The day after my 60th birthday (which I celebrated with my usual non- aplomb) a news item appeared on my computer screen. It said that Linda Ronstadt, the country rock diva I fell in love with in the 60s had lost her singing voice to Parkinson’s disease. According to the article, the dreaded Parkinson’s had also taken a chunk of her mobility, causing her to steady herself using poles when walking on uneven ground and utilizing a wheelchair at other times.
I am saddened by this news for lots of reasons that I will go into, all at least a little selfish. The last time I saw Linda perform live was back in June, 2006 at what had been the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island and was then called the Capitol One Bank Theatre. Sounds a little heavy-handed but, hey it was the W. Bush years and Linda had already gotten in trouble in Vegas for making critical comments about our then leader of the free world. Unchastened she made a few more comments that night in Westbury, prompting only one boorish outburst from a guy in the audience obviously enamored with W. and presumably dragged to the show by his wife.
The sex symbol of rock n roll was gone but that blessed voice remained. And while any Ronstadt show is too short, her body of work has become so extensive and diverse that one would always be disappointed by what was left out of the show, though never by what was included.
How things had changed over the years. The first time I ever heard of Linda Ronstadt she was this sexy young thing performing on one of those Saturday afternoon TV music shows with a band called the Stone Poneys. They did a song called “Different Drum” which would become their first hit. I was probably 14 at the time (making Linda an unattainable 21) but I was smitten.
The choice of the song alone made a statement about Linda Ronstadt though I don’t know if it was consciously selected for that reason. The song is a brush off (in the clichéd “it’s not you it’s me” tradition) that guys routinely dispensed to their wannabe (or soon to be ex-) girlfriends. In fact the song was written by Mike Nesmith (of Monkees fame) probably for himself or some other male singer. Can’t you just picture Mike trying to let her down easy singing, “I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty, I’m saying I’m not ready for any person, place or thing, trying to pull the reins in on me. So Goodbye, I’m leaving. I see no sense in crying or grieving…”
Typical sleazy guy, right?
But that lyric in the hands of a woman with a powerful voice and a Daisy Mae sex appeal was revolutionary. Here was a hot, sexy woman telling her guy, “I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty…”
Guys are not pretty…that’s not masculine. Yet Linda had begun to establish her rock music street-cred as an equal to the boys, at a time when feminism was just finding its voice. She could stand there all cute, giggly and typically barefoot, and guys would melt. But she would still be standing.
Over the years as her star rose first to cult status within the music industry and among the early generation of “rock critics,” and then to superstar sex symbol gracing the coveted cover of the Rolling Stone at least four times that I can recall, along with the cover of Time Magazine and countless other pubs, Linda’s rep, fairly or unfairly, seemed to reflect that self-possessed woman who lets the guy down easy as she is walking out the door.
Sometimes –perhaps even most often – the guys were other musicians…sometimes they were stars in other fields like movies or politics.
In fairness it was a time known for “sex, drugs and rock n roll,” and Linda was a rock star. Still, Linda never lost her sense of self or of the music, at least not from where I was standing. And from where I was standing, that voice never failed to give me goose bumps.
Funny thing is, for all the talk of sex-symbol this or that, she really did break the mold image wise. Over the years lots of female singers went by one name: there was Cher, Madonna, Odetta, Annette (back in the day) and nowadays Adele, but only two female singers that I can think of have the distinction of being tagged by their last names alone, like the Chairman himself…As it was with Sinatra (Frank not Nancy) and Streisand, she is Ronstadt.
I first met her in 1969 at what was then the Academy of Music on 14th Street in Manhattan. She was the opening act for Tim Buckley and “Special Guest Star Van Morrison.” Near as I can tell from the historical data, some of the members of her backup band that night went on to form the Eagles. The night was historic musically because Tim Buckley put on a very freakin’ strange show which I described at the time as making animal sounds. Others in the audience seemed as puzzled as I was, but fortunately Van Morrison was his typically brilliant self. And that opening act…and the reason I was there at all (sorry Van), was barefoot Linda and her band. She sang “Long, Long Time” that night and it gave me those goose bumps for the first time. It would never fail to elicit the same reaction from me whenever I heard her perform it live. The encore was “Different Drum,” and it remains the only time I ever heard her perform it live.
The ticket to the show was around $3 as I recall and I could not afford to buy another for the second show. I figured to lay low in the bathroom between shows so I didn’t get tossed out, and then mix in with the late show crowd and watch the second show too. As I was passing the candy concession in the theater enroute to my hideout, there was Linda Ronstadt looking to get a snack. The young guy working the candy counter gave her whatever candy bar she had picked and refused payment when she offered. She kind of half-giggled and said thank you. I watched and said nothing (or perhaps Hi) and proceeded on my way. Got to see the second show (though I think I left after Linda’s set). It was late after all, and if I was lucky I was facing a two-hour trip back to Queens…F train from 14th Street and Union Square to Kew Gardens Union Turnpike Station followed by the Q44A bus to the “City Line” that divided Queens and Nassau Counties.
In the years that followed I got to see Ronstadt perform maybe two dozen times on various tours and even managed to chronicle part of her tour with Jackson Browne for a feature in a rock paper I was writing for. I had back stage and even dressing room access at Carnegie Hall on that tour, at a venue in Philly…at a show at Seaton Hall University in New Jersey, got to know some in her band and crew and managed mostly to be a fly on the wall…though occasionally a very stoned fly, as some very fine weed would make its way around the dressing room. Truth be told, I never saw Linda take a toke…not to say she didn’t or she did. Just, I never saw it.
I saw her again in New Jersey at the Capitol Theater the night Jimmy Page stopped by the dressing room to say hello. I wasn’t on assignment then, just welcome to be there.
She was playing the old Tennis Center in Forest Hills around “When Will I Be Loved” time, and making headlines for her romance with California Governor Jerry Brown. Her star had risen and those in the business who were not early fans were flocking around her. The same publisher that printed the “On the Road with Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt” feature, turned me down cold when I asked to be assigned to write the review for Ronstadt’s upcoming gig at My Father’s Place, an iconic music club in the Village of Roslyn on Long Island.
When I asked him why I couldn’t have the assignment he said to me, “Altman, I’ll give you two reasons…first, letting you review Ronstadt would be like letting you review your own Bar Mitzvah and second, because I’m doing it myself.”
Sooooo…with no tickets for any of the sold out shows at My Father’s Place – and there were three sold-out shows that night – I went down to the club with my buddy Evan. The doors had not yet opened for the first show and the line of ticket holders stretched down the street, waiting to get in. Half way down the line was my publisher who nodded as he saw me bypass the line and head for the front door of the club. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do when I got to the door, but as I approached providence stepped in. There was Ed Black…Linda’s brilliant pedal steel guitarist whom I had come to know from all those previous shows. After an exchange of “Hey mans” and “how ya beens,” Ed turned to the guy on the door and pointing to us said, “him and him, guests of Ronstadt, let ‘em in.”
And in we went and in we stayed for all three shows…no longer hiding in the bathroom…welcome in the backstage/dressing room area. Between shows, Linda and the band had a poker game going…not sure who was winning but her musical director and keyboard player Andrew Gold seemed no worse for the wear. The first show went off without a hitch, as did the second. Between the second and third show, the pace seemed to be taking its toll and the band and Linda started goofing around with some favorite songs not in their show.
Someone started playing “Heat Wave” and before long the whole band was jamming a cover version of the old Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit, with Linda on lead vocals (naturally). They rolled through the third set, with Linda confiding to the audience that she felt like “a big Wurlitzer” up there. Apparently losing track of what they had already played that set, they realized they needed a rousing number to close the show. With nothing left on the set list, they went with the impromptu rendition of “Heat Wave” that they had horsed around with between shows. No set arrangement meant no set ending to the song, so the band huddled up on stage and and told Linda to finish with a “superstar exit.” After her final note, Linda raised her arms in the air like Ali after a knock out, said thank you to the audience and walked off stage to cheers. And the band rocked on till the house lights came up. Not long after, Linda released a single of “Heat Wave” which charted at number five on the Billboard Hot 100.
Later on Linda did the series of big band albums with Nelson Riddle, performed on Broadway as Mabel in “Pirates of Penzance,” recorded albums of canciones celebrating her Mexican roots, collaborated with her friends Emmy Lou Harris and Dolly Parton and did some notable duets with Aaron Neville and also with James Ingram.
Watching Ronstadt perform was a treat, not simply because of her exquisitely powerful voice and ability to phrase a song to maximize its meaning and its impact; not even because of the visual package this beautiful, sexy woman presented that kept audiences transfixed on her. No, the power of the live performance was in the way she performed. The way she seemed swept up by the music and lyrics, closing her eyes and almost seducing the microphone. Not overtly sexual…more sensual and sensory. Or celebrating the hip swinging joy of a rock standard like “That’ll Be the Day.” And hitting and sustaining those gorgeous, goose bump-provoking notes.
Those selfish reasons I mentioned at the outset are by now apparent. There will be no more Linda Ronstadt concerts to go to, no new recordings to soak in. Still, listening to Ronstadt sing is a gift that will never go away. The recordings exist for all to hear for generations to come. There are even some pretty compelling performance videos on You Tube. And in a couple of weeks, Linda Ronstadt’s own memoirs will be published. We are told they don’t mention the Parkinson’s diagnosis. Perhaps that will be for another book or perhaps it’s simply too personal to share. I cannot imagine what it must be like for a person who clearly took so much joy from singing and gave so much joy by singing to find out that she can no longer perform in that way.
I will read her memoirs and try to juxtapose her recollections and her vantage point with my own limited though fortunate memories of her. And I will send kindly vibes of thanks over the ether for all that she brought into my life in the 46 years since I first heard her sing.