LINDA RONSTADT WAS
BETTER THAN SHE KNOWS
I think pride accounts for that.
Ego is essential to creativity. You have to believe you’ve got something worthwhile to say in order to put your stuff out there for the world to see. But the reality of what you’ve created can fall short of what your pride tells you you’re capable of.
So the artist lives on a psychological rollercoaster, bouncing between the emotional rush of creativity and the realization that nothing you create will ever be perfect.
This reality came to mind the other day when I read an interview with Linda Ronstadt, who retired from singing in 2013 due to Parkinson’s disease. Ronstadt spoke with journalist Laura Barton of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, confessing that she was dissatisfied with all her 28 studio albums…
“I don’t like any of them, [although] there are moments on some records that I like.”
Perhaps ego conflict helps to explain why entertainers these days feel motivated to share their deep political insights — and to assume that people are interested in hearing them.
In her Guardian interview Ronstadt felt compelled to observe that Donald Trump has brought the country to…
“a genuine national emergency. What he wants is to be in control of the media, and he has an acute instinct for the lowest common denominator — he knows how to go really low. So if we don’t wake up, he could turn us into a dictatorship.”
Ah, yes, that old Trump-as-nascent-Fascist theme again.
Her fears about The Donald were in contrast to a certain nostalgia toward the comforting life under our previous administration, about which she observed that…
“…we had Obama for eight years, and we got lazy.”
I take that to mean we became complacent under the wise and benevolent leadership of the great “O.”
Well, Linda Ronstadt’s accomplishments as a singer (one of the finest female pop vocalists of our time) and the suffering she’s had to endure with Parkinson’s earn her a goodly portion of my indulgence.
So, apropos of nothing in particular, I offer a rerun of my thoughts about her distinctive career, which appeared on this blog at the time she announced her retirement.
If you missed the original posting, give it a read, and let me know what you think about this great artist whose creative life was unfortunately cut short — and whose work was better than realizes…
A Silenced Voice
By Bill Kassel
The recent announcement by Linda Ronstadt that she has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer sing brings a pang of sorrow and remembrance. She was one of the shining lights of that especially creative era in pop music — spanning the mid ’60s to the early ’80s — that was dominated by wonderful female vocalists who defined a style fusing folk, country and rock with touches of soul and jazz.
That style evolved from other strains already present in the music of the 1950s, in particular Rockabilly and what was then called Country & Western. But I would argue that it got its real kickstart from the Urban Folk Revival of the early-to-mid ’60s.
To that extent, Joan Baez would have to be seen as a forerunner, followed closely by Judy Collins. Other female performers of importance working in or around the new hybrid genre included, Karen Carpenter, Roberta Flack, and Bonnie Raitt. Also Mary Travers, though it took her awhile to step out from between Peter and Paul.
All of these women were blessed with God-given vocal instruments of depth, range and subtlety. They were extraordinarily expressive artists who could slam you against the wall with musical passion one minute and, the next, put tears in your eyes with their breathtaking girlish tenderness.
There were other fine women vocalists of that era, of course, including Cass Eliot — who died young and, therefore, left a truncated musical legacy — and even Cher — whose life offstage has been such a circus that it’s easy to overlook what an excellent singer she was. They both had the range, though their voices weren’t as milky mellow.
I think Linda Ronstadt was the all-’round best. While any singer must adapt to shifting musical tastes in order to keep a career going, Ronstadt had them all beat when it came to versatility.
She started out in the bubble gum trade, as lead singer of the Stone Ponies (“Different Drum”), then became the queen of country rock (“When Will I Be Loved?” “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”). She explored the Great American Songbook, giving performances of ’30s jazz classics, World War II-era big-band tunes, and ’50s pop standards that hold up respectably well against those of the actual singers from the periods.
Finally, when everyone assumed she’d pretty much exhausted her stylistic options, she had a career rebirth singing the Mexican canciones that reflected part of her Arizona family’s background. She also explored so-called roots music, and even tried her hand at Gilbert & Sullivan.
For my money, no musical niche better suited her emotive presentation than the torch song. If you want to have your heart broken, listen to her sing Gary White’s “Long, Long Time.”
There are still some excellent female artists around. Sarah McLachlan and Celine Dion come to mind — maybe others as well (I don’t keep myself focused on the cutting edge of pop music anymore).
But it seems to me that the era of the great women vocalists has pretty much been eclipsed by the power chanteuses, whose over-the top, out-of-breath, hyped-up sexiness is the stock-in-trade of most chick singers one hears these days. Just watch “American Idol” or any of the other latter-day Major Bowes TV extravaganzas. The sameness is wearying.
(Of course, one mustn’t forget the self-parodying Lady Gaga, ever trying to wreak vengeance on her wicked stepmother, Madonna.)
The one thing which ’60s-to-’80s women singers had in common was that they could sing. And that’s not as silly as it sounds. Women vocalists were held to a higher standard of technical excellence than their men counterparts. How many male pop singers of that period can you point to as legit vocalists? For the most part, guys made their mark in groups, where individual vocal flaws were absorbed in the sound — the comprehensive aural effect created by arrangers and producers.
There’s no question Linda Ronstadt could sing. And while her politics and her personal life were as complicated as those of most entertainers (she was once linked romantically with California Governor Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown), I just want to remember a great pop artist as she steps off the stage.
May the Lord give Linda Ronstadt courage and strength to bear the heavy cross of Parkinson’s. And I hope she finds gratification in the knowledge that her now-silenced singing voice has brought untold pleasure to millions of pop music lovers. Me included.
Check YouTube to watch a very young Linda soldiering on through nasal congestion to offer a nonetheless heartfelt rendition of Gary White’s “Long, Long Time.” Poor child had a cold, but it didn’t stop her…