Saturday, June 02, 2007

Kat's Korner: Those Jones girls

"Those Jones girls."

Kat: That was always accompanied with a heavy sigh and said by my grandmother.

I'm not really sure what year it started but the illegal war in Vietnam was going on and my grandfather was "resting."

He'd had a heart attack and retired or been retired, they never tell kids anything, and my grandparents had moved in with us.

The Jones family lived on our street, four houses down. They were a mother, a father, a son in Vietnam and two daughters.

The blonde daughter was the older of the two and the first hippie on our street. This was apparently a big deal to my grandparents. My grandfather appeared to miss the sight of her long legs in a miniskirt while my grandmother fretted over why "that Jones girl" didn't do anything with her hair.

The other sister was two years younger, dark haired and always reminded me of Marlo Thomas but everyone else always said Mary Tyler Moore. Actually, when I was a kid, they said "Laura Petrie." It was only when I was a teenager, and MTM had her own show, that they said Mary Tyler Moore.

Among the neighborhood kids, there was huge split about who you liked. The fault line usually left those trying to figure out life on one side and those who still believed their parents were infallible and All Mighty on the other.

One day, the big news was that the Jones boy had been injured in Vietnam and would be coming home. As wounds went, it either wasn't very bad or they were sugar coating it for the kids.

Concern replaced curiosity when my mother and grandmother were trying to round up a kid or two to drag along as they took food over to the Joneses. My sisters weren't home and my brothers weren't interested. You better believe I grabbed the dangling invite.

We were all in the Jones kitchen, with the mother. The adults were drinking coffee. My mother was listening to what little was known at this point. But my grandmother had a look in her eye I knew well.

Suddenly she was standing and announcing that I needed to go to the bathroom, but keep talking, she'd take me. I don't remember how old I was at the time, 9? 13?, but I was too old to need someone "taking" me to the bathroom. But that's not what this was about. This was about snooping and you couldn't know my grandmother without knowing that hours spent watching the neighborhood from the front window was just a warm up.

The first thing my grandmother did on any visit to fresh territory was start opening cabinets. She didn't hide this. She'd be in the middle of talking and just get up, go to someone's kitchen cabinets and start looking through. She must have been restraining herself on this visit out of 'respect' for the wounded Jones boy.

The Jones house was interesting to the whole neighborhood for a number of reasons. Primarily because the family really didn't 'mix.' The two oldest kids did, the Jones boy and the Jones girl. Before he was sent to Vietnam, he'd hang out with the other guys, fixing cars in the drive way. Or trying to fix cars in the drive way. They spent hours on those cars. He'd smile at the kids younger than 16, maybe give a wave. His sister also stuck to the older kids and I must have spent at least one entire summer hearing my oldest sister discuss how she was "mature" but because she was one grade behind, she might as well not exist. Once a year, the entire family would turn out, at 4th of July, for the big backyard b-b-q. That was at our house and adult women were always pestering my mother with questions about what was the Jones mother like and how did she get her to come to the b-b-q when she wouldn't do anything else with the neighborhood? Another point of interest was their house which, unlike the rest, was set back from the street and had these huge bushes. Added to the mystery of the family.

For me, personally, there was also the fact that I was one of eight children, living in cramped quarters with two parents and a set of a grandparents.

We were the largest family on the block but there were others with six and five children. The smallest family on our block, outside of the occasional set of newlyweds just moving in, was the Jones family with just three kids.

What must that be like?

The daughters had their own bedrooms and, as my grandmother and I found out, the youngest had a white canopy bed (sheets and canopy were pink) that matched a tidy as a pin desk and bureau. The curtains were also pink. There was nothing on the white walls but this really bad framed pastel of a line of ballerinas. Pinned inside the closet, we found a magazine poster of someone and I'll say now it was Tony DiFranco just to keep the story moving. It may have been someone like him, but I really don't remember now. I remember thinking, whatever age I was, how uncool the guy was. I also remember my grandmother whispering "little rebel" and realizing how truly out of it my grandmother was.

The two shared a bathroom and I was especially knocked out or jealous over this. It was between their bedrooms and they could enter it from the door in the hall, if they wanted, or from either of their bedrooms.

It was more than the vast array of makeup, pimple cream, nail polish bottles, et al that stood out. Oh to be able to stumble out of bed -- in a room I shared with no sister -- walk straight to a door, open it and have a bathroom. Instead, in my family, the kids were always lined down the hall waiting our turn in the designated children's bathroom.

My oldest sister had ruined it for all of us when she left the iron on in my parent's bathroom, face down on the vanity, when she stopped in the midst of straightening her long hair, to take a phone call. In those pre-cordless phone days, "lucky" was having a phone with a really long cord.

The Jones girls' bathroom was just a little too fussed over. Like a mother had picked out everything, the way the youngest daughter's bedroom looked. We were at the door leading into the other daughter's room and we opened it and oh my God.

Now the way my grandmother was carrying on, you would have thought we found a room full of teens fixing on heroin in one corner, having an orgy in the center of the room and off in another corner putting together a bomb they were planning to use on the Statue of Liberty or at least the local Carl Jr.'s.

I didn't go for the drama but, no argument, it was impressive. The ceiling had a painting of Jimi Hendrix. It wasn't 'artistically pure,' but there was no mistaking the man was Hendrix. (For any wondering, my grandmother's shock had nothing to do with Hendrix' skin color. She could surprise you for an old woman. On the issue of civil rights, she was 100% for it and was fond of saying "we Irish" knew all about discrimination and had an obligation to fight it everywhere.)
My own thoughts were, and I'd already started drawing and painting at this point, "Eh, a little too Sunday comics." But I could tell it was Hendrix and mainly concerned with how she was physically able to paint the entire ceiling. The curtains were heavy and we just had the light from the bathroom so my grandmother flipped the switch, a red glow bathed the room, and then I was knocked out. The Hendrix ceiling was like one of those blue light posters. Very creative.

On the desk next to the bed, my grandmother had lost interest in the ceiling, were a couple of lava lamps, a clock radio and a square device that my grandmother couldn't figure out. I was about to tell her it was a strobe light but she'd already turned it on and spent a few second blinking before declaring "Drugs" and switching it off.

If tomorrow I was put under oath, I couldn't tell you what color the walls were. I could guess that they were white since that was the color of all the walls in the house. But you couldn't see any wall. Everything was covered with clippings and photos torn out of magazines. These weren't the glossies from 16. When there was a break from this, it was only to make room for something drawn or painted on a piece of paper. Sometimes it was just a slogan on a piece of a paper like: "LET'S TRY LIVING TOGETHER." I was looking at as much as I could, a compiled rock history that was actually then current, but my grandmother was fretting about all the holes in the wall from so many thumb tacks. She was at the closet door now but hesitating as if she was too afraid of what she would find. This from the woman who, again, eagerly rifled through your cabinets while she was standing before you.

So I did the mature thing and stepped around her. I opened the closet and there were a ton of groovy clothes, not all hanging. There were also a ton of maps and travel books. (My grandmother's comment was "I bet her mother has no idea.") I think it was all too much for my grandmother but she covered that by saying we'd been gone too long and we headed back to the kitchen.

The Jones boy came home and nothing much happened for awhile. My grandfather would tell us kids, when our parents weren't around, that the Jones boy was mainly shell shocked and my grandmother would tell him to stop, that kids didn't need to hear about this. But one night he was out in the Jones family Buick, apparently drunk, and creamed Ray's Barracuda.

That was a car put out by Plymouth and I know that only because I was starting to get heavily interested in guys. Guys like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Jim Morrison. None of whom lived in my neighborhood. So I'd try to find something in common those guys had with the older teenagers that were on my block. Ray and his father had gotten the Barracuda at a public auction. It had been pulled out of the Bay, or that's what everyone said. When it first got hauled back to their drive, not only could you not drive it, but it was an eyesore. And don't think my grandmother didn't note that fact every day. But Ray and the other boys worked on it and worked on it. I'd watch from my upstairs window sometimes -- like when they covered the windows with newspapers and spray painted it blue. And through weeks and weeks of work, they got that car running and it looked brand new. It was Ray's car but every guy on the block took pride in it.

Then came the Jones boy creaming it and I swear there would have been a next day ass kicking if everyone wasn't saying, "Well, he just got back from the war." I should probably note that Ray's car wasn't parked on the street. The Jones boy had jumped a curve, driven across the family's front yard and hit the Barracuda full on in the passenger side.

All any of us neighborhood kids cared about was the car but I know some of the parents were talking about how the yard was torn up as well.

The Jones parents had offered to pay to have it fixed but Ray's dad was all about how he'd been to Korea and he understood as he refused the money. The boys were back, pulling out whatever you call the inside of car doors and using rubber hammers (which I'm sure have another name) to try to bang out the dents. They did that over and over for a week before they finally hit the wrecking yards and found a score.

But that was really the beginning of the end of the mystery. The blonde Jones girl was making it very clear she wasn't part of the family anymore or even part of the neighborhood. It might have been as much as six months later that she split for good or it might have only been two weeks. Her exit was big drama as she stood in their drive way screaming at her parents, who were trying to get her back in the house, that they weren't helping her brother "and he needs help!" That was it and she was out of there.

Maybe out of embarrassment over that or Ray's car, they made an attempt to interact with the neighbors more. They'd walk over in the evenings with their youngest daughter who looked put out and talk to a neighbor, then talk to another. I remember once coming home from school to find the Jones mother crying to my mother in our kitchen and knowing to back my butt right back out before my mother told me.

Then came the big moment. The moment everyone in the neighborhood talked about. It was a summer day and after dinner, but the sun was still out. The Jones boy was out on their front yard screaming. We were hurried into the house and I ran straight to my bedroom window because I had never seen a man nude except in statues and paintings. He was hollering about the war being a crime, something the older teenagers might whisper but most wouldn't say anything, it was my age group that would say that full out, even in front of our parents.

Whatever he was saying, I remember thinking, "You tell 'em!"

But I was more interested in his body. He had a nasty wound on his chest, left side, but other than that, forget the David, this was the body to check out. Even though my other sisters were trying to nudge me out of the way to get a better look, you know I wasn't giving up my perch. So that's what one of those looked like on an adult male. Lot of hair around the thing but interesting. His parents were trying to talk to him and the father kept trying to put a blanket over him. He kept tossing it to the ground. After about ten minutes, he finally stormed off, down the street, still naked.

No one ever stopped talking about that. Even two years later, we'd still mention it. The grown ups tried to pretend like they didn't talk about it. But we'd catch the silences when we entered a room. Sometimes, we'd catch a word or two before they saw us.

The Jones boy was gone. He never came back. The family put a "FOR SALE" sign up in the front yard. They stopped trying to mingle and I remember when the father would get out of his car at the end of the day, he'd make a point to look down at the ground and avoid catching the eye of anyone out in their own yards. At least one more time, the mother visited mine. The youngest Jones girl went around looking sad and angry. I've actually got a picture, one of the first ones I ever took, with her in it. I had my friends lined up in the front yard to take a picture and she's walking past in the background. She's glaring out of the corner of her eye.

Now you're probably either saying "Go on" right now or asking what this has to do with music?

Two Jones women, different Jones women, have CDs out now. Rickie Lee Jones put out The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard and Norah Jones put out Not Too Late. When I listen, they remind me of those Jones girls.

Rickie Lee Jones has a stripped down sound on this album. There's an electric piano on one track and a keyboard on the other, but no "We Belong." It's a guitar driven CD and she's exploring issues of spirituality/state of the world throughout. It's a new tactic for her but it works, it satisfies and reminds you of just how much RLJ has always refused to sit still. It's really meaningless to say "Check out track ___ and track ___" because she's offering a full album, an artistic journey. I'm certain that "Lamp Of the Body," "It Hurts," "Circle In The Sand" or "Elvis Cadillac" will end up on a RLJ collection at some point in the future, maybe more than one. But this really works best as a full listen and you don't want to use "shuffle," you want to listen straight through and it's easy to do so when it kicks off with something as strong as "Nobody Knows My Name."

Then we've got Norah Jones known to too many as "Snorah Jones." See RLJ reminds me of the blonde daughter from my street. She's always exploring and on a journey. She's life itself. Norah Jones is the other sister. She's the one everybody's parents like. And I wasn't thinking I'd even enjoy this CD. But there's something about Not Too Late that reminds me of the photo I took that I was telling you about. I don't know what's happened in Norah Jones' life, from press accounts, not much and all is happy. But don't ever swear on press accounts.

Maybe though Norah Jones hasn't suffered some tremendous loss, maybe she's just realized that being beloved by parents everywhere isn't quite where she wants to be? Maybe she doesn't see the height of art as appearing in Two Weeks Notice? She's actually worked her butt off her to stretch. It's not the stretch RLJ regularly makes, but it's a huge improvement over her past work.

Not Too Late works as an album not because of art. There's no cohesive statement here. Tracks seven, eight and nine demonstrate that might be a possibility in the future. I don't know that Norah Jones' inner world has fallen apart, maybe she didn't need it to move beyond the cloying "Come Away With Me" or the did not come song that led to many jokes about her. She was supposed to be stretching on the last album and that was nothing but standing still. Here, she's going for something and sometimes reaching it and sometimes failing. So you still get the standard issue "Be My Somebody," for instance. A song no one needed because there are about sixty similar ones being piped in at Starbucks across the country as I type.

But there's enough here to demonstrate that she realizes she needs to stretch and enough to indicate that she's actually capable of art and not just pleasing sounds. I'd say she's got half of an interesting album here. After track nine, she's back to doing what she's always done. It plays like somebody got scared. Like, in the middle of playing Red Light Green Light on the school yard, she froze and you're waiting for the kid on the swing to knock into her and send her sprawling to the ground. (The whistle on "Little Room" may lead you to cheer that knocking down.) I think the front and back cover of the standard CD (there's a deluxe edition) capture the two sides of this album. On the front cover, she's sitting with her dress spread out looking too dainty for this world, like a doll a child's left behind (and outgrown). The back cover isn't a photo, it's a painting. She doesn't look pretty with a pointy face and too large eyes. Her knees are nobby, her elbows are pointy. She's at a piano playing. That's the Norah coming through on the best tracks. Miss Pretty comes through on the worst.

If she can lose the need to be pretty, she might actually someday have a shot at something like The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard. That'll require being freer with her emotions and her art and it will mean more songs that aren't pretty. For now, she's put out a better CD than most of us would have expected with moments of real art.