When Rickie Lee Jones burst onto the radio dial in 1979 with “Chuck E.’s in Love”, the song’s ubiquity belied its uniqueness. Jazzy, bohemian, and eminently hummable, its casually unintelligible lyrics read like a James Ellroy novel. The track reached number four on the Billboard Hot 100, where it was the outlier among disco thumpers by Donna Summer, Anita Ward, and Sister Sledge. After the unknown singer’s appearance on Saturday Night Live in April of that year, the “Duchess of Coolsville” had arrived.
On the strength of her eponymous debut, Jones landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, sold out her US tour, and was nominated for four Grammy Awards. The album garnered a fifth nomination for engineering, and Jones took home the prize for Best New Artist at the 1980 ceremony. If history and music lore were to be believed, Jones’ second LP would surely disappoint. Never one to follow expectations, however, Jones evaded the sophomore jinx with Pirates, released in July 1981. The album went to number five on the Billboard 200, was certified Gold, and is now considered her most ambitious and important work.
In a 2011 interview for The Guardian Jones was asked, “What do you remember about making Pirates?”
It was the second record, so it was terrifying after so much success. I kind of knew right away that there was no way to recapture the debut and that I just needed to go in the direction that my life was taking.– Rickie Lee Jones
In late 1979 Jones’ life was going in all sorts of directions. After her European tour and a triumphant homecoming show at Los Angeles’ Perkins Palace, Jones and boyfriend Tom Waits settled into a bungalow in Echo Park. Over the previous year, Jones had also settled into a heroin habit. After an argument with Waits one night, which involved a plate of spaghetti becoming acquainted with their kitchen wall, Jones confessed her addiction. She had resolved to get clean a few days prior, but that night, as Jones was withdrawing from heroin, Waits withdrew from her. On hearing the news, he became distant and inconsolable; the next morning, he drove away.
After trying to reconcile with Waits later that afternoon, Jones returned home and wrote “Skeletons”, which became the third track on the album. The song is based on a real-life incident where a Black man was pulled over while driving his pregnant wife to the hospital. As he reached for his driver’s license, the cops, believing he was going for a gun, shot him dead. Though the song was not borne from Jones’ and Waits’ breakup, the tragic incident resonated with her in its wake. As she writes in her 2021 memoir, Last Chance Texaco, “The desolate afterlife of tragedy is what I grew up with.” The song, which recounts real-life events, also imagines the future that never was for the new father and his family. In six simple verses, Jones renders the senseless tragedy with a sensitivity that is as devastating as it’s beautiful.
After her split from Waits, Jones retreated to her mother’s house in Olympia, Washington. An old high school friend procured the keys to the music room at a nearby college for her to use after hours. There, in nights alone with a piano and a healing heart, she composed “We Belong Together”, “Pirates”, and “Living It Up”.
Given the circumstances of its creation, it’s safe to assume “We Belong Together” is about the breakup. Jones name-checks Natalie Wood in a nod to Waits, who recorded “Somewhere” (from West Side Story) for his 1978 album Blue Valentine. (Jones was photographed with Waits on the back cover of his LP, completing the circle.) The song transcends the usual breakup lament by referring to the protagonist (Jones herself) in the third person. With references to Marlon Brando and James Dean, Jones inserts her story into a universal narrative written on the big screen. After two minutes of hypnotic piano, Steve Gadd’s drums kick in and take the song from a maudlin plea to a jubilant assertion. It’s as if Jones has found strength by embracing her feelings and making them known: “Are the signs you hid deep in your heart /All left on neon for them?”
As Pirates is a product of the album era, it gives careful consideration to track listing and pacing. The result is a self-contained record whose eight songs fit together like the numbers in a Broadway musical. Indeed each track, through mercurial changes in tempo and mood, feels like a complete story unto itself. “Living It Up” starts straightforwardly enough but its carefree shuffle conceals darker themes of domestic violence. The lyrics are populated by Jones’ usual cast of colorful characters, sung with her trademark elision. Midway through, however, the title refrain appears as a desperate interlude, suggesting “living it up” isn’t always a good time.
Hardly anyone on the pop charts at the time was recording such complex, multi-dimensional songs. Joni Mitchell’s mid-1970s albums favored sleek SoCal jazz fusion, with lyrics that retained the confessional tone of her earlier work. By 1981, however, Mitchell had veered away from jazz (after the Mingus album) toward a more 1980s pop sensibility. Steely Dan shared an affinity for studio mastery, but their technical proficiency could sound cold. Moreover, Donald Fagen’s voice had a narrow range compared to Jones’ idiosyncratic dynamics. Jones fused jazz, soul, and be-bop overlaid with impressionistic imagery, creating a sound that was impossible to pigeonhole.
Fagen plays on the album, as do a roster of studio all-stars such as Steve Gadd, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and percussionist Victor Feldman. Legendary Broadway and film arranger Ralph Burns rounds out the ensemble. Lenny Waronker & Russ Titelman’s sterling production is lauded by audiophiles for its three-dimensional quality. The listening experience is that of being on the soundstage, surrounded by all of the instruments distinct in their timbre and weight.
To think of Pirates as a breakup album does it a great disservice. While several songs were written in the relationship’s immediate aftermath, many predate it. Another was written with Jones’ new lover Sal Bernardi in their apartment in Manhattan (the haunting “Traces of the Western Slopes”). Bernardi, by the way, is the “Sal” referred to in “Weasel and the White Boys Cool” on Jones’ first LP. As she writes about her time with him, “We stayed up all night and slept until 4:00 pm and rose half-dead to get high and feel half-alive again. … We lived in the strange twilight, the slow motion of fluid that fed our memories. We were junkies.”
Looking back, Jones refuses hackneyed assessments of her addiction. As she tells the Guardian, “… with heroin, people just want you to say, ‘Oh, it’s so terrible’ and condemn it outright, but I think it’s wrong somehow to do that. There’s a reason why people get addicted to heroin. There is something there that they like, some kind of solace, some kind of numbing.” In her book, Jones speaks to the double standard afforded to men in rock, particularly when it comes to drug use. She cites Keiths Richards and Ginger Baker, whose self-destruction was a “badge of manliness”.
Similarly, Jones’ reputation for being difficult in the studio is patently sexist. Any man with the same dedication Jones had to her vision would be called “exacting” and demanding of excellence. That Jones was referred to as “the female Tom Waits” is also laughable, considering the opposite was true. The two will always be entwined in musical history, but in reality, Waits’ persona was a character named Tom Waits. Jones lived the lives he only wrote about.
Pirates’ creation was fueled by drug use as much as by heartbreak. Both Waits and heroin are spectral presences on the album. Even without the twin love affairs—with a man and a drug—Jones would have crafted a masterpiece. Reducing the album to a narrative shorthand misses its richness. The songs on Pirates are worlds unto themselves, drawing upon myriad experiences and impulses, all resisting a single, simple interpretation.
Jones could have cut two minutes from “We Belong Together”, kept the tempo steady, and thrown in a few lines of “baby please come back”. It would have been a mainstream radio smash. She could have just as easily filled her second album with ten more variations on “Chuck E.’s in Love”. Instead, she went one better and made “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking”, expanding on the sound and the characters from her first hit. “Woody and Dutch” was so widely copied that, as Jones writes, “when people heard it, they thought I was imitating the imitators”.
Like its forebear, Pirates stands out among its contemporaries for being a formidable creation of a singular talent. Without an obvious single, the album takes longer to walk into than her first release, but the more you wander, the greater the reward. Jones resisted the easy musical path in favor of one as meandering and complicated as her own life. The only direction she followed was her own while making it look effortlessly cool.