Linda Ronstadt Has Found Another Voice

Save this storySave this storySave this storySave this story

It’s been ten years since Linda Ronstadt, once the most highly paid woman in rock and roll, sang her last concert. In 2013, the world found out why: Parkinson’s disease had rendered her unable to sing, ending a musical career that had left an indelible mark on the classic-rock era and earned her ten Grammy Awards. Ronstadt’s earth-shaking voice and spunky stage presence jolted her to fame in the late sixties, and her renditions of “Different Drum” (with her early group, the Stone Poneys), “You’re No Good” (from her breakthrough album, “Heart Like a Wheel”), “Blue Bayou,” and “Desperado” helped define the California folk-rock sound. Along the way, two of her backup musicians left to form the Eagles.

But Ronstadt, now seventy-three, didn’t rest on her greatest hits, experimenting instead with a dizzying range of genres. In the eighties, she starred in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway, recorded a standards album with the veteran arranger Nelson Riddle, and released “Canciones de Mi Padre,” a collection of traditional Mexican songs, which became the best-selling non-English-language album in American history. The record also returned Ronstadt to her roots. Her grandfather was a Mexican bandleader, and her father had serenaded her mother with Mexican folk songs in a beautiful baritone. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, close to the border—a place that has since become a political flashpoint.

A new documentary, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and opening September 6th, looks back on Ronstadt’s adventurous career. She spoke with The New Yorker twice by phone from her home in San Francisco. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.

What is your day-to-day life like these days?

Well, I lie down a lot, because I’m disabled. I do a lot of reading, but I’m starting to have trouble with my eyes, so that’s kind of a problem. It’s called getting old.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Thomas Mann, “The Magic Mountain.” I somehow got to be this age without having read Thomas Mann, and I’m trying to make up for it. I read “Buddenbrooks,” and I fell in love with his writing. His books are nice and long, so it takes a couple of days to get through them.

Who do you spend most of your time with?

My son lives here. My daughter comes over. I have really nice friends; they come over and hang out with me. It’s hard for me to get out. It’s hard for me to sit in a restaurant or sit up in a chair. It’s hard for me to stand around, so if there’s a situation where I’m liable to be caught in a doorway talking to somebody for five minutes, I tend to avoid that.

What kind of music do you listen to?

I love opera. It’s so terrible—I listen to it on YouTube. I’m an audiophile, but I’ve just gotten used to the convenience of being able to hear twenty-nine different performances of one role. I listen to other music, too. I found this Korean band that I thought was sort of interesting on Tiny Desk concerts, the NPR series. They get musicians to come in and play live in a really tiny little space behind a desk. It’s no show biz, just music. They have great stuff. They had Randy Newman. Natalia Lafourcade, who’s a Mexican artist that I love particularly. Whatever’s new. The Korean band I saw was called SsingSsing.

Is it like K-pop?

No, it’s based on Korean traditional singing. It was kind of like David Bowie bass and drums, and then this really wild South Korean traditional singing. It’s polytonal. It’s a different scale than we use, with more notes in it. And a lot of gender-crossing. It looked like I was seeing the future.

In the documentary, you say, “I can sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.” That sounds either comforting or excruciating.

Well, it’s a little frustrating when my family comes over from Arizona, because we would all sing together. That way we don’t have to talk about politics. It makes for harmonious—I don’t mean the pun—relations. But I can’t do that anymore, so I just invite the ones who are Democrats.

When you sing in your mind, what do you hear?

I can hear the song. I can hear what I would be doing with it. I can hear the accompaniment. Sometimes I don’t remember the words, so I have to look them up. It’s not usually my songs I’m singing. I don’t listen to my own stuff very much.

Do you ever hear yourself on the radio in unexpected places?

I listen to Mexican radio—the local Banda station out of San Jose. I mostly listen to NPR. I don’t listen to mainstream radio anymore. I don’t know the acts and I don’t know the music. It doesn’t interest me, particularly. There are some good modern people. I like Sia. She’s a very original singer.

How do you cope with the frustration of not being able to do everything you want to do?

I’ve just accepted it. There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I have a form of Parkinsonism that doesn’t respond to standard Parkinson’s meds, so there’s no treatment for what I have. It’s called P.S.P.—Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I just have to stay home a lot. The main attraction in San Francisco is the opera and the symphony, and I make an effort and go out, but I can only do it a few times a year. It makes me sick that I’m ever not in my seat when Michael Tilson Thomas raises his baton, because he’s such a good conductor, and I miss hearing orchestral music. My friends come over and play music, and that’s where I like it best, anyway: in the living room.

As you tell it, the first symptoms you noticed before you knew you had Parkinson’s were in your singing voice.

Yeah. I’d start to do something and it would start to take the note and then it would stop. What you can’t do with Parkinsonism is repetitive motions, and singing is a repetitive motion.

You broke onto the scene with such a powerhouse voice. What did it feel like, singing with that voice?

Well, I was trying to figure out how to sing! And trying to be heard over the electric instruments. I had no idea that I sang as loud as I did. I always thought I wasn’t singing loud enough, because in the early days there were no monitors. You couldn’t hear yourself.

In the documentary, you talk about growing up in Tucson, Arizona, and how culturally rich that was. How do the current politics around the border resonate with you?

They’re devastating. I feel filled with impotent rage. I grew up in the Sonoran Desert, and the Sonoran Desert is on both sides of the border. There’s a fence that runs through it now, but it’s still the same culture. The same food, the same clothes, the same traditional life of ranching and farming. I go down there a lot, and it’s so hard to get back across the border. It’s ridiculous. It used to be that you could go across the border and have lunch and visit friends and shop in the little shops there. There was a beautiful department store in the fifties and sixties. My parents had friends on both sides of the border. They were friends with the ranchers, and we went to all their parties and their baptisms and their weddings and their balls.

And now that’s gone. The stores are wiped out because they don’t get any trade from the United States anymore. There’s concertina wire on the Mexican side that the Americans put up. Animals are getting trapped in there. Children are getting cut on it. It’s completely unnecessary. In the meantime, you see people serenely skateboarding and girls with their rollerskates, kids playing in the park. And you think, We’re afraid of this? They’re just regular kids!

I spent time out in the desert when I was still healthy, working with a group of Samaritans who go to find people that are lost. You run into the Minute Men or the Border Patrol every five seconds. The border is fully militarized. You meet some guy stumbling through the desert trying to cross, and he’s dehydrated, his feet are full of thorns, cactus, then you see this Minute Man sitting with his cooler, with all of his water and food and beer, and his automatic weapon sitting on his lap, wearing full camouflage. It’s so cruel. People are coming to work. They’re coming to have a better life. You have to be pretty desperate to want to cross that desert.

You were talking about this back in 2013, when your memoir came out, before it became such a national wedge issue. Were people not paying enough attention before?

Well, they didn’t live close to the border. They’d just go back to chewing their cud about it. It wasn’t their problem. I lived at the border then. I lived in Tucson for ten years. I saw what was going on. Putting children in jail—that’s not new. That was going on in the Bush Administration. Barack Obama tried to get immigration reform and Congress wouldn’t allow it. So people have been caught in this web of suffering, dying in the desert. They’re incredibly brave and resourceful, the people who make it. A C.E.O. of a big company once told me—when I said, “What do you look for in hiring practices?”—she said, “I look for someone who’s dealt with a lot of adversity, because they usually make a good business person.” And I thought, You should hire every immigrant who comes across the border.

Why did you decide to move to San Francisco from Tucson?

My children were coming home repeating homophobic remarks they heard at school. And they’d also heard other things, like, “If you don’t go to church, you’re going to go to Hell.” I thought, You know, I don’t need that. So I moved back to San Francisco. I wanted them to have a sense of what a community was like where you could walk to school, walk to the market. More of an urban-village experience. In Tucson, I was driving in the car for forty-five minutes to get them to school and then forty-five minutes to get them back, in a hot car. I didn’t want that life for them.

I can tell that you have a real sense of mourning over what the border used to be.

People don’t realize that there’s Mexican, there’s American, and then there’s Mexican-American. They’re three different cultures, and they all influence each other. And they all influence our culture profoundly. The cowboy suit that Roy Rogers would wear, with the yoke shirt and the pearl buttons and the bell-bottom frontier pants and the cowboy hat—those are all Mexican. We imported it. We eat burritos and tacos, and our music is influenced a lot by Mexican music. It goes back and forth across the border all the time.

How did growing up in that hybrid Mexican-American culture shape you as a musician?

I listened to a lot of Mexican music on the radio, and my dad had a really great collection of traditional Mexican music. It made it hard for me when I went to sing American pop music, because rock and roll is based on black church rhythms, and I wasn’t exposed to that as a kid. I could only sing what I’d heard. What I’d heard was Mexican music, Billie Holiday, and my brother singing boy soprano.

So what drew you to folk rock in the sixties?

I loved popular folk music like Peter, Paul and Mary. I loved the real traditional stuff, like the Carter family. I loved Bob Dylan. And I tried to copy what I could. When I heard the Byrds doing folk rock, I thought that was what I wanted to do.

How did your recording of “Different Drum” with the Stone Poneys in 1967 come about?

It was a song I found on a Greenbriar Boys record, and I thought it was a strong piece of material. I just liked the song. We worked it up as a kind of shuffle—it wasn’t very good with the guys playing guitar and mandolin. But the record company recognized that the song was strong, too, so they had me come back and record it with their musicians and their arrangement. And I was pretty shocked. I didn’t know how to sing it with that arrangement. But it turned out to be a hit.

Do you remember hearing it on the radio for the first time?

Yeah. We were on our way to a meeting at Capitol Records, in an old Dodge or something, and I was jammed in the back with our guitars. Then the engine froze, and the car made this horrible metal-on-metal shriek. We had to push it to the nearest gas station, half a block away. The man was looking at the car saying it’ll never run again, and we were saying, “What will we ever do in Los Angeles with no car?” And from the radio playing in the back of the garage we could hear the opening of “Different Drum.” We heard which radio station it was on, KRLA, so I knew it was a hit, if they played it on the L.A. stations.

What are your memories of the Troubadour, in West Hollywood?

That’s where you went to hang out. We would go to hear the local act that was playing, or there’d be someone like Hoyt Axton or Oscar Brown, Jr., or Odetta. Nobody was anything particular at the time. We were all aspiring musicians. The Dillards were there. The Byrds hung out there. And then it started to be people like Joni Mitchell, James Taylor. Carole King would play there. When Joni Mitchell played, she played two weeks. I think I saw every single night.

In your book, you talk about being with Janis Joplin there and trying to figure out what to wear onstage.

Oh, I never could figure out what to wear. I grew up wearing Levi’s and a T-shirt or a sweater and cowboy boots or sneakers. And that’s what I left home with, and that’s what I wound up with. In the summer we’d cut the legs off the Levi’s and they were Levi’s shorts. When I got my Cub Scout outfit, that was a real change for me.

You say that you and Janis Joplin couldn’t figure out how to fit in—you didn’t know whether to be earth mothers or whatever.

We didn’t know whether we were supposed to cook and sew and embroider. Roles were being redefined. There were a lot of earth-mama hippie girls who knew how to do that stuff.

There’s a clip in the documentary of you being interviewed in 1977, and you talk about how rock-and-roll stars become alienated and are surrounded by managers who are willing to indulge them, and that’s how people wind up with drug problems.

They got involved with drugs because they felt isolated. Stardom is isolating. There are a whole bunch of people that you’re hanging out with who are trying to become musicians. And some were chosen and some were not, and it becomes a difficult relationship with the people who weren’t chosen. Sometimes they’re resentful, sometimes you feel uncomfortable. It’s like Emmylou Harris has in a song: “Pieces of the sky were falling in your neighbor’s yard but not on you.” The adulation made people feel disconnected. I also think that some people’s brain chemistry is more vulnerable to addiction. I was lucky. Mine was not.

David Geffen says that you had an issue with diet pills.

I had no issue with that. I just took them when I needed them. I didn’t like it. If I ate, I’d have to take a diet pill. It wasn’t something I did for pleasure.

There’s been a lot of looking back this year at the summer of 1969, with these big anniversaries of the moon landing and Woodstock and the Manson murders. What do you remember about that summer?

When Woodstock happened, I was in New York. I remember getting all the reports from people like Henry Diltz and Crosby, Stills & Nash. They’d come back with stories of everybody being in the mud. It sounded like a good thing to have survived, but I’m glad I didn’t go up there. Overflowing toilets and no food is not my idea of a fun time. I was playing some club—probably the Bitter End.

When the Manson family came through, they managed to murder my next-door neighbor, Gary Hinman. I was lucky I wasn’t home that night—they may have come for me. We knew those girls, Linda Kasabian and maybe Leslie Van Houten, too. I lived in Topanga Canyon at the time, and they would hitchhike, and they would talk about this guy Charlie at the Spahn Ranch. But I didn’t know him personally. We knew it was kind of a bad scene. But, when we found out how bad of a scene it was, we were horrified.

People must have been really scared before they were captured.

Oh, everybody was freaked out. We weren’t sure at the time whether the Gary Hinman murder was connected to the other murders, but we found out soon enough.

The music of that era was so intertwined with politics. How do you feel that compares with popular music these days? Is music addressing political upheaval?

Oh, I think so. Especially hip-hop. But I wish there was a little bit more political activism. I’m waiting for the Reichstag to burn down, you know? Because I was interested in the Weimar Republic, I’ve always been aware that culture can be overwhelmed and subverted in a very short time. All of German intellectual history—Goethe and Beethoven—was subverted by the Nazis. It happened in a thirty-year span and brought German culture to its knees. And it’s happening here. There’s a real conspiracy of international fascism that wants to defeat democracy. They want all the power for themselves, and I think that suits Donald Trump right now. He’d like to be a dictator.

In going through your history, I’ve noticed you’ve been selectively outspoken. There’s an interview from 1983 where a talk-show host in Australia asks you about deciding to perform in South Africa under apartheid, and you give this speech about how if you didn’t play anywhere with racism you wouldn’t be able to play in the American South or Boston. You also take shots at Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch. As a popular performer, was there a cost to speaking out?

I never talked onstage for about fifteen years. But there were certain causes that we as a musical community united against, and one of them was nuclear power. We did a lot of No Nukes concerts—James Taylor, me, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt—and if it was a particular cause that I was in favor of. I did what I could to help, but I don’t think my focus was particularly political. If somebody asked, I was perfectly happy to give my opinion.

I also found a clip from 1995 where you confronted Robin Quivers, Howard Stern’s co-host, on the “Tonight Show” about her association with Stern. Do you remember what upset you so much?

Well, first of all, I never heard Howard Stern on the radio. I had no idea who he was. I didn’t have a television. I didn’t know who Robin Quivers was. But it had just been on the news that day, what he had said about—oh, the girl singer.

Selena? He said “Spanish people have the worst taste in music” and played her music with gunshots in the background.

Selena, yeah. And it just offended me. As a Mexican-American, it just offended me that he would say such a horrible thing about someone’s dead daughter. I didn’t realize that Howard Stern made a career out of making unfortunate remarks about other people. And I didn’t know what Robin Quivers was like. I didn’t know anything about it. I just went, “Hey, that really offended me.” It made me angry. I didn’t realize what kind of a hornets’ nest I’d stepped into.

Did you get any reaction from him after that?

Oh, yeah. He said horrible things about me.

Going back to your performing career, in the documentary, your former manager Peter Asher says that you would see people whispering at your concerts and imagine that they were saying, “She’s the worst singer I’ve ever heard.” Were you really that insecure?

I just didn’t feel like I could quite sing well enough. It was best when I forgot about everything and just thought about the music, but it took me a long time to get there. I didn’t want to see people that I knew in the audience. I didn’t like to see the audience, actually. I couldn’t understand why they’d come. It’s a different relationship than singers like Taylor Swift have. I think it’s a little bit healthier that they embrace their audience and sort of feel like everybody’s on the same team. We were encouraged in the sixties to think of us and them. The hippies started that whole tribal thing, and it was the straights against the hippies. It was unhealthy.

How did you overcome your self-doubt?

I’d just say, “Breathe and sing.” As long as I pulled my focus back to the music, I was fine.

Your relationship with Jerry Brown is covered in the documentary and in your book, but not your relationships with some other prominent people, like Jim Carrey and George Lucas. Is there a reason for that?

I was writing about the music. They didn’t have anything to do with my musical process.

What did Jerry Brown contribute to your musical process?

Well, he was there when Joe Papp [the founder of the Public Theatre and Shakespeare in the Park] called saying that they wanted me for “H.M.S. Pinafore.” But Jerry [gave me the message] wrong—it was actually “The Pirates of Penzance,” which I didn’t know.

Do you keep in touch with him?

Yeah. We’re friends. We’ve always been friends. He came over last Christmas.

What do you talk about?

Water in California. He said when he retires he wants to study trees and California Indians. I gave him my tree book, “The Hidden Life of Trees.” There’s a new history of water use in California that’s fantastic. It’s called “The Dreamt Land.” It’s like John McPhee-level writing. It’s really worth it for the writing alone.

The press always made such a big deal about the fact that you never got married.

I didn’t need to get married. I’m not sure that anybody needs to get married. If they do, I’m on their side. But I never needed to get married. I had my own life.

I have to admit, I was born in the eighties and I discovered you through “The Muppet Show.” What can you tell me about working with Kermit?

I had a crush on Kermit, so it was a problem because of Miss Piggy. He was her property. But we had a really good time on that show. There’s something extraordinarily creative about puppeteers. They’re fascinating, because when they do all their acting, they can’t let it go through their own body. I think they’re just loaded with talent. I loved watching them. It was a very coöperative experience. They let me help them with the story and the songs.

What was your contribution to the story?

This crush that I had on Kermit, they developed into a little storyline where Miss Piggy and I have a confrontation.

She seems like a very formidable rival.

She was. She was nasty! She locked Kermit in a trunk.

Because you’re a singer but not a songwriter, so much of your artistic expression comes through your choice of material. How did you choose songs for “Heart Like a Wheel,” including the title song by Anna and Kate McGarrigle?

I was just ambushed by that song. I was riding with Jerry Jeff Walker in a cab, and he said, “I was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and I heard these two girls singing—they were sisters. They sang a really good song. You should hear it.” He sang me the first verse—“Some say the heart is just like a wheel / When you bend it, you can’t mend it / But my love for you is like a sinking ship / And my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean”—and I just thought they were the most beautiful lyrics I’d ever heard. I said, “You have to send me that song.” And I get this tape in the mail, reel to reel, with just piano and a cello and the two girls singing their beautiful harmonies. The manager I had at the time said it was too corny. Somebody said it would never be a hit. And I don’t think it was ever a radio single, but it was a huge song for me. I sang it all the way through my career.

Were you surprised by the songs from that album that became hits?

I was surprised anything of mine was successful, because it always seemed so hodge-podge. I just tried different songs that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, but which expressed a real urgent feeling that I just had to express. “You’re No Good” was an afterthought. We needed to have an uptempo song to close the show with, and that was a song I knew from the radio.

What were the biggest challenges in becoming a public figure?

Not having the ability to observe other people, because people are observing you. I had to keep my head down all the time. It was kind of excruciating. I still feel that way. I don’t like to be on the spot. Also, relationships were hard, because I was always on the bus.

In an interview from 1977, you said, “I think men have generally treated me badly, and the idea of a war between the sexes is very real in our culture. In the media, women are built up with sex as a weapon and men are threatened by it as much as they are drawn to it, and they retaliate as hard as they can.” Do you remember what you were talking about?

No, I don’t! I have to say that when I look at my whole career, over all, what counted the most was whether you showed up and played the music. I saw it happen with Emmylou, and I saw it happen with Joni Mitchell. Joni Mitchell was threatening to everybody. She could play better. She could sing better. She looked better. She could just do it all. But it’s true, there was a certain amount of chauvinism.There weren’t a lot of girls in the business who were doing what I was doing, so my friendship with Emmylou Harris became so important.

Did you find that there were things that were harder for you as a woman than for your male contemporaries?

Well, I had to do makeup and hair. That’s a lot, because that’s two hours of the day that you could spend reading a book or learning a language or practicing guitar. Guys just shower and put on any old clothes. And then there were high heels. I have extra ankle bones in each foot, and high heels were agonizing. I used to wear them onstage, kick them off, hide my feet behind the monitors, and find my shoes again before I had to leave the stage.

At the height of your rock-and-roll fame, you decided to do Gilbert and Sullivan. What drew you to that?

My sister, when she was eleven and I was six, I guess, sang “H.M.S. Pinafore” in her junior high school. My mother had a book of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on piano, and somehow I learned the songs. I heard my sister practicing them. So, when I heard of “The Pirates of Penzance,” I knew what Gilbert and Sullivan was.

Was part of you tired of being a rock star?

Part of me was very tired of it. I was singing loud in halls that didn’t sound like they were built for music. I liked the idea of a proscenium stage. I think a proscenium has a lot to do with focussing your attention. A theatre is a machine built to focus your attention and allow you to dream. You’re hypnotized, in a way, and the person onstage is your champion, is telling your story. You find emotions you didn’t realize you had.

Throughout the eighties, you experimented wildly with genre, everything from Puccini to the Great American Songbook to Mexican canciones. I’m sure your record label was surprised when you said, “I want to make an album of Mexican folk music.”

Well, before that, I wanted to do American standard songs, and they said, “No, it won’t work.” In fact, Joe Smith [the chairman of Elektra/Asylum Records] even came to my house to beg me not to do it. He said, “You’re throwing your career away.” I’d been away so long working on Broadway.

Were you worried that your fans wouldn’t go along with the standards, either?

I didn’t worry about it until after we made the record [“What’s New”] and we were opening at Radio City Music Hall. And I realized, all of a sudden, people might not show up. They really might hate it. I was ordering matzo-ball soup from the Carnegie Deli next door, and it gave me the shakes so bad that I could barely stand when I got onstage. I was holding hands with Nelson Riddle in the wings—he was nervous, too. He said, “Don’t let me down, baby.” I said, “I’ll do my best.” He was the best of those arrangers—worked with Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. He wrote beautiful charts for me. I was really lucky to have him. I went back to my apartment that night and just smiled, because we had gotten away with an evening of American standard songs.

When I see something now like Lady Gaga recording a standards album with Tony Bennett, it seems like she owes you a debt.

Well, she owes me nothing. She’s got enough talent to make it on her own. But, up until then, attempts by female pop artists to go back and do standards had not been successful. And Joan Baez had tried to record in Spanish, and that didn’t work. It depends on what the audience is expecting of you. When I did Mexican songs, I brought in a whole new audience. I played the same venues, but it was grandmothers and grandchildren. People brought their kids. And the standards audience was older—they were in their fifties and sixties, which seemed impossibly old to me at the time.

Is it true that you recorded “Canciones de Mi Padre” at George Lucas’s recording studio, Skywalker Sound?

The second album, “Mas Canciones.” I chose it because they have a big scoring stage. It has good acoustics that you can tune with the wooden panels on the side. There was a lot of room ambience. Mariachi’s a folk orchestra, and it was a good orchestra sound. It’s hard to find.

You also collaborated with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Do you keep in touch with them?

Emmy comes out to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is a bluegrass festival here in San Francisco, so I see her about once a year. She comes over to my house. We used to sing together. Now she brings her laundry and we talk. When you’re on the road, you always have extra laundry.

Have you kept up with Dolly?

Emmy and I presented her an award recently, and I hadn’t seen her in a while. I don’t think she realized I’m as disabled as I am. She threw her arms around me, and I kept saying, “Dolly, watch out! You’re going to knock me down!” She thought I was kidding. I nearly fell down. I grabbed onto the podium that her award was on and knocked it to the ground. It was made out of glass and it broke. “Congratulations, here’s your award—smash! You get to take the pieces home.”

If you could wave a magic wand and record one more album, what would be on it?

It would be an eclectic mix. There’s a song called “I Still Have That Other Girl,” written by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, that I always wanted to record. And there’s a Mexican song called “Paloma Negra” I always wanted to record. I’d record all those songs that I didn’t get around to.


No votes yet.
Please wait...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *