It’s common for musicians to feel that their work lets listeners into their minds, their souls, or their hearts. It’s less common that fans are invited into their actual homes.
But that’s what many artists did — at least virtually — when the pandemic caused mass cancellations of tours that are most performers’ main source of income. So fans saw a lot of living rooms, garages, and home studios via live-streaming where the performance was often free, but the star of the show’s Venmo and CashApp accounts were open.
Singer/songwriter/guitarist Rickie Lee Jones did a number of livestreams from her home in New Orleans. First, tentatively trying to work the camera with just her and a guitar, later including other instruments and players as well.
“At first, it seemed like a revolutionary act to not have any middlemen and bring the show to the people directly. It was a brand new idea. I’m not there physically, but it’s between me and my audience personally,” she says from Los Angeles on a Zoom interview.
“In a live show, there’s more pressure because they’ve traveled to see you and you have to be more snappy. But with these, it’s more like you’re talking to your friends. But people still want to come see a live show in person.”
To that end, Jones is about to embark on a short tour that will bring her to Houston for a September 30 show at the Heights Theater (which will have COVID protocols).
She’ll be performing material that will span the entirety of her career, beginning with 1979’s debut Rickie Lee Jones. Its leadoff track is her best known song, the No. 4 hit, “Chuck E.’s in Love.” She’ll be accompanied onstage by multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch and drummer Mike Dillon.
“I did a couple of shows last week and once you break that into the membrane as a [performer], it’s the same. It feels good to be in front of people, and they’re happy to be out again,” she adds.
Outside of music, Jones has been in the literary news for this spring’s release of her inventive and engaging memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour. The book takes its title from one of her best known songs, nominated for a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance despite never being released as a single (though she did win Best New Artist at the 1980 ceremony).
While most musician’s memoirs tend to gloss over or speed through their childhood and teenage years, that’s what makes up the bulk of this text. In fact, the book is 50 pages from the end when Rickie Lee Jones is released (though she considers its follow-up, Pirates, her best album).
But in this case, Jones tells about her unorthodox family, shaky relations both with and between her parents, frequent moves, and a vagabond lifestyle. Her story is filled with colorful real-life characters as she starts to take an interest in writing and playing music.
All from a girl whose was rejected from membership in her high school choir because her voice was “too unusual.” But unusual enough to have been featured on more than a dozen studio albums and many collaborations.
A true hippie girl, at the age of 14, Jones started hitchhiking around the country, with later jaunts to Canada and Mexico. Most often not knowing or having planned out where she was going, how she was going to get there, who she would be staying with or where her next meal was coming from. And mix in the cocktail of drugs, alcohol and free love.
“I had an unusual life and came from an unusual background. And the book is about my family. I can still see through my 14-year-old eyes why that was a good idea. But as a mother of a daughter, I am horrified!” Jones laughs.
“I truly believe I still had this sort of innocence that kept me safe. It made me just catapult through really dangerous situations, glide through things that could be and often were very dangerous. I had a child’s view of life. And it was also the end of the hippie time where it was ‘Come and we’ll take care of you.’”
At the start of her career, as she writes, Jones was flooded with comparisons to Joni Mitchell – though only on the surface of a high-voiced-blond-girl-singer-with-guitar. But since then she’s followed wherever her creative muse has taken her to rock, pop, R&B, avant garde and her beloved jazz music.
“No, it wasn’t a good career move because it confused the audience. Everybody likes to decide who someone is and put a frame around them and keep them that way,” she says. “So I have a diverse group of people who like different things that I do and may not like each other at all! But it gives some elbow room to have a more diverse career. I always knew that, and I was always drive to do what I had not done before.”
Among her other musical compadres was area boy (via Klein) Lyle Lovett, who opened for Jones on a 1990 tour of outdoor theaters early in his career. Her new manager from Texas had talked him up.
“Lyle was able to slip into this thing because people weren’t sure exactly what he was,” she says. “We did this photo session to make a poster for the tour and Lyle never smiled at all. So we got into a car and I don’t remember what I did, but he smiled—and that’s the picture we used! Him and his great big hair!”
Jones adds that by the end of the tour, Lovett had met director Robert Altman who would cast him in his film The Player, as well as future wife, actress Julia Roberts. “And by then was a big star!” Jones laughs. “So, you’re welcome, Lyle!”
But one relationship that Jones writes about in Last Chance Texaco is her years-long on again-off again intense and pyrrhic romance with fellow troubadour Tom Waits. And if Jones was—as Time magazine dubbed her—“The Duchess of Coolsville,” then the growly, ramshackle Waits was her Duke. The pair rolled around California in a world with equal residency in reality and fantasy, acting out scenarios from the Bohemians, Beats or a Charles Bukowski book.
“Now we were religions, we converted to each other, we inspired each other and we spoke in tongues,” she writes in the book. “We stayed in character for our entire romance and our characters were sometimes cruel and often selfish. We needed those characters to love from our ‘real’ selves, but maybe our real selves were too damaged to trust.”
The final break came when Jones admitted to Waits that she had been secretly hiding a heroin addiction, but was ready to quit and asked for his help. Instead, she writes that seemed to get miffed and abruptly left for good. It took more time for Jones to get truly clean.
“We were that way from the time we got up in the morning. We had made those people, those characters to be, and we didn’t take them off,” she says now. “I really think that together we began to imagine becoming regular people like our parents. But I felt that he and I weren’t wholly developed people. We were figures from books or the past, characters.”
Finally, there was the death of songwriter/performer/and Waits’ top bro Chuck E. Weiss this past July from a longstanding battle with cancer. As the subject of Jones’ most famous song, Weiss has had an up and down relationship with the tune and Jones herself. She eulogized Weiss with a piece in the LA Times, though they hadn’t been close in a long time.
“A friend called to let me know that he was gravely ill, and I wrote a letter and sent it to him,” Jones says wistfully. “But he died before he got it.”
After the current tour ends, Jones says she has some projects in the fire, possibly springing from Last Chance Texaco as well as a potential separate theatrical production. “And who knows?” she laughs. “I might even do more shows from my living room!”