Tom Waits wheezed a chuckle as he hung up the phone. "Chuck E's in love!" he exclaimed to his girlfriend, Rickie Lee Jones. It was a friend, Chuck E Weiss, who'd just called in from Denver.
Back in 1977, Jones was a folk singer at the Los Angeles Troubadour. "This fella, Chuck E, was working in the kitchen of the club, and that's how I met him," she recalled. "A little later on, Tom saw me there, and he and Chuck E and I started hanging out together." They formed a sort of latter-day beat trinity, with the same sense of humour and adventure. "She and Waits and I used to steal the black lawn jockeys from homes in Beverly Hills and hop freight trains together," said Weiss.
By 1979, Waits was a successful recording artist and was dating Jones. Weiss, in turn, was beating a musical path of his own, playing with Waits in a touring band called the Nocturnal Emissions. Waits name-checks him in a couple of songs, describing him as "the kind of guy that would steal his own car".
When Jones finally secured a recording contract, she remembered the phrase Waits had used after that phone call. She had the first song for her debut, self-titled, album; a fertile blend of boho songwriting and bereted jazz. The Warner Bros producer Russ Titelman recalled her sessions as spontaneous and explosive: "She was just a kid with a guitar, but she knew exactly what she wanted. At the end of the session, we played through the album and she sat there and asked, `Is that me?'."
Trailing the album as a seven-inch, "Chuck E's in Love" got both Jones's and Weiss's names known, but it also marked the end of the three-way partnership. Waits left Jones for New York and new challenges, while his ex picked up a Grammy for Best New Artist. Weiss took a regular gig at a Hollywood dive called the Central, and later opened the nightclub with Johnny Depp where River Phoenix died in 1993. He's had a sporadic recording career, releasing just a couple of albums over the last two decades, but never quite escaping Waits's musical shadow.
And who was Chuck E in love with? "His cousin," said Jones. "I mean, that's what I heard."
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