About three-quarters of the way into her recent memoir, Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour, musician Rickie Lee Jones writes about meeting both Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss on the same night while playing to an empty room at the Troubadour in West Hollywood in 1977.
“Almost on cue,” Jones writes, “I saw the kitchen door open and release a halo of light around the shadow of someone, someone watching me. Almost hiding. I felt him. I knew right away, it was Tom Waits’s scraggly shadow formed by the kitchen’s light. As the story goes, Chuck E. was working as a cook in the kitchen, and he called Waits out to listen to the girl onstage.”
Chuck E. Weiss, the Denver native, had met Waits a few years before at the Denver music venue Ebbets Field. Weiss, who died in July and is buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver, was a fixture in the Los Angeles music scene since the late ’70s and helped launch the Viper Room with Johnny Depp. He was also the inspiration behind one of Jones’s most famous songs, “Chuck E.’s in Love,” the title taken from a phone conversation between Waits and Weiss.
Jones, who will perform at the Boulder Theater on Saturday, September 18, and will speak about and sign copies of Last Chance Texaco at the Tattered Cover on Monday, September 20, says Weiss taught her about rhythm and blues. She remembers him as a master of imitation who could do an incredible impersonation of Rod Steiger.
“He was also bodacious,” Jones says of Weiss. “He’d talk to strangers in such a way that I don't know why he didn’t get punched. But he seemed to bring out a happiness in people. He was just a really unique guy, and when you were with him, you felt like you were part of his reality. So in a way, he was always on. Maybe the disc jockey in him.
“When I was sitting in the middle between Tom Waits and Chuck E. Weiss, I felt happy. It was some of the happiest times of my life, sitting between those guys in [Waits’s] T-Bird,” she adds.
In Last Chance Texaco, Jones writes that Waits gave her a copy of The Damon Runyon Omnibus as a birthday gift so that she “could explore the American vernacular and its metaphors.” Runyon, who was a reporter at a few newspapers in Colorado during the early 1900s, also wrote two short stories that the musical Guys and Dolls is based on.
Part of Runyon's vernacular seeped into the lyrics of “Chuck E.’s in Love,” particularly the mention of “PLP,” an abbreviation for "public leaning post" — American slang for when one friend leans on another — that's in the first line of the song. Jones wasn’t sure people would remember the phrase when she performed the song on Saturday Night Live in 1979, a performance that helped propel her into the national spotlight.
“PLP is part of the idea of Americans' unique relationship with language,” Jones says. “What I love about Europe is also what I don't like about it — it's very much older than us culturally. Each country is its own personality, and it's not really changeable. It's not interested in changing.
“But we’re a big trading post on a river's edge that everybody passes through — every kind of immigrant comes," she adds. "And we're always being exposed to new language and new culture. That's what we are. And so we take up other people's things, and all of our language is based on a little bit of German, a little bit of Irish, a little bit of whatever, right? That's how we speak.”
With songs, Jones says she has about ten lines to create the whole fiction of the song. She likes the pop-music format — the really specific job of saying a lot with a little. But with Last Chance Texaco, the 66-year-old Jones looks back on her nomadic childhood, her family, her music career, her battle with drugs and more over the span of 400 pages.
“This book was meant to be a chronicle of a woman's life in these times and at the end of the century,” Jones says. It's a book that "somebody could read in 200 years and go, ‘Oh, so that's what it was like?’ Not a famous person, but a person — a woman. And the fact that I'm famous is an amazing achievement in the story, but it's not the only thing happening. And that's what makes the memoir unique and read like fiction — because this happened and that happened and that also happened, and ‘Oh, my God, what is going on here?’”
With Last Chance Texaco, Jones also wanted to set the record straight on some parts of her life.
“It's the nefarious nature of the way things are told,” Jones says. “If I speak about my life, that's probably going be what people quote, rather than some guy. I think the most shameful aspect of what we do to women is try to degrade them. And the more difficult their lives [are], the more we're able to place ourselves above them, especially men.”
Jones then talks about a review of her book on Amazon left by a man, who she says placed himself above her by writing, “I saw her in 1980, and she couldn’t do this and she couldn't do that. And so I’m suspect of her book.”
Then, Jones says, people respond to that kind of ignorant nefarious attack.
“If I tell my story myself one time for the record,” Jones says, “I thought, that will be much harder for that kind of thing to continue. But people who are mad at me...they're probably mad at other people. They like to rag on women.”
Jones also says Last Chance Texaco gave her a chance to say, “I’ve sat quietly for a lifetime now. Let me set it straight, without any bitterness.”
The memoir gave her a chance to listen to the sound of her own voice and see who she’s grown up to be.
“And the main thing that I am happy with was that the force and focus was to make my mother and father and my ancestors have that little place — a little dot — in history," she says. "Here's the story of this American family. And what a story it is.”
Rickie Lee Jones plays at 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 18, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street in Boulder, $35-$45. For tickets, go to AXS; Jones will speak about Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour at 7 p.m. on Monday, September 20, at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. For more information, visit the Tattered Cover online.