Read Me is a new SPIN interview feature devoted to books by and about our favorites artists.
She can’t help it: Rickie Lee Jones creates poetry wherever she goes. Her memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour, released in April, was written in the same rich, entrancing, dusty language as her songs. From all of her beginnings to endings, there’s a Rickie Lee Jones romance to it all. As she tells me: “This is a story generations have written, one that has been the living human experience of my family and, told through my experience, you get to see how mythological it has become for me. These are my…Hades, my Penelope, my Homer. This guy over here is my one-eyed monster.”
Rickie Lee took a break from the end of a several-month-long music and book tour to tell us all about the stories she left out, and if Chuck E’s still in love.
SPIN: What’s more cathartic, writing a song or writing this book?
Rickie Lee Jones: This is rather like comparing orgasms….in the morning or after a long haul?
A song… is both a depiction of where I am and where I might be going on account of. No matter how I am telling the story, with elephants or shoeshine boys or my mom, it is a story of me by me to me in an ideal time, the song is part of the larger group on a record that serves to turn a dial to a new time. The songs [are] short stories, but the collection [is] a movie. Cathartic in the sense that “this time if finished, a new time begins.”
The book, because it is not fiction, not fantasy, but still involves my imagination and skill, did serve the cathartic gods as well.
So now that it is done, though not finished in its effect in the world hopefully, I am pleased that I had the courage to tell the stories, that my family mattered to me, dead or alive, and I think that says something about me that I like. What I set out to do—to tell an American story, a woman’s odyssey, a true-life drama—I did that. And more. But I am not renewed particularly. I am satisfied.
But on some other day, when I am not tired from being on the road driving eight hours, flying two planes and driving three hours and so forth, it might be cathartic after all.
What story did you leave out that you wished you had put in?
I did edit out a lot in the last go-round of reading. The main thing was shortened stories, the long version with Sal, the long version with Mark….getting busted at Mr. Jones’ pub. There was a story about walking across the black top, shoeless, proving how tough we were. Then running and standing on our towels, red ants burrowed into the new blacktop and it was a gauntlet just to get to the swimming pool. Then staying all day, exhausted, never eating, dancing to the new British pop—Rolling Stones, summer of ‘65 with my cousin. Though the music always meant so much more to me than anyone else. It’s not that I wish it was in there, it was just a more luxurious way of telling the stories I had to abandon if I was going to come in under 400 pages. Hard to get people to buy 400 pages for some reason.
When in your life did you feel you accomplished what you wanted to? (Have you ever felt that?)
Well, uh… No, I never had that feeling. I try to tell myself, look what you did, what you do, exactly what you wanted, what you dreamed. But there is always a tenuousness to it. It’s hard work.
What writers inspired you as you set out to write your life story?
Richard Price. The Wanderers had a big impact on me, and when I thought of telling my story I’d say that’s the form I want, short stories about particular people or situations. As time went by I shifted to stories that inspired song titles. And then — like all of my albums — some other identity rose, the book had its own idea of what it wanted to be.
What are your regrets, looking back over your career and life?
Oh, you don’t want to know that. You have other articles to publish.
What’s your favorite part of the book?
There are a few passages that I worked on a lot, the prose in the [Tom] Waits stories, how to treat that and make it work and I am happy with most of it. The beginning with the little girl, the frog, and bringing the reader in to my life that way. I do like the introduction and prelude. And, of course it was very hard to end the book, endings are not my strength in anything, and I finally wrote the ending, my mother, a nod to my daughter, reminding the reader and myself that dignity is the greatest heaven of all, in the end, the gravity that can support your winged days, something you can use to fly, to stay aloft. And that it comes from how you deal with those little things, the things we all must deal with, our children, our mothers and fathers, not the press or the audience or the keyboard player.
It’s a human experience, family, end of life, children, and that is where I share my story with everyone. Up until then, it’s pretty unique, I think.
What was the hardest part to write?
The end. The last paragraph. Hard to let it go. And I don’t like to say goodbye.
What do you want people to take away from reading your story?
First, that my family was extraordinary and quite common, that their story is everyone’s story. We all have outrageous secrets and events and wild characters. Some of us, like me, opt for lives that are… wild and thrilling, we are driven to the outlands of society. And then a very few of those people are meant to be there, and they inexplicably triumph there, whilst in normal life I would have wilted on the vine. And that there is no one good way, and finally you never know who someone is until you hear the story.
We make so many judgments based on so few clues, so little knowledge and we deprive ourselves of finer lives because of it. and deprive others of our best. Best judgment, best heart, best self. I’d like them to give the book to someone else. I’d really like that.
What’s your next book going to be like?
I am working on a thing of very short stories about a wide variety of people I met. My zoology professor, a priest I had when I was small. I think when I am done, I will know more about how I see things, and the whole combined story will be “further adventures of…” Maybe.
Is Chuck E still in love?
Sure you want to ask this? Well, he never was, I think. I made all that up.