I have to admit that I was hesitant to make Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates the subject of this week’s Cratedigger. The weather has been gloomy here in New Jersey all week, the Yankees dropped the first game of the World Series to Philadelphia, and my finances are in the sewer. Since Pirates is perhaps the most heartbreaking album I’ve ever encountered, I was afraid listening to it again would throw me into an even deeper funk. Despite the sorrow, when pressed, I will tell you that Pirates is one of the best albums ever made, and it is easily ensconced in my personal Top Five, where it has resided since its release in July, 1981.
Rickie Lee Jones burst on the scene with her eponymous debut, and it’s massive hit single, “Chuck E.’s In Love,” in 1979. She was part of a bohemian L.A. crowd that included the aforementioned Chuck E. Weiss and singer/songwriter Tom Waits, with whom Jones was in a relationship. The songs on her second album, Pirates, are largely a wistful reflection on her time with Waits, following their breakup. “We Belong Together,” “A Lucky Guy,” and the title track all refer to her relationship with him, and “Living It Up” and “Traces of the Western Slopes” (written with new boyfriend Sal Bernardi) are peopled with characters from the bohemian milieu that they moved in. The most devastating heartbreak of all, however, comes in the song “Skeletons,” based on the true story of a young man who was killed by the Los Angeles police in a case of mistaken identity as he was driving his wife to the hospital to give birth.
Jones was fortunate to be able to pair a collection of great songs with a group of brilliant and sympathetic musicians. A who’s who of the most well known session players of the day are on board. They include guitarists Buzzy Feiten, Steve Lukather, and Dean Parks, drummers Steve Gadd and Victor Jones, and horn players Randy Brecker, Tom Scott, and David Sanborn. Oh, and there’s a guy named Donald Fagen playing synthesizer. The real musical hero on this album for me is bass player Chuck Rainey, whose contribution is monumental.
So what’s the verdict? Did listening to Pirates add to the gloom around here? No — it only served to increase my admiration for this masterwork. Hearing it again, and on vinyl, was a revelation. It’s an album that, while well received by critics (five stars in Rolling Stone), has never really caught on with the public in a big way. I hope that in some small way I can help to change that, because Pirates is an album that should be heard, and loved, for generations. Rickie Lee Jones has gone on to have a storied career, which continues to this day, but for me this was the high point.