Chucking Chuck E.

Rickie Lee Jones doesn't want to be here. Well, here, maybe -- in the Novel Cafe in Santa Monica, a nice place for a cup of coffee or a light lunch. Rare and used books line the walls, and patrons keep to themselves. It's a pleasant enough spot to kill an afternoon.

Jones just doesn't want to be here -- in front of the tape recorder, answering questions, going on the record about her new CD. Even with friend and collaborator Rick Boston, the former Low Pop Suicide frontman since gone solo, by her side, she's uncomfortable in such an artificial setting, revealing intimate things to a stranger with a note pad. Better she talk over the phone, where she can't look you in the eye.

"I'm really engaged in you: Are you happy? Do you like me?" she explains. "Those kinds of things happen more in person than they would if I didn't see you or care about you. And when there's a purpose, the conversation is corrupted. There's a purpose in promotion. I want everyone to hear the record, but I have a kind of humbleness and a kind of integrity that doesn't want to promote it."

It is not so surprising that Jones would prefer to keep to herself. Until only a few months ago, she lived in Ojai, out in the dusty nowhere about 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles. She moved there for her young daughter, to raise her away from a Hollywood in which Jones herself came of age. But she came back -- she needed adult company, needed the taste of a martini, needed to play again in the small clubs to the friendly faces. She came back to, for lack of a better phrase, find herself, to recreate Rickie Lee Jones in her own image. She wanted to make new music, to leave behind that lone hit single and the records that followed; she wanted to find an unknown audience, one that didn't expect her to return as she had left.

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So she shows up at Largo, an intimate L.A. club, every now and then, playing the occasional three-hour-and-forever gig that ends only when the martinis pull the covers down on her sleepy eyes. Call it the occasional indulgence, a little blurry fun every once in a while. Last October she tried out a couple of songs from her then-forthcoming record, Ghostyhead, and played till she literally wept, closing down the joint at threesomething in the a.m. with an old Dylan song. She choked on the words as a hardy handful watched; she cried with such unabashed glory that those who remained felt like voyeurs. "That was my martini night," Jones recalls of that evening, smiling at the memory of a memory.

Ghostyhead provides rare proof that even the most entrenched artist can be reborn in middle age. Those who would accuse Jones of jumping on the techno bandwagon -- as many reviewers are already doing -- miss the point: With its loops and samples, Ghostyhead is the ambient inevitability, the record Jones was born to make ever since she stood up on tiny L.A. stages in the mid-1970s. It's like a collection of short stories and poems set to daydream melodies and nightmare vibrations, a record haunted by junkies and abortions and faded photographs and ghosts drifting through abandoned neighborhoods. Everybody's looking for something better -- and doomed never to find it.

Through it all, Jones's voice dips and dives through sputtering beats and metallic echoes and guitar loops. Yet the record doesn't sound so different from what came before and it doesn't smack of mere trend-hopping. Rather, Ghostyhead is what happens when a musician reinvents herself out of necessity, when she stops trying to fulfill faded expectations and begins writing only for herself.

Jones claims she never wanted to be a superstar; rather, she wanted to cultivate a cult following. She liked the idea of loyal fans who stuck with you throughout a career, not merely a single; she didn't want to be the one-hit wonder, the out-of-the-box sensation who would be forced by fickle fans to repeat yesterday's moves.

But such was not to be her fate: In 1979, on the eve of the release of her eponymous debut, "Chuck E.'s in Love" sat among the nation's top five singles; in an instant, the woman on the cover of Tom Waits's Blue Valentine was a platinum superstar -- Van Morrison in the guise of a 25-year-old raised in Phoenix, a new bohemian who brought bebop vocals and beatnik arrangements to pop radio.

She got lucky, some might say -- hit it big with an accidental gem. But her career would suffer for such providence: Though 1981's remarkable, intimate Pirates went to number five on the album charts, the records that followed -- Girl at Her Volcano, The Magazine, Flying Cowboys, Pop Pop and Traffic from Paradise -- sold poorly by comparison. By the time of 1991's Pop Pop, Jones had to struggle with the fact that her own label, Geffen, was putting big money behind Edie Brickell, a woman who sounded like a parrot raised on Rickie Lee Jones.

"What was lost to me was the elusive title of Queen of Pop that was in my lap for a while," Jones says now, wincing at the thought. "And I think there's been a shade hanging over it because of 'Chuck E.'s in Love' and the incredible amount of attention given it. Eighteen years later and people still remember 'Chuck E.'s in Love.' There were great expectations on me as a pop icon that I could not carry, that I was not made to carry. I continued on making great work, but great work wasn't the expectation. So I lived with the, 'You were supposed to wear that crown.' And so maybe making a new record, a different kind of record, will let that resolve itself. That would be a great thing.

"I don't know if that's just something I carry in my mind or if that's real, but if that disappears, that'd be a great thing. I don't know if I set out to be the Beatles -- I probably did, because they were my idols -- but when I got there, it wasn't what I thought it would be. What creatures are happy pursuing those things day after day? I didn't want to do it."

So she doesn't mind being forgotten now. She would prefer to be discovered, not simply remembered. On the road in support of Ghostyhead, she won't perform songs that predate the new CD -- no more "Weasel and the White Boys Cool," no "The Last Chance Texaco," damn sure no more "Chuck E.'s in Love." That part of her life is behind her: 1995's Naked Songs: Live and Acoustic found Jones saying good-bye to her children, setting them free with wonderfully alone renditions.

"When Naked Songs was over, as it was ending, I was feeling such fear and pain, because to change and grow into something new is what I wanted to do, but I was at the end, and I didn't know what I would be and how to be it," Jones says. "I had gone as far as I could go down that road. And it was wonderful. I could feel it. I actually did a lot of praying, a lot of talking to God ... see, this is when it becomes too personal," she laughs. "It's okay. I don't mind. Once it's said, it's said. I did a lot of talking to God about, Am I prepared to move forward?"

The genesis for Ghostyhead occurred during last summer's H.O.R.D.E. tour, when Jones played the second stage to audiences who had never heard her name. She wanted a guitarist who would help her find a new sound, a new her, and Boston agreed, only if she wasn't going to play the old songs yet one more time, if she was serious about getting off her well-beaten path. At H.O.R.D.E., playing in the shadow of John Popper, Rickie Lee Jones found she could start over.

"I played the B stage, and that was a great thing, because it took all pressure off me to, in any way, behave or do a thing I was supposed to do," she says. "I didn't do any of my songs, and many kids didn't know who we were, because we also played under another name. I got what I needed -- I had kids come up and say, 'Your band was the best band here ... what's the name of your band?' " She laughs.

"We were in the studio," Boston adds, "and Iggy Pop came to do vocals for a soundtrack, and Iggy's just sort of in that Iggy world. One night we had a small listening party, and he and his girlfriend ended up in the room listening, because it's very neighborly there and all the studios are set up with a nice walkway and gardens. He sat there and listened to three or four things, and he had seen us for four or five days in the hallway, and not much was ever said. But one day I walked into the kitchen, and he said, 'That's some vocalist you've got there.' " Boston breaks up. "Like we were some band from the Midwest getting our big break."

"Isn't that nice?" Rickie Lee Jones smiles.

Rickie Lee Jones performs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 1, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $20 and $17.50. For info, call 869-8427.

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