It’s amazing she’s alive.
This book has not gotten enough press. It’s the absolute best book about being an artist in the rock world that I’ve ever read. It’s beyond honest.
Most people are feeding the starmaking machinery behind the popular song, but not Rickie Lee, she stands alone, she does it her way or else it’s the highway, where she spent a lot of time.
She grew up in Phoenix. When she wasn’t running away. Stealing a car with a boyfriend and driving to L.A. Living in a cave in Big Sur. Hitchhiking from California to Ontario on a verbal agreement despite only being fifteen years old. You’ll be riveted by the course of her life. But the reason “Last Chance Texaco” is so damn good is because of the underlying truth revealed. We’re not only seeing the world through Rickie Lee’s eyes, she’s telling us how she feels about it. You remember feelings, don’t you? Gone in today’s arts all in service to building a brand. You show no weakness in America today, otherwise people will push you to the side, you will not be taken seriously, you won’t ever get the big money.
But Rickie Lee Jones was never concerned with the big money.
Now this was the late sixties and early seventies folks. Which is fifty years ago, but it wasn’t as quaint and unsophisticated as some might believe. Sure, there was no internet, but it was far from the wild west. I grew up in the suburbs, where parents focused on their progeny getting into elite institutions of higher education. But Rickie Lee? She didn’t even graduate from high school!
She was kicked out for a bad attitude. This happens again and again. Rickie Lee is canceled for just being who she is. Have you ever experienced this? I certainly have. You’re not trying to make trouble, but your identity just does not square with conventional precepts and you must pay the price. For some reason they believe you’re stupid, but then when you demonstrate greater intelligence than they possess they come down even harder. Become an automaton. Hew to the rules. Don’t color outside the lines. And then you’ll become a productive member of society.
Yeah, one in which there’s no lifetime employment and nobody cares about anybody else. The boomers were sold a bill of goods. Prepared for a world that was crumbling and ultimately did not exist. They thought becoming professionals, doctors or lawyers, would be enough to insure success, to put them at the top of the economic ladder, but by the end of the eighties Michael Milken was making half a billion dollars a year in finance and they weren’t even in the stock market.
So Rickie Lee knows her family is insane. They come from nothing and continue living on the bottom. Her father rages and her mother’s mood swings are unpredictable. Rickie Lee comes home from school one day to find out her mother has pulled all her teeth. Why? Because they were hurting her. Huh?
Her older sister Janet spins wild, gets pregnant and then lords her age over Rickie, jealous that she didn’t get to be a free teenager.
Meanwhile, the family keeps moving.
So Rickie Lee is in school, and everybody HATES HER! She’s just being herself but she can get no traction. She’s got cooties. Being popular is the number one goal in school, certainly if you go to public school. To be on the other end of the spectrum is to be a dreaded pariah, and Rickie Lee describes her feelings so well.
But ultimately she is rescued by the Beatles. She’s a Beatles fanatic. How many books have been written about this? How many movies made? But Rickie Lee nails the mania, what it felt like to be a young girl inspired and changed by the foursome from Liverpool. She delineates how it was different back then, and it certainly was, despite wankers constantly telling us that it’s the same today, that we’re just too old to recognize it.
But no, back then we followed the music, lived for the music!
Rickie Lee snuck in to see Hendrix.
She even went to the Devonshire Downs festival, a pre-Woodstock event that no one who wasn’t there seems to remember, if they even heard about it: https://bit.ly/2VuwiJK She had to make her way to Northridge, California in June of 1969 at the age of fourteen, because she needed to be closer to the music, she couldn’t miss it. And Rickie Lee was not the only one. But most other people asked mommy and daddy to lend them the car, pay for it all, but not Rickie Lee.
So she lives a peripatetic lifestyle, bouncing all over the west coast, being brought home by the law only to run away again. She keeps talking about her large breasts covering up her young age, but there’s also constant interaction with boys/men, crashing at their places, and you know what that means…
But she can sing.
But despite getting a few breaks, after years she’s ready to give up, but she calls her mother who bad vibes her, saying she always wanted to be a singer and she hangs in there until Lowell George decides to cut “Easy Money” and…
I don’t care if you’ve never even heard of Rickie Lee Jones. If you consider yourself an artist, you need to read this book. Because it’s the perspective, where she’s coming from, that blows your mind. You feel alone, and then you read her book and you find yourself on the same page and you can’t believe it. If you’re looking to get rich, learn how to network, jump from one traditional stone to another, don’t even bother, that’s not what this book is about. It’s about seeing the world through a young woman’s eyes who was broke, kicked around, and through sheer force of will ultimately succeeded.
Oh, Rickie Lee is confident. She knows her talent, knows she has a backbone. But she also knows she’s on the cutting edge of women’s power. She’s breaking trail. And that’s the hardest job there is. It’s easy to follow in footsteps, but to slog through twenty inches of snow all alone, with no real idea where you’re going, that’s nearly impossible!
And Rickie Lee’s got an artist’s mentality. She hangs with Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss and then she doesn’t. When it no longer works, she moves on. Constantly, throughout her life. And she knows she’s no longer in the mainstream, sometimes she can’t even get a backstage pass, but that doesn’t bother her.
So, the traditional male rock book is a few pages about their upbringing, then how they made the records and tales of the road, with a little dope thrown in for good measure. Rickie admits she got hooked on heroin for three years, but since then she’s been clean. And she ain’t dropping names, she’s telling her story, her real story.
And you know she wrote it. Because of the style.
And it’s imperfect. Sometimes the timeline doesn’t add up. But you keep reading anyway, believing it’s more like poetry. Rickie Lee is uneducated but smarter than seemingly everybody who’s got a Ph.D. in the arts. She forged her own way, she didn’t need to be told what to do, what hoops to jump through, that was anathema!
So the truth is I almost jumped up to write this screed multiple times while I was reading the book. But first I hadn’t finished it, and then it was so late at night and…
I’m not quite conveying the experience of reading “Last Chance Texaco.”
My expectations were low. Because these rock books are almost always a disappointment. I can’t even name a good one. Except for Kathy Valentine’s “All I Ever Wanted.” Isn’t it interesting that the two best rock books were written by women? And not prissy ones. Pinups. Not manufactured icons. I guess women can be more honest, they’re less worried how they’re perceived. Rickie Lee Jones doesn’t care at all how she’s perceived! She takes a swing at Annie Leibovitz even though the photographer barely figures in and Rickie Lee is not busy putting down everybody else.
So I’m reading “Last Chance Texaco” and I’m stunned to find someone who is on my page, who thinks the way I do, and that I did not expect. Do you know what it’s like not to fit in in this world? One in which the goal seems to repress your personality enough to have scores of friends with whom you can trade favors to look good and succeed? We live in a world where you can’t even say anything negative! Oh, don’t tell me about social media, when it comes to business diss the powers that be at your peril. When they say you’ll never work in this town again…the streets are littered with people who got a toehold and then lost it. You need to kiss ass to get in and stay in. Sure, there are exceptions, like there are to every rule, then again, it’s the exceptions we’re drawn to.
I mean who are we drawn to in today’s musical landscape? The wet behind the ears Billie Eilish with a manufactured look who can barely sing?
Or Ariana Grande who can only sing?
Never mind the rappers looking to test limits for publicity.
The emperor ain’t wearing many clothes, if any at all, but everybody has bought in to the paradigm, for economic success.
But not Rickie Lee Jones. Not so many who grew up in that age and were influenced by the thinking of artists back in that era.
“Last Chance Texaco” is a personal read. Just you and the page. And you’ll love being in the cocoon. And even when she makes it Rickie Lee is still trying to figure it out, after betrayals, making her own mistakes, but she soldiers on.
If you just want to read history, there’s probably a better place. As a matter of fact, almost all of the book takes place before Rickie Lee even makes it. This is not an album by album paint-by-numbers concoction. This is the story of a person, with a life, whose uniqueness aligned with the general public and then did not. Someone who didn’t change herself to stay on the ride of fame and fortune.
Nothing I write here can equal the experience of reading “Last Chance Texaco.” I’d stop by and fill up, because this might be the last chance you get to find out how it really was, growing up when music meant everything, and was worth dedicating your life to.
P.S. I did not read “Last Chance Texaco” for lessons, but I kept coming across wisdom and I want to share some of it here.
“She was a bully and bullies can only eat the fearful.”
All the parents complaining about the bullying of their kids don’t realize they need to stand down and shut up. There are bullies throughout life, and if you don’t learn how to deal with them at a young age, you’re going to be hurt by them later. They prey on your fear. Stand up to them and they move on.
“‘The Lew King Show’ was my first lesson in the dark corridors of the music biz, where favors are exchanged and sins offered up as collateral.”
“…plus the many songs that are only sung in childhood but are remembered by a few adults whose hearts keep a piece of the enchantment of their youth.”
She’s talking about the early years, being on the playground, she’s not talking about the hit parade, but those songs you sing in school. Like ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen’ and ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree.'” Amazing how they go through my brain on a regular basis.
“He needed more to life than survival.”
Bingo! This is it. Not only do you want more, but do you want what satisfies you as opposed to what is safe.
“Dad is about living right now, having some nice things, meeting interesting people.”
My eyes bugged out. This is what it’s all about, the interesting people! Learning where they came from, what they have to say, these interactions are more satisfying than any possession.
“I knew better than to ask twice.”
The couples therapist we see constantly wonders why I never ask again. If you did so in my family, you were hit, abused physically and mentally, you learned to hold your tongue.
“I would never be the ‘seamstress for the band’ – I was the band.”
Not that my parents ever told me this. Somebody was always better. But the shrink I saw in the seventies told me my dream of being an A&R man was specious, why not be president of the label? I still don’t think I’m good enough. And it wasn’t until maybe two years ago that I realized everybody else was just normal, my mother always told me they were better and who was I to think I could compete? Never mind their opinion ruling.
“It’s a great moment when the underdog becomes the alpha dog for the same reason she was once the ‘ugly duckling.'”
Rickie Lee is called ugly, and it hurts. Today your looks are a key element of your success, you can’t even get your foot in the door if you’re not beautiful.
“The Beatles were the source, the holy miracle that gave rise to the religion of the new hippie culture. None that came before them (or after) had the Beatles spark that could inspire an entire generation to devote themselves to music as their personal salvation.”
You had to be there to understand.
“Perhaps we grow out of people like we grow out of shoes. They become uncomfortable, too loose or too tight. We remember how much we liked them at first, but now they just don’t fit. There is no use saying hello backstage. We would not remember why it had ever mattered so much. A sad glance, just enough to break the heart. No, best leave it lie where it fell. It was good, our journey together, but then we crossed a bridge, and it was over.”
You think friendship is supposed to last forever. I’ve wrestled with this. But people and situations change.
“More goes into the words than what you intend.”
Your subconscious adds layers you’re not even aware of.
“In the lower echelons, little favors mean everything. Respect is currency.”
Thank the stagehands and they never forget you.
“Things had been getting better, so when I fell, I fell further. It seemed as if they would never go my way. Getting closer to the mountain had made the mountaintop seems unreachable. What had I been thinking? Who did I think I was?”
Artists have self-doubt. If you’ve got none, you’re not an artist. Also, artists have a hard time keeping perspective, they can’t see what they’ve already gained, the perch they are on.
“My deepest emotions are universal; the further inside myself I go, the closer I am to mankind. When I sing, you can hear your own teardrops falling on my windowsill.”
I’ve been telling songwriters, prose writers, this for years. The personal is universal! But somehow they think by trying to appeal to everybody they can reach everybody, wrong. That’s why “Last Chance Texaco” is so good, it’s not written worried about audience perception, you can relate to Rickie Lee’s personal feelings.
“But even the greatest moments of life simply slide off our skin with the lightness of fairy dust. They are wonderful but do not have weight. The greatest moments of life don’t embed like the hurts of sadness and tragedy.”
Win the gold medal and you’re elated today. But tomorrow? And you can remember the bad review, the loss from twenty years ago, and feel it nearly as deeply.
“If you’re broke you can’t get a free anything, but if you’ve got money, people give you everything for free.”
“…since I had learned from my mom to hide good things so nobody could take them.”
I don’t tell people about my victories, my triumphs, so I can own the good feeling. Others don’t have the right reaction, they don’t understand what the wins mean to me, or they undercut them, or even worse they ignore them. This was what it was like for me growing up.
“My first lesson in the complex ways money hammers friendship.”
It’s all hunky-dory and then you make it and those surrounding you…want some of what you’ve got, or resent you for having it.
“I had not yet learned that every single moment, every accomplishment, deserves a hallelujah and a smile to celebrate the here and now of it (that is like nowhere else). But when it’s over, well, it’s done.”
The good feelings never last. They fade and become myths, you’re not even sure you experienced them.
“It has always been hard for me to wait out anger. The unresolved is painful.”
The waiting is the hardest part. We’re all looking for resolution. We all have varying degrees to which we can handle the lack of resolution. My fuse used to be very short, it’s gotten longer, but not by a whole hell of a lot.
“If an act insists on not changing and making the music audience come to them they can end up an oldies act.”
Many people might come to see you, but you’ll never have another hit and you’ll dread singing the same damn songs over and over every damn night.
“Show business is the business of showing your life to the whole wide world.”
Know that up front. And he or she who shows the most has the best odds of connecting with the public.
“Fame was never meant for the fifteen-minute brand. This troubadour life is only for the fiercest hearts, only for those vessels that can be broken to smithereens and still keep beating out the rhythm for a new song.”