from the book Stranded- Rock and Roll for a Desert Island|
edited by Greil Marcus
What I'm going to write here is a piece of passionate advocacy, and one doesn't normally introduce advocacy defensively. My defensiveness, such as it is, derives from the nature of my intended audience. Linda Ronstadt hardly needs defenders in the world at large. She is the most popular woman singer of the 1970s, and perhaps ever, as measured by record sales; in 1977 she had the most commercially successful album by any solo artist, with Simple Dreams.
But with popular music the relationship between popularity and critical approbation is an especially complex one. Rock critics are by definition populists, yet simultaneously they must trust their own instincts with the same elitist ferocity as any high-art connoisseur. In rock criticism, commercial success doesn't so much attest to quality as corroborate it; if you like something the millions like, their general enthusiasm adds resonance to your private enthusiasm, certifying its universality.
In Ronstadt's case, her reputation among rock critics is not very grand. In Britain especially, she is widely regarded as a mindless puppet in the bands of her producer, Peter Asher- which must be an odd irony for Asher, who was a British pop star once. A typical passing crack about Ronstadt in the British rock press comes from a recent Melody Maker, in which Michael Oldfield grumbles that "it's ridiculous that the most successful female rock singer is Linda Ronstadt, whose voice is nothing special, but who has made it through ruining other people's songs." And the British attitude, or at least something approaching it, is shared by many of the best-known American rock critics; Ronstadt didn't even make the index of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock 6 Roll, which was a compendium by exactly the writers I'm talking about- many of the same people who have contributed to this book.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that several of those writers are my friends, and so is Linda. My love for her music long antedated my friendship with her, and that friendship has remained the exception rather than the rule in my dealings with the people I write about. But knowing her both adds to my knowledge of her music and reinforces my desire to champion her work with my peers. As you will see below, I am by no means blandly uncritical about Ronstadt's accomplishments. But ultimately I love both the accomplishments and the accomplisher, and it frustrates me that more people whose sensibilities I respect don't get as much pleasure as I do from this wonderfully pleasurable music. My friend Dave Marsh thinks I'm the ringleader of a media plot to win Ronstadt some critical respect, and he's right.
Before I launch into my advocacy, I should say something about why I've chosen her latest album, Living in the U.S.A., as my ostensible subject. I was originally going to write about Heart Like a Wheel, which came out in late 1974 and by early 1975 had made her a superstar after nearly a decade of cult success. This was her first album produced entirely by Asher, and it inaugurated a string of discs that have defined both her commercial dominance and her mature artistry; even the weakest of her Asher-produced albums, Prisoner in Disguise of 1975, is superior to any LP she'd done without him. Heart Like a Wheel is also the album least disliked (most liked?) by critics who generally find Ronstadt uninteresting, although at this writing Living in the U.S.A. has just been released, so its critical reception has yet to be determined.
Heart Like a Wheel remains a fine album. I can remember putting it on my turntable for the first time and being instantly thrilled by the new authority and assertiveness of the singing on the first track, "You're No Good,"' which eventually became the first of the album's two number one singles. For all the diversity of its personnel, the album boasts a convincing focus and a solid consistency; there are no obviously weak or misguided selections here, even if "It Doesn't Matter Any More" and "You Can Close Your Eyes" don't seem really memorable. But there are both specific and tbeoretical reasons for picking Living in the U.S.A. One, quite simply, is that although I haven't lived with it as long as the others, it's the one I'm fired up about right now. That means I am still in the process of thinking it through, which may lend the whole enterprise of writing once again about Ronstadt a certain spontaneity. Another is that after ten or fifteen listenings it seems about as strong an album as she's done. And as her most recent, it is more characteristic of her evolution in the past five years than Heart Like a Wheel, whose arrangements sound more pop and less rock than her recent work. Quite apart from her growing intelligence and range as an interpreter, there's been a steady shift since 1974 from innocence and vulnerability to sophistication and aggression, and that's a shift worth considering.
In any case, I planned all along to devote as much space to Linda and her work in general as to whichever specific album I finally chose. Partly that's because any selection of a "best" or a "favorite" is a distortion. All of Ronstadt's records have things on them I'd want on a desert island, and nearly all of them have what I consider "mistakes"- songs that she might better not have sung. Beyond that, for all my love for Linda, I would not seriously suggest that she was the most important single artist in the history of rock music. But she is the one I've been the biggest fan of, the one whose music has meant the most to me over the longest time. Pop music has always been about emotional release, about passionate responses to artists who might not rank at the very top of our rational hierarchies. There are those of us who like to think about why that happens, and this book offers us at last the chance to explore our compulsions in depth. What follows is for those who could be moved by Ronstadt, by one who has been.
Any consideration of Linda Ronstadt has to start with her voice. Objectivity may be a myth in art, but it's hard to avoid the flat statement that Ronstadt has the strongest, most clearly focused, flexible, and simply beautiful voice in popular music. As a physical instrument, it is capable of authoritative usage in almost any kind of pop music, and with a bit of technical work, could encompass most any classical style, as well. Many of the great voices of the past have been "natural"; subsequent technical work has served only to refine an already extant gift. Most pop voices are defined by a certain huskiness, which is generally the result of a vestigially developed voice or one that has been driven to a near-hoarseness by strain. At its best, such huskiness can serve as a metaphor for passion or warmth; one need only think of Rod Stewart. But at its worst the huskiness leads to nodes or nodules on the vocal cords that can so reduce a singer to whispery silence that an operation becomes necessary, and sometimes that operation can radically alter a voice (occasionally for the better, as in the case of Bonnie Tyler) or end a career. With Linda the only huskiness is that which she consciously applies to specific syllables as coloration. Her voice has a strength, size, and basic technical security that enable her to sing with force, yet without the sort of strain that leads to its rapid degeneration. And it has a focus or "edge" that helps lend it that ultimately undefinable character that constitutes her essential "sound." Throughout her career that sound has been there, and apart from the natural shifts of aural color and the slight lowering of basic range that comes with age, it will probably serve her well for decades to come.
Ronstadt is a soprano, although she never worked to develop the ringing upper extension that constitutes the climactic top octave or more for an operatic soprano. She can in fact sing in an overtly "operatic" way, plummy and full of a marked vibrato, and by so doing can reach higher notes than she normally attains. But that method of vocal production doesn't sound stylistically appropriate to her for the music she sings. By choosing not to deploy that register of her voice, she has constricted her range from what it could be. What's left is not really wide in operatic terms, as anyone who beard her bull her way through "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the 1977 World Series can attest. Her effective range is from around G below middle C to the C above it, with a few notes beyond that in falsetto.
Compared to the average pop singer, however, that range is relatively wide. Singers with multi-octave voices, operatic or otherwise, attain their breadth through the more or less smooth knitting togetber of several distinct registers, from a booming chest voice through the middle and up to various head-voice or falsetto top extensions; operatic training consists largely of the cultivation of those registers and of evening them out- of engineering transitions between them that don't sound too inadvertently disjunct. For all practical purposes Ronstadt's great natural instrument, her wide-ranging and near-perfectly focused middle register, has never been subjected to any vocal training (which is different, of course, from a steady improvement in her musicianship and her command of various musical styles). She lacks a chest register, at least in the sense of an operatic contralto. She thinks of the lower notes of her range as her "chest voice," and feels them resonate in a different, deeper part of her body than her top notes. But at the very bottom of her voice, the sound could hardly be heard at all in concert without amplification. It is defined mostly by its characteristic vibrato- the rapid pulsations that nearly all singers have and most modern instrumentalists affect to excess. Too much vibrato can sound mawkish and, at its extreme, can be a sign of near-terminal vocal strain. Too little vibrato sounds plain and churchy, and makes the attainment of proper pitch needlessly difficult.
As she moves up the scale into her middle and upper-middle range, which she calls her "pharyngeal voice," the body of her soprano fills out. This is the typical Ronstadt sound, loud or soft, and most of her singing is done here. As she ascends in pitch, toward the C above middle C, her limitations at the top become apparent: the vibrato thins out and the voice can sound like a bard, nasal yell. That can have its expressive virtues, especially in hard rock (cf. the end of her live version of "Tumbling Dice," in the FM soundtrack album). But at the very top it's neither a very grateful nor a very controlled sound, and when she's not singing at her best in concert, the voice can crack at that altitude; eventually, one suspects, it will become increasingly difficult for her to hit such notes consistently, and she may have to pitch some of her standards down a half or a whole step. Even now on records, in material that courts operatic comparisons like Sigmund Romberg's "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" from 1935 (unless otherwise specified, all Ronstadt songs mentioned henceforth are on Living in the U.S.A..), it's possible to wish for just a bit more operatic control, tone color, and flexibility; on the other hand, there's a folkish naturalness to Ronstadt's sound that an operatic fullness and upper extension would preclude.
Above the "natural" top of her middle register comes her falsetto, which she has been employing more and more in recent years. This is really a delicate version, thin and tenuously supported, of the operatic head voice she could develop if she so chose. She uses it partly for expressive purposes, and sometimes it works very nicely, as at the end of "Alison" or throughout "Ooh Baby Baby." In that song she makes the shifts between mid-volume full voice and falsetto smoothly, but on the whole her falsetto remains undeveloped in comparison to the confident power of her full middle voice, and too often (e.g., at the very end of "Blue Bayou" on Simple Dreams) it sounds simply as if she had no other way to reach a high note.
Now, this is all semi-technical description, and it quite completely avoids the issue of one's gut response to the sound. There is nothing inherently superior, aesthetically, to a well-produced voice ("produced" in vocal terminology, that is, rather than in the recording-studio sense). But the actual sound of a voice is indeed an aesthetic consideration, perhaps the prime one for a singer. And a voice with a solid technique (natural and/or acquired) not only secures the vocal quality over time, but ensures a wider and more varied use of that quality. In Ronstadt's case the sheer joy and physicality of her singing has always been instantly communicable to me, and the specific coloration has seemed intensely moving. To take just one example- and we're still speaking here of sound alone, not the interpretive uses to which it is put- consider Linda's version of "Just One Look." Doris Troy, who had a hit with the song in 1963 (her version is on Vol. 6 of Atlantic's History of Rhythm & Blues series), sang it with a good deal of gusto, and the Ronstadt arrangement and phrasing emulate her record in every respect but one. Troy essentially fades out on the phrase "just one look" after the last chorus; I say "essentially" because she raises the note values slightly on the last two repetitions. Ronstadt constructs an entire coda that's not in Troy's version at all full of exhilarating "come on babys" and other shouting manifestations of lust. She can do this because her voice has all the authority and strength of Troy's in the lower-middle range, but can extend upward to climactic upper-middle notes in a way that Troy's simply cannot. For a direct comparison, listen to both women's treatment of the word "wrong" in the second line of the bridge; next to Ronstadt's joyous vocal authority, Troy sounds hard and pressed. And of course it's ultimately impossible to separate technical and interpretive issues entirely. The sort of buoyant strength Ronstadt flaunts in her "Just One Look" makes an aesthetic and emotional statement all by itself; when she sings the line "without you, I'm nothing," you don't believe her for a minute.
People who can't respond to the sheer power of Ronstadt's voice sometimes complain about her "belting" style: they don't find the sort of vocal musculature that epitomizes her sound at its loudest either very attractive or very appropriate to much of the music she sings. Partly this is a question of the husky sound-color that characterizes most popular-music voices, forming the model against which many pop critics compare Ronstadt. In my own case, after an early fascination with pre-rock pop and mid-fifties rock and roll, I became immersed in classical music, and only came back to pop in the 1960s after my tastes in vocal music had been crucially influenced by opera. Today I can love all sorts of vocal sound, but my longtime attraction to Ronstadt's voice, dating back to the late 1960s, was clearly reinforced by my instant appreciation of its operatic qualities.
The most provocative theorist of classical and popular vocal singing has been Henry Pleasants, in his book, The Great American Popular Singers. To compress his argument brutally, Pleasants suggests that the original Italian notion of bel canto some four hundred years ago was an intimate, highly flexible vocalism, built around declamation. Over the course of centuries, under the pressure of man's innate tendencies toward virtuosic and rhetorical display and the growing size of opera houses (itself a result of the democratization and popularization of opera), opera evolved (or devolved) into a more brilliant, less expressive excuse for clarion vocal athleticism. The introduction of the microphone and electronic amplification after 1925 has meant that singers like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra could be freed from the need to sacrifice expressivity on the altar of volume and could revert to the traditional virtues of bel canto. Thus, one could conclude with a straight face, Frank Sinatra was a better bel canto singer than Jussi Bjoerling.
Pleasants himself has never paid much attention to rock; generationally it's beyond him. He tends to regard rock singers as brutes who bellow into the microphone even when they don't have to. Quite apart from the blues-rock shouters, there is indeed a whole school of semi-operatic rock emoters, epitomized by Bruce Springsteen. But of course a great deal of contemporary popular culture corresponds exactly to the models Pleasants himself has posited for pre-rock pop, particularly the folk style that underlies both modern-day country music and the folk-rocking singer-songwriters. Next to them, Ronstadt can sound like an anachronistic reversion to the semi-operatic emoting of Al Jolson and back to the days of the American vaudeville stage. For me, though, that aspect of her vocal style can be very appealing, since it both echoes the operatic singing I love and evokes a whole image of nineteenth-century America. It's not just a matter of vocal style, either; Linda's way of pronouncing the English language is very much of this country. In fact, of contemporary women popular singers, only Bonnie Koloc, with her wonderfully direct mid-American declamation, surpasses Ronstadt for the sheer Americanness of her singing- in that respect, the otherwise somewhat spurious "American" theme of Living in the U.S.A. makes perfect sense. Anyhow, "belting" isn't all Ronstadt can do; her soft singing combines the purity of an operatic voice with the simple plaintiveness of folk-singing, and her clarity of focus and security of pitch makes her harmony-singing a special joy.
When one says "American," one means white America. Until the advent of jazz, blues and soul-singing in this century, white culture was American culture; blacks made their influence felt on the mainstream, but usually in such white translations as Stephen Foster. No doubt John David Souther meant something deeper and broader by the phrase "white rhythm and blues" in his song on Living in the U.S.A., but it seems to me that it suggests something important about Ronstadt's singing style. Even when singing black songs she remains an inescapably white singer. This could be- and has been- taken as a condemnation, a proof that she has no business assaying such songs. Her critics complain that some of her cover versions of black hits have sounded uncomfortably close to the bland reductions that Pat Boone used to inflict on Little Richard (e.g., her version of "Heat Wave" on Prisoner in Disguise). But at her best, it seems to me, she has developed a most convincing solution to her black material, with a style that simultaneously evokes the original interpreters yet remains honorably white.
But terms like "black" and "white" are both vague and possibly racist, and in any case we should realize that by this point we have moved into a discussion of Ronstadt's interpretive abilities, as opposed to her voice. Blacks have represented the principal symbols and agents of passion, spontaneity, and rebellion in recent white American culture, and most of the best white rock singers have not only built their music on black foundations, but assumed similar attitudes. Linda's singing has been criticized interpretively on a number of grounds, but all of those grounds have a common theme. As the most popular woman singer of the 1970s and a quintessential Southern Californian, she epitomizes for her critics all that is soft, safe, and retrogressive about this decade. Her singing has been called stiff and hopelessly uptight, with that uprightness carried over into her stage shows, which rarely approach the mass celebratory rapture of great rock events. Her records, and in particular Peter Asher's production, have been branded as too coldly, clinically "perfect," a studied formalization of songs meant to be sung with loose, improvisatory fervor. Her song selection has been dismissed as formulaic (mechanically trying to recreate the pattern that made Heart Like a Wheel such a hit) and misguided, in her frequent selection not only of black songs, but material by such as Randy Newman and Warren Zevon that supposedly suggests subtle, ironic, or abstract connotations that she's too dumb either to understand or to project. And her overall image of love and sexuality has been called both manipulative and reactionary.
There is a bit of truth to every one of these charges, especially in years past, although I would argue that some of the criticism of Ronstadt on feminist grounds is itself just a bit sexist: it's unconsciously suspected that someone who is small and pretty and who admits openly to emotional vulnerability can't simultaneously contribute creatively to her own music and image, and that to the extent that she does so, she is a manipulator.
Before we consider the charges point by point, however, three other issues need to be raised. Linda Ronstadt is an interpretive singer, even if she collaborated on two songs from her 1976 album, Hasten Down the Wind, and may one day compose more (according to her collaborators, she played the determinant role in both songs). Composers as executants of their own music have by no means always been the rule, in either classical or popular music. In the Tin Pan Alley days- think of Crosby or Sinatra- singers generally sang others' songs. But with the advent of rock, the two functions have tended to merge. This has led to an unparalleled intensity of personal expression in the music, even if the composers weren't always particularly fluent singers. But critics used to the singer-songwriter (or his rock equivalent, stripped of that term's folkish connotations) generally prefer the composer's original, no matter how roughly executed, to another's interpretation; it's somehow assumed that a "mere" interpreter will lack the insight of the creator. Furthermore, the very roughness of a singer-songwriter's voice somehow symbolizes an honesty that a more polished interpretation supposedly must lack.
Now, in my own hierarchy of musical values, a composer may indeed rank higher than an interpreter; clearly Bob Dylan and Neil Young are more important to the history of rock music than Linda Ronstadt. Yet such a bias need hardly consign all interpreters to the slag heap. And insofar as interpretive singers can project a focused, interesting image through the music of others, welding disparate materials into a new unity, they can make their own cohesive artistic statement. Besides, not all composers are great singers, even within the terms of a singer-songwriter aesthetic; it's no accident that Linda has enjoyed some of her greatest successes with the work of Zevon, Soutber, and Eric Kaz. And not having to come up with an ever-better collection of ten tunes every year enables interpretive singers to develop more steadily and surely than many composers; if Karla Bonoff, for example, falls to match the quality of songs of her previous album, it won't make much difference how well she sings.
There's another basic bias to consider before we go on. It isn't just that contemporary rock critics prefer husky, untrained voices over more polished varieties, or that they tend sometimes unthinkingly to doubt that any interpretation can conceivably equal the composer's original. There is a widespread prejudice against beauty per se in present-day popular music. People are so appalled by our culture's tendencies toward slickness and surface packaging that they seize hold of almost any rougher alternative. Pretty voices, pretty faces, pretty songs all become suspect to such a sensibility. Yet surely we have to allow for that part of life if the rebellious alternatives are to have meaning.
Or at least we do if we tend toward an attitude that in some crucial sense accepts things as they are. For better or for worse, I have always been the kind of person that tries to keep things in balance. I may be drawn to extremes in art and behavior, but I find them most desirable when contained within the sum total of human experience. And with my longtime fascination for German art and thought, I ultimately conceive of extremes in terms of the dialectical tension between them.
This runs counter to the extremist positions about art, politics, and life that shaped the ideology of today's active rock critics, people who grew up in the 1960s. I spent most of that decade in Berkeley, and in my parents' eyes I was a hopeless hippie. But I never really rejected them or their values, however much I may want to see changes effected in the way society works. Most serious rock critics think in more radical terms, whatever their day-to-day lives may be. For them the greatest rock serves as an explicit or implicit call to battle. For me it can well do that, but it can also echo the softer sides of life. They think of the polarities between rock's extremes- or between the extremes and the middle ground- as combatants in which only one side can be victorious. For me, there may be slow movement of the whole societal and artistic organism in a progressive or retrogressive direction, but all positions along the scale from radicalism to conservatism have at least some potential for validity.
Those three speculative considerations aside, however, a rational defense of Ronstadt's interpretive style and public image has to begin with the admission that she has been and still can be a constrained performer. She herself has often worried in interviews (especially in years past) about being considered a "lame" singer, particularly by the circle of musicians and songwriters who are her closest collaborators. And even during the making of Living in the U.S.A., one song was ultimately left off the album because, as Linda put it, "I sang it like a librarian." Related to that constraint is her stiffness in public performance. Ronstadt has never been one to whip up her audiences to rock frenzy; if your standard of comparison is Bruce Springsteen, then she is certainly a failure.
But of course Springsteen can't be the standard, since what be is doing and what she is doing are so different. Admittedly, Ronstadt's stiffness could be relaxed to her own advantage, and it has been over the past few years, especially in the matter of her singing. But as I've already indicated, that stiffness can have its own validity and charm, as an echo of a particular kind of white, churchish gentility. Her performing manner can be effective on its own terms, too. Often the simple sight of her standing there with her blend of beauty and shyness can be intensely touching, and serve as a fine foil for her sassier rock numbers. And when she's singing well, the sheer sound of that voice absolutely aceing a song can be just as thrilling as the most frenzied rock celebration.
There's also some validity to the charge of the "cold perfection" of Peter Asher's production, even if some of those qualities derive from Linda's own fears and perfectionism. In any case, one man's clinical coldness can be another's jewel-like beauty. Much of the best rock has striven for spontaneous passion above all else, with technical correctness far down on the scale of virtues: Bob Dylan's deliberately helter-skelter recording technique is the epitome of this tendency. Asher is trying for something different, something approaching the formal clarity and abstraction of classical music, that holds up under repeated listenings in a manner akin to precisely structured Western art music. At its best- and perhaps especially for those of us with a strong background in classical music- the sheer taste and rightness of his work has a real conviction of its own.
But to what extent it's his work and to what extent it's that of Ronstadt and her other collaborators is an extremely difficult matter to judge, even for them. Which in turn makes the assumption by some critics that Ronstadt is a mindless puppet a misapprehension. The one thing Asher does indisputably in both the recording studio and on the road is organize details like a computer. But the arrangements are a joint matter between Linda, the band, and Asher, with Linda's role far more crucial than her detractors might think. And a simple consideration of her last few albums indicates that her closest collaborators in the band have had an influence that rivals Asher's, and that shifts in personnel become a key way to vitalize and extend her sound. In particular, the change from Andrew Gold to Waddy Wachtel as unofficial band-leader was a significant one. Gold has a sensibility that is very close to the McCartneyesque British-pop cleverness that underlies Asher's style, and the two of them together pushed Ronstadt's work a bit too close to the ornate and brittle. That phase reached its peak on the last Gold album, Hasten Down the Wind, in 1976; the arrangements are often supportive and always ingenious, but Linda herself had grown uncomfortable with the distance that the sound had traveled from the harder and/or more folkish roots of the music she loved best. Thus the next album had a tougher, sparer sound that reflected not only her own inclinations but the more rock-oriented spirit of Wachtel; its title, Simple Dreams, referred in part to the arrangements.
As an interpretive singer, Ronstadt needs collaborators even more than singer-songwriters, and thus her interaction with her musical co-workers is a complex and delicate one. She has to cultivate songwriters and performing musicians both, and she has to develop relationships with them that work to her advantage yet aren't either domineering (which would be self-defeating) or unduly submissive. Her success in this regard (for all her periodic insecurities) is a quite remarkable one. Linda stands at the center of a number of overlapping musical worlds. She is the queen of the so-called L.A. school of rock- a "school" that these days seems stylistically ever more the anachronistic invention of some rock critics, given the distance some of its members have traveled from the old country-rock clichés. But it remains a viable grouping in a social sense, as a network of friends who share songs, appear on one another's records, and support one another in various ways. Ronstadt is also the leader of the burgeoning crop of women singers that has helped define one crucial aspect of 1970s rock. She is not only the best-known and most commercial of the lot, but she has gone out of her way in numerous specific cases (Karla Bonoff, Nicolette Larson, the Roche sisters, Annie McLoone, etc., etc.) to help younger singers get recognition and record contracts. In that sense, the long brooded-over trio album with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton would be not only a joy to hear, but a fitting symbol of the cooperative, loving spirit of this musical community in general and its women in particular.
In light of all this, the charge of supposedly "formalistic" song selection and sequencing on Ronstadt's albums since 1974 seems silly. As an interpretive singer and a leading member of a musical community, she naturally works with the best songwriters she can find. And since many of those songwriters are her friends and since good songwriters generally write more than one good song, she often goes back to the same people. There has perhaps been a tendency to choose well-known hits of the past over more obscure songs that would free her from invidious comparison, and a slightly recurrent pattern in her selection of oldies composers. But there's been greater variety than repetition; each album finds new names entering the lists, with new themes- or fresh variants on the old themes- underlying the song-by-song selection. Thus whereas earlier albums produced by Asher relied on people like the Eagles, Lowell George, and James Taylor, she later moved through close identification with the music of Kaz, Bonoff, Zevon, and Mick Jagger; Souther remained a constant throughout. In no case has she broken with any of these songwriters, but as circumstances shift (e.g., Bonoff needing all her new material for her own albums) the search for songs and songwriters moves on. And songs don't of course always come directly from songwriters. Linda relates as intensely to people as she does to music itself, and hence her wide network of friends has been a continual source of suggestions for oldies and promising contemporary songs.
Some of these relationships are romantic; others are friendships. It would be absurd, in the light of her own past interviews, to deny that Linda has been romantically involved with many of her collaborators. For her, consciously or unconsciously, sex is a way of getting what she wants. I don't mean it is just a device for her, that she is a cold manipulator; vivacity, warmth, and honesty define her nature. But she is an overtly sexual person, and she likes to relate to men on that level (or, with her many women friends, on a non-sexual but deeply emotional level) and is often ready to fall back on flirtation when she feels insecure about dealing with men in an intellectual or musical way.
Many of the troubles that some rock critics have with Ronstadt as a performer and a public image have to do with this sexuality, and because of it, I think, judgments about her recorded work sometimes become tangled unwittingly with preconceptions about her person. The first thing that needs to be said on this subject is that whatever one may think of Ronstadt as a sex bomb, it is by no means a false representation of the "real" person- all that public iconography, right down to the airbrushed album covers, is part of the same process whereby she attempts to make herself as alluring as she can.
Now, this flies in the face of many feminists' convictions; for all sorts of good reasons they are deeply suspicious of women who prettify themselves in conventional ways that serve to reinforce male expectations. In my own case, although ideologically and emotionally sympathetic to feminism, I've always enjoyed people of either sex who try to look sexually desirable- how they try to do that can vary widely, but the effort itself bespeaks a commitment to style and social generosity that I can respond to. In the case of Linda, what appealed to me about her image back in the late 1960s was the overt blend of good-girl gentility, hippie rebellion, and Los Angeles tough-tramp sexuality. I had moved to Los Angeles from Berkeley at the very beginning of 1970. By then I had grown heartily sick of girls in army jackets, and was ready for a little flash.
What makes Ronstadt fascinating in terms of image is not that she is a stubborn holdout for Total Womanhood in an age of guerrilla feminism. It's the tension of the opposites she incorporates. Any fantasy-object (which is what she is for her fans) and any love-object (what she is for her lovers and close friends) have within them the ability to suggest all possibilities: we see our own contradictions mirrored in the other. But Linda embraces more strongly articulated alternatives than most people I know. She is at once sensual and clever, sweet and irrational, vulnerable and strong. Perbaps all of us contain these opposites; it's just that she denies very little of herself, and thus nearly all the facets of her character coexist in a state of high intensity.
It is the strength of these differing aspects of humanity, and their incorporation into one person of uncommon charm, that not only make her unusual as a person but help explain the really quite extraordinary diversity of musical styles that she can successfully encompass. Most interpretive singers (and certainly most singer-songwriters) are identifiable in terms of a specific style or focused concentration of styles. With Ronstadt, the range is far broader. She is often thought of as a country singer, and of course her best work in that idiom (I think of Hank Williams's "I Can't Help It If I'm Still in Love With You" from Heart Like a Wheel, with Emmylou Harris's angelic harmony-singing) has made her about the most popular woman country singer of the day- even when she's been downright stingy about including real country songs on her recent albums. She herself regards both the pop songs of her teen years (i.e., the late 1950s and early 1960s, the period of nearly all her oldies covers) and the Mexican ranchera style as her principal formative influences. This last, which she learned from records, the radio, and her father, is epitomized by the work of Lola Beltran, and probably contributes as much to Ronstadt's "belting" style as do opera and the semi-operatic vocalism of 19th-century America. In her own recorded work, the most obvious manifestation of ranchera singing is her Spanish-language version of "Blue Bayou," released as a single only under the title "Lago Azul."
Aside from country music, Linda is justly praised for her way with soaring ballads in the folk-rock idiom- "Long, Long Time" from Silk Purse and the title track of Heart Like a Wheel, to name the two best known, plus all the Souther songs she has sung. This style- and country music, of course- is related to the acoustical folkish material she's recorded, often singing in harmony with Harris or Parton. There was "The Sweetest Gift" from Prisoner in Disguise, "I Never Will Marry" and "Old Paint" from Simple Dreams and, maybe, "Love Me Tender" from Living in the U.S.A. More recently her ballads have evolved into more sophisticated torch songs that suggest the genre of Broadway and cabaret- her own "Try Me Again" and Willie Nelson's "Crazy" from Hasten Down the Wind, Kaz's "Sorrow Lives Here" from Simple Dreams, and several more. And there are the grander, anthem-like extensions of this style, full of gospel passion, in Tracy Nelson's "Down So Low" and Bonoff's "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me," which end Hasten Down the Wind in that order.
If her ballads are most valued by those who collect her albums, it is the covers of early rock and black songs by which listeners to AM radio and purchasers of Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits know her best. Here her work has been more erratic. "You're No Good" and "When Will I Be Loved" from 1974's Heart Like a Wheel may have been brilliant successes. But interpretations of better-known songs like "Tracks of My Tears," "Heat Wave," and "Many Rivers to Cross" (all from Prisoner in Disguise) and "That'll Be the Day" (from Hasten Down the Wind) were not so good. For me, they still retain an undeniable charm, but her detractors condemn them out of hand. She's been somewhat more consistent recently, suggesting a real growth. To this taste both "Blue Bayou" from Simple Dreams and "Back in the U.S.A." from the new album seem only moderately convincing. But "It's So Easy," "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me," and "Tumbling Dice" from Simple Dreams are all fine uptempo covers- with "Pitiful Me" a nice bit of self-parody and "Dice" her best-ever hard rock song- and "Just One Look," "All That You Dream," and "Oob Baby Baby" uphold that standard on the new album. Except for hard-core disco, it's hard to think of any style she hasn't tried at least once.
Ronstadt has not only become a persuasive interpreter of most every idiom she has assayed, she's also not diffused her image in the process. Singers who try to sing everything generally fragment themselves. With Linda, the end effect is not a grab-bag, but an over-arching personal style. Part of her secret is simply an instinctive musicality and a willingness to work hard on phrasing. But in a larger sense it is the very multifaceted cohesiveness of her image that binds the diverse styles together, helping to make them all believable. And at the base of both the music and the image, I think, is the nature of her involvement with people. She may well relate better to individuals than she does to crowds. But audiences clearly can identify with the intensity of her private passions.
Linda has sometimes compared the voice with the kiss; both for her are infallible indices of a personality. In other words, she thinks it's possible to perceive pretty much all you need to know about a person from how his or her voice sounds or how he or she kisses you. I can't speak about her kisses, nor judge her theory about voices in general. But it does seem to me that the key to her own voice's remarkable appeal- quite apart from its sheer strength and quality in the abstract- is the way it mirrors her. People feel they can see into her heart when she sings, and they're right. The range of vocal colors in her singing, from childlike intimacy to punkish yell to commanding assertion to shaky vulnerability, reflects the facets of her private person with infallible candor, and makes her recent public discretion about her private life no real defense at all.
Ronstadt has spoken of herself as a "real seventies person," by which she means that she admits to and identifies with the notion of her music as personal statement rather than political or ideological manifesto. But especially from a musical standpoint, I think she's better thought of as a blend of the sixties and seventies, and perhaps of earlier decades as well. Her singing combines the rhetorical strength of an earlier America, the folkish honesty of the sixties and the frank willingness of this decade to concentrate on personal sentiment. Ultimately what I wish those who are hostile or indifferent to Ronstadt's music would do is try to open their ears- to perceive what she does well without damning it by standards that simply don't apply. Of course, rock can be rebellious and angry, and new wave rock has reaffirmed that part of the music. But it can be softer, too, as can people. At her "shining best," as she once put it, Ronstadt can suggest those extremes better than any singer of our time.
All of which serves as a prelude to a more detailed discussion of Living in the U.S.A. As I indicated early on, it is still too soon after the album's release to say definitively how it ranks in the Ronstadt canon, even if one subscribes wholeheartedly to the notion of hierarchy in such matters in the first place. The actual making of the album was a more difficult process than with some of her records, and she worried in the days after the final mixing and sequencing that the song selection lacked depth. On the other hand, there are no tracks here that seem outright mistakes, which makes it her first disc about which that could be said. And from an interpretive standpoint, this is her finest album yet. On song after song, the singing is both technically commanding and stylistically impassioned. Living in the U.S.A. is the first-ever Ronstadt record with no string arrangement on any cut. In fact, except for Mike Mainieri on vibraphone on one song and David Sanborn on alto saxophone on two, plus a few background singers, all the music here is made by Ronstadt and her band. This continues the trend begun with Simple Dreams of paring down the arrangements from the Gold-Asher days, and reinforces the tendency toward harder rock that Wachtel and Jagger, among others, have encouraged. Conversely, some constants from earlier Ronstadt records are in short supply or absent altogether. Chief among them is the duet-harmony singing with other women, from Parton to Harris to Maria Muldaur to Wendy Waldman. Also missing is any conventional country song. The closest is "Love Me Tender," which will probably be a country hit, given its association with Elvis Presley, but which in musical style is somewhere between a folk song and a nursery rhyme. There are also no extensions here of her earlier explorations of the cabaret-Broadway idiom, or any songs by her.
None of Ronstadt's records has been a "concept album" in the sense of a common theme varied from song to song. Yet so firmly focused is her image and so single-mindedly has she concentrated on love that her records can be used to trace an evolution in her own life from vulnerability and pain to a new-found strength and, even, defiance. Living in the U.S.A. doesn't contain a single song that quite fits the old Ronstadt stereotype of the desperately yearning but abused woman who will do anything to get back her man. And, indeed, one suspects that may be what she really means when she worries about the quality of the material on this album- that not only the songs but the new, tough way of singing them have robbed her of a bit of the innocence in herself that she cherishes. Simple Dreams had a greater depth of self-revelation, more songs in which the old sorrowing Ronstadt persona retained its vulnerability, even when the expressive terms were more mature both musically and emotionally. On Living in the U.S.A. there is one song that continues that development- Souther's exquisite "White Rhythm and Blues." But otherwise that place on the emotional spectrum is taken by two songs that confront the passage of time with a strange, prematurely aged resignation- "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" and "Blowing Away" (or "I'm Blowin' Away," its actual title). Yet both songs are sung with a force that belies the weakness of age. And the other song that confesses to abject depression, "All That You Dream," both ends positively and is couched throughout in an exotic, passionate musical idiom that denies weakness from the outset. Otherwise, the songs here are exultant, intensely personal, overtly erotic or simply tender- which is pretty much the emotional range one has come to expect from a Linda Ronstadt record.
The album's ten songs can be divided evenly between covers of older material and contemporary numbers, and in every case but two direct comparisons can be made either to the original or to the best-known interpretation. The two exceptions are "When I Grow Too Old to Dream," which first appeared in a film of 1935, The Night Is Young, and has since come out in innumerable cover versions, and "White Rhythm and Blues," a new, unrecorded Souther song.
"When I Grow Too Old to Dream" has words by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Sigmund Romberg, and as such is the first song Ronstadt has sung that is a direct representative of the operetta-Broadway tradition I've referred to, even if it did actually originate in Hollywood. Apparently there was a good deal of experimentation in the studio as to just how to sing it and with what arrangement. The solution was an extremely spare combination of Don Grolnick's consoling, patiently plodding piano chords (hardly adjectives that normally characterize the work of one of the finest, most stylistically wide-ranging pianists ever to play in a rock band) and the eerie overlay of Mike Mainieri's vibes. Against this Linda sings the song about as "straight" as she can, "reading right from the lead sheet," as she put it. The result is interesting but not entirely successful. The arrangement serves to defuse the song of its latent sentimentality, and its coldness perhaps underscores the feelings of loss inherent in the lyrics (cf. "I'm Blowin' Away," below). But without the sentimentality the song seems a bit foursquare. And Linda's singing is slightly reminiscent of her version of "Blue Bayou" (another interpretation I didn't much like) in its alternation of low soft singing with high loud singing. Ronstadt went through a period a couple of years ago in concert of overdoing the dramatic effect of shifting suddenly from quiet to loud and back again. Here the bottom part of the voice seems pressed just a bit lower in pitcb than is comfortable for her, and the loud singing sounds forced in comparison to what a trained operatic voice could accomplish with this same music. Still, the interpretation is an undeniably interesting one, and the commercial success of "Blue Bayou" proved that a lot of people like just what gives me pause in her singing.
"Love Me Tender" was added to the Ronstadt tour repertory shortly after Elvis Presley's death in August of 1977, and subsequently included in the concert footage in FM (although not on that film's soundtrack album). It doesn't appeal to me particularly as a song, but it's sweet enough, and Linda sings it with a nice delicacy (better than Elvis did, with his sagging pitch). Some may find this the most obvious instance on the album of Linda's supposed predilection for sentimentality. For me, the singing is honorable enough in itself, and once again a sparse, telling arrangement avoids all hint of goo. Waddy Wachtel plays guitar and contributes decent harmony singing, and Grolnick's sustained but light-textured organ in the choruses sounds elegiac. Linda cuts Presley's first verse and repeats the chorus at the end, changing words slightly but in no important way from Presley's 1956 original.
Chuck Berry's "Back in the U.S.A." dates from 1959, provides the album's theme and was its first single. Linda's cover falls right about in the middle of her other versions of rock and rhythm-and-blues from this era. The vocal is nicely energetic, and the band matches Berry's arrangement, with Grolnick doing a lovely job of invoking Johnny Johnson's original piano part. Linda's version does without the doo-wop "uh-uh-uh's" and "oh yeah's" that fill up the gaps in the original, which she and her collaborators found dated, and replaces Berry's fadeout with a not-all-that-interesting coda. The singing provides a decent example of Ronstadt's way of coarsening her naturally "clean" vocal production when she feels the need to project a tougher persona- as on the syllables "God," "box" in "jukebox" and the second "I'm" in the phrase "I'm so glad." But this is nothing new for her; the most obvious previous example was the recurrent growl on the word "fall" in "It's So Easy" from Simple Dreams.
What's missing in this "Back in the U.S.A." is the easily seductive lilt that Berry and his band attain. In a live performance of the song in May of 1978 at the Oakland Coliseum, just after they'd recorded it, Linda's band launched into the music at breakneck speed and maintained it throughout. Linda apologized later for the tempo, but it lent the proceedings a hectically improvisatory quality that is preferable to the stiffness of the recorded version. The stiffness is suggested by Linda's precise flatting of the tag-syllables on the ends of key lines ("-way" in "runaway," "A." in "U.S.A.," "Lou," etc.). Berry flats the same syllables, but it's done casually, as a sexy accent, rather than deliberately. With Linda it sounds calculated and rote.
The final two oldies covers, "Ooh Baby Baby" and "Just One Look," are far better. No doubt some Smokey Robinson loyalists won't be able to accept her version of the former. As a pure piece of singing, Robinson's version of this song surpasses Linda's. First, there's the whole issue of the erotic symbolism of the male soprano, a symbolism that has operated with infallible effect since the days of the great operatic castrati in the 17th and 18th centuries. The ethereal sexual yearning of Robinson's voice makes an inevitably different and more distinctive impression than a woman in the same register, especially when combined with his odd but endearing prissiness of enunciation. In addition, Robinson's singing is full of little felicities that heighten the sexual ambience- the delicious hesitation on the second "baby" in the first line of the third chorus, for instance, or the wonderful little ornamental quivers on the words "believe" and "here" in the third verse, or the magical phrasing of "mistakes too I'm" in the second verse. It's the performance of a man at the very end of his sexual tether.
But in a smoother, more luxuriant, more sexually fulfilled way, Linda's version works too, and it could very well become a wonderful AM radio make-out song. Like Robinson, Linda makes a fine effect with the switching between a breathy, erotic natural voice and falsetto. And what distinguishes her arrangement from Robinson's is the use of David Sanborn's saxophone, especially as it blends with Ronstadt's vocal coloration in words like "pay" in the first verse (an even more telling instance of that blend comes with the final syllable in the song "Alison," in which Sanborn's sax emerges as if from within Linda's last falsetto note).
I've already indicated my feelings about Ronstadt vs. Doris Troy on "Just One Look"- I think Linda's version is superior on every count, and not just because she has the better voice. What Troy does offer is a tough, gospelisb blackness of enunciation and phrasing, but I for one don't think that's a necessary ingredient of the song; and Linda's white predatory-female protagonist is fully appropriate. Furthermore, her band plays better and is far better recorded, and the arrangement builds subtly with the addition of tambourine and cowbell, both played by Asher. To cite just one further nicety in the coda that Ronstadt et al. append to the song, listen to the way Linda interrupts the repetitions of "Just one look, that's all it took" in the middle of the word "it" to yowl out an orgasmic "whoa baby."
If Ronstadt has somewhat variable results with her oldies covers, her accounts of contemporary songs here are all persuasive. "White Rhythms and Blues" is another of those John David Souther compositions that Linda sings to near perfection. Whether or not Souther can finally achieve a viable performing career, be has certainly found a rare interpreter in Ronstadt. The music of this song boasts a fine melody and a host of exquisitely crafted subsidiary details, and the lyrics, too, seem rich and evocative, especially the full title phrase, "Black roses, white rhythm and blues." Metaphors don't always have to be precise to be evocative. That phrase in Souther's song will strike some as unspecific, as will the title of Warren Zevon's "Mohammed's Radio." For me, despite all the differences in the poetic and musical feeling of the two songs, they both suggest something about a mixture of darker passion and surface charm that is very close to Linda as an artist and a person. The arrangement is spare yet telling in the best manner of her past two albums, with another of those autumnal, slow-moving organ lines that reinforce the slightly chill, lonely feeling of much of the disc as a whole, and a restrained pedal steel guitar part from Dan Dugmore. Linda's singing, apart from her general sympathy for Souther's music and its idiom, is full of lovely touches. The enunciation on the word "lose," to take one tiny example, is a classic case of the Americanness of her accent. The yearning sound of the voice being let out on words like "stay," "whole," and "your eyes" are typical examples of Ronstadt's command of balladic rhetoric. And her own background singing at the end, merging with Wachtel's electric guitar on the repeated phrase "Black roses," makes a magical effect. The only reservation I have is the falsetto on the line "I don't know what else I can do." Linda argues with some logic that the character in the song is showing her weak side at that point, and hence the falsetto becomes metaphorically appropriate. But it doesn't sound very attractive to me, even though it's handled tidily enough from a technical standpoint.
Her choice of Eric Kaz's "I'm Blowin' Away" offers an especially interesting comparison. The best-known version of this song is Bonnie Raitt's (which Linda says she's never heard, even though the two women are friends), and most rock critics of the sort I've been referring to throughout this essay think of Raitt as a positive corrective to all the faults they perceive in Ronstadt- in fact, the several critics with whom I've spoken about Living in the U.S.A. all prefer Raitt's version. Raitt sings in her usual warm, direct, honest manner; for her the song becomes a consoling, rolling anthem. She achieves this by her tendency to elide lines and words, chopping short one note and hurrying on to the next; by the repetition of the chorus at the end; by an arrangement full of sustained strings and French horns and by a production that turns the harmonies of Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, and Souther into a small chorus (and blurs their individuality in the process).
Next to this, Linda's account may sound tense and rigid. The arrangement is far sparser, beginning with an eerie pedal steel effect from Dugmore and full of odd, distancing touches, such as the dabs of conga-drum color that Russ Kunkel occasionally applies. Linda's singing fits this mold. It is tight and self-contained, with what sounds like a greater amount of echo (although that may be partly a psychological illusion). The song in this version is no anthem at all, but a series of isolated phrases, cold and distant. Yet in two ways Raitt's version is more austere than Ronstadt's. She sings the recurrent word "shadows" in the chorus on a high C which drops to the F a fifth below. This is an extremely stark effect, hardly softened by the quick G grace-note that she interposes before she actually reaches the F. Ronstadt sings both an A and a G on her way down from C, puts more weight on those notes and holds them longer. The result is altogether softer, and more conventional. The other major difference in the way the two women handle the actual materials of the song (as opposed to their arrangements and singing styles) is that whereas Raitt repeats the chorus at the end, with its refrain of "Shadows keep taking my love/and leaving me," Ronstadt does the final chorus only once, and then appends a final sentence of "You keep taking my love/and leaving me."
Given the traditionally creative role performers play in popular music, neither woman can really be said to be more faithful to what Kaz intended. If the unusualness of the precipitous C-to-F drop in Raitt's version seems preferable, Ronstadt's switch to "you" at the end is more controversial. Ronstadt's detractors may well complain that this is yet another instance of her failure to comprehend an abstract or cosmic metaphor unless it's reduced to the most immediate personal terms, But it seems to me that in switching from "shadows" to "you" as the agent of the protagonist's despair, Linda keeps the more universal implications of "shadows" and achieves a powerful dramatic effect in the sudden personification. The device is precisely the same as Neil Young's abrupt shift to the personal in his "Cortez the Killer." In more general terms, there can be no denying the musicality and beauty of Raitt's account of this song, and, perhaps, its lesser self-consciousness. But for me Ronstadt has by far the more distinctive voice, and the coldness and agony of her version strike closer to the essence of the song. That essence is reinforced by all sorts of details in the phrasing, from the hymnlike inflection of the line, "My life has lost its mystery," to the desperation and passion of the full-voiced attacks on syllables like "wild" and the "sha-" in "shadows." Listen, too, to the way she chops off her voice on such words as "romanced" and "away," twisting the pitch down with a grimness that would do justice to a pioneer woman. Linda Ronstadt is not often thought of as an intellectual singer, and perhaps the process by which this version evolved was intuitive. But as an interpretation it's downright smart.
The performance of Little Feat's "All That You Dream" by both her and the band not only far surpasses the original, but ranks among their finest efforts. Little Feat's recording is only functionally sung and not very interestingly arranged. Ronstadt sings the song with an exact yet unstudied command of pitch (especially important with this song's highly chromatic vocal line) and tough, defiant persona. The toughness is reinforced by several devices- the familiar growls, slurred diction and precise touches of vocal color here and there, as in the switch to falsetto on the word "you" and the tendency to let sustained notes shift through several changes of vowel-sound (most impressively on the final syllable of the word "everyone"). The highlight of the arrangement is Dan Dugmore's pedal steel guitar break, the closest to progressive synthesizer-rock that a Ronstadt song has ever come.
This leaves two more songs, and they may very well be the ones that provoke the most vituperation in reviews by critics who see in Ronstadt the antithesis of all that is strong and rebellious and macho in the best new rock. Those songs are Elvis Costello's "Alison" and Warren Zevon's "Mohammed's Radio." Costello is one of the most respected of the British new-wave rockers, and both in his music and in interviews he has posited himself as a scourge to cleanse the world of 1970s pop pap- he's even specifically identified Ronstadt as a principal purveyor of that pap. And quite apart from their stances within the polemics of late-1970s rock, there is the question of whether this particular song should be sung by a woman.
As far as the first issue is concerned, all I can say is that Linda's version works for me. Costello doesn't actually sing the song very well, although admittedly this ballad's mere existence within the rest of his repertory, which is heavily weighted toward uptempo rockers, makes its own kind of statement. Of course Costello fans could argue that polished singing is beside the point; "Alison" is indeed partly a matter of the projection of an attitude through phrasing and inflection. But it's also a beautifully crafted song, both in lyrics and music- which Costello will surely admit when he calms down. As might be expected, Linda's singing and the arrangement (especially the interaction with Sanborn) are elegantly shaped. What's surprising is the punkish aptness of her phrasing, which manages to echo Costello (she didn't really feel she understood the song until she experienced the full impact of Costello as a performer at a concert at Hollywood High) and add something of her own.
But what of her own? In Costello's version the song makes clear if emotionally complex sense, as a song from a man to a woman he has loved, now sees as superficial but deep down loves still. Costello's own guardedness about overt tenderness fits the singer's persona ideally- the song's rich sentiment owes much to its very refusal to be sentimental. But Linda is not only a woman, she has very often pushed the element of sentiment in her music to the point that many of her detractors consider her a hopeless sentimentalist. I have generally found her sentiment to be unsentimental (which no doubt means that I am a sentimentalist myself), so that aspect of her "Alison" doesn't bother me. But it did take me a long time to get used to the idea of a woman singing this song. It can only reach its full emotional depth when the intensity of the protagonist's feelings toward Alison becomes fully manifest. It would seem hard to understand a woman singer's barely contained feeling for Alison unless the woman were herself deeply in love with her. But that seems to imply a bisexual love triangle, which not only needlessly complicates an already complex song, but introduces a disconcerting lesbian element into Linda's public image (the combination of a commanding voice and girlish charm has indeed won her a good many gay women fans).
Here is one case in which knowing a performer can be helpful in purely aesthetic appreciation. After a long and vilorous explanation from Linda as to how she conceived the song and what she thought of intense friendship between women, and even an analysis of the particular woman friend she had in mind as Alison- an aggressive, insecure, selfish, generous, and beautiful young girl who in her own way is very much a punk- it's begun to make sense. There are some who simply don't bother about such questions of persona in the first place. But for those of us who do, "Alison" not only now seems logical in Linda's version, but far more appropriate for her than, say, Lowell George's "Willin'" from Heart Like a Wheel or "Carmelita" from Simple Dreams.
Which brings us, finally, to Zevon's "Mohammed's Radio." This is both the capstone of the album and an artistic breakthrough for Ronstadt as a singer in the same way that Karla Bonoff's "Someone to Lay Down Beside Me" was on Hasten Down the Wind (as an anthem of mature womanhood) and "Tumbling Dice" was on Simple Dreams (as a hard-rock war cry of independence). It represents not only an overpowering piece of singing and an inspired arrangement both far truer to the song than Zevon himself can muster, but also the first time Linda has attempted with sovereign success a song that transcends the humanistic, amorous-psychological basis of her music and moves into the realm of metaphorical abstraction. Yet her detractors think her version of "Mohamned's Radio" is one-dimensional and uncomprehending, with the metaphorical implications of the lyrics reduced to their most obvious and trivial meanings.
It should be inserted here that my feelings about the song are conditioned in part from having heard it several times during her August, 1978, tour. Although Linda says she far prefers working in the studio to singing on stage, it often happens that her live versions of songs just recorded improve during the subsequent tour. That certainly happened with "Tumbling Dice," as documented in the live performance on the FM soundtrack, and it makes her and Asher's continued resistance to a live album debatable. The live performances of "Mohammed's Radio" were not only sung and played with even greater passion than on record, but they dispensed with the slightly obvious and clichéd wailing female soul duo on the choruses and included such niceties as the word "alas" pitched higher and hence still more intensely.
Still, the disc version is fine enough, and it's hard once again to avoid the notion that those who can't appreciate it are the victims of their own preconceptions. Linda Ronstadt is known as a singer of boy-girl homilies; therefore it's impossible she could tackle a song like this with any perception. Reinforcing that bias is another problem. All four of the people whom I know to dislike her "Mohammed's Radio" are in some way associated with Rolling Stone in New York, and in an interview for that magazine she analyzed the song in words that were more breezy than profound. Her tone may have made her critics even more convinced than before that for her this song is simply a little ditty about listening to rock on the radio. But to me she's talked with some fluency about the song's multiple meanings. And in any case, one has to pull back from preconceptions and behind-the-scenes information and simply listen to what one hears. The devices artists use to make their art are just that- devices. The fact that Maria Callas talked inarticulately about the characters she portrayed hardly detracts from her status as the greatest operatic actress of the century, nor does Beetboven's peculiar brooding about his nephew compromise his music's universality. Even if Linda does use her own psychological tools to get inside a song- even if she approaches the abstract through the personal- that hardly matters if the result is as overwhelming as it is here.
As with "White Rhythm and Blues," the words of "Mohammed's Radio" may not be susceptible to precise analysis- in fact, were such analysis possible, the song might well seem unevocative- and yet may still strike one as emotionally true. This song is about the redemptive power of rock and roll. But it's also about rock as escapism, about the place of blacks within a white culture, about mystical religion and the driving force of the irrational beneath society's troubled surface.
Linda's version works so well in part because of the minimal role that ironic inflection plays in this particular song and in part because of the primary function of music in determining the essence of any song. In "Mohammed's Radio" the multiple meanings are inherent in the words, and in the relationship between the words and music, rather than a function of the singer's delivery. What makes opera and song such a complex and fertile business is this three-way interchange. Music is both the deepest and most emotionally intense of the arts; independent of words it is rarely successful as a medium for wit and irony. Words lack music's emotional power but can be far more focused; the combination of words and music, then, can function as a dialectically potent artistic marriage. (Richard Wagner, who articulated many of these ideas in his theoretical works and then realized them in his music dramas, liked to link words with the masculine principle and music with the feminine.) A singer can freight the words with still further layers of complexity by way of vocal color and inflection. And thus a woman (already linked archetypally with emotion, if you're a Jungian or Wagnerian) who sings can tap profound depths beneath our everyday existences. If the woman in question is already one whose whole life revolves around emotion, you begin to get some hint of the wellsprings of Linda Ronstadt's appeal.
In the past, however, she has sometimes bad trouble with songs in which a composer-interpreter's vocal personality has been an essential ingredient of the song, or if the song has had a heavy component of irony built into both the words and their potential interpretation. For both these reasons perhaps the all-time least successful Ronstadt cover version was her account of Randy Newman's "Sail Away" on her Don't Cry Now album of 1973. Some critics find hints of a mordant irony on Zevon's part in "Mohammed's Radio" that make the passionate directness of Ronstadt's performance seem misconceived- above all his very use of the word "alas." For me, though, whatever irony Zevon may possibly have intended seems decidedly secondary, and in any event is in no way denied by Linda's interpretation. Besides, Zevon's voice and singing style, while effective enough for emphatic rockers, are far too limited to suggest much subtlety. The same critics see a real ambivalence on the part of the Zevon protagonist: He recognizes the redemptive power of music but simultaneously distances himself from it, especially in the "village idiot" stanza, in which rock seems to have reduced its devotees to escapist vegetables. This may well be part of the song, but for me it's more of an accent than a central meaning. In any event Linda recognizes this particular ambivalence very clearly, and has even heightened its ambiguity by two minor textual alterations. The second verse in Zevon's original begins, "You know the sberiff's got his problems too/And he will surely take them out on you." Linda broadens the second phrase to make it "me and you." Later on in the same verse the "village idiot" appears; the idiot is masculine for Zevon and feminine for Ronstadt.
The real secret to the song lies in contemplating the words in conjunction with the music, and not in the abstract, as I think too many rock critics are prone to do. The music here is not rock and roll in the ordinary sense, even with the refrain of "Don't it make you want to rock and roll/All night long." Instead it's a dirgelike anthem, a rolling, inexorable attestation to the darker, more passionate side of life. It is this passion, power, and even rage Linda and her band capture so perfectly- and without necessarily denying the distancing implications inherent in the "village idiot" passage, since those implications remain inseparable from the words themselves.
As for the band and the arrangement, Zevon's version (on which Wachtel played lead guitar) pales by comparison. His production fails to realize whatever hymnlike potential might have been latent in the use of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks for the harmonies on the chorus, and Bobby Keyes's sax solo sounds even more irrelevant than does Linda's soul duo. Ronstadt's musicians attack the music with a real ferocity. The whole hard-edged, weighty, metallic quality the band has taken on since Andrew Gold's departure is completely appropriate here both to the song and the singing.
Ultimately, though, it is Linda who makes this interpretation so special. The vocal range suits her exactly, and here her growing artistry of the past few years reaches a new height, with beauty of voice, strength of persona, and intensity of delivery all at the service of the music. It is a performance in which the vocalism illuminates the material, transforming it in a way that its creator could never himself achieve. As such it reaffirms the place of interpretation in contemporary popular music, and provides an experience of enormous emotional import for any listener able to open up and respond to the glory of great singing.