infantilize creators of both sexes and diminish nuances and breadth of experience.
By Flying Cowboys, Jones was over a decade into her career, a veteran of chart-topping lionization (my dreaded “Chuck E”), a Rolling Stone cover (in a bra and beret) and a failed romance with fellow idiosyncratic songwriter Tom Waits. She'd matured from a tough gamine into a rich broth of an artist with an obstinate allegiance to intimate creative practice, seemingly indifferent to commercialism yet keen on connecting with her audience.
Flying Cowboys is a ripe summer album, a road record with a frontier spirit, a marriage of West Coast bohemian and East Village beatnik haunted by Rust Belt doo-wop, with a profound detour into the cerulean sky and red rock deserts of hermits, the Hopi and Georgia O'Keeffe. Walter Becker's (Steely Dan) arid production gives the musical motifs space and clarity to define emotionally-charged atmospheres and conjure hoodoo-strewn canyons and urban concrete enclaves. Of course, Jones's vocals are never dry, but animated with the urgency of expression.
Jones's particular genius is that her precision doesn't stiffen the meanings in her work—they generously yield to her listener's exploration.
Take the final lines of the title track: “but the world is turning faster/than it did when I was young,” she wails, adding: “when I was young/I was a wild, wild one.”
In the past I've heard that as wistful. Now I hear an assertion of a right to keep searching, without a destination or guarantee of safety. All we really have is the horizon, rippling in the distant heat. V