Tennessee Williams said, "We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns down the house with us trapped, locked in it." That doesn't seem far from Jones' approach to life, her art and this night of music.
Jones started off like a house on fire. Her first album, in 1979, garnered five Grammy nominations, including a win for Best New Artist. She had what is still considered a landmark performance on Saturday Night Live in 1979 too. Plus, two Rolling Stone covers in two years and a sophomore album that the magazine gave five stars. Yeah, she was hot.
But, even with all that success, she has also never been one to shy away from experimentation in her sound, or with her persona. She has been street tough, scripture sweet, wounded, healed and has shown the world the heart she has pinned to her rainbow sleeves.
I remember the exact moment I heard her for the first time, and I don't know that I have that recollection about any other artist. It was 1979 and I was in the Student Union, where the college radio station was piped in to all the nooks and crannies, and this sound and voice just grabbed me.
Now this was well before the ability to look up the name of a song on a device in your pocket, so I jotted down the words "Chuckie's in Love" and, immediately after class, headed to the nearest local head shop and record store, as they often used to often be the same place, to inquire. Luckily, I read the note to the guy that worked there instead of showing my ignorance, and he knew just what I wanted.
I wish I could end this story by telling you that I bought the record right there and then, but I was poor and had to come back to the store to visit it a few times, like a relative in prison, before it got to come home with me.
Like any artist who has been making music for more than 30 years, Jones' career has had highs and lows. She has had periods where she has written songs that can touch you deeply, or make you laugh or make you feel like you're a part of her cool crew of misfits. And she has had periods where she has written less, and released covers. Oh, but what covers! Her interpretation of the Beatles' "For No One" stands up to all comers. I simply cannot imagine it being rendered any more beautifully, with all of its inherent sadness wrung out completely.
Among the many she has honored, she has covered Steely Dan, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Jefferson Airplane, Them, Traffic, Marvin Gaye and Tom Waits, with whom she had a tumultuous relationship in the late '70s, and has made each song her own, with a voice like none other, capable of being raw, angelic, flirty, innocent, loud, soft, pugnacious or broken.
The show at the Sheldon was billed "A Rock and Roll Woman (Stories and Song)," and I had great anticipation of hearing her speak to the subject matter of her songs as her life has truly been a spectacular and beautiful mess.
The night was full of songs as familiar to Jones' fans as a friend met on the street corner, but there were many surprises too. With excellent backing by Sal Bernardi on guitar and Ed Willett on cello, Jones started off with "Weasel and the White Boys Cool," "Chuck E's in Love" and "Youngblood" before her only cover of the night.
From her latest record, "The Devil You Know," which she described as "in keeping with the ecclesiastical theme of the last few records," Jones gave new life to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," and her slower version breathed a menace of a different sort into a song that I didn't think could be more ominous.
Shifting modes from the satanic to angelic, the crowd was treated to three slower, gorgeous numbers, including "Night Train," a gem from her first album. Then, letting go of the guitar, Jones beat the living hell out of a snare drum and tambourine for the raucous "Lap Dog." It's a very good thing for both the drum and the tambourine that she only had a drum brush and not a stick.
It was after this number that the evening took a turn toward what Ms. Jones wanted to do for her own birthday (her 59th). She took off her shoes and sat them on the piano and told the crowd, "I was excited about my birthday, and then it came. And then I got really blue. And I didn't really know why, but then I remembered that I always do."
She went on to say that she was going to do a few songs that she doesn't often do in concert but that she was doing them for her, for her birthday. The rest of the set had a sweet melancholy about it and Jones seemed to sing from a deeper place, a place where the passing of years is difficult to face without seeing the ghost of regret and lost chances.
It seemed entirely appropriate that she sat her shoes on the piano and did the second half of the night in only her stockings. The shoes sat prominently on the instrument and it was impossible for me to not think that she had shed that which had kept her from contact with reality, with the feeling of grounding.
She sang songs for her sister, and for her mother, who had a hard, orphanage life. She also sang at least two that are noted as being for Tom Waits. During "Company," which seemed impromptu, and was accompanied by only Willett on acoustic guitar, she sang at the microphone, eyes closed, and arms gesturing out what she could not get through with voice alone.
I'll see you in another life now, baby
I'll free you in my dreams
But when I reach across the galaxy
I will miss your company
When she sang the line about reaching out across the galaxy, she opened her eyes and stared into the lights and spoke, "And someday I will," and then she closed them again to continue singing. It was that moment that made me understand what the night was for her: a reflection on where she had been and where she knew she was going.
This portion of the show was so intimate that I had to close my eyes or look away at times, as if looking was an intrusion on something deeply personal. The evening's most beautiful moments were in this second half: haunting in their honesty, a birthday present she gave herself, a long look out the window of a burning building.
Weasel and the White Boys Cool
Chuck E's in Love
Sympathy for the Devil
It Must Be Love
Running From Mercy
We Belong Together
A Lucky Guy
On Saturday Afternoons in 1963
Last Chance Texaco