At Oberlin during my junior year, everyone owned Rickie Lee Jones’s “Pirates” album. At ten o’clock on a Thursday night you could walk from one end of my hall to the other and not miss a note of Side 1. I owned and loved it too, and this, song 1 on that Side 1, was my favorite.
It begins with ominous chords that immediately establish something’s at stake and an unsettling wash of distant percussion. A voice that begins as pleading but over the course of the song will become first demanding and then celebratory sings the first few lines:
I say this was no game of chicken
you were aiming your best friend
that you wear like a switchblade on a chain around your neck
I think you picked this up in Mexico from your Dad
I have no idea what that means literally, but here’s what it suggests to me: a lover, a woman, is confronting a man who has just betrayed her. He is trying to softpedal the betrayal, minimize it. She wants him to know she understands its depth. But she also wants him to know they can get beyond it, which she intimates by calling on their shared history. You’ve hurt me, she is saying, and you need to know I know that. But you also need to know that I know you better than anyone in the world. Consider that before you do it again.
The rest of the song works the same way. The lyrics are often random or intensely personal in a way that seems to resist interpretation. But they communicate. Here, in the first verse, a woman seems to be asking a straying lover to stay, to recognize their mutual fate: “we belong together.” In the second verse she tells him an illustrative story of another man, Johnny the King, who has not acknowledged and treasured such a fated match and now, heartbroken, “walks these streets without her in the rain.” This is what will happen to you if you leave, the woman is saying.
You know what? He leaves anyway. And in the last third of the song the singer’s address is no longer to the man but (in my reading) to every other woman, every other lover, in the same situation as she is: the ones left behind, the ones “who are foolish/who are victim.” Even if these stupid guys are going to walk away, the singer says, we can be, must be, there for each other: “the only angel who sees us now/watches through each other’s eyes.”
The song becomes an anthem for the spurned, those who’ve touched and lost great love. Though even in community the memory of that great love and great loss doesn’t go away or stop hurting:
…and I can hear him
in every footstep’s passing sigh…
Over the course of later albums, Rickie’s lyric writing style grew more baffling than compelling, and she seemed to lose interest in melody and song structure. I lost interest in her after “Flying Cowboys,” with its rambling 6-minute cuts. I have a vague memory of seeing her during the 90’s on some late-night live music show stomping around the stage in a t-shirt screaming “Rage Against the Machine” type metal and thinking, how sad. More recently I happened to catch her on one of the live radio shows, Mountain Stage or Big Top Radio, singing a song that seemed so beautiful and delicate. It made me happy that she could still come up with something this good and I thought maybe I needed to give her recent work another listen and so I googled a few of the lyrics I remembered and it turned out the song was “Saturday Afternoons in 1963” from her debut album, which I’d forgotten. So then I was sad again.