linda ronstadt…setting it straight with an oral history
Step #8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step #9:Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
You may recognize that these two particular steps listed above are from the twelve-step program. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, chocolate or sex…it’s all the same. Lately they’ve been on my mind in regards to Linda Ronstadt. Now this is a woman I’ve never met nor seen, yet deep in my past I believe I may have done her wrong. And so today, I’ll set it straight if I can.
To some degree I think we’re all guilty of casting stones at people of fame or fortune. At the very minimum we draw conclusions about their beliefs or actions based on what we’ve read or heard or (in this You Tube generation) what we’ve seen. And it’s all a bunch of crap, you know? I mean…you do know that….right? As often as you may read about Paris or Lindsay or whoever, none of it is the truth.
I’ve had the privilege, at least I can say that in most cases, of working with and getting to know a pretty large cast of musicians, songwriters, actors and creative types. Be it a biography or a press release, an interview or review, it never exactly “hits it on the head” in terms of an accurate portrayal. It might be some version of the truth but it’s not the same as really knowing someone. Hell, how many times has the guy next door turned out to be an ax murderer and the neighbor goes on television and says “he was such a nice man…always quiet and kept to himself”.
Back to Linda. In 1971 I was a skinny, long haired teenager who worked part time after school at a record distributor. I stuffed envelopes with singles and albums, often adding bags of green and white things that I’d address to radio stations, load in boxes and drag down to the loading dock of the local post office.
One night I went out dinner with a bunch of record label promotion guys. These were the folks who got paid to get music on the air, and they were a hard drinkin’ group of good ol’ boys who trafficked in dollars and dope and what-have-you as the tools of their trade. And they loved to tell stories.
So it was this night that someone brought up some girl named Ronstadt, and mentioned that her new record was getting a ton of airplay. And someone else throws out that she was a (insert four letter word) and would do anything to anybody in order to advance her career. And of course it was a bit grittier and graphic than that and in hindsight just a bunch of macho bravado crap. But to my teenage ears it became the truth.
And so for a few years until I reached an enlightened state, whenever her name came up, I would repeat the words I’d heard. And that’s why I’m writing this today. It’s called making amends. And admitting my failures and feeling sorry for the pain I caused, even though we’ve never met.
When Linda Ronstadt left the Stone Poneys for a solo career and exploded in the seventies with one hit after another, it was hard not to pay attention. Back in those days, country and rock and folk and blues and everything else all sort of ran together, and even if you didn’t like someone’s music, it all came to you jumbled up together. There was no indie-only satellite radio station or Rhapsody or electronic filters. So her music, along with everyone from Cream to the Burritos, created the soundtrack for our generation.
Some thought she was a lightweight, and put her down for not being a songwriter. Others thought her California country-rock sound was the most evil thing in the world. A bastardization of country music distilled through Fenders and long hair, homogenized for AM radio. But that’s not exactly true.
As you’ll read below should you choose, Ronstadt came from a very traditional folk tract and her credentials are bona fide. Despite being one hell of a sexy girl on roller skates with tiny shorts and a thin waistline, she is more than just an icon of our generation. She has traveled and traversed many musical pathways and although you might not get the top forty tunes, the Nelson Riddle years, the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the Mexican folk music or anything else she’s done…her voice is magic and her aim has been true.
With no official website, one has to dig long and hard to find solid information about Linda. Most of the information on the internet is repeated and regurgitated. This is a line that has come up over and over: “As a solo artist, she released Hand Sown….Home Grown in 1969, which has been described as the first alternative country record by a female recording artist. “ I believe it appeared first in Dirty Linen magazine #106, and it may or may not be true. Nor may it really matter. And don’t waste your time debating it.
The thing is, in this No Depression community context, Ronstadt has made some damn good music, no matter what you want to call it.
“Linda-doo-ron-Ronstadt has perfected, like a late 19th-century French painter killing the Catskills, the art of the impression.” Claire O. , No Depression Issue #17, September-October 1998
Yes…she is the queen of the cover song, and I often wonder why that’s a bad thing. It’s not. Ronstadt gave careers…that would entail monthly income, publishing contracts, record label deals, concerts and more…to literally dozens and dozens of artists. Her coat tails were long and she wasn’t selfish.
Of all the albums she’s released, my favorite ones would be the two Trio titles with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, 1998’s We Ran, Adieu False Heart with Ann Savoy and Western Wall: The Tuscon Sessions, again with Emmylou…her old friend. And her version of “Silver Hair and Golden Needles” is one of the most kick ass, played and cherished tracks I’ve ever owned.
There is so much more to this woman beyond the music. She’s a mother of two, a writer, performer and an activist. She says what she feels and does what she believes in. She seems to have a fearless heart. I’ve never developed hero worship as an adult, but if there was any single person I could sit and have a cup of coffee with today, it would be Linda.
And so…in what will no doubt be my longest post or blog…I would like to present for your consideration, Linda Ronstadt. Mostly in her own words…along with a few words of others. Please do me a favor…read this. Print it out and take it to the bathroom if you must, but read the story of this great American artist.
“There was a studio called Copper State Recording Company in Tucson owned by Foster Cayce where Lee Furr worked as an engineer. We recorded there with my brother Peter and my sister Suzy. We were a folk group called the New Union Ramblers. There was a lot of seminal stuff happening there, but I was very dedicated to traditional music – most of us in my family [were], because we did a lot of traditional Mexican music in the family. I never had a real fondness for mainstream music. Even when I was kid, I didn’t like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window.” I knew there was something better. And I liked the Mexican music that I heard. It made you feel like you knew where you lived. That kind of regional music is almost gone now; radio has really destroyed it. But radio also gave me a taste for bluegrass music and a wish to emulate it. Because I heard it so early, I can sing around that kind of music, but I don’t have that kind of authenticity that Emmylou or Dolly has. They were raised in the South; I was raised in the Southwest.” Mix Magazine, December 2000
“We’d all listened to Bob Dylan and dreamed of the Greenwich Village scene. But New York was such an unimaginable concept, whereas LA was just a day trip away. The whole scene was still very sweet and innocent at this point. It was all about sitting around in little embroidered dresses and listening to Elizabethan folk ballads, and that’s how I thought it was always going to be.” Mojo April 1995
“We had a little house on Hart [Avenue in Santa Monica], and in one block, the Doors lived across the street, Pete Seeger’s dad lived in another house and the whole Seeger family thing was going there, [actor] Ron Perlman lived in another. There was a soul food restaurant in the neighborhood and you could walk to the Nuart [Theatre]. I got exposed to a cultural world I never knew about. It was a hippie crash pad, but it cost $60 a month, which was split about 15 ways. I could make $30 last for a month.” LA Times August 2010
“I remember The Byrds were happening and doing folk-rock, and I thought, there you go. So I went to the Troubador. I grew up singing Mexican music, and that’s based on indigenous Mexican rhythms. Mexican music also has an overlay of West African music, based on huapango drums, and it’s kind of like a 6/8 [time signature], but it really is a very syncopated 6/8. And that’s how I attack vocals. Rock `n’ roll comes from black music, and I came from Mexican music.” Mix Magazine, December 2000
“I wanted to do traditional music, which would include Mexican music. I tried to talk them [The Stone Poneys] into doing certain Mexican songs. They liked it, but they didn’t really understand the rhythms and how to play it. I kept trying to get back to traditional stuff with a lot of harmony, which is what I loved. I remember I had learned ‘Different Drum’ off a Greenbriar Boys record, and I knew it as a bluegrass approach. We recorded it that way, but the producer at Capitol didn’t like it. Came back the next day, and there was an orchestra there. So I recorded with an orchestra, because that’s what they told me to do. I never liked it, but it was a big hit.” Goldmine #589, February 21, 2003
Chris Hillman, who’d introduced Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, played matchmaker another time. Backstage at a concert in Texas, he put the newcomer together with Linda Ronstadt, telling them, “You two could be good friends.” That was in 1973, on Neil Young’s Time Fades Away tour when Ronstadt was the opening act. They remain as close as sisters. “When I met her, I thought, ‘I would give anything to be able to sing with Emmylou Harris. I wish we could become the Everly Sisters.’ Well, she had a singing partner, Gram, and I thought it was a wonderful combination. I remember telling my boyfriend at the time, who was Albert Brooks, that Emmy could sing higher and lower, and louder and softer, and she could phrase a lot better, than I could. She really had country-rock nailed. Country-rock had been my little niche, but I’d been getting pushed very hard to move it more into rock ‘n’ roll. And I said, ‘She just does this so well, I think I’ll stop fighting this.’ Because she just does it better than anybody. I made a choice. I decided that loving her music was more important than feeling that I was the queen of country-rock. And then I made a decision that she was my singing sister, and that when I got the chance to sing with her, I would do it. So we sang a duet on ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You).’ We won a Grammy for that record.” Goldmine Magazine, August 1996
“I gotta tell you about drugs. I’m not gonna say I didn’t inhale, because I inhaled, I snorted; I this, I that. I didn’t inject. But I have some kind of a liver that just doesn’t metabolize drugs. It just won’t. I mean, I can’t take prescription drugs or drink coffee. So I have to say I tried most everything and didn’t like much of anything. But it was so much a part of the scene. I can’t drink at all – I never drank. Some people drink and say, ‘I got a great buzz going. I feel really good,’ and they get really mellow. I just throw up, and I have to go to bed for a long time. It’s like getting a bad case of the flu. I felt the same way about smoking pot. I just didn’t like it. After 20 minutes I’d feel like I wanted to peel my skin off with a knife.” Goldmine #589, February 21, 2003
Linda Ronstadt is a “horrid interpreter of…rock and soul material, frequently missing the essence…and never cutting below the surface.” Dave Marsh, Rolling Stone Reader
“Many of the troubles that some rock critics have with Ronstadt as a performer and a public image have to do with [her] sexuality, and because of it, I think, judgments about her recorded work sometimes become tangled unwittingly with preconceptions about her person. The first thing that needs to be said on this subject is that whatever one may think of Ronstadt as a sex bomb, it is by no means a false representation of the “real” person- all that public iconography, right down to the airbrushed album covers, is part of the same process whereby she attempts to make herself as alluring as she can.” John Rockwell, published 1978, Stranded-Rock and Roll for a Desert Island
“Men give you a nasty choice. Either you put up with them chipping away at you emotionally, or you don’t have them. Well, I’ve chosen not to have them- not to live with someone. I chose to have lots of boyfriends instead of trying to pin it all on one, and I look to myself for my own security. I don’t see my life as a failure because I live alone. I wake up sometimes and say, ‘Oh my god, this is torture’ But other times I say, ‘So I’m alone, so I can read.’ And sometimes I wake up in the morning and I’m alone. But I don’t turn around and say, ‘Look what’s become of me,’ because the man is always a good friend. I don’t feel I’m promiscuous particularly. I can’t expect to fall in love with every guy I go to bed with: that’s just silly. But there’s no reason why you can’t have an intimate relationship based on affection and tenderness and warmth and friendship- and sex. It’s not love, but it’s not bad!” New Times, October 1977
“At some point I became aware that LA was just this giant Xerox machine which took Xeroxed copies of different regional cultures and broadcast them to the world – focused through this lens of Los Angeles sensibility, which was very blond and twee and strange. Also I got very bored with the rock and roll world. As soon as I started singing stuff by George Gershwin I thought, This is it, I’m never singing Tumbling Dice again!” Mojo, April 1995
She left San Francisco in the late ’80s and moved back to Tucson, where she grew up in the ’50s, a small-town rancher’s daughter whose grandfather owned the hardware store. SF Chronicle, June 2006
Singer Linda Ronstadt not only got booed, she got the boot after lauding filmmaker Michael Moore and his new movie “Fahrenheit 9/11” during a performance at the Aladdin hotel-casino in Las Vegas. Before singing “Desperado” for an encore Saturday night, the 58-year-old rocker called Moore a “great American patriot” and “someone who is spreading the truth.” She also encouraged everybody to see the documentary about President Bush. Ronstadt’s comments drew loud boos and some of the 4,500 people in attendance stormed out of the theater. People also tore down concert posters and tossed cocktails into the air. “It was a very ugly scene,” Aladdin President Bill Timmins told The Associated Press. “She praised him and all of a sudden all bedlam broke loose.” Associated Press, July 19, 2004
There are no television sets in her house and no computers (she tried and sent back the iMac she received). She doesn’t type and she writes only with an Aurora fountain pen or a Mont Blanc. There is also very little recorded music heard in Linda’s house, though she has saved many Sinatra albums, preferring those vinyl discs to CDs. “I don’t like the way CDs sound; they destroyed the pleasure in recorded music. I like hi-fi music. I have one house. It’s a modest house compared to the one I used to live in. I have a big garden, which I love. My goal is to grow everything I eat. I don’t have anything against meat. I think that people should raise their rabbits or their chickens in the back – forget about cows, you know? Cows are the beginning of the downfall of civilization, because cows cause erosion. They are good pets – I love them. But not for food.” US Magazine, December 18 2000
She left Arizona [and moved back to San Francisco] she says, because she could no longer stand the strip-mall culture and right-wing mentality. Ronstadt is still without management, a real record deal or even her own Web site. She has no publicity representatives or handlers outside of her crisply efficient personal assistant. SF Chronicle, June 2006
Recently, Linda Ronstadt has emerged as a major arts advocate in the United States. On September 23, 2007, Ronstadt was inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame. In 2008, Ronstadt was appointed Artistic Director of the San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival. On March 31, 2009, in testimony that the LA Times viewed as “remarkable”. Ronstadt testified to the Congressional House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment & Related Agencies, attempting to convince lawmakers to budget $200 million in the 2010 fiscal year for the National Endowment for the Arts. In May 2009, Ronstadt received an honorary doctorate of music degree from the prestigious Berklee College of Music for her achievements and influence in music, and her contributions to American and international culture. Wikipedia, edited.
Linda Ronstadt has joined a group filing a suit against the Arizona law on immigration. She is one of several entertainers who have voiced their opposition to the new state law. “Mexican-Americans are not going to take this lying down,” singer Linda Ronstadt, a Tucson native, said at a news conference on a lawsuit planned by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Immigration Law Center. Associated Press, April 2010