Sad to say, Soul Food missed reading about Rickie Lee Jones' Commodore show (March 8) until the darn thing was over. Neither Black Swan nor the local book emporia are open yet this morning, so it'll be a couple hours before we can run down and pick ourselves up copies of "The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard" or "The Words." Meanwhile, I'll content myself with spinning those first two RLJ LP's (though something tells me we've come a long way from "Chuck E's In Love") while you pull up a chair and help yourself to a heapin' helpin' of words about Rickie and her friends, Lee and Jesus.
Rickie Lee Jones finds her spiritual side
by Alexander Varty
Georgia Straight, March 1 2007
When Rickie Lee Jones entered the makeshift recording studio on Los Angeles's Exposition Boulevard, she thought she was just going to help out her friend Lee Cantelon. The Vancouver Island–based poet, photographer, and world traveller had recently compiled The Words — a book of the sayings of Jesus arranged for modern readers — and was anxious to issue these texts in spoken-word form. With Mike Watt, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, and Low already behind the project, he was pleased to have Jones on board as well.
But she just couldn't do it. Faced with a microphone and prerecorded tracks courtesy of guitarist Peter Atanasoff and recording engineer Bernie Larsen, she decided that the words of Christ were too baggage-laden to fit in her mouth. She also realized that something else was at work: while Jones couldn't speak for Jesus, his parables were drawing her into the world of the Holy Land, circa the year zero.
“The first image that I had was that we were drawing pictures of Jerusalem a few thousand years ago, setting the stage for me to look out of people's eyes—or for them to look out of mine,” she explains, reached at a St. Paul, Minnesota, hotel. “To have one foot here, but mostly, you know, to inhabit that time and look out through them and tell you what I saw and what I heard.”
Words welled up out of her, and Cantelon's project quickly morphed into Jones's next CD. The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard is the most coherent and accessible statement Jones has made since 1997's underrated Ghostyhead, yet more than half of its 13 tracks feature lyrics the singer made up on the spot.
“I'd done this before, in that I've sometimes taken a chance in making a text in front of an audience,” Jones allows. “But this was obviously extraordinary. I didn't plan or expect what came out, and for it to take shape so clearly was very wonderful and miraculous in that setting.”
Christian mystics might call Jones's experience gnosis, the direct and instantaneous experience of the divine. This isn't entirely new to Jones: like musicians as diverse as John Coltrane and Iggy Pop, the singer has often felt a connection to something bigger while performing. But to have the spirit manifest in something as concrete as a song has changed her relationship to the Christian message, if not to organized religion.
“Through knowing Lee, I've developed sympathy and understanding and empathy for the character that is Christ,” she says. “But my point of view would be kind of radical to a traditional Christian.
“The idea of practising utter nonviolence in thought and action is still a very profound idea,” she continues. “That's the beginning and end of that rabbi's message. And he was against religion—he was really against rote prayer, against being pious in the sense of making a big deal out of your prayers. Yet it seems that's the only kind of representation he has: the things he absolutely didn't seem to like at all.”
With subversive gospels like Cantelon's The Words and Jones's Sermon, this may be starting to change—and, frankly, it's about time.
The full story behind the recording sessions is told at Lee Cantelon's website. Here is an excerpt;
We were now into our second week at Marc's studio, mid-June, 2005. I asked Rickie Lee Jones if she would come across town to Exposition Boulevard and read from the book. ... For as long as I had talked to Mike about this, I had shared the same vision with Rickie, and felt that it was important to have a woman's voice reading the Jesus words. Rickie arrived in the afternoon, and we looked over a few chapters that might appeal to her.
Rickie said she was ready, and we did a test reading for levels. She read only a few sentences, and abruptly stopped. "This isn't going to work for me," Rickie said, and suggested that she sing her lines, and that, instead of reading verbatim from the book, she use it as a reference and improvise lyrics based on one or more pages. We all agreed that she should try this approach, and selected a track that we thought would serve her voice. Bernie set up a vocal microphone, from his collection of antique sound equipment. (We went on to use a Russian microphone for Rickie's vocals. When it broke, we couldn't fix it, because the transformer and all the literature was written in Russian.) I asked if Rickie would like to hear the track through her headphones, so she could get a sense of the melody, chord changes, and length. "Sure," Rickie said, and we played about twenty seconds before she stopped us. "That's good. I'm ready now," she said. "Just let it roll and let me see what happens."
I closed the sliding fire door to give Rickie some privacy. Bernie cued the Logic track on his laptop. I looked at Peter. What was Rickie planning to do? She didn't have any lyrics. She didn't even know what the song sounded like. The track started, two guitars, chords pounding out a tribal beat. "For a thousand years," Rickie sang. Her voice was plaintive, filled with sadness, timelessness. "Now I walk among them and I see them, and I open up my wrists and nobody knows my name. So I walk again ...I look at you. Do you know my name? Say it...do you know my name? Do you know my name?"
As suddenly as it had begun, it was over. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. "That didn't just happen," Peter finally said. I rolled the door back. Rickie was still standing at the microphone, her eyes closed. I waited until she took off the headphones. I tried to say something appropriate, but the words wouldn't come. Rickie's performance had changed the project in the three minutes and thirty-four seconds it had taken to record what became Nobody Knows My Name. Without hearing the track, and without lyrics, she had reset the direction for the project. She turned and walked out into the early evening, absorbing slowly what had just happened. I walked up Exhibition with her, but we didn't talk. She had emptied so much emotion into that song. I thought about the lyrics. "Did the anonymous Christ walk among us? In using his name, did we reveal that we did not know or recognize him?" There were many implications in what Rickie has just "written." And more depth was to come...
Should we try this approach again? I didn't want to impose this on Rickie, but we all agreed to record another track. Peter and I picked some music we thought would work, and waited. "How about the chapter on prayer," I suggested when Rickie had returned (physically and emotionally). She read a few pages from the book, then put the headphones on. The door rolled shut and Bernie hit command "R" on the laptop. The cursor began tracking along the timeline. Again, Rickie was hearing the song for the very first time. "I wanted to pray," she sang, and followed, "How do you pray in world like this? You know I see the people on TV and they close their eyes and they bow their heads and they say, 'Let us pray,' and it feels so cold and meaningless..."
Five minutes later there was only silence. The first two songs, Nobody Knows My Name and Where I Like it Best were finished. We never did go back and change one note of these tracks, all the way through to mastering. The melody and lyrics remained exactly as they were captured that afternoon and evening, beneath the dusty skylight of the cluttered studio on Exposition Boulevard. Instead of a literal reading from the book, Rickie was guided to say what she felt in her spirit, to answer without thinking, to seek without implying that she knew, or could know, the answers.
It is recorded that Jesus once told his followers not to be "like the religious" who repeated (memorized) prayers over and over, thinking that God would hear them because of their repetition. Rickie's decision to improvise, in that moment, forced us away from stereotype or dogma.
"You wake up one morning and you're someone else," Rickie sings in I'll Be True.
I was reminded, during the making of the record, of something W. H. Auden once said. He was talking about the spirit of creativity and likened it to the Holy Spirit. He said he knew when the Holy Spirit was speaking to him, because the idea was always new, something he had never thought before, and it always demanded something of him. I think we would all agree that this happened to us during the months that we engaged ourselves with The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard. Each of us heard and felt something new, and, in turn, we were challenged to act on what was expressed. There is truth in these songs, lightness, and lack of artifice. May they "catch you in its ray."
The text of Lee Cantelon's book "The Word" is online at his website. Here's what he has to say about that project;
The idea for the book was to extract the words of Jesus from their New Testament setting, and to approach them from a non-religious perspective.... The goal was to free the words of Jesus from the socioeconomic, political, and institutional impositions/distortions that had attached themselves to his message throughout orthodox (Christian) history. Many more well-known authors have attempted to amplify the Christ story. This list includes names such as Nikos Kazantzakis, Sushako Endo, and Jose Saramago (among many others). What made my book different from these, is that I sought, not to retell the story, but to expand the recorded words of Christ out from the four Gospels, including newer linguistic understanding, and to arrange them topically. The essence of the Christ message, from my perspective, can often be understood as an indictment of the church. The Jesus I discovered during my research warned of the perils of religion. My Jesus worked to achieve liberation for the slaves and oppressed, dignity for the poor, and for those who were outcast because of gender, race, or social prejudice. The entire Jesus message seemed, in my studies, dangerous to the elite, ready to shake the foundations of the status quo.
In the 21st century, the book seems particularly relevant. We are living in a time when the message of Christ is greatly misrepresented. The Words is about undoing down these perceptions, as it is about realizing our potential to be compassionate and do good. Within the message of The Words you will discover keys to a more "abundant life," and a mandate to share this good news with anyone who will listen.
I can't tell if the original spoken word project, "Words From The Streets," is still going forward, but I'm hoping so. You can get a taste of the first track of "Words From The Streets" - "Blessed Are You" by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony - at Cantelon's website.
And one last voice to be heard from. Thom Jurek is a regular at the Arts & Faith conversation board, though we rarely cross paths - he mostly talks music, I hang out with the movie crowd. Here's some of Thom's rave review for AllMusic Guide;
...easily the most arresting recording of Rickie Lee Jones' labyrinthine career... something so completely unraveled, moving, and beautiful, something so unexpected -- even from a latter-day Beat chanteuse like Jones -- that it can only be called art. Certainly many of these songs feel raw, but they are supposed to; it's not artifice, it's inspiration.
Check the opener, "Nobody Knows My Name," where a three-chord Velvet Underground-styled vamp gives way to Jones as she channels Jesus walking through the streets of history and particularly Los Angeles, as himself, as disguised as a suicide, as a player, as every woman and man, and comes out truly anonymous. The pain in her voice when she gets to the refrains is the wail we only get from her in live performances. This is likewise the case in "Gethsemane," a tad -- not much -- more polished, and once more with Jones as Jesus, here relating the agonizing experience of the beginning of Jesus' moment of trial before he has been handed over to be put to death. In her voice she says, "I'd like to just sleep awhile" in near whimsy, but the agony is there. In "Lamp of the Body," with Peter Atanasoff, Bernie Larsen, and Joey Maramba in a combined Eastern and Western lilting rock groove as intruding sounds enter the mix, Jones sings as Jesus with the lamp of the body being the eye:
"See the darkness shine
How great is the dark
See the dark
And are there not 12 hours of daylight
But if you walk by night
You will fall...."
This gives way to the nearly pop-sounding "It Hurts." This track simply has to be heard to be believed. It rocks, it rolls, it stings and stabs, and it breezily calls forth all the complex emotions of being human and divine. It's angry and tender, uncertain and immediate.
Is this "Christian" music? Not in any CCM sense. It's punk rock, it's shimmering heat L.A back-court street rock, it's back-porch rock, garage rock, and just plain rock. But Jones is trying in her way to offer proof of the inspiration she found in Cantelon's book, and to relate the humanity of the one called Jesus Christ as an actual person, who is in and around every one of us, no matter how broken, poor, angry, violent, deceitful, happy, or wealthy. There is no new agey overtone to this set. And besides all that, it rocks, it rolls, it swings and strolls. This is pop music from the jump, but it's pop that would never, ever be considered for play anywhere except on the home jukebox. And there is no Christian-ese...
This is the least polished and crafted recording of Rickie Lee Jones' career, and it stands alone in her catalog. It's a ragged kid in ripped blue jeans singing her heart out to you without drama or falsity. How can it be anything less than a masterpiece?