It's Not That Easy Being the Pretty Girl on the Block
© copyright Peter Knobler 1999
from CRAWDADDY Magazine, June 1974
Linda Ronstadt is the classic "chick singer." Pretty, pert,
she plays on her attractiveness like a musician on his axe.
She can be coy, aggressive, available, unattainable. Yet
there occasionally glimmers the girl behind the woman's
mask- a surprised sparkle smile at an unexpected stage
welcome, a quick grin at a line well sung- which turns
teaser to teased, pleaser to pleased.
For a long time her looks far outweighed her talent, and advantages like Johnny Carson and Johnny Cash Show appearances were accepted as due yet squandered for lack of substance. There is a male ambivalence to pretty women- "they've got it so good"- which may turn ugly at the slightest sign of weakness, and Linda Ronstadt may well have fallen victim to this she-loves-me-not / I-love-her-not syndrome. She had one hit, "Long Long Time" in 1970, and was the voice of the Stone Poneys' "Different Drum" success, but she never seemed able to find real distinction.
Linda doesn't write her own material. She is an interpreter surrounded by original talent, running with an L.A. crowd that includes Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Lowell George- the punk-sensitive set- and for the longest time she didn't seem to add much.
But not anymore. Where versions of her cohorts' songs were once no more than cover copies, Linda has this time rather unpredictably turned out an album of near definitive statements and followed that up with a tour that proved she could do it live.
Linda seems now to live the part she used to play. Her material has consistently been love songs, usually love lost songs ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "In My Reply"), but now she sings with more conviction, less rote, and the songs themselves are more solid. There is a consistency of vision to her most recent album, Don't Cry Now, which is more rejected than rejecting and accepts disappointment as a norm. Odd for the pretty girl on the block.
Linda walked into the room and plopped down on the bed. Fresh from a shower, she wore jeans, and a loosely fastened wrap-around blouse which fell to its folds like a casual friend.
She would allow no pictures.
"I look awful," she protested. In fact, it wasn't so, but she was firm, close to adamant, and she got her way. She seemed both accustomed to it and apologetic, an interesting blend of assertion and guilt.
But this reticence to be pictured all but disappeared as we began to talk. The old hide-your-eyes-and-you're-hidden trick, but it turned out she knew the good angles anyway.
"You sing so many love songs," I began. "Why are they so unhappy?"
"Well, since I don't write . . ." She fiddled with the shirt strings at her back and pulled the blouse more closely to her, "I like to pick things that are as specific as possible, but emotions that are easily shared. A lot of writers write things that are just so personal- Joni Mitchell, for instance, writes stuff that is just so specifically about her life, where she really just about names names and places. I always pick material that I will be able to relate to real easily and that most other people would be able to too. It's just. . . "
She paused, as if she'd never gotten beyond that thought before. "I don't really believe in happy songs!" she laughed. Her voice has something of a western twang (her hometown is Tucson, Arizona) which cuts through when she gets excited. She speeded up and rose a few notes. "Songs about getting your heart broken, that's always applicable to me in one way or another. I mean, if it's not about some specific person in my life it's about a situation. Because when I stand on the stage I have to run a movie for every song and it can't be about something that happened six years ago because by that time I've built such a callous over it, it's not accessible to me anymore. So it has to be about something right now, and love songs, boy," she shook her head, "you can apply that to anything; I mean, you can apply it to the fact that you just went down to your accountant and he said, 'You are fucked in the bank!' "
"When you sing love songs," I told her, "there's a thread running through them all ... this kind of love-lost ambivalence coming not through the songs, but through you."
She tucked one ankle under her thigh and joked, "Well first of all, you're so frustrated by the time you get there you just have to have some relief." She laughed and exclaimed, "God, last night Jackson and I were just into complete schizophrenia!" She's been working virtually non-stop for the last 16 months, her most recent tour being with Jackson Browne. "It was out of control onstage, completely, because we were so nuts, both of us. That mania is the best thing to try and make music."
I didn't understand. "From the traveling?"
"Anything," she explained. "From our lifestyles. From having to question every single thing that you're confronted with to the nth degree. From having to. . . " She whirled right on. "From not being permitted to trust anyone, ever."
"Why?" I puzzled.
"Why?" she repeated. "Because people are always taking advantage of you; everybody that's interested in you has got an angle."
"That's to say you've got no friends."
"Well, yeah," she admitted, "I've got some real good friends, thank God."
"And you trust them?"
"Mmmm," She thought for a moment. "I only know one person that I trust." She paused.
"This 35-year-old guy who teaches philosophy in Vermont."
"He's absolutely honest. . . " She fidgeted with her shoe, then looked up. " . . . absolutely unimpeachable intentions. Completely non-jive. He's the only person I've ever met that like ... and I'm 27 years old."
"That's gotta be hard," I said. All that looking over the shoulder must make her turn emotional corkscrews walking down the street.
"It's rough," she hurried on. "You just take your chances." She spoke in a flurry, as if to pause were to consider, and to consider were to end it forever. "See, this is the main thing that being in this business has done for me, is the gift, the ability to psyche people out pretty fast. Sometimes I make mistakes ... and when I make a mistake in picking someone that's going to substantially influence my thinking, my life and my career, . . " she careened off on a tangent, "-everyone around me does; everyone around me is a sounding board in one way or another- If I pick someone that acts as a bad sounding board, the ramifications are endless, they're limitless. So I have to be real careful about picking my friends."
It seemed terribly futile to me, but again, as journalist I was the classic outsider wanting in. "That's very hard," I started. "if the given is distrust ... if you're just going to, out of hand, go: 'if he's there, I don't trust him . . .' "
Linda interrupted. "I don't trust anyone!"
"Then how are you going to find a sounding board? You've got to fight through an incredible barrier just to talk to anybody."
"I do!" she exclaimed. "That's the point. That's what happens to all the movie stars ... that's why they get out of touch with their basic whatever it is."
"But that's their tragedy. Isn't there some way to deal with that?"
Linda was caught up in the inevitability. She definitely accepted the bind, seemed somehow to enjoy it, chafing not to be released but simply to be sure she was there. "Either you quit," she said, leaning forward and stretching from the waist for an absent bit of exercise, "or you just keep on going and allowing yourself to get scarred, and eventually the scars may get so bad that you can't feel. It's just a battle every day."
"Why are you singing then?" It seemed a logical question.
"Why am I singing?" It hadn't sunk in.
"Why do you go out and do it to yourself?"
"Why am I singing?" she repeated. It took a moment. "It relieves the load in some way," she finally answered. "When you can communicate it to someone it then becomes a joyous experience, joy in the meaning of release."
"How much of that do you feel from an audience?" I wondered, "from a bunch of strangers in the audience?"
"Well, an enormous amount," she insisted. "It's just ... it's sharing . . . let's see . . . " She chuckled a bit at the absurdity. "This is real hard," she smiled. "It's real hard to talk on tour. Nothing comes out organized ... I don't know why it is," she continued. "I guess it's misery loves company."
She sat thinking for a little while, her chin on her chest, then looked straight at me as if having decided to try. "I'll tell you what it is," she said quickly. "When the audience sees someone up there onstage expressing sorrow, and tribulation, and winning with it ... I mean, somehow if you can get it said, and get it released, you've won, you've conquered it. it's a triumph, and they like to see somebody triumphing because then you become a champion. You become their champion."
She was cheered when she walked from the wings of Carnegie Hall. She had more fans than I'd thought. Her white, spangled wrap-around performing blouse was sheer and offered a premeditated fantasy to the guys in the house. She looked good, but, strangely, moved rather like a pretty girl in her first hesitant bikini; she captured more of a serenade than a strut and when she sang there was more than a coquette's warmth to her words.
But by now she's a pro, and it wasn't all innocent wonder up there. A solid year on the road had taught her trade tricks and she used them, floating on a clear line, then plummetting for effect on cue. Her arrangements were well-conceived, a step beyond spontaneous, and one hoped there would shine through a spark to make this evening more than a tape loop of all the other nights she's spent singing to people she doesn't know.
It didn't take long. After opening with Rick Roberts' ode, "Colorado," and punching about with Hank Williams' uptempo cracker classic, "Lovesick Blues," Linda launched into Eagles' "Desperado." It's a song from a step away, wisdom watching destruction, but Linda stepped inside. Her voice, when she means what she's singing, can pierce with its honesty and she found herself going all out, hitting notes because they were right, not because they were put there for a purpose. She cut through convention and pretense and sang with conviction.
Desperado Wby don't you come to your senses Come down from your fences Open the gate It may be rainin' But there's a rainbow above you You better let somebody love you Let somebody love you Let somebody love you Before it's too late.The song hushed at the end, then the crowd exploded. Applause washed over her and Linda grinned almost to herself when it wouldn't stop. Surprised, she had found herself singing from the heart. She seemed legitimately pleased, a little abashed at the starkness of what she'd done. It was the clearest moment of the night.
"We got off the track about questioning people," Linda reminded me.
"Right," I agreed, "it's important."
I believe she finally wanted to talk. "You build up relationships and you build up relationships ... and I'm really in contact with groovy people ... then all of a sudden there's a hitch someplace and it makes you think that everything is wrong.
"Like if somebody turns out a little jive," she explained, "if there's one aspect of their personality that's jive. I mean, you're dealing in a business where egos are just continually inflated and over-hyped and -developed. When you go into the music business it's just like one area of your psyche is allowed to develop abnormally. It's really weird.
"Relationships are almost impossible." Linda has gone through quite a bit, it seems. "First of all you have the possibilities of new ones waved in your face every three seconds. It's a real 'pop' situation. And second of all you're not around long enough." Being on the road hardly makes for a stable homelife. "And also the people you come in contact with are other musicians and everybody's real competitive.
"Relationships just don't seem to pan out for very long, you know? I mean, I really understand now about Hollywood marriages. I just didn't understand for the longest time. 'Why can't people just get married and stay married? I mean you love somebody and you just stay married.' It's just not that way. You're subjected to so much new information all the time that you just change all the time."
Again, the futility. "It sounds to me like nobody's ever going to live up to it," I offered. "If no one guy ever lives up to it then all the other time seems either half-wasted or generally unsatisfactory."
"Yeah," she said. "It's true.."
"Well," I demanded, "what do you do?"
"I don't know," she appealed. "I can't figure out what to do. I mean, you meet one guy who has just all the . . . " she tried to describe specifics in general terms, " . . . he's real kind but isn't inspired musically, and then you meet somebody else that's just so inspired musically that he just takes your breath away, but he's such a moron, such a maniac that you can't get along with him.
"And then after that it's the problem of finding someone that can stand you! I've gotten to be so rude now, I've just cultivated it. It's the only way that I can deal with it. Before a gig or something like that, you're standing about 15 or 20 minutes before you go onstage, you're real vulnerable. If somebody throws you a curve then, it'll really affect what you think of yourself, and you carry that onstage with you."
She can be glib about it, but she does, at times onstage and off, seem easily shaken.
"I can't stand to have people ask me questions before I go onstage. I'm trying to get my concentration and if somebody asks me something I just go 'Arghh! Please don't ask me that, I don't know!' And then I feel like a bitch, so then I go onstage and say, 'Oh man, I'm really blowing it. I used to be a really nice person that was polite and cared about people,' you know?
"I was talking to this professor of theology, the only person in the world that I trust. He used to be a Baptist minister but he decided that if God was anywhere He certainly wasn't in the church, and that religion had ceased to function as comfort and aid for the public. And he decided that the music business had literally taken over that function. That they were establishing the lifestyle, and they are setting the moral guidelines, for sure: I mean, what kind of drugs you can take; how much you can fuck; who you can fuck.
"And they are in fact acting as the guidelines for the whole mass right now. And it's real important for those people that are there doing it to realize that they have this incredible responsibility."
Linda Ronstadt seems caught between routine and sensibility. She can purr like everybody's favorite fantasy, but there's more there than just a "chick singer." She seems to be developing with her talent.
"I used to think, you know, I'm trying to communicate here what I feel and I'm going to do it, and fuck all those people 'cause who cares? But now I realize that ..." she took a deep breath, "that that's where the responsibility lies ... I have to make contact or else I don't deserve to be here."