We know two versions of Linda Ronstadt.
In one, she successfully manages to navigate the male-centric world of ‘70s rock (not that it has changed that much since then) and becomes one of the more successful female stars of the decade. In the other, she supports the very system that abuses her, avoiding conflict and preaching a certain kind of comfort that belies the trouble she must shovel every day: takin’ it easy, as her one-time backing band the Eagles put it.
Her new book supports both Ronstadts.
The singer specialized in mellifluity, the kind of music that lives entombed in the phrase “adult contemporary.” In her heyday, she sang over simple, melodic arrangements that usually leaned country (via pedal steel, or maybe a fiddle). As she got her start, the L.A. pop scene perfected a musical formula to rule the charts: electric keys, flat drums, harmonized vocals, an immaculate guitar solo. Sound washed cleverly, even complicatedly, but never jarred. No one cared about recording cost; everyone was a pro, serving up high-end musical pleasure.
But Ronstadt had some different ideas about the way pop worked. Despite getting her start in the ‘60s, when rock codified its dogmatic notion of the supremacy of “writing your own songs,” Ronstadt didn’t care about composition. Her greatest hits collection The Very Best Of Linda Ronstadt doesn’t contain a single song she wrote. Instead, she picked material from country, rock, folk and soul, and redid it L.A. style. This could be seen as an abdication of power…or the ultimate assertion of self through emancipation from a dumb system: I don’t give a damn what it is, just let me sing the thing.
In some ways, covers represent a more difficult road to success. The artist has familiarity in her corner, but she also faces pesky previous versions of a song that may already have been grooved into popular consciousness.
Ronstadt attempted to redo great songs from black singers and smooth them out for white audiences (often the way when white singers reinterpret black pop music). She usually got unappealing results. Songs like “Dark End Of The Street” and “Rescue Me” need voices with different powers than hers.
Still, that Ronstadt voice stood out—high, strong, more versatile than the voices of other popular California ladies who came after her, like Stevie Nicks. Ronstadt does a prettier and highly affecting version of Neil Young’s strange vocals when covering his “Birds;” she’s got a distinctive sound like Joni Mitchell, but none of the offbeat vocal inflections that might prevent a song from becoming a hit. A track like “Willin’” (a Little Feat original adapted by Ronstadt for her 1974 album Heart Like A Wheel) shows Ronstadt at her most affecting and indomitable. She might be “warped by the rain/ driven by the snow,” but give the woman weed plus whites and wine, elements be damned.
Ronstadt, born in 1946 in Arizona, always knew she wanted to use her voice. Almost always. “The first thing I remember ever really wanting…was a horse,” she writes. But at “about four [years old], I remember thinking, ‘I’m a singer, that’s what I do.’”
She marvels at the pure power of lifting the voice in song, when “elements of voice and style are braided together like twine…added to…emotions and thoughts that register as various vocal quirks…and a practically limitless assortment of choices.” Adding instruments to the mix further expands the limitlessness, but Ronstadt focuses strictly on singing.
In the city of angels, Ronstadt sang her way into the music biz without much trouble. Most of the bumps in the road involve male jerks, many famous: a TV executive in Nashville, a drunken Jim Morrison of the Doors, a possibly drunker Jack Nitzsche, who played with Neil Young. All mean, all lusty, Ronstadt vs. the man.
Sometimes the wasted guys weren’t hitting on her; they just left her stranded. Ronstadt went with country-aficionado Gram Parsons and Bernie Leadon—of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Dillard & Clark, and then the Eagles—to meet Parsons’ pal Keith Richards when he came to town. Richards had the gang play every Merle Haggard and George Jones song they knew (apparently quite a few), but everyone ended up too blasted to give Ronstadt a ride home, so she stayed up all night while Parsons and Richards passed out on the closest surface.
Ronstadt has lots of these yarns to share, and most involve her being slighted in some way by men in the business. At one point, she tries in vain to get the attention of Smokey Robinson. It’s different to see Robinson briefly transformed from the sweet, ingratiating love man to cold, aloof, ice-prince. Another tale from a different time: A woman—sounding like a conservative movie grandma—tells Ronstadt that L.A. has “four sexes: men, women, homosexuals, and girl singers.”
Not surprisingly, Ronstadt eventually wanted a change of scene.
“I never felt that rock and roll defined me,” she writes. “There was an unyielding attitude that came with the music that involved being confrontational, dismissive, and aggressive—or, as my mother would say, ungracious.” She moved into musical theater, worked with Nelson Riddle (who arranged some of Frank Sinatra’s signature work) on albums of standards, and she recorded traditional Mexican songs as well.
Sometimes in Simple Dreams, Ronstadt doesn’t follow through on topics that merit longer discussion. Having worked with both Neil Young and Paul Simon, she notes the differences in their recording style: Young focuses on spontaneity and uses a lot of first takes, Simon builds and layers for hours (the track “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” supposedly required an epic amount of time to perfect). Ronstadt also suggests that “styles for harmonizing for women seem to me no less urgent [than styles for men] and a great deal more reflective.”
But she doesn’t really reflect on spontaneity or harmonizing in her own singing. This can be frustrating—there’s an imbalance that she is aware of and could work to correct. She chooses not to.
At the end of her memoir, Ronstadt concludes that “the only thing I imposed on myself…was to not try singing something that I hadn’t heard in the family living room before the age of ten. If I hadn’t heard it by then, I couldn’t attempt it with even a shred of authenticity.”
Great things can be achieved by trying to recreate the beauty and wonder of childhood, and this urge often drives artists in many fields. In an essay on the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks, the critic Lester Bangs once quoted the poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who expressed his longing for childhood in this poem:
“I will go very far,
farther than those hills,
farther than the seas,
close to the stars,
to beg Christ the Lord
to give back the soul I had
of old, when I was a child…”
But Ronstadt’s family living room quote also suggests that she may have constrained or hindered her own development. Art can be created through imposition, but it also happens—often—when musicians break free from structures imposed on them by markets, by genre norms, by record labels—and by themselves.
Recently, Ronstadt found out that she has Parkinson’s disease. She can no longer sing. Tragically, we’ll never get to hear her rattle that living room cage.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.