“I was living a life enchanted by impossible connections, narrow escapes, and the perfect timing of curiously strong coincidences,” writes Jones, whose 17 wide-ranging albums have won her two Grammy Awards and include at least one masterpiece, 1981’s “Pirates.” Her voice — heart-crushing and worldly wise — sounds like no other. To borrow a line from Bob Dylan, whom she counts as a fan, she can’t help it if she’s lucky.
But all her talk of magic, kismet and other unseen forces is itself a kind of hocus-pocus. The Rickie Lee Jones presented in “Last Chance Texaco” — and she occasionally refers to herself in the third person throughout the book — did not take shape by chance but by the very real power of her personality and the strength of her artistry. In this raw and roving life story, Jones depicts a child who recognized her humanity and worth even when others wouldn’t, and a woman whose confidence helped her rise above heroin addiction, music-industry sexism and the traumas of her youth.
Born in Chicago in 1954 to an orphaned mother and a father whose parents were vaudeville performers, Jones devotes most of “Last Chance Texaco” to her family history and pre-fame years. Early on, her parents attempted to give Jones and her siblings the childhoods they were denied. They each worked multiple jobs and dreamed of sending their kids to college and maybe even the White House.
But after leaving Illinois for Arizona when Jones was very young, she writes, “they never stopped moving.” The family relocated often on their way to falling apart. Her mother retreated inside herself, and her father, when he was around at all, drank and lashed out.
The family’s disorder is mirrored in Jones’s storytelling, which leaps across memories like a needle on a scratched LP. Her ragged sentences can hardly keep up. Chronology doesn’t much interest her, nor do nagging details such as dates and ages. On one page, her father was 3 years old when his mother died. Later, he was 2. An aunt died in “1941, I think.”
Near the outset of this memoir, Jones wonders whether revisiting the past is even worth it: “Like an iceberg, I suspect most of my mother remained frozen under the surface. She would often demand: ‘What’s the use of bringing all that up?’ And she was right. All that hand-wringing and chanting of unfortunate memories, what’s the point of it? Cry your tears and be done with it.”
The point is to survive, which Jones did via her imagination and music. She became obsessed with the songs of “West Side Story,” Laura Nyro and Paul Simon. “Music was where I found compassion and healing,” she writes, “a hand upon my shoulder when times were unbearable.”
Jones ran away from home throughout her adolescence, and her accounts of the dangers she faced on the road — mainly in the form of older, predatory men — can be difficult to read. She experienced “strange urges to put myself at risk.” She went to juvie and to jail. In Big Sur, she lived in a cave. She saw Jimi Hendrix, “a mystic force of nature,” in concert months before his death. And while she champions the “living spirit” of the late 1960s, she was not so mesmerized as to ignore that “all the world around me was dying.”
By 1980, she was a star, with an inescapable hit single (“Chuck E’s in Love”), four Grammy nominations and the first of two Rolling Stone covers. Jones recounts her achievements with well-earned pride. She refused to downplay her sexuality onstage or shrink from the spotlight in a male-dominated industry. She believes that she made it easier for every female musician who followed her. “I did that,” she writes. “That was me.”
Jones says little of the excellent, adventurous music she’s made during the past 30 years. In one curt, economical paragraph, the artist acknowledges her commercial decline in the ’90s and dismisses the “professional friendships” that fell away with it. In a book about the past, Jones has no problem moving on. It’s a neat trick.
Jake Cline is a writer and editor in Miami.
Last Chance Texaco
Chronicles of an American Troubadour