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Woman at her typewriter

Mom was my greatest champion right from the very beginning. Except for drugs, I shared every event with her. Boyfriends, famous friends, triumph, and regret. My mother subscribed to Rolling Stone for an entire decade, complaining that I was not on the cover again. Watching me fade from the limelight seemed harder on her than it was for me. She didn’t understand that careers must be pliable. If an act insists on not changing and making the music audience come to them, they can end up an oldies act. I always wanted my music to be a place un-aging. The real danger of early success is that our parents, our children, our friends also reap what we sow. I had watched the trajectory of every member of my family change as they chased the fairy light of my success.

I weathered the storms of humility, the people who did not offer backstage passes anymore, or the people who did not even know my name anymore, and I kept on working. Mom told me I should just quit. Finally, I asked:

“And do what, Mom? This… this is what I am.”

Here is the tone and texture of Last Chance Texaco, Rickie Lee Jones’s new memoir. Subtitled “Chronicles of a Troubadour”, it’s one of the most remarkable I’ve read from a musician, a first-person commentary on the life and early career of this extraordinary artist, full of romance and adventure, misadventure and indiscipline, anecdote and reflection — just the stuff we want from those free spirits who live the life so that we don’t have to, inviting us to stand and watch in fascination, half admiring and half appalled.

If you want to know what prompted Steve Gadd to devise that drop-dead-laconic snare-drum lick on “Chuck E’s in Love”, or precisely how her first producers, Lenny Waronker and Russ Titelman, teased and moulded the songs that made up Pirates into a classic album, this is not the book that you might have hoped for. Most of the albums after those first two don’t even get a mention. She does tell you how some of the songs came into being (“Last Chance Texaco” itself resulted from a first meeting with Tom Waits, dancing together under a streetlight on Doheny Drive, before she drove away in her yellow Chevy Vega). But there’s rather more to her autobiography than a recital of facts.

The fact that we’re 260 pages into a 360-page book before we even get to signing with Warner Bros for the debut album that made her an overnight sensation at the age of 24 indicates that the emphasis of the narrative is firmly on her childhood and adolescence. This works because her early life was so peripatetic and picaresque, travelling with her perennially malfunctioning family through Oklahoma, Arizona, California and Washington State, sometimes enrolling at three new schools a year, running away and coming back and running away again and eventually staying away but without being able to sever the bonds to her father, the child of a vaudeville performer, and his wife, who had been brought up in an orphanage. They were a couple who “had learnt as kids to avoid government, big institutions and authority” and who “used cash to avoid declaring income and… avoided obligations beyond next month’s rent.” We know where that less than stable background got her, but the journey to her destination makes for compelling and sometimes distressing reading.

She’s good on how music took a hold of her, most significantly through the Beatles (“I fantasised all the ways I could meet Beatle Paul… In melodramatic scenarios I abandoned my hopes and dreams for the sake of Paul who would eventually come find me as I lay dying and realise how much he loved me”) and, later, through seeing Laura Nyro on TV: “(She) seemed to send a message to me that day that said, ‘Come you young girls who are not like the others because you love Broadway as much as rock ‘n’ roll.'” Other influences: an English teacher who got her writing poetry in one of her several high schools, and picking up a book at her sister’s house — Dick Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me — that “told me I was not the first to go for this bohemian life of hitchhiking, pranksters, pot smokers, rebellion and free love.”

There are vivid descriptions of her early experiences as a performer, including her first gig with her first band, playing to an audience of deaf people, her first professional engagement as, briefly, the only white member of Little Caesar and the Romans, famous for their doo-wop hit, “Those Oldies But Goodies (Remind Me of You)”, and the fraught appearance on Saturday Night Live that made a hit of “Chuck E” and a star of Rickie Lee in 1979.

Her lovers — from the famous, including Waits, Lowell George and her heroin buddy Dr John, who shot up with her after being assured that she’d tried it once before, to the lesser known — are given due and intimate consideration. As with her treatment of family members, she’s both generous and unsparing. “We stayed in character throughout our entire romance,” she writes of Waits, “and our characters were sometimes cruel and selfish.” She is wry and realistic about his disciples: “Was I going to be another ghost, sitting around in Tom Waits’s peripheral vision, hoping he looked directly at me?” It led her to a conclusion about the problematic relationship between performer and listener: “I don’t want to have sex with someone who has mistaken me for my song.”

The book sent me back to the albums — the first two, of course, then the great covers collections of Pop Pop, Girl at Her Volcano and It’s Like This, and Traffic from Paradise and a later favourite, The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard — and to the memories of one of the finest concerts I’ve ever attended, at the Dominion Theatre in London in 1992, and one of the most hair-raising, at the Jazz Café in 2007. Most of all, without being unnecessarily literal-minded, it gave me a much clearer idea of the life went into the making of songs like “Coolsville”, “Traces of the Western Slopes”, “The Horses”, “Stewart’s Coat” and “The Evening of My Best Day”: one in which, as she says, “most of the dangerous choices I made were in fact lesser evils.”

By the time she came to read On the Road, it was a disappointment. She’d already lived the story herself. On the journey from the three-year-old lapping up applause for her performance as a snowflake in a children’s ballet to a recovered addict with a Grammy on her mantelpiece, via deportation from Canada as a teenaged hippie officially described as being “in danger of leading a lewd and lascivious life”, she’d learnt that “fame brings no solace, no love, and no warmth” and that money can cut you off. “You may say, ‘So what?’ and ‘I’ll take it if you don’t want it,'” she writes. “I do want it, fame and money and all that goes with it. It’s just that they weren’t what I thought they would be.”

* Rickie Lee Jones’s Last Chance Texaco is published by Grove Press. The photograph is from the album It’s Like This, released in 2000, and was taken by Lee Cantelon.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Evan Parker #

    My first encounter with the genius of Rickie Lee Jones was probably like many UK based listeners, an Old Grey Whistle Test where they played songs from that first hit record. The drum break on Chuck E.s in Love is still one of the hippest things in music. I’m not sure if you can still find that incredible live show from Paris later on. This reminds me of what Lucian Freud is supposed to have said to Damien Hirst after seeing the early work – that fly catching cage –
    something along the lines of “It must be difficult to do your best work so early in your career.”
    I need this book.

    April 20, 2021
  2. Tim Adkin #

    Steve Gadd: ‘Chuck E…’, ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ and ‘Aja’. That trio alone guarantees immortality. What a player. Nice to see mention of the oft maligned ‘Pop Pop’ too – I’ve long loved that record.

    April 21, 2021

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