Oreos and Love Gone Wrong:
A Heart To Heart with LINDA RONSTADT
by Carl Arrington
These days they cast Linda Ronstadt's anguish in gold. Heartbreak gives her the Midas touch. Inspired by a melancholy muse, she continues to produce music that is both staggeringly sad and strong. She doesn't have the tortured genius of Joni or the raspy charm of Bonnie Raitt, but she reigns as the rock queen of love-gone-wrong.
Her primary tool is a voice that can deliver her polished fascination with emotional upheaval. Yet it is smooth without being glossy; vulnerable without being fragile. Like a valentine laser it has an ability to focus directly on the spot where old romances seem to settle.
These days people no longer buy Ronstadt's albums for her picture on the cover, though that's still reason enough. After all, there were a few of her early LPs that were more pleasant to look at than listen to. But ever since Heart Like A Wheel the most important part has been inside the jacket.
photo by: Andy Kent
So far one of her most significant accomplishments has been to succeed with grace in a field that rewards gracelessness and musical atrocities. Her latest album, Hasten Down the Wind, shows the spectrum of her talent better than any previous effort. These days she seems to be enjoying the post-cheesecake challenge of developing musically. Not only has she proven that her vocals are no studio trick, but she has now made her debut as a songsmith as well as an interpreter .
Ronstadt doesn't talk to the press - especially the rock press - very much. Her distrust comes from years of having her personal life tossed around in public like a medicine ball. "I'm tired of being victimized by people who are dedicated to a snappy phrase," she said.
Her dressing room was multi-mirrored and pale green. Her dark brown hair was pinned up under a blue scarf in preparation for her show, but she still had her characteristic bangs, that are oddly accented with grey strands. Since she is only 30 one must assume that they are the result of experience rather than age. Her moony eyes have a deep brown Latin charm, her smile is bisected by a flash of silver. Surprise! Linda Ronstadt has braces designed to accomplish orthodontically the same thing that had been done previously with an air-brush. Her silver threads are her teeth.
In two interview sessions she proved to be as articulate as she is seductive. "People usually like me - and dislike me - for the wrong reasons. They always presume to understand the inner workings of your mind and they are always wrong," The inner workings are shaped by growing up in Tucson, Arizona and REALLY growing up in the entangled Los Angeles music scene. Thinking back she recalled, "I had a pretty normal life at home. We lived in an adobe house. . . I listened to country music and Mexican songs on the radio. . .Went to parochial schools and had religion rammed down my throat. I finally left at 17 when I was hot and bored and realized that there wasn't any music around."
photo at right by: Michael N. Marks
One of her favorite subjects is "the road" and (like always) she threatened to forsake it. "This is the best tour I've ever done and have had the most fun and I still hate it. It's too hard. It is both emotionally and physically impossible. It's like a psychedelic. It's not the sort of thing you can describe to another person.
"You spend your time just trying to get your face in order. Let's see - eyes on top, mouth on the bottom - okay now. . .WORK! It's boom and bust every day. There is time to kill, but no time to use.
"Loneliness is the worst thing about the road because everyone feels alienated and aches with loneliness. It's like traveling through towns in the Starship Enterprise.
"The only people you can turn to for emotional
sustenance is each other it's like being married to a band of different
people. And they are all people you picked for musical reasons, not because
of their personality profiles."
photo by: Michael N. Marks
That sort of emotional tension seems to be the thing that allows her to go out and spill her guts singing songs like Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low":
The pain you left behind
Has become a part of me
And it's burned out a hole
Where my love used to be.
"Music conveys both the source of my anguish and my relief," she said. "It is what exorcises - and exercises your demons. You've just got to go out there and sing your guts out."
One of her demons is religion. "Even though I think religion is like the root of all evil, I still have a lingering fetish for religious objects like rosaries. I still have reverence for the symbolism and love gospel music. It's great because it performs a function - it lightens your load."
Another is the plight of being a woman in
a male-dominated business. "I don't like to talk about that
a lot because people can read what I think about all that in books," she says, referring to Katherine Orloffs Rock 'n' Roll Woman. But when she talked about her friendship with Maria Muldaur, some of her feelings became apparent. "We became friends because there were so few girl singers around (Maria was singing with the Kweskin Jug Band) . We were like each other's sounding boards for a long time in the days when we couldn't afford psychiatrists. We were about the only ones who understood the specific problems there were for a girl in rock."
Most of the specific problems involve a series of bankrupt romances with boyfriend-managers and manipulation by those around her. "I've had to learn in public and have made mistakes and a lot of bad records. I'll be the one to take the blame, even though it wasn't just me," she said, referring to unnamed entities. "My own ignorance and willingness to be manipulated was often to blame."
However even now Ronstadt's success seems predicated on having found a trustworthy manager rather than having firmly grasped the reigns of her career. She openly credits Peter Asher (of Peter & Gordon) with her recent good fortune. "Peter has unlimited ability to concentrate and sort of keeps a mental focus on what's going on. The rest of us are like little kids. In the studio Andrew (Gold) will be back playing backgammon and Kenny (Edwards) will be playing Ping-Pong or something and I will be eating Oreos under the console and Peter just keeps everything working .
"Not only does Peter keep things organized, but he adds lots of creative ideas. In a sense I am in complete control because I don't do anything I don't want to do and nobody plays a note I don't want them to play but Peter is very important."
Another person she admires is Dolly Parton. She and Emmylou Harris have been doing some singing with Dolly and even performed together on her TV show. Both Dolly and Linda are the same age and seem to have a lot in common. "I first heard Dolly on the radio and I said to myself, 'She's the best girl country singer that's ever been. Since then we've become good friends and I've had a chance to closely observe her in a lot of different situations. I must say she is the most amazingly consistent person I have ever met. She doesn't change for a man or woman or child. She's charming - and I'm wary of charmers because they can get away with anything. I've checked her out and found her to be genuine and she's unique in that she seems to be pretty normal in a business where everybody's neurotic."
Even though Ronstadt taped the show with Dolly and has appeared on a couple of concert shows, she avoids television. "It is a classless medium with no quality either on an audio or visual level. It's geared for 12-year-old mentalities." Movies don't fare much better by her. "I've thought about doing films and rejected the idea because I'm not interested in being someone's lackey. Besides that, movie people are pretty greasy."
An activity that has provided a lot of ink for her in the past year is her political involvement. "I've retired from politics," she said. "My manager gets more phone calls than Sargent Shriver. For a while, I thought it might do some good working for someone I believe in, like Jerry Brown, but now I'm only going to do benefits for concrete causes in the community that I live. Right now that happens to be Los Angeles."
"I just got tired of mixing up the message. I mean, if kids are there to listen to music, I don't want to ram politics down their throats. It ruins the magic of the music. I just think it's taking unfair advantage of the audience to sort of slip in some specific political message while they're captivated by your music. politics should not be run like a circus."
Still, Ronstadt remains interested in current events. Every day she reads the Wall Street Journal. "I have my own opinions, but I am no economist and really shouldn't be giving advice."
The preponderance of her life revolves around music and her recent success with Hasten Down the Wind seems to please her. "I think it's the best album we've made. It has more of me in it than anything I've done." She talked about the songs on the album that she wrote. "The story of "Try Me Again" really happened. I broke up with this guy and was driving around and then talked to my friends and got all bummed out. The next day it just came to me in my car and I just pulled over and wrote it on the back of a parking ticket."
Indeed, there is conviction when she sings:
Well I drove past your house last night
And I looked in your window.
Lately I ain't been feelin' right
And I don't know the cure, no.
Still I can't keep from wonderin'
If I still figure in your life.
Could you take me back and try me again?
On the Spanish lament "Lo Siento Mi Vida" she shares credit with her father. "We were just playing around one day and decided to write a song. In Spanish, no less. We wrote a couple of lines and then thought we were real cool, saying 'Oh yeah, we're writing a song in Spanish. "When we finally got into the studio I got my dad to come down and translate it for us. He knocked it out in about 20 minutes, then stuck around to help us get the right Mexican flavor."
photo by: Andy Kent
Most of the time Ronstadt relies on a stable of light heavyweights in California like Karla Barloff, J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne. She said, "I don't know if I'll write some more. I mean the last time I wrote a song I didn't think about it. Even after I did it I was amazed. But writing is not my main craft - I am a singer. Other people have that gift."
Even with her success, Ronstadt remains wary of critics and praise. She carries around a quote by Margot Fonteyn in her wallet. It reads: "Extravagant praise is destructive and reverence is rubbish. Great artists are people who find a way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike."
For all her keen interests, Ronstadt's appeal
is still gutsy rather than intellectual. "I have to get sort of animal
for what I do. I have to have that raw emotion accessible on stage because
that's what I try to put in my music. But sexuality is best on-stage when
I don't think about it. When I concentrate on the music, that's when I
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