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Compassion is a Verb

music_RickieLeeJonesRickie Lee Jones talks politics, panthers, and prayers

What better way to enjoy Valentine’s Day than with a singer who explores the joys and struggles that come with love? And think bigger than superficial pop songs of romantic love. Sure, Rickie Lee Jones sings about lovers—gained and lost—on her latest album, Balm in Gilead, but as usual she casts a wider net, embracing love of family, radical political action, equality, freedom and a deep gratitude for life. Rickie Lee Jones performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Rio Theatre. Tickets are available at pulseproductions.net and Streetlight Records.

When I last spoke with Jones, she was working hard to get President Bush out of office. So, I thought I’d begin by asking her about how things have changed—or stayed the same—with Obama in the White House. “I did not vote for Obama,” she reveals.  “He was another guy in a suit, like Bush, brought in from unseen forces at the last minute to usurp the more qualified candidate, Clinton. I was very disappointed that a man was brought in, a man of color, before a woman was given a seat of equality.”

Jones goes on, “I have mixed feelings about celebrating the race of anyone—in terms of their job. If we are going to be non-racist than we must not provide an entire platform based on the celebration of race. We must not take this road … He said from the very beginning he was for the war in Afghanistan. He gave a speech about war when he took the Nobel prize.”

On her new album, Jones recalls the courage of black athletes who lifted their fists in the air with black power salutes during the 1968 Olympics in the song, “The Gospel of Carlos, Norman and Smith.” (Australian athlete Peter Norman stood in solidarity with African-Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith.) Jones described to me more of the meaning for her in this song: “I was imagining the men and the hard times they had. They could not know how it would become a symbol of courage, to stand up for what you believe. You can see by their bodies they are aware that this is going to cause trouble.”

She goes on, “I was imagining that somehow I was standing there, too, or that at some hard time in my life, he was standing next to me … I have been very keen on the Black Panthers, especially the beautiful Malcolm X, for some time. I love that moment in our history.”

As a companion to courage, Jones’ lyrics express an authentic sense of compassion. She confidently states, “We have to try harder to reach into our hearts with compassion. You have to do it with your neighbor who bothers you, your family. That's where it is hardest.”

Going a little deeper to the source of her music and politics, I ask Jones how she cultivates understanding and compassion. “We should fight every day to keep this beautiful planet. Personally, with a bit of kindness. Socially, be informed. For me,” she says, “it comes with prayer.”

Jones adds, “Be sure about your prayer. You get what you ask for, the greater, clearer your vision the closer it can come to you. It’s best to keep taking in all you can and what rings true is true for you. You are meant to have your own story, and offer your own knowledge to others, not parrot. Fear drives us to religion. And there is solace there, but beware. There are people who will steal you just as you get to the door. Your work is never to judge or exclude others and never, never to harm … Compassion is really a great way to be not only a more helpful person, but a happier person. It needs to be a verb, though.”


Rickie Lee Jones performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $28 in advance, $32 at the door. For more information, call 421-9200 or go to pulseproductions.net. John Steven Malkin is a local musician, writer and host of The Great Leap Forward every Wednesday from 7-9 p.m. on Free Radio Santa Cruz, 101.1 FM, freakradio.org.  Rickie Lee Jones is one of 16 musicians featured in the book “Sounds of Freedom” (2005, Parallax Press) by John Steven Malkin.
Photo Credit: Greg Allen

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