I was 17 years old and working at B Dalton Bookstore in Lancaster, California. It wasn’t a mall—the Antelope Valley wouldn’t acquire one of those for many more years. This was a shopping center—a strange sort of boomerang shape of stores with the flagship store, Meryn’s standing proud by itself in the middle of the huge parking lot.
Chain stores were just becoming a thing in our town—up until then, except for some of the grocery store chains, it was mostly mom and pop shops
B Dalton was thought of as a classy new addition to town—I wore dress shirts and a tie to work. In our town of tract homes laid with shag carpet, the parquet floor lent it a whiff of sophistication.
I had gotten into magazines—we had had a magazine rack in my parents’ liquor store where I worked weekends when I was younger, but mostly they kept it for the playboy and penthouse magazines that the old guys from the neighborhood would buy with their bottles of cheap wine.
Now I was more worldly, a senior in high school and hungry for more. One payday, I bought a stack of magazines. Laying on my bed one summer afternoon, flipping through my copies of People and Interview, I picked up the Rolling Stone. A young woman was on the cover, squatting in black satin separates, wearing a white beret and white pumps, her gaze at the camera looking more you got something to say about it, than come hither.
Rickie Lee Jones, the cover read.
Inside was a review of Pirates, her latest album, released two years after her debut which featured the hit Chuck E’s in Love, that album sold over a million copies and won her a Grammy for Best New Artist.
The review awarded her a rare 5 stars. I was intrigued.
During my next shift at the bookstore, I walked the couple of doors down to the record store and with my minimum wage dollars, bought the album. I kept it in the employee break room until the end of my shift.
I know it was daylight when I stood in my bedroom, tore off the slick plastic wrap and slid out the shiny black record. But it may as well have been midnight along the Seine, or a dark corner of Al’s Bar in downtown LA. I was transported. While the opening strains of the record began--We Belong Together—I stood looking at the album cover.
Aside from her name and the name of the record, there was image, three quarters of the entire cover, a black and white photo by French photographer Brassai: a young man and woman, lovers, we assume, stand close, facing each other, her arm around his neck, his hand on her hip. It’s nighttime and they are in silhouette except for the back of his jacket and her face, which are illuminated by what might be a streetlamp out of frame. They appear to be standing on the side of the road, beside a dark wall. Dressed for the cold—not winter cold, maybe late autumn, he wears a cap, she’s got a heavy sweater and stockings beneath her skirt—the most remarkable detail, though, is her breath, caught by the camera, suspended between the two lovers.
Thinking about love last night, I followed the trails of thoughts and memories, lessons and moments from a life of failed romances, terrible dates, quick loves and fleeting glances…I gently glided over my love with Bobby, my husband, who has given my life such joy and the true understanding of love. I wanted to get at the source of love—where did my understanding, or misunderstanding, of love begin?
I landed on this record, that afternoon when the sounds, the feelings of songs, instruments, all of the elements of music entered me, transported me to a world where I might one day stand at night at the side of the street, arm in arm with my lover. That I may go to Paris and catch my breath at night. Find my way to a dingy nightclub and order a glass of red wine and sit at the bar smoking cigarettes. The music playing in my imagined nightclub was the music coming from my record player—she sang about ruffians, street people, folks who’ve known things I was yet to learn. Love and loss and the mystery of both.
As the music went on, laying there on my bed in my teenage bedroom, I even started to dream that one day in that same imaginary nightclub I might be the one on stage, in front of a trio, atop a stool, singing into the mic—being the one singing about love, which some day I surely would know about.
It is music, above all the arts, that brings us love, makes it alive in our bodies, moving us to cross the room toward that stranger we’ve had our eye on. Music that soothes a broken heart with blues, jazz that excites, symphonies which triumph or kill or remember.
A couple of weeks ago, I was going to sing something for you. I had a song picked out and everything, even found the karaoke track and practiced—it was a song I learned from a different Rickie Lee Jones album, all covers. I’ll Be Seeing You an old song, written between the world wars. I thought it would be a sweet sentiment for all of us—the idea that we will see each other again, in bars and clubs, theaters and classrooms.
But every time I tried to get through it, my voice would break, and I knew I couldn’t sing it for you without completely losing it—music accesses the heart and mine is overflowing.