BEST FIT: You wrote in your memoir that this is one of your greatest songs. Did you know that from the moment you finished it?
RICKY LEE JONES: I think the answer is yes, except I didn’t have many songs at the time! I had written ‘Chuck E.’s in Love’, ‘On Saturday Afternoons in 1963’ and ‘Weasel & the White Boy’s Cool’, so to be honest everything I had written was pretty cool up until then! [laughs]
“The Last Chance Texaco” was a ghost story. I knew it was a very unusual chord sequence. I always feel that when you come across something different, something you haven’t heard before, that even if it doesn’t resonate right then, it will speak to people over time. People will find their way to something different over time. So I always enjoy it when I do.
It was the first song that has the kind of sound that I’ve gravitated towards quite intermittently. There is one called “Scary Chinese Movie” [from 1997’s Ghostyhead] this could be a sister or cousin to ‘The Last Chance Texaco’.
You described “The Last Chance Texaco” as “a country but not a country”. Where do you think his roots are in the country?
Well, at that time I was very poor and I only had a stove to cook on, so I wrote songs in the hope that other people would record them. When I wrote “The Last Chance Texaco,” I was thinking of one of those deep country singers like Merle Haggard. I didn’t know country stars very well, but I knew his voice from the song “Okie from Muskogee.” I think it was probably more likely for Waylon Jennings, whose music I didn’t know, but he also has this deep, low voice.
In my head I heard a guy singing about being in a truck and maybe it was a duet. I mean, the second verse could very easily be a female voice telling the story. But the song isn’t country because I play the F# in E. It’s like, what are you doing?!
You wrote this song pretty quickly, in less than two hours in a coffee shop off Santa Monica Boulevard.
Yeah, and I wish I had kept that notebook, because I feel like, except for maybe a line or two, I wrote the whole song as it is. Of course, you adjust things later for the rhyme scheme. If you notice, I’ve given up on trying to rhyme even every other line. There is a rhyme that takes place periodically just to keep things going.
The challenge came when I got home and had to put a melody to the lyrics. I guess watching it was hard because I saw it was great writing. Even now I’m limited, like any songwriter, in the places I like to visit, but back then it was even more so because I was just a beginner. Although in this case being a beginner was a blessing because I was like, “What if I played F#?” – I’d never even played F# before – and the moment I played it, the song just came.
There is often this sense of being part of a divine story when things happen so perfectly and so quickly. I feel like it was just waiting there for me and that it wasn’t going to wait in my key because I was already quite familiar with my key. And I wasn’t going to go down the neck in the key of B, which I did, because the shape [makes a B chord with her hand] it’s easier when you ban. You know, it’s a lot harder to do a chord when you’re baring.
I heard the chords in my head so I had to sound them out. And I heard that hum that runs through the entire chord and still gives me goosebumps. I heard him and followed him up the neck and back down. So it was really an extraordinary thing. But I think it was probably a struggle. I knew the song could be great and I hit it, but before that it was like “Not another flop!”
How did Russ Titelman and co-producer Lenny Waronker react when you brought this song to them?
I think this must be one of the first songs of mine they heard. They had seen me play and liked what they saw enough to make a demo for them and “The Last Chance Texaco” was on it. But honestly, the songs that resonate with people aren’t necessarily the ones that shine on a demo tape. As I said earlier, when you write something new, it can be very difficult for someone to recognize it. A&R guys in 1978? Well, they were good listeners, but I don’t think that weird song was number one on their list. I could be wrong, but that’s how I remember it.
When I wrote “The Last Chance Texaco” it was much less stylized for my voice than when we produced it. They gave it a depth that I couldn’t have given it myself.
This song has never been released as an A-side single to my knowledge. What was your reaction when he was nominated in the 1980 Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance?
Well, no one expected that! As far as I can tell, this Grammy committee or this group of people nominated this song themselves. I don’t even remember it being submitted. I was honored because it seemed like they did their best to say, “This is a song that’s new and wonderful.”
The other great thing was the nomination for [Best Pop Vocal Performance for “Chuck E.’s in Love”] at the same time. People weren’t sure where to “put” me anymore, so I loved that they nominated me in different genres.
You’ve described the song as “eerie and beautiful, funny and deadly serious.” Do you think people sometimes overlook the humor in your songs?
Absolutely! I think they always miss that. I’ve been thinking all week about the funny little lines I put up and how people pass them by.
I think sometimes because the music setting is so serious that people just don’t hear that the lyrics are funny. Or if a text is funny, they laugh too much as if to say, “We got the joke.” The line “Hard monk in lavender robes” [from 1993’s Traffic in Paradise cut “Altar Boy”] makes them giggle, but they don’t even hear it. They just say “What did she say?” [laughs]
There can be this constant barrage of hints and innuendos in a song, but because of the poignant melody, people may not realize what they’ve heard. So it’s like being a super storyteller because you can tell one story with words and another with melody.
You’ve been playing this song live for many, many years now. What do you still like about playing it?
It’s one of my songs that’s a real challenge to sing, but I can still sing it, and as long as I can still sing it, I feel like I want to. Old fans relate to it and I also like to introduce it to people who might not have heard it. I think it’s one of those songs that can still make a new listener go, “Oh, that was different!”