Rock and Roll Book Club: Rickie Lee Jones tells a strange story in 'Last Chance Texaco'

Book cover: 'Last Chance Texaco.'
Cover detail: Rickie Lee Jones's 'Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour.' (Grove/Atlantic)

"The thing was," writes Rickie Lee Jones in Last Chance Texaco, "I was much more complicated than I wished I were. There was no way I was going to make it easy on myself."

Nor on her readers. Last Chance Texaco is a distinctly strange entry on the bulging shelf of rock-star memoirs, a free-floating memory dump full of quirky, sometimes poignant stories that never quite connect the way you expect them to. The best way to approach it might be the same way you'd listen to a Rickie Lee Jones album: taking it all in and letting free association do what it will.

Jones seems disappointed that her career never quite sustained the momentum she developed with her buzzworthy self-titled 1979 debut, which landed her the Grammy for Best New Artist. Still, Last Chance Texaco doesn't have much to say about the past four decades of her life; once she breaks up with Tom Waits, it's pretty much all over.

Jones's treatment Waits relationship is a good illustration of her writing style. On literally the book's first page, she tells us that "In bed he was the greatest performing lion in the world. I mean to say that Tom was never not performing." Huh?

Later: "We were religions, we converted to each other, we inspired each other and we spoke in tongues." Excuse me? "We felt a craving so sharp that we wanted to become each other. We had an attraction so potent we were in danger of eating each other." In other words, whatever you were wondering about the relationship between the two cult favorites, you'll probably still be wondering when you finish Last Chance Texaco.

The majority of the book is dedicated to Jones's itinerant childhood, which took her from the Midwest to the West Coast and, occasionally, back. Her dad was alcoholic, alternately caring and abusive. Her mercurial mother, who would captivate young Rickie (named after her dad) with stories of a childhood spent in a gothic orphanage, did what she could to hold down the fort but had a hard time holding onto her own restless children. By the time Rickie was in junior high, she'd already driven to L.A. with her teenage boyfriend in a stolen car.

She landed back home after that episode (one section is titled "My First Night in Juvy"), but soon the Jones family made its way west and young Rickie Lee was adventuring all over the '70s scene. The heart of Last Chance Texaco chronicles her eccentric odyssey: picking up a guitar in Olympia, Washington and learning the jazzy style that would ultimately inform her signature sound; discovering Laura Nyro in a stack of LPs next to a surfer boy's waterbed; surviving a near-assault in Mexico and a close call at the Canadian border.

Eventually she started to sing, and to write. Chuck E. Weiss, another singer-songwriter, was part of the Troubadour scene where Jones became a regular, and where she met Waits. She also spent time with artists like Lowell George (Little Feat), who covered her song "Easy Money." By the time she played her debut solo set at the Troubadour in 1978, the record industry was watching. She signed to Warner Bros. and quickly made a splash with her distinctive presence; a promotional film she shot in that pre-MTV era helped her land on both SNL and the cover of Rolling Stone.

("You are the sexiest person I have ever photographed next to Mick Jagger," said photographer Annie Leibovitz. Jones writes, "I remember thinking, I am way sexier than Jagger.")

When her relationship with Waits fell apart over her heroin addiction, Jones drew on it for an acclaimed sophomore album, Pirates; a five-star review and second Rolling Stone cover resulted, though retrospective evaluations have been less kind. (By the time of the 2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide, Pirates had slipped to only two and a half stars: "Dated.")

Jones herself acknowledges that "Pirates achieved a status that is hard to translate to people forty years later." To some extent, that's true of her entire career: if you weren't there, you weren't there, and even the artist herself can't entirely capture the magic. Last Chance Texaco might have been more coherent as a book if it had focused squarely on the Waits relationship, a la Patti Smith's Kids, but Rickie Lee Jones is not Patti Smith (or Joni Mitchell, or Laura Nyro), and this is her story to tell. It's sunkissed and star-crossed, and invites review by way of the same cosmic metaphors the artist herself reaches for to explain what it felt like to be young, gifted, and broke.

Before she ends her chronicle, though, Jones does take the reader to Ireland, where she met a leprechaun. Specifically, she got a ride from one in a Volkswagen in County Clare on July 31, 1983. He was a "spidery man" who spoke with a "thick, Irish accent spoken through a mouthful of clover." He drove with one hand on the wheel and one grasping Jones's knee, and literally ran into a concertgoer at the music festival where Jones was going to meet her hero Van Morrison.

When Morrison heard the story of Jones's strange car ride, he said, "Ah, well. You met a leprechaun. You're lucky you got away." Then Morrison inexplicably got mad and started yelling at Jones, slammed the door of his limo, and stormed off to his hotel room. Jones was left drinking at the hotel bar with the band, but the next morning Morrison gave her his phone number.

"I saved that number for many years," writes Jones. "Do you wonder if I called him?"

Paragraph break.

"Me too!"

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June 24: Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music by Eric Weisbard

July 1: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur by Sheldon Pearce

July 8: The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic (Second Edition) by Jessica Hopper

July 15: Please Please Tell Me Now: The Duran Duran Story by Stephen Davis; and 33⅓: Duran Duran's Rio by Annie Zaleski

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