“The essential elements of singing are voice, musicianship, and story. It is the rare artist that has all three in abundance.”—Linda Ronstadt, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (forthcoming)
In her heyday in the Seventies and Eighties, millions recognized Linda Ronstadt as that “rare artist.” All the more heartbreaking, then, the news that she has Parkinson’s Disease and, she acknowledges, she will never sing another note.
At the height of her career, Ronstadt was not only the bestselling solo female artist of the Seventies, but also, with her talent, looks, and participation in the fast-lane lifestyle of Southern California rock, a representative of the Dionysian exhilaration of baby boomers. But now, as we age, we discover that our icons—and we ourselves—are subject to the same processes of decay, disease and death as the parents we could never see ourselves resembling.
It was all so different when I saw her back in August 1976, at the Garden State Arts Center (now PNC Bank Arts Center) in Holmdel, NJ. Still early in a remarkable seven-LP run starting with Heart Like a Wheel, she stood at the microphone, this brunette waif commanding at first with a girlish, almost shy presence, until her voice carried to the limits of those on the grass just outside the amphitheater.
And though she would belt and growl and bring listeners to their feet with the likes of “Heat Wave” and other hits of the rock ‘n’ roll era, what haunted the memory was the way her silvery soprano transformed lyrics of longing and heartbreak into rock arias. It was Karla Bonoff who wrote “Save me, free me, from my heart this time,” but it was Ronstadt’s exquisite artistry that made “Lose Again” her song, and ours. (To understand what I’m talking about, see this YouTube excerpt of her in concert, only a few months after her New Jersey appearance.) It’s why Time Magazine, in a cover story from 1977, hailed her style of “Torchy Rock.”
At this point, it would be a shame if it took Ronstadt’s terrible disease to rectify two longstanding, interrelated injustices: exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and refusal by Rolling Stone and other major outlets of critical opinion to take her work seriously. I write “interrelated” because the magazine’s founder, Jann Wenner, is not only co-founder of the foundation that created the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but also plays an inordinately heavy-handed role in selecting inductees.
One result of the latter malign influence is the blatant sexism of Hall choices. An Evelyn McDonnell article for Salon in December 2011 noted that only 40 out of 296 inductees to that point were women. If one criterion for inclusion in the Hall is an artist’s impact on those who came after, as its defenders claim, then why did it take so long for Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro to be inducted?
As for Wenner’s magazine: How could it dare to leave off Ronstadt its list of the “100 Greatest Singers” in rock and roll history, while including in the ranking Karen Carpenter (who only made one album in the genre) and Madonna (who not only was a pop rather than a rock ‘n’ roll star, but whose tinny voice couldn’t hold a candle to Ronstadt’s—or, indeed, virtually anyone else on or off the list)?
New York Times critic John Rockwell made the most clearest, most passionate (if half-apologetic, on account of their friendship) for the singer in 1979, noting that she had “the strongest, most clearly focused, flexible, and simply beautiful voice in popular music.” Then, going on to forecast the highly eclectic path she was about to take in the next decade, he noted that the voice, “as a physical instrument…is capable of authoritative usage in almost any kind of popular music, and with a bit of technical work, could encompass almost any classical style, as well.”
While Rockwell made an excellent argument about the purity of her instrument, Ronstadt’s value extends far beyond that. Aside from Elvis Costello, how many other rock ‘n’ roll artists have been so breathtakingly versatile? Throughout her four-decade career, she has explored, in addition to rock ‘n’ roll, folk, country, rhythm and blues, new wave, Mexican mariachi, Gilbert and Sullivan (The Pirates of Penzance), and the Great American Songbook, through her 1980s collaborations with Nelson Riddle. (That musical adventurousness, by the way, amply refutes the silly notion that she simply mindlessly went along with the choices of producer Peter Asher, since she insisted on the Riddle LPs despite Asher’s strong initial doubts about the project.)
The advent of the singer-songwriter has made Rolling Stone—and, indeed, much of the rock ‘n’ roll critical establishment—dubious about artists who do not write their own songs (or, in Ronstadt’s case, only a handful of them). But again, if influence is an important consideration of an artist’s ultimate value, few can doubt the boost that Ronstadt provided by interpreting songs by the likes of J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon, Karla Bonoff, Elvis Costello, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jackson Browne, Dolly Parton, and the Cretones. (She also co-produced a seminal CD by songwriting great Jimmy Webb, Suspending Disbelief).
Over the last decade or so, Ronstadt’s public appearances have grown fewer and fewer, as she raised two children in her native Arizona as a single mom, far away from the L.A. music scene, and coped with other health issues (notably, she acknowledged to Australian journalist Debbie Kruger in a 1998 interview, an auto-immune thyroid disease). Still, there was always the hope that she might emerge from semi-retirement for appearances onstage or on songs by others, as she did three years ago for a Jimmy Webb tribute album. Her newest health disclosure ends those prospects. Now, the next time we hear from her will be with the publication next month of her memoir, Simple Dreams.
And yet, though no new work will ever come from her again, that marvelous voice has not and will not be stilled. Listen to any of her work on CDs, or seek her out on YouTube, where you’ll find plenty of examples of her joy in communicating passion through song (such as this 1979 “It’s in His Kiss” duet from Saturday Night Live with another sterling voice, Phoebe Snow).