The Home Key #7

An Interview with Rickie Lee Jones


Rick Moody

  Most memoirs by musicians are about, well, managers. Or else they are about technical stuff—how you decided not to use that bottom string, or how you settled on that studio in Berlin. Memoirs by musicians are understood to need salacious detail in order to overcome their frequent preoccupation with managers and studios. And thus perhaps in a compensatory way the music memoir often drives itself toward a self-destructive echelon of confession. Or: maybe the main thing to say about memoirs by musicians (of which, it should be said, I am a voracious consumer) is that most of them are simply not that surprising. They aren’t great books, and they aren’t written very well, and they compensate with the occasional salacious detail, a backstage pass. Despite the fact that songwriters can be adroit lyricists, it is frequently the case that they just don’t have the writing tendency in themselves in abundance. I can think of plenty I have read recently that told me almost nothing. Pete Townshend’s memoir was pretty bland, Ray Davies’s autobiographical novel pushed the reader away as much as it welcomed her in, Neil Young’s memoir was sloppy and unfocussed in spots. And these are songwriters I admire a great deal.
  Rickie Lee Jones’s recently released Last Chance Texaco is therefore a startling departure from the norm. It’s a luminous, passionate, heart-rending thing, a book of woe and hard-won illumination, in which Jones’s childhood takes up fully half the book, in which the artist never records a song until nearly 150 pages have passed, despite the occasional flash forward, and despite several lovely accounts of songs she loved as a young person (“Walk Away Renee,” by the Left Banke, e.g., and “Comin’ Back to Me,” by the Jefferson Airplane), many of them not written by her. A stillness hovers over the proceedings, the stillness of, I suppose, the Sonoran Desert, all crags and cholla way out to the horizon, notwithstanding the occasional filling station. This is where Jones spent much of her childhood. The desert serves as a main repository, a spiritual haven in the book. It is also the site of much intrafamilial travail, and notwithstanding the author’s perambulations, her almost continual capacity for running away from home, and from her parents and siblings, the desert is where she often found herself, and her way, even in dire circumstances. The desert in this book is site of excoriation and salvation in equal measure.
  In addition to Jones’s excellent capacity for freezing the time of childhood, so that it can serve as an explanatory prism, there is also the author’s unparalleled capacity for simile and metaphor in this work, which is singular. To say that this is rare in musical memoirs is to understate. What you want in a memoir by a musician is, perhaps, to feel the music, and by that I do not mean to feel an explanation of the music, but rather to feel the place where the music comes from, which is maybe like Wagner saying that Beethoven’s seventh symphony is the “apotheosis of the dance.” What does that mean exactly? That means, perhaps, that Wagner is using the effect of music to speak about music. Rickie Lee Jones does that a lot, comes up with these excellent lines that are from the place where music happens, without seeming, well, studied, but are instead eruptive and revelatory in the way her best songs are.
  Of course, the Rickie Lee Jones of the albums is a master of character and narrative, even a fiction writer of a certain kind, for whom Chuck E. Weiss was not a particular person, but a sort of avatar of coolsville, and one of a recurring cast who sprawled across the first two albums. What I mean is: this written work is a work of memory that is made the way literature is made, and that’s what sets it apart. Some really great musician/writers have accomplished this, Friedrich Nietzsche, let’s say, or Virgil Thomson, but not too many pop musicians. Most of them can’t write at all. Rickie Lee Jones is a great writer, who goes off in the direction of contemporary poetry, and may not want to come back at all. But in the meantime she has crafted this great episodic work about (in part) how women were trod upon in the time of “free love,” how the music business, too, can mince you and spit you out, and how a childhood of pain and difficulty can hang around for a long time. And yet for all this she has made a book of great joy and humor. I loved reading it, and that’s why it was also a singular honor to get to talk to her (on Zoom) in the late fall of 2021. See attached.

RM: What’s the weather where you are?

RLJ: Autumn is coming now, so it’s a sweater in the morning, but compared to Boston it’s warm. It’s definitely nice.

RM: I wrote two memoirs myself, so this conversation is really memoirist to memoirist. I’m really interested in how the process was for you. Often people ask me the question this way: was the memoir therapeutic to write?

RLJ: All right. Therapeutic. Well, I’m gonna guess that means did I change in the writing of the book, as opposed to did I get better from past ills. And I didn’t get better from past ills, necessarily. But in a way I guess I did. I did change in the writing of it. Telling myself a story which I’d told many times in my mind, but putting it on print and looking at my point of view again and again made me decide that that wasn’t a very good point of view to have about things. And the mystical thing that happened was by writing it differently I began to change. It seems that I’m as simple as what I decide I’ll be, so that’s what happened.

RM: Did this work of reconsideration then affect other creative areas of your life too?

RLJ: Possibly. I mean, one thing that’s happened, in finishing the book, is there’s a kind of peace; I’ve told their story, it is done. And I don’t really feel obliged to tell the family’s story. But I think that I did it really well. I treated everybody with respect and I told the truth. And that’s not easy to do. It’s so easy to lean to the left or right, to be salacious or be protective, and so to tell the truth, not just as you’d like others to see, but partially as I wanted others to see. Because as I talk about my father, for instance, I realize that people assign things to mother and father, things that they don’t assign to anyone else in the book. Like, your mother wouldn’t have you back after you ran away? Oh my gosh, I just can’t believe that happened. And so that was a surprise, and that happened a lot. A little bit about some stuff my dad did, but I knew readers were going to hold them to the fire, that their sins as parents would be unforgivable. So I kept trying to remind everybody that nobody’s the villain here and nobody’s the hero. We do what we do at that time because of the pressure that’s on us, and later we do an extraordinarily wonderful thing, and in this book, at least in my family, nobody’s the bad guy. I think I did that. But that took a lot of careful consideration of what stories to tell because some of them, you just weren’t gonna forgive my family. And so for doing that I kind of respect myself as a writer and as a human being, that I was careful and thoughtful enough with their stories that I insisted on telling them as well as I could. Now, my mother might not have liked some of the stuff I told, you know, they wouldn’t have approved of it all, but I do.
Rlj family
Rickie Lee Jones as a girl with her family (photograph courtesy of the artist)
RM: You mention in the book, in a couple of spots, works of literature that were influential for you, like Richard Fariña’s book, for example. And that moment was so beautiful for me and so telling, likewise the rather honest treatment of Jack Kerouac, who doesn’t seem quite as appealing here. I’m wondering what other books were influential for you and whether you thought about those books as you embarked on writing yourself.

RLJ: I think I mention most of the books that had the biggest impact at the most important times, which were the Vonnegut books and Catch-22. But I wanted to be able to read books, which I never thought I would be able to do. I read Dostoyevsky, and I read all of the crazy guy who wrote Lolita, I read his Pale Fire and I really became a reader. But I think the most important times for me with books were when I first discovered Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t think they inform how I ended up writing. Only Richard Price, his book The Wanderers, because he was talking about—I assumed he was telling the truth—but he had kind of fictionalized the stories, he made them wonderful stories. And when I first started writing the book that’s what I wanted to do. The way I like to tell a story isn’t necessarily chronological. So it soon became clear that it was going to be really confusing to the reader, the way I instinctually did it. My friend, who helped me edit, and helped me not quit the book, said you know, I recognize some themes in your life, and some themes in the stories, and so we should pick the stories that stay with those themes. One of the themes is fairies. You’ve got fairies, invisible princesses—let’s keep that theme. And magic. And so once we did that the book presented itself almost like a work of fiction. It was so much better because I had a lot of stories, many more horrible things, many more hitchhiking things, and I was exhausted reading it, so how to edit it so it pops. That was hard.

RM: You said in the afterword that it took seven years to finish. I’m interested if the taking seven years had principally to do with what you just said, meaning the sort of discovering the narrative arc, or if there were spots where you struggled simply because of how honest the whole thing is. Was there ever a moment like that?

RLJ: There were lots of tears, but I don’t think the honesty of my life was a challenge because I’m always telling my story of my life to myself. Nothing was forgotten, except that story of the man trying to break into our house. I’d totally forgotten that. And that worried me. Because I thought, if I would forget such a thing as that, what else have I buried in there? But not much else showed up out of the blue. The struggle was with realizing that I wasn’t an effective writer. That I liked writing, but I wasn’t taking you where I wanted to take you, and that was the first few years. I had something, I thought for a while I’ll do a theme of the song titles, that’s how I’ll get into it. “On Saturday Afternoons in 1963” remained from that part of the process. I loved that year, I loved that house, I loved those stories. And my mother’s stories are the country from which I came. I kind of knew I wanted to tell Mother and Father before I got to me. But I just had too much to say. I had things I wanted you to know, I had points I wanted to make, I had even a grudge or two, and it took a long time for those to fall away and just to tell the story. The other thing my friend said is we want to know how you feel. And I said, I’m not talking about how I feel. I’m just telling what happened. He said you can’t, you have to tell us how you felt. And that was one of the hardest things to do. Because I’m a very private person. So it was all those kinds of struggles. Who am I talking to? Why am I trying so hard to talk to them? And learning how to write a book, it’s such a different thing from a song.

RM: What was your sort of daily work approach for the book?

RLJ: I got up in the morning and started writing. I wrote for hours, and then the next morning I’d look at what I wrote and go, god, that’s so awful, and start again. [laughs]

RM: [laughs]

RLJ: I did that for a year in Los Angeles. I had come from New Orleans where I already had stories, and so this was going to be the last rewrite. And then this catastrophe happened, where, I don’t know—there was a little animosity between Grove Press and myself, and we’re fine now, but for a while they were just really difficult. And the editor said you have to send us the book in this format, and that deedle-dee dah dah dah… Well, I’m a musician, I don’t know anything about file formats. So I took the Word file in its four parts to Kinko’s or some place and said I need you to… And they messed it all up. They mixed up all the pages and sent it that way. I didn’t read what I sent. I assumed they’d done it right. And so a few days later I’m going hey, did you read that thing? And it was a catastrophe. At that point I went I’m quitting now. I’m not going to do this anymore. And my friend Lexi back in New Orleans said why don’t you let Jaimie look at it.Don’t give up on it yet. When he looked at it he said you know it is a real mess, but you’ve got gems in here, so let’s start looking, and it was so hard. It was a struggle between us because he doesn’t have a lot of interest in poetry, shall we say, or prose, or long descriptive passages. And that was what I most liked about my writing. And so that was the biggest struggle, to go I’m going to listen to him, and not say it’s about men overpowering women, and all the things I’m inclined to do. Just listen to him, I think he knows where he’s going.

RM: I sort of evaluate musicians, when they write, according to whether or not they’re good at similes. Do you know what a simile is?

RLJ: Tell me.

RM: A simile is when you compare a thing to another thing. And if it sounds beautiful in that comparison, then according to my metric you’re a really great writer. And in this case, your similes are, well, kind of astounding. They’re so surprising and original and beautiful, and it fits with what you’re saying about the sort of poetic impulse as the reason to do the job, but I’m wondering where those things come from. Where do those things come from? They’re so beautiful.

(The interviewer herewith introduces into the record some examples great figurative language in the memoir under discussion, and makes it appear that he was able to recite all of these on the spot: “like an iceberg, I suspected most of my mother remained frozen under the surface;” “with enough hairspray to kill an ant colony;” “the locker room was a gladiator’s arena for shame and ridicule;” “we were like jungle animals at the watering hole;” “it was a desolation of industrial buildings, smoke, and fires;” “this was unbelievable, we were on an endless underpass below a giant centipede of bad ideas;” “I was carrying something. Was it my coat? His hand? Was it my broken dream dragging behind me?”)

RLJ: I had a lot of years to come up with them. But I also think I’m inclined to see things that way. That’s the one thing that’s not so hard for me. It’s closer to songwriting. It’s just a little line that tells so much more.

RM: You said that the process is very different from songwriting—I’m really interested in hearing how you think it’s different. Correct me if I’m wrong, from reading the book, you write lyrics first sometimes, right?

RLJ: I used to only write them first. But now I tend to do it at the same time. When the music comes I start the lyric. I don’t have a lot to say anymore, on paper. I should, maybe it’s a lack of discipline—but I did used to write the lyrics first, yes.

RM: Then how is the prose work different from the songwriting work?

RLJ: Writing a song, I get to say so much with so little. I have eight lines. Maybe twelve. And in it is all the background, and where I’m going and why I’m saying it. And I’m good at that. But connecting larger descriptive passages, and the arc of why I’m saying it to a hundred or two hundred pages is a totally different thing. I could write little prose pieces, which was how it started out, but it doesn’t make a good book. It’s a whole other kind of thinking to connect the reasoning. And a song is more like a picture of an emotional moment. It’s a little bit of magic. That’s not what a book is, I don’t think.

RM: What about the parts you left out? Because the interesting thing about the memoir is that it’s so incredibly capacious about childhood, and then after Pirates it’s pretty abbreviated about music. And I, as a very partisan lover of the record called Flying Cowboys, was surprised to find Flying Cowboys given relatively brief treatment. I was wondering if that was a space thing, or if there’s another reason beyond that.

RLJ: It seemed to me that the book began to tire. I began to tire. The impact of it just started to end. I had it longer, but it wasn’t interesting anymore. This book was over. And I couldn’t stretch it out. I think that my connection to childhood is the most potent part of the book. And the other part that people wanted to hear, the reason that I have the contract to write the book is because of people’s interest in Tom Waits. So when we get to Tom Waits I go, and I’d like to tell this story, I really would, but I’m obliged to tell this story, so how do I tell this story without resentment all across the board? I spent a long time there, and then I went: you’ve spent more time on Tom Waits than you have on your music. Now, this is year five, now, right. What I told are the experiences of life. The music is a whole other story. A whole other layer of this story. So I’ll tell you about it in relation to what’s happening in life, but to do more would have been forcing things. This is the book as it wanted to be. There’s probably a story to tell people about music, but I don’t ever read stories about people’s albums. My relationship is with their music. I don’t care who was in the studio, what they said and what they drove and how mad they were. I don’t want to know Turner Classic Movies things about songs. It’s just not a thing that interests me to talk about, how we made the record. It’s so hard to make a record that I just don’t like to remember it. It’s such a struggle to bring that music from my skin out into the air. The first ones were fun because I had people who respected me, but as life went on I ended up in horrible situations just because I didn’t have the money to make a record. And that’s an interesting story, like why does someone like me end up in somebody’s garage making a record, but it’s just not what I want to remember. Really, every time I tried to go past page 335 the book went we’re done, no more to say.

RM: Was the experience such that you can’t imagine writing a sequel? Might a sequel deal with some of this stuff?

RLJ: I think the sequel is what I said—it’s going to take a different form. Once I made this thing I’ll have to make something quite different in order to get the same excitement and thrill that I got with the first one. I’ll have to go to a new medium. I’d like to tell more stories about my life, and I think there are a lot more, many interesting stories, but they’re more delicate than what I’ve told so far. Maybe a sequel, yeah.

RM: As a person who loves your music, I have to say I did not read the book for Tom Waits, at all. Though the scene of you two when you moved in together and you tell him about your addiction, that’s an incredible scene. But it was interesting to me then that you wrote that scene, and then didn’t give Pirates the same amount of space that you gave the first record, when it is, in essence, about that scene with Waits. I was wondering if it was just that the record’s so intimate that it was hard to write about.

RLJ: That was the height of my addiction, and it’s hard to write about it for that reason. It seems like everything I write about or talk about I kind of experience, I feel, and I just ran away from that as fast I could. And I still don’t like to look over my shoulder, even though it’s very far away. If I told the story of creating Pirates, I would have to tell that story as well, and I just didn’t want to. I didn’t think about it until you asked the question, but by the time I get there, and I’m talking about Tom and the total broken heart that happened, I’m still feeling that when I go to talk about Pirates. It would be great if I could talk about Pirates without that broken heart, but I think that it’s just part of the package.

RM: And it might be why the album is great, too, because the feelings are so pure. One thing about the book is that the section of the book that treats the runaway incidents and the hitchhiking, is incredibly lacerating. So sad. Parts of it are so sad that it ends up feeling like a bit of an indictment of sixties culture. And I’m wondering if I’m reading that right.

RLJ: Yes, you’re reading it right. Exactly. I went out into that time innocent, but it was not an innocent time. It was as sexist as it could possibly be, under the guise of we’re not. Free love was really just guys could fuck anybody they wanted. And I just didn’t know any better. I was only fourteen. It was toward the end of writing all of that that I saw it and let that be how it looked on the page. Toward the end, I let the reader see it that way.

RM: My parents live in Arizona. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Arizona. As a result, I couldn’t help thinking a lot about the desert in this book. Not just California, but especially Arizona, the Sonoran Desert, the old Arizona before Phoenix gobbled up 100 square miles a year. That old Arizona seems really important for the book, like it shaped you.

RLJ: Absolutely. Absolutely. The title of the book [Last Chance Texaco], I guess in some way I just kept trying to knit it back to the picture of the desert, and tell the story of the desert that’s already, as you said—it’s already gone.

RM: And do you still think about that desert imagery from New Orleans? Does it still have an effect in memory, as a place?

RLJ: I just drove through Arizona last week, coming here to New Mexico, passing Bisbee and Tombstone, where it’s still kind of like it was. The developers haven’t quite gone down there. The geographical desert is ending, but more importantly the community of strangers that went as far away from civilization as they possibly could to raise their children, which is more connected to a hundred years before, right? That’s gone. And I don’t know if there’s any connection to that anymore. It wasn’t political, they were Democrats as much as Republicans, but it was a kind of person. Cowboys walking around with guns on, riding horses. And I got to be connected to this America from a hundred years ago by growing up there. And I hope that that’s a living desert when people read the book, that they’ll feel it.

RM: That reminds me of one other important question I wanted to ask. Clearly your relationship with your mother is huge in the book, as you say she’s neither good nor bad, she’s a real person in the book. As a result, I found myself a little surprised that you didn’t write about your own motherhood at much length. Was that just to give your daughter her own free range to speak to that?

RLJ: Somehow, we’ve managed to keep my daughter out of the public eye entirely. I don’t know why, but there seems to be a respect for me there. I realized that not mentioning her was going to make people even more curious, so I tried to construct an ending in which mother, daughter, and granddaughter, are in one spot, which actually took place, but in which we all are passing on, going on with our lives. And there’s a peace about that, no matter how rough my mother’s life was, or how rough mine was or my daughter’s, we’re holding on to each other. That was the best I could do, in including Charlotte. I didn’t want to, couldn’t, exploit her life, so that’s why she’s not included.

RM: Do you want to talk about what’s next?

RLJ: I’ve been working on a television treatment, like an HBO kind of thing, roughly of the memoir, taking it, especially childhood, and then finally probably ending in L.A. I’m just not sure how far it goes quite yet. And I’m speaking to someone about developing a theater piece as well. I’ve always wanted to do that. I did it a little bit in the eighties with The Magazine, but it was in a rock context so it was kind of awkward. So we’ll see if any of this bears fruit.

RM: And what about new songs?

RLJ: Yeah, working on new songs. It’s been many years since I had new songs, but I’ve got a couple going. I’m going into the studio Tuesday to start demos, the sacred process of the demos. And I’m ready. I’m ready for new music, I’m ready.