I wasn’t sure what to write about today. I thought I’d try “Highway 61 Revisited” but when I put it on, I wasn’t in the mood. I listened to all 20 versions of “Like A Rolling Stone” from “The Cutting Edge” box set and by then, I felt I’d had enough. I need to want to listen to the music before I can write about it. With nothing else to do, I tried rearranging my CDs in order to create a bit more space. I found myself piling up a group of Rickie Lee Jones albums and I was reminded that there was a good interview with her in this month’s MOJO. I also had a phone conversation with a good friend of mine today and thinking about Rickie Lee Jones reminded me of the time that I went I went with him and his wife to see her in concert in London on October 15th, 1995. The three of us (Roo opted out) met early, had a very nice meal and a good chat. Contrary to what Andy believes about me, I don’t think that everyone has to agree with my musical taste and so I wasn’t annoyed or disappointed when my friends left to go home after watching Rickie Lee Jones for about half an hour. I loved it but I understand that her music is not to everyone’s taste. For some reason today, my friend and I were talking about Los Angeles and I talked about how Paddy and I stayed in Culver City in 2008. “Imagine my surprise” when I opened the booklet that comes with this album to find that some of it was recorded in Culver City. Spooky. Hang on, I tried that line yesterday.
“Lee Cantelon was born in the United States, but was raised in Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. He attended UCLA film school in Los Angeles before returning to Europe, where he produced and directed a number of weekly television programs for both French and Italian television, featuring discussions about religion, the arts, philosophy and culture from a religious perspective. His book “The Words” was a response to the many people he had met who were put off by the organized church and religion but remained curious concerning the core message of Christianity and more precisely, what Jesus had said. In The Words, he compiled Jesus’s words thematically, in clear and modern English, for non Christians, spiritual seekers, agnostics, and believers.” (From the publicity for “The Words”).
In 2005, he attempted to realise his dream of recording this book to a musical accompaniment. He asked several of his friends in Culver City to come into a recording studio and read from his book to a rudimentary musical backing. One day, he asked Rickie Lee Jones if she could spare a couple of hours to do a reading from his book. When she arrived, she tried reading a few lines but then said “You know, I think I would rather try to do something else. Let me sing. Let’s go. Be ready. Get it right because it will be right the first time.” With the backing track already recorded (guitar, bass, drums), instead of reading from his book, she then improvised the song “Nobody Knows My Name”. Lee Cantelon recalled what happened after the song had finished. “When it was over, we all shed tears and Rickie turned away and did not speak. She was standing at the microphone, her eyes closed. I waited until she took off the headphones and tried to say something but the words wouldn’t come. She turned and walked out into the early evening. I walked up Exposition Boulevard with her but we still did not speak.”
This wonderful moment was the starting point for the rest of the album which is the 13th of the 17 albums that Rickie Lee Jones has released since 1979. She was inspired by Lee Cantelon’s book but also The Bible and a book of poetry called “The Gift” by Hafiz. Rickie Lee Jones described the whole experience of recording the album like this. “One imagines obtuse ideas like this. One stands outside heaven, in cars, on broken beer bottles. here buddy, I’ll sit with you a while. Then you find crowns, and everything seems crowned, the moments, the turning onto the street, the door with the five locks to keep out robbers. All of these things are suddenly shining, like they are the crown. I have known for a long time that the only song is the song to God, but never dreamed of hanging a sign on that door and saying, ‘This is where he lives. This is what he does‘”
“Nobody Knows My Name” starts with a simple riff and Rickie Lee Jones’ unique voice starts improvising a lyric about how the saviour walks among us and nobody knows. If it is truly made up on the spot, it’s almost unbelievable. The music is simple, sympathetic and soothing. her voice takes off and by the end she is screaming “Do you know my name?” I’d never seen this video of her performing the song at a bookshop before, but it’s reduced me to tears. The enjoyment, passion and emotion emanating from her is truly wonderful.
The CD came with a DVD which includes film clips taken from the recording. Unfortunately, these are not available on YouTube because the clip for “I Was There” is mesmerising and one of the most beautiful live performances imaginable. It’s another first take (there are four on the album) and this time she accompanies herself on guitar, later overdubbing some keyboard sounds. There’s no obvious melody or structure to the song and the words are more complex than on “Nobody Knows My Name”, so I’m guessing that the lyrics weren’t improvised on the spot even though this is a first take. The song is not a million miles from “Beside You” on “Astral Weeks” in its lack of form and also in its emotional impact. The lyrics convey a love for Jesus, imagining the wonder of being able to say “I was there when Jesus walked.” It’s (almost) enough to turn me into a believer.
Yesterday’s blog was all about the ways in which improvisation can enhance creativity. This is the least polished album that Rickie Lee Jones has released and, arguably, the one that most touches the heart.