A good many of the thousands of female runaways who pass through Los Angeles each year want to become models, movie stars, rock singers, something like that,” says Officer James Gilliam, assigned to curtail juvenile crime in the Hollywood division of the Los Angeles Police Department. ”We had one eleven-year-old girl who came to town to become a movie queen,” he recalls grimly. ”She ended up doing nude still photographs for some child pornographers, and the saddest thing was she said she didn’t mind doing it if that’s what it took to become famous.
”The ones who are picked up are placed in nonsecurity facilities called ‘soda homes,'” says Gilliam, 30, who has been patrolling the sleazy side of Hollywood for almost four years. ”As a result, the kids are free to flee again. The girls usually wind up as hookers, drug pushers — just the opposite of what they wanted to be. But some of them are taken in by the local ‘boulevard people,’ and the ones who still want to be stars will hang out at discos, music clubs, places like the Troubadour and the Starwood. But as far as talent goes, most of them don’t have any talent — or at least they don’t show it.”
Gilliam, who writes country & western songs with his patrol partner in his spare time, says he has never heard of any one-time runaways who later made it big in show business.
”Rickie Lee Jones?! Was she a runaway? Hey, I hear her song, ‘Chuck E.’s in Love,’ on the radio. I think her delivery is kinda unique; I mean, she’s not just singing the words. She sounds like she’s pulling them from deep inside herself.”
I‘ve always liked to run away,” Rickie Lee Jones confides as she sits slumped down opposite me in the front seat of my rented Plymouth. ”It’s my favorite thing to do. ‘Night Train’ is about a girl trying to get out of a situation, making her getaway. As I was about to record that song in the studio, I was looking at what was about to happen to me, and hoping I got out with what was mine, with my ‘child,’ so to speak, when everything was done.”
She flicks her long blond hair away from her face to reveal a mischievous grin as we head down La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles. It is approximately 9:30 p.m. and Rickie Lee Jones, 24, is just beginning her day. A self-described ”night owl on the prowl,” she has spent the better part of the day — and the last three weeks, for that matter — holed up in a messy suite of rooms in an aged hotel just off Sunset Strip. She’s been undergoing a ”period of adjustment” ever since her sultry Warner Bros, debut album, Rickie Lee Jones, and the spirited hit single, ”Chuck E.’s in Love,” combined to make her one of the current top-selling female vocalists in the nation. Normally, Rickie Lee lives by herself in a humble little cottage out in Santa Monica. Since her recent success, however, her doorstep has been darkened by a small army of neighborhood rubbernecks who want to know what she’s really about. So, once again, Rickie has had to make a run for it.
”I run away at the most peculiar times,” she says. ”But now I don’t run away so much physically — I don’t always go anywhere. But inside I’m probably always running a little scared.”
When she’s onstage, she seems anything but anxious. An acoustic guitar slung low from her neck, she struts and sashays with the easy rolling beat, cooing her parables about the tragicomic underbelly of urban life. She has been said to resemble Joni Mitchell musically and visually, but in person Jones looks more like a dishy Burbank carhop than some swank, doe-eyed Lady of the Canyon. Buxom and big-hipped, with the wisecracking self-assurance of a hussy, she can be mighty intimidating when first encountered.
”The first time I saw Rickie Lee she reminded me of Jayne Mansfield,” says sidekick and sometime beau Tom Waits with a lustful growl. (Jones is the mysterious blond on the back cover of Waits’ 1978 Blue Valentine LP.) ”I thought she was extremely attractive, which is to say that my first reactions were rather primitive — primeval, even. Her style onstage was appealing and arousing, sorta like that of a sexy white spade.
”She was drinking a lot then  and I was too, so we drank together. You can learn a lot about a woman by getting smashed with her. I remember her getting her first pair of high heels, at least since I knew her, and coming by one night to holler in my window to take her out celebrating. There she was, walking down Santa Monica Boulevard, drunk and falling off her shoes.
”I love her madly in my own way — you’ll gather that our relationship wasn’t exactly like Mike Todd and Elizabeth Taylor — but she scares me to death. She is much older than I am in terms of street wisdom; sometimes she seems as ancient as dirt, and yet other times she’s so like a little girl.”
Fabled chum Chuck E. Weiss concurs. ”She’s all woman, and seems tough — I remember when she was broke and used to sleep under the Hollywood sign. But she’s also real soft and playful. She and Waits and I used to steal the black lawn jockeys from homes in Beverly Hills and hop freight trains together. Once we three were at an exclusive party in the Hollywood Hills, invited there by Tom’s lawyer, and Rickie went right in, sat down and put an avocado between her legs. Tom was embarrassed but got a great kick out of it. Nobody would talk to us after that, so we spent the evening going up to people with cocktail dip hidden in our palms and shaking hands with them.”
Near the bottom of La Cienega, Rickie Lee and I make a pit stop in a tiny roadside greasy spoon whose clientele is so unsavory that the joint features its own resident rent-a-cop. Rickie Lee, dressed to kill or maim in a skintight, black nylon stretch suit and spike heels, enters with relish, and she creates a minor stir among the night stalkers clustered around the grill when she leans over the counter to place her order.
”I love places like this,” she whispers. ”Anything can happen in them, and usually does. I like taking any kind of a risk. I’ve done every kind of drug you can do: STP, pot, cocaine, everything but junk; I was in an amateur rodeo in 1965 and got a tooth knocked out while breaking a mare. This is the kind of atmosphere,” Jones says, surveying the seedy layout, ”that I feel most comfortable in.”
How comfortable has she felt since her sudden fame?
”The attention that the public starts paying you scares me,” she says. ”I think that maybe fame scares away a lot of friendships, because people just assume that you’re getting what you need. When you walk into a performance situation or a record-company office, people really like you, they pay a lot of attention to you. But then, your normal life is the same as anybody’s — just as lonely. You can’t get anyone on the phone, and you can’t get a date.
”The place I feel most comfortable these days is onstage; I can cut loose and I’m so damned glad to be there. As for the audience, I get a lot of strong reactions from girls, much more than from men. The other day a girl ran four blocks down Sunset Boulevard just to catch me. She was about to cry. And I just sat down on the curb and talked to her. What I try to do when I see that kind of desperate look in people’s eyes is to try ‘n’ bring ’em back into a real situation. I understand those feelings… because I’ve been there myself.”
Rickie Lee’s face clouds over for the merest moment, and then she springs back into a familiar pattern of wry jibes and smart-alecky lingo. Although she strives to obscure it, I sense something melancholy about Rickie Lee Jones.
After recharging her batteries with a gooey cheeseburger and a Coke, we ride back to her gloomy hotel room. She is still in a frisky mood, and a chat about the late hipster-comedian Lord Buckley inspires her to reenact a singsong jive rap reminiscent of Buckley’s frenetic style, called ”The Signifying Monkey.”
”It’s very dirty,” she assures me. ”It’s an old New Orleans routine that goes on forever, and it begins [she lapses into a low rasp] in the jungle deep, when the badass lion steps on the signifying monkey’s foot. The monkey gets madder and madder, provoking the lion.”
Brandishing an open bottle of Jack Daniel’s, she offers a sampling of the saga:
Monkey said, ”Your sister is a prostitute and your mama is a whore
And your grandpa goes round sellin’ asshole from door to door
And you know that little baby sister that you hold so dear?
Well, I fucked her all day for just a bottle of beer!
I cornholed your uncle, fucked your mama and your niece
And the next time I see your sister, I’m gonna get me a ‘nother little piece
And you know your sister did the damnest trick
Why, she got so low she sucked an earthworm’s dick!!”
Rickie Lee tumbles to the couch in laughter, spilling a generous amount of bourbon on her clothes in the process. She excuses herself to change and when she returns, dressed in a white Doyt-doyt T-shirt (a reference to a line in the song ”Danny’s All-Star Joint” — ”They got a jukebox that goes doyt-doyt”) and snug, blue sweat pants, her demeanor is somber. She decides to return to the subject of her days as a runaway.
”The first time I ever ran away I was fourteen,” she says with quiet intensity, stretching out on the couch with a glass of ice and pouring herself two fingers of Jack Daniel’s. ”I think that was about 1969. A friend and I had been walking around all night, all over Phoenix — where my folks and I lived at the time— just having fun, and we decided we wanted to go somewhere — to San Diego. I got in a car and my friend drove. We neglected to tell the owner that we were taking it,” she says, laughing with a gurgle. “It was a GTO or something and it made a lot of noise as we pulled out of the driveway. We got caught the next day.
”When we took that car,” she exults, ”that was the first time I was in love! He was a little Italian boy. I think people never get over the first time they fall in love. It killed me.”
As she gulps her whiskey, she explains that she and her boyfriend spent the night in a juvenile detention home before being brought back to Phoenix. Meeting with a tempestuous reception at her own household, Rickie Lee ran away again and moved into a shack behind a friend’s home. One night later that week, she made love for the first time with her seventeen-year-old boyfriend: ”It was spring, it was hot and it was very, very dark. There was a little light from a furnace in the shack. Ooooh.” Suddenly her blissful smile droops. ”Then, one evening, he all of a sudden decided he didn’t like me anymore. He took too much acid, I think, and he looked at me and went, ‘Oh Jesus!”
A ”traveling adventure” the following year took her from her new home base in Olympia, Washington, where her family had relocated, to various cities up and down the coast of California. That year, she managed to attend three high schools, being asked to leave the last, Timberline High in Olympia, or face expulsion for her insubordinate ways.
”I was a smartass,” she says contritely. ”I had a big mouth with teachers who I thought were wasting my time. I would tell them, ‘I don’t want to sit here and learn to sew dresses. I have better things to do.’ And I’d walk out of class.
”I just had a bad attitude, I guess. What I got kicked out of school for, it’s the same thing that I see myself doing onstage now. It’s just a lot of high-powered feelings, a lot of emotion, and now I can work it to my advantage. The same thing I got hired for, I got fired for.”
Which is a rather succinct way of saying that Rickie Lee. Jones’ life became her art. Arriving in Los Angeles in 1973 at nineteen, she held a series of waitressing jobs and basically lived hand-to-mouth. ”The low point of my life,” she remembers, ”was when I’d been working in an Italian restaurant near Echo Park, in an area where the Mexican lowriders hung out. I’d been living with somebody for a year, a guitar player, and he left me with a bounced rent check and no car, and I got fired from my job.
”It was hard times,” she says with a shudder, ”but being that far down inspired me to go to work.”
Work in this case meant returning to her longtime goal of playing music for a living, a notion she’d been carrying around in her head since she wrote her first song at seven, entitled ”I Wish”:
I wish, I wish
That wishes would come true
And then I know
That I will be all right.
Destitute but determined, she slept (when she was lucky) on various benefactors’ couches during the day, and passed the evenings playing for a pittance in places like the Comeback Inn in Venice, California, and the A La Carte and the Ivar Theater in Hollywood. Eventually, she played the Troubadour on Hoot Night. A good deal of her act consisted of rhythmic ”spoken-word” monologues told in street jargon. In time, her hipster tale-spinning was interspersed with her own songs. One of the first was ”Easy Money,” which Rickie Lee says was written in 1976 in a now-defunct coffee shop in Venice called Suzanne’s. The eatery had a piano and Jones would sit at it for hours on end, drinking strong coffee and struggling with lyrics and melodies. After completing ”Easy Money,” she did not write again until the fall of 1977, when she knocked out a bunch of songs that included ”The Last Chance Texaco” and ”Chuck E.’s in Love.”
She confesses a special affection for the latter effort, because the period when it was written was a momentous one in which she made not one but two lasting friends.
”I didn’t have any real friends back then,” she recalls, ”and I didn’t have any place to live. I didn’t have any money. So I’d go sit over at the pool at the Tropicana motel [on Santa Monica Boulevard] and rest. A guy I know, Ivan Ulz, was performing at the Troubadour one evening and he asked me to come over and sing a couple of songs. This fella Chuck E. was working back in the kitchen of the club and that’s how I met him. I sang ‘Easy Money’ and a song Ivan wrote, called ‘You Almost Look Chinese.’ A little later on, Tom saw me there, and he and Chuck E. and I started hanging out together.
”That was a high point in my life. Before that, I guess I had learned not to depend on anybody else, ’cause once people start affecting what happens to you, it’s trouble. But I think Chuck E. and Tom have been my family for a while now. It seems sometimes like we’re real romantic dreamers who got stuck in the wrong time zone. So we cling, we love each other very much.”
And who was Chuck E. in love with?
”His cousin,” she says, blushing. ”I mean, that’s what I heard. There was a telephone call from Denver one day and it was Chuck E. And Waits hung up the phone and said, ‘Chuck E.’s in love!’ I just made the rest of the song up.”
As Rickie Lee tells it, she landed a contract with Warner Bros, after her now ex-manager, Nick Mathe, had sent the label a four-song (”Company,” ”Young Blood,” ”The Last Chance Texaco” and ”Easy Money”) demo tape she had cut under the auspices of A&M Records. Warners was interested, but she insists the clincher came when Ivan Ulz sang ”Easy Money” over the phone to Lowell George. George immediately visited Rickie Lee to hear her rendition, and recorded the song several days later for his Thanks I’ll Eat It Here solo album. Warners staff producer Ted Templeman and A&R man Lenny Waronker (who had seen her Troubadour act) were intrigued, she was auditioned, signed a month later, and the rest is rock & roll.
During her rapid rise (the album was released this April) to the top of the record charts, Rickie Lee has appeared on Saturday Night Live (”It made me feel very uncomfortable; I had no control”), done a limited-showcase tour of small clubs in key U.S. cities, and has scheduled a more extensive summer road trip that includes a concert at Carnegie Hall. She’s been a headliner since her record first reached the stores, and Jones’ performances thus far have received considerable press coverage, the published reactions ranging from wild raves to caustic pans. Most of those who were sharply critical have assailed Jones for her bawdy swaggering, salty language and her bohemian ”pose.”
Rickie Lee is not without her own harshly critical inclinations, although they are largely reserved for her female contemporaries in the recording industry. She has taken a number of outspoken potshots at Linda Ronstadt, Phoebe Snow and especially Joni Mitchell.
”It’s a genuine place where I’m coming from when I write or sing my songs. They’re certainly more lyrical and genuine and less full of crap than any of the other girls I see singing songs these days in their disco wet suits or whatever. How many female singer/songwriters are very active now? Three — Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell and me. And Joan is so good, it’s a flip of the coin in terms of success. I wonder, ‘Why me and not her?’ Her music seems more accessible than mine.”
Why is she so hard on Joni Mitchell?
”Because of my expectations of her. She sings jazz but she’s not jazz, she’s not a jazz artist. She doesn’t come from jazz roots. Consequently, for me it comes off like Barbra Streisand singing a pop song. Barbra can sing the fuck out of a ballad and nobody can touch her, but when she comes out and does ‘Stoney End,’ hell, why don’t we get Olivia [Newton-John] instead? She can do it just as good. I respect somebody’s need to expand, but at the same time you ought to take into consideration what you do well.
”I get compared a lot to Tom Waits, and I can understand it only from the point of view that we’re both writing about street characters. Our writing and our singing styles have nothing in common, I think. But we walk around the same streets, and I guess it’s primarily a jazz-motivated situation for both of us. We’re living on the jazz side of life, the other side of the tracks, and it’s a real insecure, constant improvisation.”
All this is told to me with great reverence and tenderness, but also with considerable trepidation. The evening before, I had picked Rickie Lee up at her hotel and we discussed over dinner whether she could bear to go through this process at all. ”Once you give up a piece of your life to people in print and let them all take a close look at it, you can never take that information back,” she said nervously. ”You can never re-create that privacy.” She also admitted that she had been deliberately obstructive and/or deceptive in many of her previous interviews. ”If you talk to magazines, that becomes important to you. Then you’re vulnerable and it’ll fuck you every time. I think that whenever I’m vulnerable to anybody or anything, it’ll hurt me.”
There is a great curiosity concerning Rickie Lee Jones’ stories about her supposedly threadbare background and vagabond upbringing. The many, muttered rumors about her broken home, private traumas and tragedies, and a family tree full of rounders, drifters and errant vaudevillians have whetted everyone’s appetite for the truth. Is Rickie Lee’s past indeed rooted in the jazz side of life?
Her mother should know.
It was a great feeling of defeat for me whenever Rickie would leave home,” says Bettye Jane Jones, 52, seated in the kitchen of her modest home near Olympia, Washington. ”She and I were always so close up to that time. Until she got in her middle teens, she was a really good girl, but then she became a bit wild or restless. She was always a different child, more quiet and within herself. She always had a few friends and she never needed a best friend as she got older. She just stayed in her room all the time and wrote poetry and played a guitar her older brother, Danny, gave her.
”I know she had a hard time finding herself, but I didn’t know that children did these kinds of things when they got the proper love and attention at home. See, I was raised in an orphanage, so I wasn’t a typical mother, but….
”Oh, excuse me,” Mrs. Jones says with a sad smile. ”I guess I should start at the beginning, shouldn’t I?”
Rickie Lee was born in Chicago on November 8th, 1954, the second of three daughters (and one son) resulting from Bettye Jane’s marriage to Richard Loris Jones, after whom Rickie was named. During Rickie’s early childhood, she and her parents, older sister Janet Adele (now thirty-two) and brother Daniel Michael (thirty) moved from Chicago to Los Angeles and back, then to Phoenix, where sister Pamela Jo (now sixteen) was born, and finally to Olympia.
”My husband was a traveling man,” says Mrs. Jones with a weary laugh, adding that she and Mr. Jones have been separated for about eight years. ”I don’t know why we were always moving, or why he was always leaving to go to places like Kansas City, Denver, wherever. I didn’t think of ourselves as vagabonds then, but looking back now I guess we were. He was a waiter and I was a waitress, and he also worked as a furniture mover, a longshoreman and a gardener.
”I don’t know what he does now,” she apologizes, stating that she has since become a practical nurse. ”I don’t keep in touch with him. But it was Rickie’s father’s dream to someday be what she is now. He studied acting at the Pasadena’ Playhouse and wrote songs and tried to break into show business but did not succeed. From the time she could talk, my husband started teaching Rickie to sing and play music. I know there’s some resentment on his part now, and there’s been some strong words between them. I’m sure he felt he was as good as Rickie is now, ’cause that’s the way he is.”
Mrs. Jones relates these thoughts and observations in a gentle, kindly tone, any possible bitterness supplanted by a spontaneous onrush of the remorse she feels for the difficult legacy she and her husband brought to their offspring.
”You should understand that my husband came from an entertainment background and it was important for Richard to have a try at it himself. His father was a one-legged vaudeville dancer named Peg Leg Jones. He did a blackface routine and we have scrapbooks of his clippings that show he played all the best theaters around the country.”
After Mr. Jones’ mother, a chorus girl, was killed in an auto accident, Peg Leg put his infant son into a succession of boarding institutions, eventually leaving him behind in an orphanage in the South. Mrs. Jones grew up in the Richland County Children’s Home in Mansfield, Ohio. ”It’s probably still standing,” she says, mulling ruefully. ”My mother put her four children there after my father passed away. He was bombed with poison gas in World War I in the Battle of Argonne in France, and he was never the same after that, drinking and carousing till he died. My mother remarried, but she couldn’t raise us all, I guess. She’s still living, but of course I’m not in contact with her.
”I met Mr. Jones when he was a soda jerk at the Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Chicago. He was twenty-four, just out of the army, and I used to stop in there for coffee on my way to my waitressing job. Both of us being raised the way we were, when he and I got together that didn’t make for good roots.
”I’m telling you all this, I guess, to shed some light on why we weren’t a typical middle-class family and why Rickie is who she is,” Mrs. Jones says softly, her well-modulated voice wavering slightly. ”If my children and the people who read this article can understand this, maybe they can learn from their own parents’ misfortunes and hardships in raising children.”
In the years since leaving home, Rickie Lee has reconciled whatever misgivings or differences she might have had with her immediate family and has made a point of reaching out to all of them, accepting their encouragement and inviting their counsel. While assembling the material for her first album, she regularly sent tapes of the works in progress up to Washington for scrutiny.
”The kids — my little sister Pam and my nieces — loved ‘Chuck E.’ and ‘Danny’s All-Star Joint,'” Rickie Lee bubbles. ”Kids hear with a true ear. ‘Danny’s All-Star Joint’ has part of a nursery rhyme in it that I got from my nieces, sort of a jump-rope song. The original went like this.” She recites:
Hey boys, how ’bout a fight?
‘Cause here comes Rickie with her girdle on tight
She can wriggle, she can walk, she can do the Twist
But most of all, she can kiss-kiss-kiss.
Unfortunately, not all of the Jones brood responded so positively to Rickie Lee’s creative output.
”I played ‘Coolsville’ and another real motherfucker of a song called ‘So Long, Lonely Avenue’ for my father. And he looked at me and went, ‘That’s awful!’ It destroyed me so much I almost didn’t put ‘Coolsville’ on the album, and I erased the original tape version of ‘Lonely Avenue.'”
(Despite that rebuff, Rickie Lee still performs one of her father’s songs, ”The Moon Is Made of Gold.” ”It’s a lullaby to a child,” she says, ”how beautiful the night is and not to feel sad that the sun went down, because the moon is made of gold.”)
”She is hurt so easily,” Mrs. Jones later says. ”She gives so much and expects it in return, but people just aren’t like that. I think that Rickie’s very lonesome. She could have as many friends as she wants now, but she won’t ever be that way.
”My son Danny feels that the one thing I could tell you about that would give you the most insight into Rickie is the imaginary friends she had as a little girl. They had strange names like Baslau and Sholbeslau. She would take them with her to church and everywhere else, and make places for them on benches and talk to them right out loud. At one point when she was still small, I told her to stop doing that, to forget such nonsense and never pretend to talk with them again, ’cause I was really worried about her.
”Every once in a while I’ll ask her about her imaginary friends and what happened to them, and she’ll smile in a funny way and say, ‘But Mom, they’re still here.'”
God, what time is it?” says Rickie Lee, jumping up from her chair opposite mine to check a clock down the hall. ”Damnit! It’s almost midnight! Come on, there’s someplace you have to check out with me to get the whole story.”
Grabbing her heavy wool coat, we leave her hotel room and hurry out to my car.
”Where’re we going?” I ask.
”The Troubadour!” she barks. ”It’s Hoot Night. I think it’s important that you see what goes down over there.”
As we stroll into the murky environs of the legendary L. A. folk club, a few people wave to Rickie Lee but there is no fanfare. After a few minutes, we are collared by a local guitarist who wants to talk in private with her. I fetch some beers for us as they huddle in the corner, and then Rickie and I move from the outer bar into the main room to watch the last show. After about a half-hour, we go back to the bar and take a small table by the door, where the musician and another male pal of his join us. We all chat about nothing special over several rounds of beer, until Rickie suddenly asks the guitarist if he’d like to go with her the day after tomorrow on a short vacation in Mexico she’d scheduled.
”Whattaya say?” she presses. ”I don’t wanna go alone. I really need somebody to go with.” I am startled. She has been planning this trip for weeks and yet has no one to accompany her.
The musician says he’ll think about it, and shortly thereafter he and his buddy depart, leaving Rickie and me to converse alone. We begin talking about her success again, its illusions and disappointments, when a curiously helpless expression fills her face. ”You know, I haven’t told you so many things about me,” she says sadly, touching my arm. ”I don’t know why exactly, but I think I want to tell you about my older brother, Danny.”
There is something in her tone that makes me feel she is stepping over some intangible personal threshold, and I feel a strange chill as she begins to speak.
”Danny was about sixteen when he was in this accident. He was driving his motorcycle; he was on his way, actually, to pick up a new driver’s license. On the morning that he got hurt, I had this horrible feeling that something was going to go wrong. He was going out the door an I begged him not to go. He wasn’t gone more than a few minutes when the phone rang, and I screamed at my mother, ‘It’s Danny! I said he shouldn’t go! I told him not to!’
”He had been making a turn when a car came by going in the other direction and sideswiped him. His leg got caught on the bumper of the car, and he was dragged along and his leg was torn off.”
She draws a labored breath, and then continues:
”He was in a coma for months and nobody thought he would ever talk again. He lost the leg and was partially paralyzed on his other side. Danny was always an athlete, so that took care of that. My mom and dad were totally freaked out. That’s when everything in the family came apart.
”I used to sit in the hospital every day and I’d talk to Danny and read to him, ’cause even though everybody said he couldn’t hear, I knew that he could. One day I was there watching television with him and I was going to change the channel or something, and he screamed out, ‘No!‘ That was his first word in months, and he grabbed me here, on side of my neck, and said ‘No!‘ out of hatred for the life he now had, the life he was trapped with.”
(”Danny and Rickie were very close,” Rickie Lee’s mother would later tell me. ”The accident was a terrible blow for her, but it was also worse because she got shunted aside and was sent to live with her aunt when all of this happened. That really hurt her. But she’d spend all her free time with Danny at the hospital, and whenever she’d take a break, she used to ride the elevator to the top floor, get out, and then stand up there singing into the elevator shaft. You could hear it all around the hospital. It was the eeriest sound I think I ever heard. After Danny got a little bit better, he used to joke that Rickie Lee was a witch.”)
”My brother still lives at home,” Rickie Lee says, her eyes downcast. ”My mom didn’t kick him out or anything. She taught him how to talk again, and it was sort of a happy time around the house whenever Danny spoke.
”It all just made me realize how things can go totally wrong on a moment’s notice,” she murmurs, suddenly looking up at me. As she does, the houselights go on. I turn around to see that we are the last two people left in the club, and when I turn back Rickie Lee is on the verge of tears.
I suggest we get some night air and we walk over to a little park across the street, seating ourselves on the edge of a silent, inky fountain in the center of the grounds. The evening is cool and the sky is very clear, and as we glance up at the stars, Rickie Lee begins talking again.
”I depend on my imagination to keep me happy,” she says, her voice trembling. ”That’s why I prefer the nighttime to the daytime; it’s easier to picture life in different ways. You fill in the darkness, and L.A. is very quiet and empty at night. Things I saw as a little girl convinced me I need to be this way to survive. I never knew that life was so serious and hard and cruel. You can’t depend on anything at all.”
She picks up a twig and slowly stirs the black water with it.
As we’re going back to the hotel, she begs me to stop by the Tropicana motel to see if we can find Chuck E. Weiss, who lives there. But he’s not around, and neither is fellow resident Tom Waits, who is presently finishing up a European tour. Still, Rickie Lee leads me into Waits’ ramshackle apartment to show me the battered piano in the back room where Tom lets her write. Despite the awesome, pervasive clutter, the apartment retains a lot of warmth. Yet it feels hollow without the presence of Waits, and we both seem to know it.
”I just thought you’d like to see this nice, crazy little place,” she says with a shrug. ”Now you’ve seen just about everything in my world.” Back at the hotel, I drop Rickie Lee off and she takes my hand as she’s getting out of the car, gripping it briefly and then turning away. As she slips off into the shadows I reflect that, in many ways, she’s still a young girl on the run, and this transient address is little more than another soda home.
I recall something she had said to me earlier in the evening. ”You know, I hope I never forget that incredible time of evolving from a girl into a woman. You start wearing hair curlers, and your breasts are growing, and you’re climbing up into some tree to kiss some boy….It’s so important to always keep that innocence.
”God,” she had whispered, in a voice like a child’s, ”it’s so important, no matter what.”