M O J O , the Rock'n'Roll Magazine
Jesus, even Linda Ronstadt- someone famously fastidious about such things- can't quite contain her curiosity about the OJ Simpson case. "Ask anyone, normally I never have the TV on," she insists. "But I can't quite seem to get the OJ thing out of my mind."
Actually, Ronstadt has better grounds for vicarious excitement than do most of the sensation-starved Americans who stay glued to their sets day after grinding day. Why? Because she used to live opposite the murder house in the chi-chi LA suburb of Brentwood, that's why. Because she knew Nicole Simpson and often walked with her and her dogs, including the one who was supposedly the sole witness to Nicole's brutal killing.
Then again, the hysteria over the Simpson case is exactly the sort of thing which makes Linda Ronstadt glad she doesn't dwell in Los Angeles any longer- glad that she left Hollywood Babylon for the more civilised climes of San Francisco; glad that she's now come back to Tucson, the pleasant desert town where she was born and where most of her family still reside. For a singer who all but embodied the sound of LA lite-rock in the '70s, Ronstadt has put a considerable distance between herself and the citadel of corporate entertainment.
"At some point," she says, "I became aware that LA was just this giant Xerox machine which took Xeroxed copies of different regional cultures and broadcast them to the world - focused through this lens of Los Angeles sensibility, which was very blond and twee and strange. Also I got very bored with the rock and roll world. As soon as I started singing stuff by George Gershwin I thought, This is it, I'm never singing Tumbling Dice again!"
It's appropriate, then, that Ronstadt's new album should be called Feels Like Home, its title track taken from Randy Newman's rock-operatic treatment of Faust- which features Ronstadt in the role of Gretchen. "The title was a coincidence," she claims, "but a happy coincidence, I think."
Watching Ronstadt roam about the house she bought last November, it's immediately clear the place does feel like home. The impression is bolstered by the fact that her adopted three-year-old daughter periodically wanders into the room for a cuddle during our conversation. "I've lived for years in big cities where I had a tiny amount of land, so it's nice to have a yard and a pool. I like my life better, not travelling so much. Being on the road is an inhuman way to live."
Ronstadt has agreed to do "the bare minimum" to promote Feels Like Home, including a three-week stint "on the road" in April, but no more than that. As it happens, the album will probably translate better to the road than her previous release, Winter Light, which boasted a generous helping of '60s pop classics- a touch of Bacharach, a little Jimmy Webb and a delectable treatment of Brian Wilson's Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)- but was hardly live material. "With Winter Light I wanted to make a big, classic, wall-of-sound record," she says. "Having watched Brian doing the backing vocals on Adios [a track on Ronstadt's 1989 album Cry Like A Rainstorm- Howl Like The Wind] I know how he does those sound layers now!"
By contrast, Feels Like Home is a more country-rocking affair, closer to the feel of hugely successful '7Os albums like Simple Dreams and Heart Like A Wheel. Growing out of an expensively aborted attempt to follow up the Trio album Ronstadt recorded with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton in 1986, the 10 songs on the record veer from Matricia Berg's Walk On to a seraphic version of Neil Young's After The Gold Rush, originally suggested by Parton. It's not hard to imagine Ronstadt belting the hell out of Tom Petty's The Waiting (the opening track) onstage; it's not even inconceivable that The Blue Train, the album's divine first single, could be a hit.
However the album fares, it's unlikely to persuade Ronstadt that she should return to the rock mainstream. Or to LA, come to that. "I'm willing to co-operate as much as I can for this record," she says. "But otherwise I'm kind of ready to say, That's the ballgame: I'm staying here. And if I don't get to make records anymore ... I'll do something else."
"We always sang together in my family," she says. "We'd sing a lot of Mexican music, cowboy songs, any three-part harmony that we heard on the radio and liked. The things I've done consistently in my career tend to be things I'd heard by the time I was eight or nine years old, and I've realised that they tend to be close to agrarian culture of one kind or another."
By the time Ronstadt hit her teens she was singing with siblings and cousins in folk outfits like The New Union Ramblers. "My brother Peter was actually the best singer in the family, and he still is. There was a very good boys' choir here and he was the soloist, and that in itself has had a huge effect on my music."
Peter Ronstadt gave up dreams of musical acclaim to become a cop; he recently retired as Tucson's Chief Of Police, no less. But Linda had gotten wind of the nascent folk-rock scene in the promised land of southern California and itched to leave. "We'd all listened to Bob Dylan and dreamed of the Greenwich Village scene," she says. "But New York was such an unimaginable concept, whereas LA was just a day trip away." It was the sound of The Byrds which finally seduced Ronstadt westwards. Moving into an "adorable little Victorian house" on the beach in Santa Monica (rent $80 a month, divided three ways), she quickly became an habitue of clubs like the Trip and the Troubadour.
"The whole scene was still very sweet and innocent at this point," she says wistfully. "It was all about sitting around in little embroidered dresses and listening to Elizabethan folk ballads, and that's how I thought it was always going to be! You could talk about the books you read, and everyone was a Communist. It used to just be a given that you'd sit down with a bunch of musicians and you'd know they were all gonna be real liberal. Now they're weird - you don't know what kind of things they're gonna say. I mean, I know this guitarist who takes Rush Limbaugh [noxious right-wing radio personality] seriously!"
It wasn't long before Ronstadt had teamed up with Arizona boy Bobby Kimmel and bassist Kenny Edwards to form The Stone Poneys, a kind of Sunset Strip version of Peter, Paul and Mary with country-hippy leanings. "I never set out to 'make it'," she emphasises. "All I knew was I didn't want to work in the bank. So if I was playing some pizza place in Westwood or the Insomniac in Hermosa Beach, I was happy." So happy, in fact, that when A&R man Nik Venet signed the Poneys to Capitol and persuaded them to record the Mike Nesmith song Different Drum, the ensuing success was not simply a shock but an embarrassment.
"I thought it was horrible, I wanted to take it off the record," Ronstadt grimaces. "I still think it's horrible, although I'm happy for what it got me, which was a chance to do music I did like." Actually, with its sweepingly baroque pop arrangement, Different Drum may be the best record The Mamas & The Papas never made, but that's clearly no consolation to Ronstadt. "Back then I thought you could only sing as well as your natural gifts permitted, and I didn't think I could sing very well. The sad thing is that it took me so long to realise I could learn and improve by practising."
Among the stranger adventures The Stone Poneys underwent was a tour as support-act to The Doors. The first of several stars to bring out the latent prude in Linda, The Lizard King didn't exactly endear himself to the trio... "We thought they were a good band, but we didn't like the singer," Ronstadt says with impeccable bathos. "He always wore these same snakeskin pants that really smelled because he never washed. You could hang out with him a little bit, but then he got real, real drunk and then you couldn't. I remember him showing up at the Fillmore East with some chick- he liked redheads, which was fortunate for me- and she just looked like someone had been dancing on her jaw. I asked her what had happened and she said, no pun intended, 'I ran into a Door!'"
Other names which provoke the same opprobrium in Ronstadt are those of Gram Parsons and The Rolling Stones. It was on the back of Gram's motorcycle that she rode up into the canyons one night in 1969 to 'hang' with their satanic majesties.
"I couldn't leave until the next morning because he was too drunk to drive me home," she says in a slightly shrill voice. "To me, that kind of living wasn't responsible, and I resolved that I would never wind up in one of those scenes again without my own wheels. See, I was shocked by the fact that these people could sit up all night long, and I thought they were very careless- I wondered how on earth they managed to pull the music together. But then some of the music was real good. I remember that that was when I first heard Wild Horses."
What did a girl have to put up with on the LA rock scene in 1969?
"I didn't think about being a woman at the time, but in hindsight it was plenty tough. The whole idea of sexual harassment hadn't surfaced, but there was a lot of completely outrageous and unacceptable stuff going on. I kept saying to myself, as long as you're doing your work everything'll be fine, but it didn't spare me the rest of the baggage that comes along."
When the Poneys disbanded through "musical disinterest", it left Ronstadt free to pursue the solo career that resulted in her first six albums selling a stupendous 22 million copies. For a while it looked as though she might not make it. While Ronstadt's second backing band metamorphosed into the megasuccessful Eagles, she struggled to make a decent album with producer and beau JD Souther. Only when she turned to Brit-in-exile Peter Asher- the man who'd made James Taylor a huge star - did the pieces fall into place.
"Most guys had a tendency to behave like guys do when they're fixing cars," she says. "The girl was never under the hood, or at least if she got under the hood she was considered a tomboy. Peter was different because he was prepared to validate my musical whims. Some of my ideas didn't get through because I didn't know mechanically how to implement them. Now I know how to do it, and it's much more fun. In fact, it's very easy for me to sit in the studio for 15 hours at a stretch without a lot of things that are real important to me, like colour and light."
Peter Asher it was who got the Ronstadt formula down pat, interleaving bland Motown and Buddy Holly covers with new songs by Laurel Canyon peers like Souther, Karla Bonoff and Warren Zevon. The records tended to reduce everything to a kind of generic LA country rock, but they sold by the ton and boasted a smattering of genuinely affecting performances: renditions of Souther's Faithless Love, Bonoff's Someone To Lay Down Beside Me, James Taylor's You Can Close Your Eyes. Critics accused Ronstadt of being Asher's puppet, a charge that the carrot-topped Englishman dismisses with a snort of derision: "Anyone who's met Linda for 10 seconds will know that I couldn't possibly have been her Svengali. She's an extremely determined woman, in every area. To me, she was everything that feminism's about, at a time when men still told women what to sing and what to wear."
Given that Ronstadt has emerged from the fallout of the '70s with more dignity and credibility than many of her contemporaries, it's instructive to consider just how convenient it was for misogynistic scribes to view her as a mere pawn in the LA game- a doe-eyed bimbo who couldn't write her own songs and who, it was whispered, had "slept her way to the top". Chief among the culprits, as far as Ronstadt is concerned, were Jann Wenner and his henchmen at Rolling Stone.
"Wenner's style was always, Gotcha!," she says. "He was always sending Annie Leibowitz out to try and get pictures of people with their clothes off, pictures that would slightly embarrass you or shame you or reveal something he imagined you were trying to cover up." (Note in this connection that the merciless Friends To Burn- a track on Jimmy Webb's Ronstadt-produced Suspending Disbelief album - is heavily rumoured to be about Wenner.)
What are her memories of the whole Laurel Canyon scene?
"It wasn't completely pleasant. There were too many drugs and there was too much judgemental attitude. You didn't dare open your mouth in case you had the wrong opinion. To this day I think that's what's responsible for the very neutral accent that comes out of southern California- there are a lot of feelings stuffed down, a lot of anguish and desperate embarrassment- but everything is spoken with a very tight throat and a very flat mask.
"I never was a fan of drugs, although I took them from time to time- you kinda did! They made people deaf, they made people dead, and they made people real obnoxious. See, I was brought up to be a responsible person. There's this great quote from Flaubert that I love and would like to live by: 'Be regular and orderly in your life, in order that you may be violent and original in your work.' In those days we were so afraid of being regular and orderly because we all came from bourgeois backgrounds. That was kind of instigated by Bob Dylan trying to pretend he was Woody Guthrie when he was just a middle-class Jewish kid from Minnesota."
Another thing that turned Ronstadt away from rock'n'roll was playing giant colosseums.
"I didn't feel they were appropriate places for music. I liked the money, but it wasn't musically satisfying. When you think the guitar was only amped on Chuck Berry records because it was the smallest voice in the ensemble, to go from that to the point where the only thing you could hear was those high, arching guitar solos meant that vocals became almost meaningless."
After a brief flirtation with "Noo Wave" that saw her castigated for covering Elvis Costello's Alison ("Linda and I both understood that of course he had to say that," says Peter Asher), Ronstadt decided she'd had enough. She "wilfully re-routed myself by going to New York to work with Joe Papp in The Pirates Of Penzance".
While she was working six days a week on Broadway for a fraction of the money she'd been used to making, Jerry Wexler came to see the show and suggested that she think about recording an album of pop standards. Joe Smith of Elektra/Asylum had "absolutely no faith" in the idea, but gave her the green light anyway "because of the sheer number of records I'd sold for him".
Opinions are divided as to the merits of the Nelson Riddle-arranged What's New (1983), which surprised Ronstadt herself by reaching Number 3 on the US chart. Gallant apologists like John Rockwell wouldn't hear a word against her, but jazz writers such as Will Friedwald decried her "flagrant amateurism". Critical opinion notwithstanding, she had the time of her life working with Riddle on timeless masterpieces like What'll I Do and I Don't Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You. "God, I was in heaven! This was craftsmanship that was so far from The Eagles it wasn't true- although it was JD Souther who'd turned me on to Nelson in the first place!"
Ronstadt followed up What's New with two more Tin Pan Alley collections and then turned her attention to the Mexican mariachi songs of her childhood. Canciones De Mi Padre (1987) was the first of two albums of ranchera classics like Por Un Amor and La Cigarra, while Frenesi (1992) tackled the tropical big-band music of Cuba. "My great ambition is to be the best Mexican singer in the world," she stated at the time of Frenesi.
In addition to exploring these personal obsessions, Ronstadt has found a new lease of life as a producer- a powerful woman in control of what she calls "soundscapes". Some might grouch that her productions are as antiseptic and meticulous as Peter Asher's were 20 years ago: she herself talks of "putting notes on with tweezers" and is amused by the contrast with her friend Neil Young, "who just says, Oh, can you put a harmony on this? - and then, That's fine, now I've got this other track... " But no-one can dispute that she knows what she's doing in the studio.
"Producing is like sailing: you set a course and then correct it. You learn to hear sound in great detail. I remember talking to this guy who'd come back from the rain forest in Brazil, and he was talking about how the people in this village would suddenly pick up their spears and run off into the forest, only to reappear with some animal they'd killed. He said they had this really weird ability to hear stuff, and I thought, No they don't. What they have is the ability to discern a certain thing moving against a vast soundscape. In recording, I know the sound relationships as well as those people who suddenly ran off into the forest."
After producing albums for David Lindley and Aaron Neville (whose supernatural falsetto voice she'd made a vital part of her own album, Cry Like A Rainstorm- Howl Like The Wind), Ronstadt committed herself to the major labour of love that was Jimmy Webb's comeback record, Suspending Disbelief (1993). Marvellous though this album was, it died a tragic death.
"I was so sorry it wasn't successful," she says, wincing at the memory. "I really worked hard on it and gave up a lot to do it. I even took copies to radio stations myself, but I couldn't get people to listen to it. Jimmy expected so much and felt so let down by the record company."
With any luck, Feels Like Home will fare better than Suspending Disbelief and put Linda Ronstadt back where she belongs in the higher echelons of American rock. But the former 'sex kitten'- a woman who turns out to be rather prudish about sex- reiterates that she's more than happy to stay home with her kids and her Maria Callas records. The girl who 18 years ago sang I Never Will Marry has no problem with the fact that she turns 50 next year, even if she has vetoed photo sessions which might betray the extra pounds she's carrying around with her.
"I'll do music always," she says as her daughter clambers back on to her lap. "If I don't make records I'll be sitting here in my living-room with my brother Peter and my brother Mike and my cousin John and we'll be playing music. And when we have the next Mexican music conference here in Tucson, I hope all the Mexican singers will be sitting here in my living-room. I'll do things that are musically appropriate for me, and that I would enjoy. If I could get a job with the Arizona Opera Company doing something I felt was appropriate, then I might do that. It wouldn't make millions of dollars, and it wouldn't have worldwide exposure ... and I couldn't care less."