last chance texaco
The song "Luka" is one of the most unusual, improbable hits ever. If one looks back on the chart listings from 1956 to the present day and looked at the top 3 songs in America every week of that 32 year period, you'd be hard pressed to find a long list of songs that met this admittedly subjective set of criteria: a hit (by definition since it falls in the top 3), well-crafted lyrically and melodically, and long-lived (a song that is not faddish nor full of gimmicks or tricks). Still more difficult is to find a song or recording artist who achieved some sort of breakthrough, whether an innovation in sound or that opened doors to other performers by virtue of that song. By this fourth criteria the list of songs and artists drops to a small list indeed. (A song like Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" is a good example: a top 2 hit, an accomplished lyric, an unforgettable instrumental track, and enormously influential on every level - a breakthrough. Not every song achieves this impact, but I think it set a new kind of benchmark.)
The odds of this happening are extremely small: the odds of getting a record deal, writing the song, getting it played, and people buying it in mass. So small are the odds (a generous estimate is 1 chance in 10,000 songs, assuming you have a record deal) that its no wonder that "Luka" prompted the reaction it did - it was so far removed from industry expectations that when it hit, it had an electric effect, artistically and financially, and paved the way for alot of other artists and their music.
By this measure there are few artists from, say, the late 1970's to the mid 1980's who had anything like this sort of impact artistically and commercially, male or female, in any genre of music whether rock, punk, or folk influenced. Vega's forerunners are a small list: Patti Smith (even here it's debatable - Smith never had the national, commercial success Vega has had), Elvis Costello, (for a time) The Clash, Chrissie Hynde, Talking Heads and a few others.
Which brings us to Rickie Lee Jones. Her story is a good case in point. I'll never forget buying her first album in, I think, the summer of 1979. It had an enormous impact on me, especially one song. She made more artistically accomplished albums latter on, but this first record was her first success, and, as it turns out, her only serious foray into mass sales. She has not had a hit song to match "Chuck E's in Love," the medium-sized hit from the album.
There are several gems on that record. My favorites are
"On Saturday Afternoons in 1962," a short, melancholy song featuring
Jones' vocal and a piano, and the magnificent "Last Chance Texaco."
Listening to "Last Chance" you really are struck by how much timing
and luck play a part in the music business. The song will remain a trivia question,
known to a few fans of Jones, and not to many more people than that. Yet the
song sends shivers down my spine -- her lonesome voice, the dark flash of headlights,
"the sleepy diesel eyes," the sense of mystery, of desperation, of
rootlessness. You can hear a foreshadowing of Shawn Colvin in the vocal, melody,
and the theme. You can hear the echo of the freewheelin' Bob Dylan. On its surface
the song describes a road trip and pulling over for gas at the Texaco service
station. Yet if one song could capture a part of the American myth, it just
might be this song. The metaphor of the "last chance" we grasp for,
the desperate hope, and the knowledge that the odds are long. The image of the
open road which is so entwined with the American myth. The car as culture symbol
and as metaphor. The man or woman on their last legs like the tired, aging car.
Jones' wail at the end of the song, imitating the sound a passing car makes
as it rushes by you on a road, is one of the great recorded moments in pop.
Yet here it lies in the discount
bin for $5.99. I buy the CD.
Suzanne Vega's breakthrough, sustained output of great songs, and continued influence and profile in the music business is, therefore, nothing short of remarkable. Life would be alot less enjoyable without "Last Chance Texaco," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Hey Jude," "Sweet Jane," "Luka," or "In Liverpool." To paraphrase the great rock writer, Lester Bangs:
I'll leave you to your world and you to mine. But
this one last thing I'll say to you: we will never agree again like we did about