If you don’t know that multiplatinum-selling singer/songwriter Jewel didn’t have running water, lived in Alaska, ran away from an abusive home, busked in San Diego, lived in her car, and got agoraphobia because of all of this, you’d have to be living under a vacuum-sealed rock. In the press, Jewel has had more retellings of her origin story than Spider-Man. Hers was always the underdog story that people loved to tell. I mean, who doesn’t love a ‘rags to riches’ story?
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Over the course of a dozen studio albums and half as many books, she’s told her own story numerous times with varying degrees of openness and vulnerability. The 25th anniversary reissue of her breakthrough album Pieces of You which is getting a massive expansion to include demos, alternate mixes, outtakes and live versions, is a perfect snapshot of an unpolished Jewel, wet behind the ears with a youthful naiveté but not unaccustomed to the dark and sinister human condition. When revisited a quarter of a century later with a different and contemporary lens, some of the themes she mused about back then become almost premonitory about the world today, such as police brutality (“We try to hustle ’em, try to bustle ’em, try to cuss ’em / The cops want someone to bust down on Orleans Avenue” from “Who Will Save Your Soul”) and the opioid crisis (“We spill the pills and sweep them under the rug / My little sister is a zombie in a body” from “Little Sister”).
Another one of these prophetic gems that is getting a new once-over is “Race Car Driver” (which American Songwriter is premiering) and its portent into the modern #metoo movement and sexual harassment.
“This is a rare track that was completed during the recording of my first album with The Stray Gators, Neil Young’s band,” she explains of the song. Recorded in 1993 at Young’s personal studio in Redwood City, California but not included on the original album, “Race Car Driver” has taken on mythic status as a fan favorite at her live shows. A folkier acoustic demo version was released in 1994 on the seven-track, promo-only EP “Save the Linoleum,” but this rare outtake speeds up the tempo and adds a full band to the mix.
While it’s easy to see Pieces of You as a pleasant little folkpop album and a charming debut, there’s a darkness lurking just beneath the surface. “Race Car Driver” can easily be seen as a silly ditty about a hitchhiker who gets picked up by a testosterone-fueled bro trying to impress her with his ride. You can almost smell the Drakkar Noir.
“One day, I was driving in the middle of the desert on the 15 Freeway outside of San Diego. I blew a tire and had to hitchhike to the nearest gas station,” she recalls about the incident that inspired the song. “This guy ends up pulling over in a pretty funny car – I remember it had neon lights that light up underneath and fuzzy dice. After I hopped in, he started talking to me about how much he loves this car and how he’s studying and practicing to be a race car driver.”
On the surface, the track a groan-worthy story of a rather ridiculous “sensitive man of the 90s.” But in a world populated by Blumhouse films, it’s the perfect setting for a horror film. “The song is written from the perspective of that man and what was going through his head,” she adds, doing nothing to dispel the dread.
Engorged with testosterone-fueled hubris (“They gonna paint a red flame firebird on front / I will be Evel Knievel / you can double my stunts / This ain’t no Malibu Barbie Corvette”), he embodies the personification of the sexual predator, especially when you consider that this is basically a story of trapped confinement and rape-y menace (“And I will grab the wheel like it was your hair I was pulling back / I’m gonna straddle the line”).
Before it turns really dark however, Jewel takes a swift left turn and deflates the machismo (“just a real small man in a real big car”). It’s not too difficult to see this kernel of darkness and seriousness at the core that resonates in retrospect, when we are still having conversations about the ways in which men treat women.
While the album might have been unfairly dismissed early on as naïve, Pieces of You in retrospect was much more layered than it was given credit for. Sure, “You Were Meant for Me” and “Foolish Games” might have been radio ear candy, but merely scratching the surface on some of her songs like “Race Car Driver” exposes a more complex story underneath. That is the beauty of Jewel’s universal and evergreen storytelling on her debut and one of the reasons she’s still relevant now, 25 years later.
You might have heard her origin story dozens of times before, but revisiting it through her music can uncover some interesting nuggets and gems. It’s these sparkles that makes Jewel’s songwriting quite refined.