She romanced Tom Waits, earned a Grammy for best new artist and got hooked on heroin at the height of her career.
That's not what Rickie Lee Jones' terrific new memoir is about.
Rather, "Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour" is a heroic story of an American family trying to find its way — her dancing peg-leg vaudevillian grandfather; her orphaned parents; her brother who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident, and a creative young woman with a fertile imagination who believed in fairies and magic.
"It's a great adventure story even if you don't know her, or don't like her," said Jones, 66, who is one of pop's most original presences, a captivating storyteller with a journalist's eye, a hipster's taste and a jazzer's musicality.
"The only way to bring you in was the incredibly cinematic story of my grandmother running through the cornfield with my mother and my dad, [hopping] on a freight train, to give you the feeling of life in America back then."
Published Tuesday by Grove Press, the book is filled with vivid characters like those in her beloved urban pop songs "Chuck E.'s in Love" and "Weasel and the White Boys Cool." The prose is rich and rhythmic, filled with lines that are pithy ("Rickie Lee is a Frank Capra movie that had been overtaken by Stanley Kubrick") and poetic ("childhood traumas leave their dirty footprints on the fresh white snow of our happy-ever-afters.")
Of course, there are stories about Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, "Saturday Night Live" and the Grammy Awards, Dr. John and Lowell George, and Chuck E. Weiss and Waits ("we were the Steve and Eydie of hipsters").
It took Jones seven years to write "Last Chance Texaco," named after one of her songs. There were no ghost writers, just an editor.
"Everyone needs an editor, in life and in writing," she said last week from New Orleans, where she has lived for the past decade. "Eventually with the editing, I said, 'I want this thing to move, move, move. I want it to pop.' I wouldn't have said that four years in."
Jones is as fearless in prose as she is on stage. She describes her heroin days, living in New York City with lover/musician Sal Bernardi:
That was where Sal and I lost our way together. We stayed up all night and slept until 4 p.m. and rose half-dead to get high and feel half-alive again. We wrote music and read Edgar Allan Poe. We lived in the strange twilight, the slow-motion fluid that fed our memories. We were junkies.
Jones said it was painful to write about her druggie days, her brother's accident and the night she broke up with Waits.
"I wrote the stories so many times that I finally forgave everybody," she acknowledged. "I just got exhausted carrying the hurt anymore. I think that was a pretty wonderful thing. I hope that it lasts."
Learned she's optimistic
Jones is a natural storyteller with a love of words and a fascination with rhythm.
Even though her actor/poet/songwriter/painter father left school after the sixth grade, he read aloud Shakespeare, "Don Quixote" and other books to a young Rickie Lee.
He also guided her into the world of "magical interaction," believing in fairies and leprechauns.
For a quick course on memoirs, Jones read "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations."
"It was clearly written by somebody else based on stories Ava didn't want to tell. I wanted to know about her and [husband Frank] Sinatra," Jones complained. "Her not telling us made me think: 'You can't do that, Rickie.' People want to know. Be glad you've lived a life that size. Tell a story and tell it your way."
While telling it her way, Jones discovered something surprising about herself.
"I learned that I am an optimistic person. I realized the one thing that's constant is I always make something good of what happens. It feels like something divine is guiding my hand. I see those adventures, and I don't see the sadness. Sadness would have no story to it; it would just be a big pool of emotion."
Jones grew up in Chicago, Phoenix and Olympia, Wash., but kept escaping to California. She writes about composing her first tune ("the real frog died but I saved it in my first song"), running away from home at 14 (for the first time), attending three different high schools her sophomore year, hitchhiking to see a Hendrix concert and relishing her hippie ways. "We were living a lyric," she proclaims.
She tells about such songs as "Easy Money," which led to a recording contract after Little Feat's Lowell George cut it for a solo album.
She details the photo shoot with a raspberry beret for her 1979 self-titled debut and how she, a self-styled contrarian, didn't want to go to the Grammys even though she was nominated for four.
She recounts the nerve-racking "SNL" show where she was obligated to play her hit "Chuck E.'s in Love" but managed to squeeze in "Coolsville" — "the dark side of town," which "represented who I was."
Meeting Dylan, Prince
Along the way, Jones received encouragement from Dylan. "Don't ever quit," he told her at a post-Grammys party. "You're a real poet."
In her book, she chronicles a strange backstage encounter with Morrison, one of her heroes, after one of his concerts in Ireland. He brought her a cup of coffee. "I felt I was at the dance in the gym in 'West Side Story' and 'Brown Eyed Girl' was playing," she writes. "I was Maria."
After Morrison assured Jones that the man who picked her up hitchhiking to the concert was indeed a leprechaun (she believes in them), the Irish bard gave her a ride back to his hotel. Suddenly he started yelling at her and charged out of the limo without another word.
"What a story!" she exclaimed. "How can you not write a book when things like that happen to you? I've heard he's inexplicable. It's as if he has a storm in there, and it's hard for his personality to develop because this storm of poetry is always blowing in his brain."
"Last Chance Texaco" does not address her encounters with Prince, a labelmate at Warner Bros. who became a fan of Jones' work. He invited her to his concert in London in 1988. But she only made it to the after-party because she had to wait for a sitter for her newborn daughter.
"Prince saw me, and he smiled and walked across the room and took my hand. And said, 'Did you enjoy the show?' I said, 'I didn't see it. I couldn't get a babysitter.' And he turned and walked away. Ha ha ha. That was it. I disappointed him."
Jones definitely wants to write more prose. But don't expect another memoir. The next book will likely be one-off tales of characters she's known, famous and otherwise.
For more than a year, she's been writing songs (her last collection of original material was 2015's "The Other Side of Desire") but don't expect to hear them until 2022. In the fall, she'll release a 40th-anniversary edition of "Pirates," her most acclaimed album, featuring demos and live recordings from that era.
Right now, Jones is feeling upbeat, doing interviews and a virtual book tour (tickets at rickieleejones.com).
"I'm pretty happy. I wouldn't have used that word very often to describe me," she said. "Happy is connected to contentment, connected to safety, connected to all kinds of things. I've got that Irish thing: 'If you say it, they'll come take it away.' But I don't think I'm going to let myself live that precariously anymore."
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719
Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour
By: Rickie Lee Jones.
Publisher: Grove Press, 364 pages, $28.