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Rickie Lee Jones: Peg Leg’s Granddaughter Rises Above

Photo credit: Astor Morgan

R.J. DeLuke By

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I have wanted to tell my family stories for many years. I thought they were extraordinary.
—Rickie Lee Jones
Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour, the memoir of the eminent Rickie Lee Jones, is not a collection of stories about the famous singer who sprouted from the hippie era under the radar before blazing like a shooting star across the American sky with her self-titled debut album that contained the megahit "Chuck E's in Love."

Of course, Jones is that person and that story of a meteoric rise, quickly surpassing friends like Tom Waits in fame. But she's much more. The book has remembrances of her family and how the surroundings and relationships in her formative years shaped her. Those years involved taking off on her own to experience the world. She left her family, but they didn't leave her. The experiences still affect her.

There are observations, funny asides, interesting adventures. Many involve her family, some of whom also had the music gene she is blessed with, going back to her grandfather, the vaudevillian Peg Leg Jones—yes, whose act included one-legged soft shoe dancing.

The book reveals Jones to be a dreamer (prerequisite to a great artist), shy and unsure at times, but nonetheless compelled to move into the unknown and unfamiliar, guitar in tow. This is a woman of substance. It's a loss for those who have never checked out her music. There is a jazz spirit within and a willingness to play in the moment. There is also meticulous songwriting consisting of captivating imagery with a cool edge and hip, idiosyncratic, insightful language. The writing is not lightly done despite an air of freedom and exploration.

Her voice in the book stems from her signature musical style. It's enlightening and ultimately heartening to digest her story. It's a story of family, and even though some might consider it a "broken" family, it's amazing how it became a safety net when things went sour.

"Never let them know you" was her mother's credo. With this book, that advice is swept away. There are still stories she won't reveal, and that's good enough.

"I have wanted to tell my family stories for many years," she tells All About Jazz from her home in New Orleans. "I thought they were extraordinary and stood on their own. And I tried to find a way to integrate my celebrity into the quality of living life. That is, maybe people buy the book because you're famous, but what they discovered in the book is far more than what they came for. I was determined to do that with literature, as I had with music. And I think I managed it. I mean, people really seem to like the book a lot. So I think I accomplished that."

As for her art, this is a woman with jazz in her soul. And soul in her jazz. She's recorded many jazz standards in striking fashion and has a fondness for the Great American Songbook. But the music she writes has a style and feeling that catapulted her to stardom among pop, rock and even folk fans. The passing of years has evaporated some of her celebrity, but it's something she deals with as she pushes ahead with her career.

Jones is a well-rounded artist who can rock the house and get blood out of a stone during a ballad. Like many musicians, labels are something she would rather eschew while realizing they will always be popular.

"Those labels are unfortunate. They serve to separate and create elitist clubs that have nothing to do with music. I've never met a great player who didn't love to do all kinds of music," Jones says. "It's more the listeners who try to limit what players do ... But when people are in their teenage years, early college years, and they discover jazz, they want it to be the expression of their manhood. They certainly don't like anybody who's not in the pure blood of jazz. But music is a conversation. The jazz that originally took place in the '20s, or the '30s through the '50s, was an evolution. So when people try to limit that evolution, to continue to have an incestuous jazz relationship of only listening to jazz and only expressing what's already been expressed, then that thing is going to die."

Musically, Jones was always curious. Seeing West Side Story as a kid had a huge impact. She started to learn about the value of performance and began to elevate her game. In addition to creating her own stories, "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Bye Bye Blackbird" and "My Funny Valentine" were staples that people, including her father, enjoyed.

There are stories in the book of a young girl who is subjected to different kinds of abuse. She is very sensitive about the subject to this day and very supportive of victims. There are stories about coming to grips with fears and of escaping through her daydreams. But Jones is unapologetic about her family drama and ultimately remains optimistic. It's her family. There is love and she doesn't judge them or out-of-the ordinary situations. She seems to raise the question "What is ordinary?"

One excerpt reads, "Even as children we have a larger suitcase in which to carry all the things that will one day be on our backs. We are the living words of poems, we little kids who are abused, and we have cut-out rainbows hidden where only we can make wishes upon them. I mean to say, we have imagination, and maybe mine was always active; while others were shining their Sunday shoes, I was capturing a world of wild horses in my backyard. I must have seemed very ... wrong."

When Jones was seven, she discovered a talent for singing and began writing her own songs. Meanwhile, the Joneses bounced between California, Arizona and the state of Washington. Wherever they went, as Jones grew into a girl with musical talent, she was teased for her exotic looks and hippie ways. The girl with the beret.

At age 10, she had a premonition of her older brother Danny in a motorcycle accident. Not very long after, Danny Jones' motorcycle was sideswiped by a car. He lost a leg and suffered permanent neurological damage. Naturally, it affected everyone. But a few years after that, she embarked on a series of runaways. Off for a while, back home and then off again. In Southern California in 1973, she was playing folk gigs at beach cafes and working as a singing waitress. She began to meet people like Waits and other musicians with whom she bonded. Waits became one of her important loves. By 1978, she was courted by the record industry and eventually signed with Warner Brothers. Then she sparkled on Saturday Night Live, the culturally important NBC comedy/performance program. That blew things into high gear. But jazz music remained inside her.

"I was singing jazz before I got a record career, so even though I didn't record jazz, it was Rickie Lee Jones, who inspired Linda Ronstadt to do a jazz record and Donna Summer to cover 'Something Cool.' All the pop singers who went, 'Wow, that's so cool' were standing on the side of the stage watching me in 1979 and 1980 doing 'My Funny Valentine' and 'Lush Life.' Why this matters, historically, is that I didn't record a jazz record for 10 years."

"So unless you were a fan, watching, and knew, 'Oh, that's a Rickie Lee Jones tune,' then you rewrite history and go, 'Oh, I think that came from Billie Holiday.' No. That was me. And as long as we're doing a jazz thing, it's important to set that record straight," says Jones. "Well, the first one was Girl at Her Volcano. (Warner Brothers, 1983). It contained "Lush Life" and "My Funny Valentine." I said, "I'm gonna show the folks that I can do jazz.' Right?" But her love of other music still crept in. "And so began this pattern of really not being able to do one kind of thing. Because it just feels so inauthentic. Like I'm trying to convince you. 'I'm going to do a country record. Or I'm going to do this.' I just don't think that way. So I always ended up muddying the water for the consumer.

"But I think in the long run it was good, what I did. Because I refuse to be part of the marketing scheme and it would have been so much easier to market any of it if it had been just one thing: Rickie's jazz record or Rickie's whatever. Even on Pop Pop (Geffen, 1991), I stuck in 'Love Junkyard' and 'Comin' Back to Me.' I just couldn't seem to stay focused. From the beginning I was 'Chuck E's In Love' and 'My Funny Valentine.' I wanted to expand the idea of the jazz singer, that we all don't have to do this one kind of old-fashioned thing. And I can sing you a ballad as good as anybody, but then I can also do 'Bad Company' because I love music."

Jones recalls her fortieth birthday party, when sax great Joe Henderson—who had played on Pop Pop—showed up. "He said, 'Are we going to do another record like that record we did? I said, 'It got panned pretty badly by the jazz critics.' He said, 'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I really thought you were onto something.' For Joe Henderson to say this to little white girl me at my party was so important to me. I was ashamed that I had let unkind words written about me effect continuing to record jazz ballads, which I pretty much stayed away from. And that's a shame, because when I'm sitting around the house, that's what I sing."

Her father listened to Nina Simone, whom she regards as a major influence. "Growing up, hearing a voice like that—contralto—and a classically trained musician," says Jones, "Having to listen to Nina Simone as a little kid really affected me deeply."

Jones sings a line from her song "Coolsville" and notes where she drops into deep, low tones. "Cooooolsville ... That's me trying to do Nina Simone. She became part of what's possible for me. There's this other voice here. You can explore it if you want. For her, that really was where her voice sat when she sang. And she could go up high, using that tone. She had a big impact on me. The natural timbre of my voice is very youthful and childlike. It never really ages. If I wanna sing [she intones in a childlike voice] 'A-Tisket-A-Tasket,' I still have that. I can go anywhere I wanna go still. But Nina was unlike anyone else. So I'd have to say that I still treasure her."

Her book doesn't chronicle every step of her life. It's about three-quarters of the way into the book by the time the story comes to her first hit album and Saturday Night Live. Instead, the book illustrates her life with a special prose and stories that illustrate what she wants to get across about music, family, love and life. It doesn't dwell on what happened in particular studio recording sessions. It doesn't focus on the seedy side of drug abuse that was an issue for a time. Nor are there torturous depictions of getting clean like in many other memoires. Her loves are not discussed much, though her final breakup with Waits does get poignant mention with a dash of pathos.

"I wrote it really naturally. But I was looking something up and I went, 'Holy Moses, it's the last 50 pages and I'm not even on Saturday Night Live yet," she says impishly. "And that was a fight with the publisher, who wanted Saturday Night Live as the first chapter. That's the memoir they thought they were getting. It was hard to fight that because I'm usually given free rein in my music, you know. People respect me and I can come in and, generally, call the shots."

"But being an absolute beginner with a publisher, it was very discouraging. 'Do you not recognize what I'm writing? I've sent you some stuff. Don't you see that I'm telling a larger American story?'" she chuckles. "They could have said, 'Take your money and get out.' But they didn't. When it was finally done, I think they'd liked it. But I really think it's more that great praise that's coming to it that made them like it, of course."

It took about eight years to come to fruition and there were times she needed motivation to continue.

"I seemed to be running in place. I'd get up and write for hours. And then I'd look at it the next day and say, 'What a bunch of trash.' There was a lot of learning that went on about what was going to work. My philosophy and my feelings and my commentary and tying stuff in that didn't belong. I had to learn to cut away. And you know, it's been a great process."

"I started out thinking what a great [literary] voice I had. But I quickly learned it wasn't that great. It was okay. I had to learn and learn and learn. I like to say I spent three years writing it and then five years editing it. Because that's what the process was. Taking away and taking away until you have the purest story that you can possibly have. And not including everything. It's very important not to turn your audience into your priest. There's no confessing going on here. There's a story being told. Everything is true, but this isn't everything that happened. This is everything I want you to know. So you'll have a fun time reading the book."

"You have to be descriptive. And that's hard to learn to do because it's almost painful. You start off almost writing like a diary. And then you've got to change that voice to a descriptive voice. Then you've got to let that voice go and have a direct active voice that just moves forward."

Jones is content with the finished product and pleased it has received acclaim.

"The book is a series of songs in a way ... It's almost like three or four different albums. The voice in the beginning is a child's voice. I really tried to be evocative of that time, the '60s and that little girl. And then the voice at the end is a very different voice. And so, in that way, I think my songwriting skills serve me. But a song is only a couple of minutes. In the '60s, they were about four lines [in duration]. 'She's loves you. You think you lost your love. Well I saw her and she's thinking of you, and she said she loves you.' That's the lyric, right? Said over and over again. It's just one point. If it's a good song, it's one point and you can dress it up."

"But we have the eloquence of melody to tell another story. And sometimes, like in [her song] 'Last Chance Texaco,' the lyric—which is metaphorical and kind of funny—is pressed up against a very dramatic and sad melody so that the listeners gasp. It almost takes your breath away. You're not sure what to feel. This is really dramatic, but it's kind of funny. 'What should I feel?' And that's the thing I love doing. You're gonna have to decide what you feel. What do you feel? I'm not going to tell you ... But always the songwriters are working with that extra medium of melody. That's what makes it. That's why we're able to write in just a few stanzas, really deep water. Because it's not only me and my melody and my lyrics, but it's how you feel when you hear that note and what the music does to you.

"A book has none of that in it. And it has its own mess. I mean, going on a journey for 350 pages with somebody is a big deal. It's big thing to do. Those words will stay in you just like a song. You'll come away with the stories and some of the quotes if the lines are strong."

She says she learned a bit from reading the autobiography of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, including "what not to do. Because he told me stuff I can't get out of my head and just didn't ever want to know. I didn't want to know it about him, and I don't want to know it about anybody. So I thought, 'That's not nice. I'm sorry these things happened to you.' But you can't rub people up with the horror of your life. Unless you put a warning on the front and say, 'This has horror in it. So just know that before you open it.' It's never gonna leave you. I'm not gonna do that to anybody."

She didn't sugarcoat that there were bad experiences and adventures that didn't go well. Jones make some points about it in the book but prefers to remain a teller of odd and interesting stories.

"I've been assaulted a few times. And I made the decision to leave one story in. Because most of the women I know have been assaulted. So you have to tell that story if you're a woman. But you don't have to burden the weight of the book with too many of them. I just wanted it to be an uplifting story. And an honest story. So I learned all those things. You don't have to make those kinds of choices when you're writing a song ... Fiction, I could make something up and have fun. But I'm telling you the story of myself. I'm always aware of your idea of me, that you're also going to know things about me that are very personal. So I have to decide if I want my next door neighbor to know this stuff," she says with a laugh. "So I carefully chose what I said."

Rock stars strung out on drugs? "Why would anybody want to read about that? If they do, there is a salaciousness to it. I've had these questions all my life. Very few people are asking out of a concern. They're asking for some other reason. They're usually, you know, DJs. 'I want to do a soundbite about the worst moment of your life.' So I just came to be repulsed by the inquiry. Because drugs are a really complicated thing, you know. I said in the book how complicated it is for women. We have all this sexual shame that's assigned to us. And there's something in the drug thing that also has a moral decrepitude that's not assigned to men."

"Even now, when I talk about drugs, that's my own problem. But it's not about the feeling of drugs. It's about what happened afterwards. Trying to overcome the reputation. Trying to keep working. How different is it than it was for Billie Holiday? Not that different. Promoters don't want to book you. And I didn't ever not go on stage. I didn't ever go on stage high. So what's the deal?"

In her memoir, Jones chose to say "Here's when it was. Here's who I did it with. And the days were long. I can't remember them because I was on opiates, and opiates just make you sleep all the time. I really don't know what we were doing. We were sleeping a lot. I try to demystify it and take away some of that thing ... Because it's just none of their business. I'll decide what parts of my life I want to share ... I don't understand why people want to hear about it. Do you want to get high? Go get high and find out for yourself. Why do you want to hear about my experience?"

As for choosing to comment on her relationship with Waits, Jones says that as life moves on, the time was appropriate. "I wanted to say, 'This is how much I've loved. This is how beautiful life has been.' And at this point, you know, 66 years of age, surely I can own my own life and talk about it. There was this strange unspoken thing between he and I to never discuss it. As if we were saving it. Finally, I went, 'I'm not saving it anymore. Here's the story of my life, and my love and what we were like. And now it's out there in the world. I didn't like other people making up their versions of it. And I really didn't like having, you know, the Yoko Ono syndrome.

"The fact was that I was far more famous than Tom Waits. He'd been around a long time before me and got his movie career that he wanted so bad. In a musical conversation, it wasn't one way. It wasn't a musical monologue. I wasn't getting everything from him. He also learned from me. 'Blue Valentine' is 'My Funny Valentine.' I'm on the cover of that record. But we don't need to say that. We don't need to defend ourselves ... When people become more famous, as I was for a while, they assume that it's the guys who invented it. I liked Tom Waits' music when I knew him. But to be frank with you, while he writes a touching lyric, all of his melodies are the same goddamn melody. His Louis Armstrong impersonation is old ... He's very good. Very funny. Very smart, but when we broke up, I just turned away from it. Didn't listen to it."

Jones has been writing music for more than a year, and she'll be doing some shows in 2021.

"The unfortunate part is that I get an idea, and I put it down and there's only a few I go back and work on. When it's time to make a record, I'll bring them all out and finish them. That's different than the old days ... But I do have quite a few of them. And I like them a lot. I'm looking forward to writing or finishing them," she says.

She's also not concerned that her celebrity, like many of her era, has dissipated to an extent. Younger audiences are hooked into streaming and the internet. Musicians that make hits are gone soon after. Audiences for music made in previous decades are fading.

"That happened a long time ago. I'm pretty used to that ... The general population knowing me, I was never comfortable with that. I wish I wasn't, because I'd be a lot wealthier now. But I never liked being one of 'the next,' you know? Because they can turn on you. And even as they say they're your greatest fan, they'll say something horrible about you. I don't want those people in my life. I love people who actually really like me to come to my shows. I guess I'd tolerate more people at my shows if it meant lots more money for a year or two, and I could retire. We need to make a living and I'm getting older. One day I won't be able to work much."

Jones is strong. And realistic. She's persevered as a teenager on the road. She knows today's world.

"In the real world, getting older has been great. There's some kind of confidence that's come with each new passing year. And that feels great. As far as young people knowing me, well, why would they? They have their own world and their own music. To know me, you have to seek me out. You have to find me. Real musicians and people really interested in music, they'll find me."

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