They did not, the representative at the Smithsonian kindly told her.
“But this is a family business,” Jones says, tracing the history of her family from vaudeville theaters to her dad’s unrealized dreams of a musical career to her own offbeat rise to stardom. “Isn’t that an American story worth telling?”
Inside her rooms
Hers is a life of hard times and good days, wild loves and broken hearts.
When she was a child, her parents moved often, from Chicago to Arizona to Washington and California, and, often, back to where they’d just come from. There was love in the family but tempers too, and when her older brother Danny was seriously injured on a motorcycle the family broke, never to be repaired.
As a teen, Rickie Lee hit the road in Arizona in a stolen car with her first love and they ended up in the City of Industry. Then, after the family moved to Seal Beach, she one day thumbed it north on Highway 1, destinations unknown, safety not guaranteed.
“What I’ve discovered about songs is that, for me, the singing of them is like entering a room,” Jones says. “They’re always the same, it’s always the same room.
“Here’s the room of ‘Coolsville,’” she says. “On this wall is where we cry, and on this wall is where we look out and we remember our past. Everything in the song is always the same, and I can enter that room and I’ll be that girl who sings that song.”
That distanced approach worked the same for “Last Chance Texaco,” especially with stories that might otherwise have been painful to revisit.
“I created the stories, they’re real, but my main job was to translate them into that same feeling of fiction,” Jones says. “That said, I didn’t know at the time, but I was creating rooms for them as well.”
A close friend who served as a de facto editor for early drafts suggested she organize the book around a handful of themes, such as family or magic or music, to give her narrative a solid kind of structure.
“That was really helpful to me, because I had so many stories,” Jones says. “I wanted the book to have momentum, I wanted you to want to turn the page, so I left (readers) more clues.”
Working through hard times on the page, she says she learned things about herself she never knew.
“What I learned, as I was reading it out loud (for the audiobook) that I didn’t know, was that I am an optimistic person,” Jones says. “I would have never thought that. But whatever happens, I make it into something good, and find a way to get to the other side.”
Lonely days in schools with no friends, turmoil at home, her brother’s accident, struggling to find and amplify her voice on reaching Los Angeles in the mid-’70s — all of that, she realized, she had handled and survived.
“People, like events, have good and bad things that can come of them,” Jones says. “Problems aren’t necessarily so important that you need to stay and work them out. Let’s just go.
“The good part about that is that I feel like sometimes I’m looking at my life from a faraway planet that says, ‘Wow, you guys take things really seriously, lighten up.
“The bad part is that if it’s a skill I haven’t had or wanted to have — the skill of staying and figuring out every little detail of the broken water pipe — I don’t have great problem-solving skills. Let’s just go.”
Magic and music
Magical moments are scattered across the pages of “Last Chance Texaco.”
It’s just a fact of Jones’ life that unexplained moments of grace and destiny have touched her. It might be the Illinois police officer who helped her when she was sick and stranded near Chicago and then kept in touch by mail thereafter. Or the friend and future boyfriend who invited her to Tulsa when she had no place to lay down her head.
And then there’s the time a strange wee fella in Ireland offered her a ride to a Van Morrisonconcert. Afterward, Van the Man seemed to confirm Rickie Lee’s hunch that she’d ridden shotgun with, and narrowly escaped, a literal leprechaun.
“What would life be like if you didn’t see magic?” Jones says. “I see that as naturally as I see, you know, the front doorbell. So what would it be like if you couldn’t see the front doorbell?”
Destiny has touched her story often, she says. “I feel like I’m under the pen of a great writer, and they’re writing my character.”
She had grown up with music, training in school, singing harmony with her father at home, writing songs inspired by music from sources that included the soundtrack to the Broadway musical “West Side Story,” the Beatles, and cult singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.
In her late teens, she landed in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, and musicians took her in as roommates and collaborators. At the Troubadour in West Hollywood, she met Tom Waits, with whom she’d have a passionate romance, and Waits’ pal Chuck E. Weiss, the future inspiration for her first hit single, “Chuck E.’s In Love.”
There’s another romance and more encouragement from Lowell George of Little Feat. The credits on the back of a Randy Newman album lead her to producer Lenny Waronker. She creates a stellar debut album and afterward a breakout performance on “Saturday Night Live.” She wins the Grammy for Best New Artist as well.
With stardom came darkness, too. She developed a heroin habit that lasted a few years and ultimately led Waits to leave her, as she tells the story. It’s an episode that makes for one of the most emotionally difficult chapters in the book.
“That’s probably why it took seven years to write,” she says of the Waits passages, and then laughs. “I had to find my way to tell the story without any personal thing coming through. No bitterness, no admonishment, nothing.
“I just wanted to tell this story so you can feel whatever it is you want to feel about it. The more I told the story to myself, initially, the blood was spilled until finally there was no blood coming out.”
By the end of the ’80s, the flash and sizzle that accompanied her debut and its follow-up “Pirates” had faded. Since then, Jones has recorded and toured steadily and has a handful of works planned for the year to come: a downloadable soundtrack to the book that includes songs, such as Simon & Garfunkel’s “America,” that feature in the narrative; a three-disc version of “Pirates” in the fall, with demos, outtakes and rarities; and finally, an album of new material she’s written.
Looking back, Jones clearly sees how unique her life and music and style has been.
“At the time, besides the kind of magic that is in the music itself — it’s pretty powerful and wonderful and friendly — it was a coming together of threads of music that hadn’t been put together yet,” she says. “I had things like ‘Company,’ which are kind of old, and I had R&B in the true flavor like ‘Chuck E.’s In Love.’
“It was really diverse. I don’t want to say old-fashioned, but old-rooted music, not of the time. And the character I seemed to be — the Girl with the Beret — was kind of sexy and yet accessible, and also very new.
“So I think I just spoke to them. It was the right time to say, ‘There’s a lot of other things we can be and do. And here’s one of them."