Linda Ronstadt, the queen of rock and roll singers in the 1970s and 1980s, has been in the news a lot lately, with the publication of her long-awaited new memoir “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir” and her startling disclosure in August that she suffers from Parkinson’s. So, I was very curious to see her be interviewed on stage at the 92Y in Manhattan on Wednesday evening.
Ronstadt has always been a subject of fascination to her fans and critics, anyway. It’s hard to recognize now just how immense a figure she was in popular music in the 1970s and 1980s. Whether she was belting out Heat Wave, crooning Blue Bayou or moving on to Broadway and Spanish-language songs, Ronstadt had her personal stamp on everything she sang. She also helped pave the way for every other female rock and pop star who followed her. Read her recent interview in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/01/arts/music/linda-ronstadt-discusses-her-memoir-and-parkinsons.html…
Yet, at the time, we didn’t really know that much about her. Yes, she was forever heard on the radio, was portrayed in the gossipy media as California Gov. Jerry Brown’s occasional girlfriend, espoused liberal politics and seemed a staple of LA’s rock scene. But even though she had the ambition to go from one musical style to another and revealed much of herself in her music, you’d have been hard pressed to know really what she was all about.
Today I have a better idea. Ronstadt, now 67 years old, was totally charming at the 92Y, witty, self-aware, down to earth and utterly self-deprecating while showering her fans with kindness during a too-broef Q/A session at the end. Interviewed on stage by veteran music writer John Rockwell, Ronstadt had a kind word to say about all of her collaborators, ranging from Phoebe Snow and Emmylou Harris to Nelson Riddle.
Dressed entirely in black, Ronstadt discussed the process that led her to writing her memoir. She joked that she previously had only written “a thank-you note.” She had almost too much respect for the printed word to attempt to write down her thoughts.
But the rock and roll memoir has become a coveted piece of a publisher’s showcase, what with Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Neil Young, Pete Townshend, Gregg Allman Eric Clapton and others all writing their life stories, to sizable sales and often very flattering reviews. Ronstadt didn’t write many songs so she hasn’t reaped the royalties that go to songwriters over time. The mother of two children, she needs to find ways to make money since she won’t record or perform again.
She was wooed when her publisher reassured her that she didn’t “have to tell us about your boyfriends — just the music.”
My favorite part of Ronstadt’s presentation was when she reminisced about her early days in Los Angeles, after leaving her hometown near Tucson, when the LA music scene congregated around the Troubadour. She noted how people walked “real slow” to the bathroom just so they could get a glimpse of who might be on stage, ranging from stand-up comics like Steve Martin and George Carlin to James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Catching Bonnie Raitt at the beginning of her career was a “humbling” experience.
Ronstadt recalled bumping into Janis Joplin one night in a club and they both lamented whether they should dress and act on stage in a “funky-mama” or an ‘earth-mama” style. Eventually, they concluded that Maria Muldaur always looked right.
She noted that Chris Hillman, a friend from The Byrds, suggested that she get to know a fellow singer named Emmylou Harris because “you two would like each other.” The meeting led to musical collaborations and a lifelong friendship. “Emmy’s singing is like a prayer,” Linda said animatedly. (Singing with Aaron Neville was “like flying to the moon.”)
We got a glimpse into what made and makes her tick when she admitted: “I’m not very competitive.” That’s why Ronstadt could genuinely sound so generous in her praise of her peers, offering a kind word about all of them and saying that she was not as good of a singer as many of them (which is, of course, ridiculous).
She lamented her heyday of playing in “those awful” hockey arenas, where the sound was so bad for the performer that she felt as if he could “hear the echo of a guitar solo somebody played last week.”
Ronstadt yearned for the idea of performing on a stage wirh a curtain, after all of those debilitating tours. She reached out to theater icon Joe Papp, who offered her a part on stage. It was “the most fun” she ever had, she said smiling at the memory.
Ronstadt didn’t talk much about her Parkinson’s condition, but didn’t at all hide from it, either. She showed courage and class by talking in a straight-forward way and saying sadly that she will never sing again for audiences.
I saw Ronstadt perform a rock and roll show in Radio City Music Hall in November 1982, and it was terrific. I remember marveling at how short she was, yet possessed such a powerful singing voice. When she brought out her old friend James Taylor to sing toward the end of the gig, the place exploded.
Back then, as a fan of Ronstadt’s music, I never had an idea that she was so articulate and thoughtful. Fans see their heroes bounding on stage and belting out their hits and you think you really know them. But, of course, we have no idea. Ronstadt, even though she was constantly in the public eye, remained elusive to us — by her choice, no doubt, preferring to remain out of reach of the “star-maker machinery” that destroyed so many of her musical peers.
Nowadays, she lives a quiet life in San Francisco, raising her children in a normal setting that doesn’t smack of the crazy LA music scene. She recognizes her place in musical history and appreciates the accolades and the outpouring of affection she receives from her fans. Last night, she was greeted at the 92Y with a prolonged standing ovation. When she offered to sign copies of her memoir after the event, the line was so long that she had to beg off, disappointing the hundreds of people who stood on line.
Sadly, she has decided not to sing any more, because of her medical concerns. Fortunately, we can learn a lot about this gifted pop icon and she will, hopefully, go right on talking with us.
My 5 Favorite Linda Ronstadt Songs:
1) Silver Threads and Golden Needles
2) When Will I Be Loved
3) Poor Poor Pitiful Me
4) Long Long Time
5) You’re No Good