By Chelsea Spear
Of all the biographies of female musicians I’ve read in the past year, Last Chance Texaco is the most transparent about the vagaries of fame.
Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an America Troubadour by Rickie Lee Jones. Grove Atlantic, 384 pages, $28.
When her self-titled 1979 debut was released, Rickie Lee Jones seemed like an overnight success — an emissary from the decadent post-Laurel Canyon scene, a writer whose sloe-eyed, post-Tom Waits albums bridged jazz virtuosity and singer/songwriterly observations. The pre-MTV queen of music video. Her loping, deliberate-yet-laid back phrasing conjured up memories of the previous generation of female jazz singers while her lyrics evoked the shabby glamour of the Tropicana Motel scene. Her mid-tempo compositions and groove-oriented backup band rode her catchy melodies. Truth is, most so-called overnight sensations are decades in the making, and in her autobiography Last Chance Texaco Jones talks about the crucibles in which her talent and her off-kilter perspectives were forged.
Jones is probably best known for her skills as a vocalist and songwriter, but much of the book takes place in her formative years. She grew up in the ’50s and looked the part: “We were Walt Disney’s America. Mother wore gloves and Father had a crew cut.” But the Jones family’s cookie-cutter nuclear family perfection turned out to be an ill-fitting suit; her parents’ bouts with alcoholism and mental illness chafed with the conformist ideals of the day. Set against a backdrop of Eisenhower-era suburbia, Jones’s descriptions of domestic violence, inappropriate family members, and peculiar neighbors unfolds with the dark logic of a David Lynch movie. (“In that short time on Dunlap Avenue, Aunt Linda ignored us as best she could [and] our life deteriorated almost irretrievably. Aunt Linda did not have control over her children and the resulting chaos overwhelmed my formerly well-ordered life.… I wore my cousin’s ill-fitting clothes to school, which were not only way too sexy for an eleven-year-old but also way too big.”)
Jones is careful to contextualize her parents’ instability in their tumultuous childhoods. Her mother had an untapped talent for music as well as a knack for storytelling that never made it out of the family’s living room, which leads young Rickie Lee to ask “who knows what else she kept in that cauldron of cakes and pies and blood and tears?” Her recollection of her mother’s tales of the casual cruelty of the staff at the orphanage, and the way she eventually stood up to the sadistic matron (“One Ball”), create a sympathetic portrait. Similarly, her father’s childhood on the vaudeville circuit places the Jones family’s frequent moves into a larger psychological context. She also talks about how her grandfather’s strict disciplinary parenting and use of corporal punishment left its marks on her father’s psyche: “My father had a few notes of Frank Jones’s terrible violence in him and when he drank, he could play the whole chord.”
The final section of Last Chance Texaco deals with Rickie Lee’s musical career, but her love of writing and performance weave their way through the book. On her earliest performance in her ballet school’s production of Bambi, she recalls that “bowing low at the end of our dance I heard the audience’s applause and took it personally.… The audience was delighted and the die was cast. I liked it up there.” Discovering the Beatles awakened a latent interest in performing for the pre-teenaged Jones, but she was frustrated with the limited options for girls: “Unlike other girls my age, I didn’t want to be a girl singer or the Beatles’ girlfriend. I wanted to be a Beatle. I was not afraid to be ‘the boy’ if that’s what it took to find a little glory.”
Jones eventually finds her glory as a singer/songwriter after an extended road trip through the Southwest and into Los Angeles in the mid-1970s. As a prose writer, she has a free-associative style with a magical realist bent, and that fabulist streak comes out to play in the final sections of Last Chance Texaco. Hearing Randy Newman’s Good Old Boys sparks a revelation: “I was supposed to find this man. He was the way in. I just knew it. Producer Lenny Waronker was the back door to my future in music.” Her road to Warner Brothers Records is like the path Little Red Riding Hood follows in the unexpurgated version fairy tale, lined with hallucinogens and wolf-like pimps. Her eventual success as a platinum-selling, Grammy-winning critical darling doesn’t come off as triumphant, tempered as it is by a tempestuous relationship with Tom Waits as well as a punishing drug habit.
To a generation of writers and musicians, Jones is known for her ’70s liaison with like-minded raconteur Waits. The pair were regarded as the Duke and Duchess of Coolsville, their influence oversized compared to the brevity of their time together. Jones throws readers a bone with an eyebrow-raising opening observation about Waits: “In bed he was the greatest performing lion in the world. I mean to say that Tom Waits was never not performing.” Apart from an entrance through the Tropicana that’s worthy of the emergence of Harry Lime in The Third Man, Waits makes what amounts to an extended cameo in the autobiography. Jones writes elliptically of their relationship.
Of all the biographies of female musicians I’ve read in the past year, Last Chance Texaco is the most transparent about the vagaries of fame. Reflecting on the portraits Annie Leibovitz shot of her, Jones comes to some incisive conclusions about celebrity and friendship: “It seemed to me when my career began to falter in the ’90s, my professional friendships faltered as well. People seemed to be, well, ashamed somehow. Some of them treated me like I was an embarrassment. A few photographers, a couple of musicians and journalists, they treated me as if my career had never mattered to them.” Jones knows that her career never reached the highs attained by her debut, but her appreciation for life outside the spotlight with her family and her daughter end the book on a grateful note.
Last Chance Texaco chimes with the bittersweet experiences of many of her peers who have written about their lives over the past few years. But there are elements here that set it apart: Jones’s refreshing gift at improvisation, her eye for vivid detail, and her rhythmic, poetic writing style. This volume will be a good, if chastening, read for fans of L.A. culture.
Chelsea Spear has written for the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog, the Gay & Lesbian Review, and Crooked Marquee. She lives in Boston.