Rickie Lee Jones (Part 1)

She was big, the musical flavor of the month. Music changed and it was harder getting airplay and notice.

Rickie Lee was cool, Tom Waits kind of cool. Coincidentally, they had a passionate love affair, and then they didn’t. One gets the idea that he was the love of her life.

It’s been more than 40 years since Rickie Lee Jones burst onto the scene. She took home a Grammy Award for best new artist for her debut album. As fast as she arrived, music went another direction. She continued to release albums, but she was not connected to what pop radio programmers were playing. Her next several albums for Warner Bros. were ambitious and sophisticated works. Her songs were sketches of life, the way she saw and heard it. More than one music industry person recalled how difficult she could be on musicians. The sound in her head was not always easy for her to communicate to the artists painting those sketches. Whatever the difficulty, the results were stunning.

I’ve always liked Rickie Lee Jones. Her music and persona were impossible to categorize. Her second album, Pirates, was absolutely stunning. Finely crafted, it stands the test of time. I had not thought about her in ages, but when I noticed her recent memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an America Troubadour, I knew I must find a copy. About ninety percent of the book is about her life through the release of her debut album. The next forty years are condensed. Her childhood and teenage years reveal a free spirit, a wanderer, a hippie, a searcher, whose education was life. Hitchhiking the country, living hand to mouth, no home, experimenting with men and drugs, took a fair amount of courage and smarts. Hooking up with Lowell George, Tom Waits and Dr. John propelled her life closer to being a recording artist.

Jones and Tom Waits

Like her songs, Jones paints her life story with colorful phrases and Polaroid snapshots of what happens around us. Bob Dylan called her a poet, quite a compliment.

“For every hobo there is only the road, the train tracks, and the eternal sky. The scorpions and the night-blooming cactus. The wanderlust of travel by thumb or by train, the magic of strangers without possessions sharing their meager nothings to create a community more generous than most, with bonds that outlast the lives of those in the richest cities.”

Her music draws heavily on her life. She sings what she knows. There is a truth in her words, the characters from the road, from a different time or from well-worn corners of life.

“I have had the greatest opportunities. I did not try to be a billionaire, the money was bewildering to me. I lived a life of destiny and chance. I chose a different road from the big wealth and fame, and it must have been the one on which I was most likely to find happiness. I am glad I can introduce myself to a new audience of young people and know I am being heard for who I truly am now.”

Now, 67 years old, she lives in New Orleans, the stomping grounds of mentor Dr. John.

“The thing is, before you get to be venerable as a woman, people assess you sexually,” joins told the L.A. Times. “When they finally stop, they really listen to your work. I think that happened a few years ago, so the pressure is off. I lasted that long.”

After finishing the book, it is kind of surprising that she did not. Her early years of dangerous behavior and even heroin use in her 20s, a lifestyle that could have ended badly, yet, something in her, perseverance or just karma, guided her through life. Read the book, it is quite a life.

Part 2 will look at her music.

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