Why '80s Superstar Rickie Lee Jones, Who Sang the Hit 'Chuck E's in Love,' Walked Away from Fame
The singer-songwriter, who won two Grammys and sold two million copies of her 1979 debut album, bares all in a new memoir about her rise to fame, and why it never made her happy.
In the late '70s, Rickie Lee Jones was a struggling singer-songwriter, waiting tables in Los Angeles while hoping to make it in the music world. "I knew I could sing, but seemed like a pretty ridiculous goal to be a superstar, to be a rockstar, So I aimed a little lower," Jones tells PEOPLE. "I thought maybe I could be a songwriter—or better yet, a lounge singer."
She soon found fame as musician Tom Waits' beautiful bohemian girlfriend, but when her four-song demo inspired a bidding war among the record companies, she became a star in her own right. Her 1979 debut album Rickie Lee Jones sold two million copies, earned two Grammys, and cemented Jones' place among songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Joan Armatrading. Her song "Chuck E's in Love" was the hit of 1979, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard charts. Jones was suddenly rich, successful and dubbed the "Queen of Coolsville"— but she harbored a secret: a heroin addiction, and she struggled to find joy in her newfound fame.
"People mistake famous people for being rich, and they mistake rich people for being happy," says Jones of her struggles with overnight success and drugs. "And those things are all really different."
Now living a quiet life in New Orleans, Jones is looking back at her wild ride in her memoir, Last Chance Texaco. She writes of her unstable childhood and how she started running away as a teen, embracing the hippie life-style. She now says she can't believe she made it out unscathed.
"Blowing in the wind starts pretty young for me," Jones says, who was just 14 when she started running away and hitchhiking across the country with boyfriends. "The teenage years of running away and being part of the grown-up world was, from my perspective now, terrifying and terribly dangerous. I had to be thinking on so many levels. Kids shouldn't really have to think in that way."
Last Chance Texaco also details Jones' rocket to stardom. "I had this sense of destiny, When you step on the right thing, you just kind of glide effortlessly, so it feels like the path was laid out for you to go there. And it's inexplicable in that it was really hard, but it also seems like it was really simple"
In 1979, she performed on Saturday Night Live, growing even more famous. "Annie Leibovitz told me I was the sexiest person she'd ever shot other than Mick Jagger," Jones recalls in the book, of shooting the cover of the iconic magazine. "I was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone twice in less than two years. I am pretty sure that had never happened before."
But Jones says she only felt confident while high. She eventually fled to Paris, where she got sober on her own, married a French musician and had her daughter Charlotte Rose, now 33.
"I just liked taking it, but I also needed the drug to not harm myself, because it gave me a kind of euphoric feeling and I was so depressed without it for a short time," she says of heroin, noting that her addiction was likely a byproduct of an unsettled childhood. "Taking drugs is one thing. Becoming an addict and losing the hours of the day, to the one thought of taking the drug is something else entirely. And I think that only happens to people who are damaged."
These days Jones is back to writing songs, and is looking forward to performing again when COVID restrictions ease. "For a long time I didn't want to be in that emotional place that I have to go to to write," she says. "But lately there's been a peace. It's easy for me to move from cooking dinner over to the piano and writing a page, and I'm having a really good time doing it."
She's also happy that she managed to finish writing her life story, which she says was a long process. "I lived an extraordinary life," she says of looking back at her experiences. "This is the life of a woman, not just a rockstar."
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