There aren’t many singer-songwriters who can reach the emotional peaks of Rickie Lee Jones. If you’ve heard “The Last Chance Texaco,” the song from her 1979 debut album that lends its title to her new memoir, I probably don’t need to try to describe the ache lodged in her voice and the playful wit of her lyrics. Hearing her childlike wisdom turn to adult anguish in the blink of a syllable or in the stretching of a note, it’s eternal and riveting. Lyrically and vocally, she has access to a sometimes frighteningly deep well of feeling, one that she never fails to tap as she tours tirelessly.
I shouldn’t be surprised that Jones manages to carry her originality, intimacy, and volcanic expressiveness into book form. Everything about this artist speaks of facing challenges — a peripatetic and potholed childhood, a high-risk hippie youth searching for belonging, a nagging addiction problem — and, ultimately and knowingly, triumphing. “Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour” is an impassioned and cinematic trip through Jones’s eventful life, as the child and grandchild of orphans, as a young woman making her way in a male-centric music culture, and as a vulnerable “overnight” star whose bumpy ride has only strengthened her. It is a vivid trip, too, through an America where the road was still a place that, with her thumb out, a naïve searcher could find adventure and temporary harbor.
One reverberating theme in Jones’s song lyrics — as her singing edges into jazz, blues, rock, and folk but remains distinctly her own — is the idea of trans-generational trauma, the passing down of pain. In her song “The Albatross,” she sings of her connection to her father, “This broken heart is his,” and her memoir opens up that image of the frustrated musician Richard Jones, his hard-drinking ways, and the chip on his shoulder. Jones also conveys, with unblinking and judicial honesty, her fierce, moody mother, her defiant older sister, and her older brother Danny, whose motorcycle accident leaves him, like two other men in her family, with only one leg. In the early sections of the memoir, I wondered if Jones was dodging self-examination by focusing on her family history — until it becomes clear that Jones is revealing herself through them; the Jones family stories, steeped in American optimism and failure, are indeed about her own burdens. “Recovering takes generations,” she writes.
Fans of Jones’s music, from her breakthrough hit “Chuck E.’s in Love” and the brilliant “Flying Cowboys” to the beat-driven “Ghostyhead” and her more recent New Orleans-based material, will find plenty to discover in “Last Chance Texaco.” She doesn’t explicate her own work, exactly, but she drops phrases and metaphors into her prose (including horses and tigers) that match imagery from her albums. She explains how significant the street setting of “West Side Story” was for her as a kid, noting that her line “I and Bragger” from the haunting “Coolsville” is modeled after a line in the musical about “I and Velma.” She celebrates Laura Nyro, whose “Gershwin-esque operas” helped her find her own approach: “The moment I fell in love with Laura I loved myself just a little more.” Paul Simon, Janis Ian, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane, they helped her find her inner music, and she ran away from home, at 14 in 1969, to find her dreams. When she was young, as she has noted in a couple of songs, she was “a wild, wild one.”
Fortunately, in the process of giving context and clues to so many of her songs, Jones never robs them of mystery. In a way, the book, which is filled with many of the syntactic idiosyncrasies and the jokiness of her lyrics, only adds breadth to her mythology. The book is a bit like a Rickie Lee Jones song, with the comic vignettes, the cosmic thoughts, the murky and addled nights, the lonely tragedies, and the awaited redemptions, when, as she sings, “love is gonna bring us back alive.”
Jones eventually reaches the portions of her life spent with Tom Waits, the legendary relationship that both helped define her public persona — “We felt the pressure of the bankability of just being ourselves,” she writes — and held her back personally: “I loved Tom but he always played a game where I had to act like I didn’t need him.” Her frankness about Waits and their hugely physical bond extends to her intense relationships with Dr. John, Sal Bernardi, and Lowell George, who once, when they were doing cocaine, sang “Willin’” to her (“It was church time and no drug could lessen the meaning of what was happening”), and whose obituary was headlined on her first Rolling Stone cover about a year later.
There have been a number of smart memoirs in recent years by women in the world of music, including Liz Phair’s “Horror Stories” and Carrie Brownstein’s “Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.” Jones’s more intuitive book fits right in with them, as another look at the sexism and exploitation rampant in the recording industry, and as a record of an individual whose survival made it slightly more possible for the women who came after her.
LAST CHANCE TEXACO: Chronicles of an American Troubadour
By Rickie Lee Jones
Grove, 364 pages, $28
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.