Rickie Lee joneses for the road

Review of her new memoir Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour by Rickie Lee Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Yes, I am a longtime fan. I remember the SNL appearance and the beginning of her FM play with Chuck E; My friends and I (bc that was how you watched SNL then) were struck by the originality of the songs and of the singer herself. As suburban kids, we were a little awed but very charmed by her total commitment.
I carried her cassettes in my secondhand cars for decades, rewinding perfectly to replay and replay some of my favorite songs: The Horses, Company, Last Chance Texaco, Coolsville, Ghetto of My Mind… the list goes on too long to have it all here. Now it is digital and even longer.
But I think even if I wasn’t a fan of her music (and now someone who seems to frequent many of the same places and has a few people in common, neither of which is that unusual in New Orleans), I think I’d still have purchased this. I love memoirs. When done right, the well-told personal story is more fascinating to me than any tale.
The movement implied in one of her greatest songs had Rickie arranging her book in sections of “The Backseat, Riding Shotgun, The Driver’s Seat, and The Way Back Seat” showing how one’s journey/quest isn’t always led by its protagonist. Her story has elements that I and many other mid-20th century American kids recognize too well, full of broken homes, drugs and drink, friends and love dropping in and out, and violence out there on the road, which astonishingly, was often just a near-miss for Rickie and for so many of us. At least she had the job of a Troubadour to explain why she stayed (stays) out there for so long. Even with the romantic job description, she admits to the dead-ends she herself pursued, the people she may have moved on from maybe before their time in her life should have been completed. But that’s the deal isn’t it – if you keep moving forward, you’re gonna leave people behind. Leaving is the drug I think many of us can’t kick.
If you are looking for “famous people” stories, she throws in a few, but only because they are meaningful to her travels. This is an artist’s story, and so hers to decide what and who was important and life-changing and illustrative Her love and empathy for those who were a roadblock are extraordinary to me. I’m not as evolved & stay mostly pissed at everyone.
It’s extraordinary but not surprising, as her listeners and readers know, having felt the sweetness and tenderness in her work since the beginning.
In the song, it’s the last chance for love along a road that may not have options coming up again. In the memoir, there is hope and promise in Rickie’s story that she has come to see success is about choosing new happy over the old hurt, and always, the freedom to create over the pursuit of empty fame. She also accepts the importance of family, realizing that they always have the sign lit for each other.
And of course, her travel story is certainly not done yet. So, if you are out there and see a woman with a guitar, a smile, a sweet voice, and a lot of killer songs under her arm…



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Tinderbox: The Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who lives in the French Quarter and has heard the story of the early days of the gay liberation movement from dear friends and neighbors, many (too many) who are no longer here to enjoy the results of their energies, I was glad to see this book at my library. Partly because I remain so thankful that the gay movement made its home in my neighborhood where I spent much of the last 40 odd years, as it brought diversity, a welcoming and inclusive vibe, which meant this place has stayed a neighborhood even as it struggles with its white flight history role in a majority African-American city too often obsessed only with its tourist’s face.
Arriving as a teen to this neighborhood in those years that did not only include white, straight, middle-class people allowed me to expand my originally suburban outlook to be able to recognize a diversity of human connections and appreciate a multiplicity of lifestyles and thinking which has only helped me move through the world with a lot more gratitude and latitude.
I knew the story of the Upstairs Lounge and since the plaque has been added, I get to the site either to give a silent moment of commemoration or to show visitors or activists. Still, the book gave me more detail about the victims that I did not know, and also gave much more detail as to the horror of the event, for both those who survived and those who perished in the fire. I read this book in an evening, as it is well organized and written using recollections and first-hand accounts and only a little secondary information.
The only criticism I have is I would have liked to see an epilogue of the amazing transformation of the Quarter into the center of gay commerce and culture maybe even naming some of those leaders and even some of the businesses that still exist due to that leadership including our little Mary’s Ace Hardware, Bourbon Street Postal, tour companies, neighborhood bars, restaurants, florists, salons, and the rest and how that then spread into the rest of the city.
This book should be included in the required reading list for New Orleans high school students and added to the bookshelves of historical centers and libraries as an example of how many of our property owners (STILL) don’t maintain their buildings to ensure safety for those using them especially when those using them are on the “fringes” of society, how equity (in life or death) is (STILL) not given to all and how our city can do better with all of it by remembering The Upstairs Lounge tragedy.

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IN THE SHADOW OF STATUES

My copy is preordered.

 

https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/575468/in-the-shadow-of-statues-by-mitch-landrieu/9780525559443/

The Futilitarians- Review

The Futilitarians: Our Year of Thinking, Drinking, Grieving, and Reading by Anne Gisleson

In short: I think this ranks as one of the best memoirs to come out of the South in some time. I’ve been waiting for someone to use the Katrina timeline to truly tell of the pain and random brutality that is so normalized here that it is often clichéd in the retelling. Gisleson’s take on New Orleans life is important in that she is a native of the city and it has been my experience that that is a too-small group writing about New Orleans in recent years. Her tender and often witty memoir frames how the city shapes – and sometimes breaks – family and friends, leaving the survivors to live with the absurdity of existence where most of one’s day is wrapped up in the trivial even as the tragic stays near, ready to overwhelm one’s own thoughts and fears when the night falls. Or, when tragedy is made personal via the faces or actions of the other souls that populate the city, sitting on bar stools at breakfast time or dancing for tips on Bourbon Street.
As a writer, she knows she will write about her family tragedies and confesses that her father told her at his regular lunch spot at the Rib Room that he would stop talking to her if she did. Just like most Southern daughters would, she simply waited until he passed to do so. His story is a big part of this book, as his personality and aspirations defined the family life even though he kept his own set of secrets that were only been partially glimpsed then or understood by his children to this day.
The overt search for meaning in the post-Katrina era is captured by the group of friends who begin to meet as the Existential Crisis Reading Group. Gisleson offers entertaining descriptions of the attendees, and what they offer each other in terms of solace or clarity but the moments of her solitary musings about her family, her own history, and the city are what make this memoir. While discussing Borowski’s 1946 painful short stories “This Way For the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” (inspired by his own concentration camp experience) she makes an excuse to take her son to bed so she could escape the room to instead lie in the dark with him sleeping next to her, looking and listening through the open transom, illustrating her momentary discomfort at sharing high emotion over what has been lost, what is still not absorbed and her own part in it all. Even though slightly removed, the presence of friends comforts and the house with its mark of previous generations who lived there before – some successfully- quiets her unease. That was a passage I returned to again and again, feeling she had captured one moment of the sweetly painful experience of life here in our land of misrule.
Her discomfort is partly because of her survivor’s guilt and from the realization that the family tragedies may have helped she and her remaining siblings make a more emphatic mark in the world. Suicide is a confounding subject for survivors, searching for meaning in the trivial things left, never knowing what had mattered, what had helped and what had hurt.

Not surprisingly, essayist Joan Didion, author of the brilliant book about her own family tragedies in “The Year of Magical Thinking” is mentioned; Gisleson considers Didion’s defense of writing painful truths about other people as “we tell ourselves stories in order to live” and originally dismisses it. Then, as she realizes her own urgent need to tell these stories she concludes that Didion may be right after all. And that addressing the murky emotions that people live with after horrible things happen is the furthest thing from futility and instead, is pretty close to transcendence which may lead, finally, to peace.

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