Honoring the imperfect past: Rickie Lee Jones and 'Last Chance Texaco'

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Sep. 24—Rickie Lee Jones became an overnight sensation in 1979 with her hit "Chuck E's In Love." The opening bars are jazzy honky-tonk, and then her childlike voice rings in, playfully rising and falling with the music:

How come he don't come and PLP with me / Down at the meter no more? / And how come he turn off the TV? / And he hang that sign on the door?

"When I debuted, there was nothing and no one like it. It had been 10 years of folksingers — Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin. But nobody had taken pop music, jazz, and rock and put them on the stage together," Jones says.

The fame that came with a Billboard-charting hit was overwhelming for Jones, now 66 years old. She was soon in the throes of a three-year heroin habit, days she recounts in her new memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour (Grove Press, 364 pages, $28). She dishes on her romances with musicians Tom Waits, Dr. John, and Lowell George of Little Feat and recalls drinking black coffee with Van Morrison. But none of these anecdotes are the reason she wrote the book. Jones wanted to talk about being a woman and navigating the drug-fueled, misogynistic waters of the '70s and '80s, and she wanted to talk about her family.

"I wanted them to be in the world. I wanted every one of their stories to be remembered, from [my grandfather] Peg Leg Jones to the mythological stories of my mother. My challenge would be to not dismiss them, to not let the people be villainous or superheroes," she says. "I wanted to protect them from people judging them harshly. I can't really. Those who want to do that, will. But I tried to construct the stories with compassion."

Jones plays a concert at the Scottish Rite Temple on Friday, Sept. 24.

Her family history is the live-action embodiment of a Dorothea Lange photograph. Her grandmother ran away from her abusive, thieving husband with a baby in her belly. Jones writes this scene with the sense that not only is her grandmother pregnant with her mother, Bettye, but that she is also there, in utero, as is her own daughter. Bettye Jones grew up in children's group homes after her mother was deemed unfit. Her stories about her childhood affected Jones deeply when she was a kid.

"The horror of her life — things she told and things she didn't — gets passed on to me. Not only do I hear it — and that becomes the scope of what's possible — but it's what she doesn't say. It's how she behaves. How does that echo ever stop going on?"

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Jones' family left Chicago for Phoenix before she was school-age, and then they moved around so much in Arizona that Jones was unable to find a stable social foothold. Nevertheless, she was smart, creative, and athletic. She took dance classes and rode horses. Her father, Richard Jones, came from a vaudeville family, and he passed on his passion for music to her.

Both of her parents aspired to a mainstream, middle-class existence, but their grasp of basic American normalcy was limited to the surface: the right haircut, the right car. Richard was an alcoholic and abusive to Bettye. Jones' sister Janet was troubled from the time she was a teenager. And when he was 16, her brother, Danny, was in a terrible motorcycle accident that left him partially paralyzed. It eventually led to their parents' divorce.

Although she writes about continuous, massive upheaval and examples of what now would be considered child abuse, in conversation with Pasatiempo, Jones claims there was no big trauma in her immediate family. She attributes her parents' behavior and limitations to their own childhoods and believes they were better parents to her than theirs were able to be to them.

"I don't spend time playing out other scenarios," she says.

But Jones' chaotic home life was on a collision course with the permissive, experimental hippie culture of the 1960s. She was 14 in 1969, the year she ran away from home. She had many adventures before she eventually was arrested and booked into a juvenile detention facility.

When writing her memoir, how did she work her way through some of her more traumatic experiences?

"My memory for childhood is crisp and clear. Those early memories are like the pillars of my personality. They're strong," she says, dismissing the idea that anything from back then is too painful to face. She struggled, instead, with how to talk about her career. "I had to work through my feelings. Every time I talk about my music, I'm defensive. You find yourself always talking to that one bully, that one person who doesn't get it. I had to learn to quit talking to the invisible critic and talk to the invisible friend."

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She's considered a one-hit wonder by some, although she never stopped recording albums. There are 14 of them, most recently 2019's Kicks. Standing in the way of her rise was her drug use and drinking, as well as her strong will in a world where male music critics and producers made the rules. She prefers not to define her career as something that went wrong, however, but just something that was and is.

Jazz critic Ted Gioia remains troubled by what he sees as a thwarted career. The author of Music: A Subversive History (2019) writes on his blog (tedgioia.substack.com) that Jones was a jazz singer in the age of folk singers, a genre in which she didn't really belong.

"Her talent was extraordinary. She seemed poised not only to have hit songs — which, after all, aren't a rarity in the entertainment world — but do something even more remarkable, namely redefine the parameters of pop singing." Her downfall came with the "unabashed jazz sensibility" of her fifth album, Pop Pop (1991), which wasn't embraced by the pop or jazz worlds. A pity, he writes, given that "she had perhaps the jazziest ways of phrasing of any pop music star during the second half of the twentieth century."

Jones has "a way of moving from singing to spoken speech and back again, while handling every gradation along the way," Gioia writes. "Listen again to her breakout hit, 'Chuck E's in Love,' cueing the track at the 1:30 point, and hear what she does in the next thirty seconds. Was anyone else doing this in pop music? The short answer is: No, not even close."

Jones appreciates a nuanced critique, but says she doesn't really care what Gioia or anyone else thinks, because how would she really know where any critic is coming from?

"You have to know what time frame they're using. Are they talking about me then, or are they talking about me later? I'll always be a jazz singer. That's how I learned to sing. But the popular jazz [in the 1970s and '80s] was kind of progressive, ambient guitar-driven stuff. I thought it was horrible," she says, arguing with a sea of invisible critics.

"I'm a jazz singer, but I write stories. It's a different thing. Joni [Mitchell, who was embraced by the pop and jazz worlds] writes about love and herself. I wasn't any good about writing about myself. I created fictional tools in which to tell my story, in the fashion of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman. I can't think of any female storytellers, except Laura Nyro. I had a fluke hit with 'Chuck E's In Love.' It was huge. The impact was unexpected and unmanageable."