Rickie Lee Jones bares nearly all, including about Tom Waits, in her candid memoir, ‘Last Chance Texaco’
The Grammy-winning “Chuck E.’s in Love’ troubadour pulls no punches in her intensely personal book. ‘It was easy, hard and cathartic,” she says
Rickie Lee Jones cuts right to the chase on the first page of the introduction to “Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour,” her well-crafted and intensely candid new memoir.
Its second paragraph reads: “When I was twenty-three years old I drove around L.A. with Tom Waits. We’d cruise along Highway 1 in his new 1963 Thunderbird. With my blonde hair flying out the window and both of us sweating in the summer sun, the alcohol seeped from our pores and the sex smell still soaked our clothes and our hair. We liked our smell. We did not bathe as often as we might have. We were in love and I for one was not interested in washing any of that off. By the end of summer we were exchanging song ideas. We were also exchanging something deeper. Each other.”
Jones devotes an additional eight sentences to San Diego-bred music legend Waits, who posed with her in the photo on the back cover of his 1978 album, “Blue Valentine.” Tellingly, Waits is not mentioned again until 270 pages later, in Chapter 17 of “Last Chance Texaco.” No less tellingly, the book — published by Grove Press — has no index for readers to use to skip to other Waits-related entries.
Might this be a carefully plotted way to get people to dive in — and to first learn a fair amount of Jones’ story — before she returns her attention to Waits, who she met Los Angeles in 1977?
“That’s totally accurate,” she replied, speaking by phone from her home in New Orleans.
“My friend, (Big Easy music radio veteran) Jamie (Dell’Apa) said: ‘You have to invite people into the book. You have to tell them what they’re going to read. Because most people aren’t going to read the (whole) book; they just read the intro — and most journalists, that’s all they’ll read! So, tell them what the book is like’.”
Jones, 66, chuckled.
“I was like: ‘Really? That’s so weird’,” she recalled.
“So, I set about to write the most sexy, inviting, interesting introduction I could to create an environment, rather than write something (self-indulgent) from an egotistical point of view. I’m glad you noticed that. Because that introduction was thought out, with — might I say — a kind of professional point of view to write the introduction that way.”
Pulling no punches
As might be expected from an artist whose music has bravely avoided compromises and easy categorization, Jones doesn’t pull any punches in her book — although she did choose to omit some especially violent incidents.
Or, as she puts it in the compact, two-page prologue that precedes “Last Chance Texaco’s” Waits-fueled introduction:
“Here are the histories of my parents and siblings, whose tragically shaped lives feed my music and personality. Here are the stories of my friends and lovers, co-writers and producers, and those demons and angels who wage a constant battle for my soul ...”
An Illinois native, Jones grew up in Arizona, California, Washington and points in between. Her mostly impoverished upbringing was often dismal, but she soldiered through. With a vivid flair for detail, yet a consistently matter-of-fact tone, Jones writes about her father beating her mother and her, and how her teenaged sister, Janet, gave up two children for adoption.
Jones also writes about being arrested, at the age of 14, for stealing a car with her then-boyfriend, Ricci, and her total embrace of the peace-and-love hippie ethos.
That was the same year she had her first bad acid trip and ran away from home, stopping in Los Angeles, San Diego, Tijuana, Santa Cruz, Seattle and Sunnyvale, where she was arrested and booked into a juvenile detention facility. The rest of her teen years were no less tumultuous or soul-sapping, but she persevered.
Music was Jones’ guardian angel. Her precocious sexuality was her ticket to adventure and to being taken advantage of and abused. Recalling being 14, she writes:
“People did not realize I was an immature teenage kid, because I looked so much older. It was my large breasts, they were a ticket into any psychological door. People, whether men or women, assumed so much because of their relationship with breasts. And I let them. If I got fed and people were nice to me, then let them think my age was related to my bra size.”
Jones also writes about some of her esteemed musical collaborators. She had affairs with several of them, most notably Dr. John and Little Feat mastermind Lowell George. His 1979 recording of Jones’ song, “Easy Money,” led to her signing an album deal with Little Feat’s record label, Warner Bros. Her debut single, “Chuck E’s in Love” quickly propelled her to stardom.
Her sudden fame changed the dynamic between Jones and Waits. So did her 1979 confession to him, which she recounts in her book, that she was using heroin. It was an admission that shocked the then-hard-drinking Waits and prompted him to end his relationship with Jones, she writes.
Within a year, he was sober and had married Kathleen Brennan, with whom Waits has collaborated ever since. Jones’ drug use continued until 1983, a year after the release of “Pirates. her acclaimed second album, some of whose songs were inspired by her break-up with Waits.
Jones discussed her book with the Union-Tribune for nearly an hour recently. Here is the extended Q&A from that interview.
‘I was a good-looking girl’
Q: You have a great recollection of very specific details throughout the book, be it Midwestern truck drivers buying Mahavishnu Orchestra bootleg tapes that your boyfriend made, the uber-bleakness of being in the City of Industry — even before you were arrested there as a 14-year-old runaway — or the canapes that a nun and a cowboy you were seated between on a plane ate. Do you have a photographic memory? Did you keep journals?
A: Well, I do remember incredibly detailed parts of my life and I can follow the thread into even more details. It’s not a photographic memory, but I have a wonderful recollection of details. I also have a great ability to push incessant and terrible events from my life into a place where they won’t get in my way until some time in the future, when I’m ready to look at them.
Q: At what point did you decide to write your memoir and how long did it take to complete?
A: Well I was thinking about it for the last 10 years, maybe even since 2003, I think. In fact, I decided to go out and get a publishing deal about 8 years ago. I’d been thinking about writing it for sometime. The first stories were my mother’s. I’d written a story about my dad, ‘The Scorpion,’ and it was a story I used in my live shows back in the 1980s. I’d been listening, with my ear to the ground, about ways to tell their stories and it took that long to write and manifest.
Q: Was the book delayed? Grove Press announced it would be published in November, 2017, under the title “Rickie Lee.”
A: No, it wasn’t; that was an erroneous announcement. But that was because — what happened is, I went to Grove in New York and we edited the book, and it was a lot of work. I spent a lot of time over a couple of days doing that. When I got back home to New Orleans, I said: ‘Oh, my god, this is wrong. It’s dead wrong.’ And they had already put out the announcement (about its publication). So I had to make the call to them that, after all the work we’d done and all the money we’d spent, I wasn’t going to to do it (the way they wanted). They were upset, but I knew it was wrong the way they wanted it (the book) to be.
(At first) I thought they knew better than me, so let them put it together. As soon as I got home, I showed (the edited version) to my friend who had been reading the book (as it evolved). And they said: ‘What did you do? This isn’t the book you were writing. This is like another (book) created by the publisher.‘ The book I was writing started with my mother. They (Grove) didn’t want to do that, initially. God bless them, they stayed with me.
I knew I was telling a bigger story, an American story, a story of family, a Charles Dickens (-like) story. (I told Grove): ‘This book isn’t just (about) when I got famous and what I did then, although that’s part of the book and the reason I have a (publishing) contract. But the book I’m writing is really great and you have to believe people will enjoy it for what is, and not just because it’s a famous singer writing about being famous.’ So, Grove stayed with me, but the editor there didn’t talk with me for a year.
It was a lot of work bringing the book back to the family, my family. Once I decided I’d do it that way, I was going to throw the book (deal) away if I couldn’t do it (that way).
Q: You are unusually candid in your book, and you vividly share experiences and feelings in a completely unaffected, no-nonsense way. Was that easy, difficult, cathartic, or all three?
A: Yes, a combination of all of them. There have been some things in me that have healed, even (as recently as) in the months before the book came out. The first drafts had a lot of old wounds, a lot of bleeding, and ‘I’m gonna get even for this.’ In 2016 and 2017, I was reading what I wrote and thinking: “You know, this kind of makes me look bad, but I want to say it.” By 2018, I just wanted to serve the momentum of the book. I know everything that happened to me, but you just need to know the picture I’m creating in the book is for you. So, it’s an evolution.
Q: What did you learn from that?
A: The writing is an evolution that has been life-changing for me. Every time I saw how bitter something in my book is, I tried to correct it. It was a powerful process, and one in which I learned how to write literature instead of songs. ... While it’s different than songs, I recognize something in the book that is who I am. I recognized myself a little better after I finished writing it, so it was easy, hard and cathartic.
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Q: The cover of your book features a black-and-white photo of you from the 1970s. You are leaning against a convertible, wearing a white beret, a dark sleeveless top, and a knee-length skirt, with a brown paper bag in your left hand and a cigarette in your right hand. What do you think of when you look at that photo?
A: (laughs) I think that it’s a very evocative photo. It captures the feeling of being kind of sexy, inviting and provocative. I think I was a good-looking girl, leaning on a car, a writer, telling a story about all these characters I know. That’s what I see.
Q: After doing a Rolling Stone photo shoot with Annie Liebovitz, she said that you were the sexiest person other than Mick Jagger that she had ever photographed. In your book you wrote that you were, in fact, sexier than Mick.
A: Yes, I did!
Q: When I interviewed you in 1992 you told me that life is “exactly like it is when you’re in grade school); whatever your sense was of yourself at 8, that’s your sense of yourself at 40, confident or not. It’s the same groups and cliques (in grade school) as in this other (grown-up) world, except it’s more horrible in school because it’s a smaller world. Some people want you on their team, some don’t. We should get better at dealing with it as we grow up, but I don’t know if we do.” Here we are, 29 years later. How would you amend that statement now? Or would you?
A: How old was I when I said that? I would have been 37. And I would say, for the most part, that’s true — we do create a map when we are little of what reality is and how to deal with it. We’re whip-smart and have to deal with horrible stuff at home and school. And, sometimes, we figure out how to conquer it. Sometimes, it conquers us. But getting older, now at 66, I’d say its quite possible to leave that map behind — maybe not entirely — and to make a new map. Sometimes, I wonder if we condemn ourselves for whatever reason; we’re lazy or damaged.
I am what I am, and maybe you can’t abandon what shaped you in childhood. But you can sure expand on it and be less hurt. You can concentrate less on who (put you down as a child) and remember the great music teacher you had, or the fascinating ‘magic lizard’ by the side of your house. You can incorporate the happier notes of this song. It depends on what makes you happy. I think that, sometimes, I’ve been happy being sad.
Q: I’ve interviewed some artists who said they consciously or unconsciously created chaos in their lives to fuel their songwriting and creativity.
A: That would be hard if you did that, and you knew it, on purpose. Sometimes, you say that — after the fact — to journalists to make it sound like you know what you’re doing. But it would be tragic to put your friends and family through that (chaos) just to write a song. We have an obligation to art. But our first obligation is, as human being, to the people around us. At this point, I keep that obligation so the art I create will be higher art. That may not have always been true of me. Maybe I made great art by being an a--hole. This time, it’s by being a human being.
Q: The last chapter of your book jumps from 1984 to 1988 in two pages, then moves forward to your mother’s stroke in 2006. Did you save the last 30 years for a second memoir, or did you want to keep your more recent life for yourself?
A: Yeah. Both those things. What I didn’t want to do, initially, was to write about the “famous” part of my life and not tell you about the rest. But I spent so much time leading up to the “famous” part that, by then, I’d written 350 pages, but it was really good. The second or third part of my life, I have hopes of making a TV show about. That’s how I’d like to tell some of that, a limited TV series. It might be like ‘Rickie in Memphis,’ ‘Rickie in New York’... And then, maybe, someone will help me write a theater piece or a movie, based on this book, because there are so many movies in there.
Q: What is a better creative impetus for you, success or failure?
A: Success is good! (laughs) You can quote me on that! Failure hurts me. A little failure is OK. But a lot of it is not so good, years of it. And what is failure? It’s: How you access yourself, did it succeed or fail on those grounds, and how do other people treat you? Otherwise, there are no failures. You make your art and you do it.
— George Varga is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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