She sings, oh Lord, with a rowdy spin of styles - country, rhythm and blues, rock, reggae, torchy ballad -
fused by a rare and rambling voice that calls up visions of loss, then jiggles the glands of possibihty.
The gutty voice drives, lilts, licks slyly at decency, riffs off Ella, transmogrifies Dolly Parton, all the while
wailing with the guitars, strong and solid as God's garage floor. A man listens and thinks "Oh my, yes," and
a woman thinks, perhaps, "Ah, well..."
Linda is 30 now. Her skin is flawed, and her lank dark hair is sketched with gray. She has great wet marmot
eyes. She has a quick, sly mouth. She looks like a l7-year old who has spent three days on a bus. A
photographer whose profession calls for him to make cool calibrations of female beauty says her face is
ordinary and her body nothing special. In courtly times he would have been skewered. She sings You're
No Good, Desperado
or Love Has No Pride
, and the eye of the beholder mists over. She is
Onstage she seems small and uncertain, a little girl dressed up. She clutches the microphone to her face
("There you go, baby, here am I"). The mike is a sponge-covered apple on a stick ("Well you left me here
so I could sit and cry"). Her lips, stretched wide, quiver so close to its surface that if she were to bring her
jaws together she would bite circuitry. Will Eve ("Golly, gee, what have you done to me?") bite the apple?
("Well I guess it doesn't matter anymore.")
Linda Ronstadt, this high-wattage waif, would be a rarity if all she had done were to survive for twelve
years in the shark-infested deeps of rock. In fact, each of her last four albums has "gone platinum" - sold
better than a million copies - and her last two, Hasten Down the Wind
and Linda Ronstadt:
, reached sales of a million in a matter of weeks. Before Christmas she finished a wildly
cheered six-month tour of the U.S. and Europe, during which audiences of 15,000 were common.
She is a superstar on the verge of becoming (what lunatic debasement of language will serve?) a Big
Superstar. Executives of Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch, the Los Angeles company for which she records, are
shyly trying out a considerable boast: "Right now Linda is the most successful female singer in record
This brag may need hedging because, over the long haul, other singers - Barbara Streisand, to name one,
and perhaps Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross - may have sold more records than Linda. (Carole King sold
13 million of a single LP, Tapestry
.) Nevertheless, Ronstadt is the only female performer to have four
consecutive albums go platinum (she made over $3 million from record sales alone last year). "Female" is
the important qualifier. Rock is the thumping heart of Linda's music, and the rock world is dominated by
males. The biggest stars are male, and so are the back-up musicians.
Rock beats are thrustingly phallic, and lyrics are often tauntingly and cruelly masculine. So are the
crotch-wrenching, guitar-pumping stage moves of such founding fathers as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley.
Rock seems so hostile that relatively few women master the guitar, its basic instrument.
Recurrent sleazy skirmishes between male musicians and female groupies are sexual battles in which the
women always lose, and being around the carnage is uncomfortable. In the movable madhouse of life on
the road, the unisex nourishments are drugs and booze. Janis Joplin, the first great white woman rocker,
rattled the bars of the madhouse, but she died of mind solvent in 1970.
Male rockers continue to rule. Joni Mitchell (TIME cover, Dec.16, 1974) is the most stylish of the women
singers to appear in the past decade, but her music is too cerebral for her to compete in drawing power
with the cockerel crowing of the men. Somewhat to her own surprise, it is Linda Ronstadt who has made
herself one of the biggest individual rock draws in the world. Elton John, Stevie Wonder, John Denver,
Paul McCartney and Peter Frampton. among others, are bigger. Then comes Linda, the chicklet who shows
up onstage wearing peasant blouses, cutoff jeans, subteen knee socks and track shoes to sing Love Is
and That 'II Be the Day
. She is dead serious about her music, but the superstar
nonsense amuses her; once she kidded her Moonbeam McSwine reputation by posing for an album cover
in a barnyard with a couple of pigs.
She and her musical associates agree that she is still learning. In her Hasten Down the Wind
she waded delightfully into reggae, the Jamaican folk-rock. She has begun, timidly, to write songs. Says
Singer and Songwriter John David Souther, a friend and onetime lover: "Her creative capacity is endless.
I doubt if she knows the depth of it herself."
Just now, Linda is cooling out in Los Angeles after months of bashing about in planes and buses like a
piece of lost Samsonite. Her new puppy Jenny has excavated the garden of her Malibu beach house and
needs reasoning with. Her friend, Songwriter Karla Bonoff, is recording her first solo album and needs
Linda to sing backup. Her teapot needs to have tea in it. She needs to lie on her beach and let her mind
float out to sea. She needs to shop for a dress to wear to the Grammy Awards ceremonies (where she is a
solid bet to be named Best Female Pop Vocalist).
Malibu is not real, however, because there is no check-out time. Rock musicians live in baggage-claim
areas and hotel suites. Last month she hit Washington as if it were any other one-night stand, sang at
Jimmy Carter's Inaugural concert ("I was so nervous. My God, I was awful!") and then, on a whim, freighted
on to Manhattan to watch a performance of NBC's Saturday Night
show and to hang out with actors
and rock friends. New York's Plaza, that swan-bosomed dowager among luxury hotels, has become a
favorite roosting place for wealthy rockers (Ringo was there too). To Linda, the Plaza was just one more
stop on the road, but it provided a splendid scenic view of the lady rocker rampant.
Consider, for example, her call to room service to send a pack of gum up to the ninth floor. Linda paid the
bill (25¢), added an appropriate tip ($1.25) and, as she is likely to do, went on talking: "I was a real radio
kid. I just loved rock 'n' roll. I wanted to be a singer. It was really hot in Tucson in the summer, and we
had a cement floor, and I used to lie on the floor because it was cool, with my cheek to the radio. I had
grooves on my cheeks. I was about five when I started doing that." Not long ago, she said, she found some
old Elvis Presley records. "I knew them by heart. I hadn't heard them for years, but I knew all the little
She is wearing white jeans, a scruffy pink sweater, the merest touch of mascara and Frye boots. "I just love
these boots," she says. "I look at my toes and they are so cute." She skips about the room, grabs the knob
of a door and does some knee bends. She moans like a lonesome cat: "Aaaoooooooww! I need a date!
Why are all the good men married?" She laughs at herself - pretty funny, there, Linda - gives room service
another yank and orders a bottle of Tab, then spins around and flops onto a sofa. Talking with a woman,
she sits; talking with a man, she reclines.
She is a formidable flirt. "I was boy-crazy in the first grade. Still am. "In Tucson, where her father has a
large hardware business, she attended a Roman Catholic school. She hated it, and, she says, "the nuns
hated me. They hated the way I talked about boys. I was too giggly and wore too much lipstick and dressed
too sexy. I came on too strong. I still do. I find myself thinking, 'Oh God, red nail polish - I look like a sleaze,'
or I really get into it and put on red nail polish and 500 lbs. of makeup. I never know how far to go."
She is stirred up. Teen-age rebellion comes boiling out of her. "I am so wicked. We had this young priest in
catechism - you had to pass catechism. He had just been ordained, and who knew the problems he was
going through? We used to write the answers to the catechism on our legs, up real high. We would slide up
our dresses, and he would turn his face away, and we would copy down the answers." Briefly, she is
ashamed of this naughtiness. Then the old rebelliousness reasserts itself: "My big fantasy is to seduce a
Her record company has delivered a stereo and a big package of records. One of them is Black Rose, an
album by her old friend and sideman John David Souther. She opens it and gives the label a kiss. "My one
love," she says with a giggle. She has lived with several men, most of them musicians. She has never
been married and does not expect to marry. She has no permanent relationship with a man now, though for
a couple of years she has had a close and cozy friendship with California's Governor Jerry Brown (who won
Rolling Stone's Groupie of the Year award this month) and, more recently, with the Stones' lead singer,
Mick Jagger. As the rock world goes, her appetites are modest. She says she is learning to live alone.
Now she wants to go running. Whoosh! Out of the hotel across 59th Street and up Fifth Avenue along
Central Park, bashing through the slush in her boots. She has had problems with drugs, and she still uses
uppers - legal ones when possible, she says - when she is on the road. "You have to face 20,000 people,
and you can't just write off St Louis because you're feeling low." But in the past year, running has become
her cure-all and her calm-down.
She is wearing a lynx jacket, for which (as she chugs sturdily toward 72nd Street) she apologizes. Her
environmentalist friends have scolded her, she says. Along Madison Avenue she starts to slow down. She
loves the small, poky stores, and she window-shops, running in place. "Look!" A set of dishes. "Look!" A
stuffed leather elephant.
Linda is sweating lightly. looking fine. She has the reputation of being a precarious person, a victim, a
lovable mess. This seems exaggerated. Back at the Plaza, calm now, she is glad to be 30. During her
twenties, she says, "I felt like a submarine with depth charges going off all around me." The heartbreak in
her songs ("I've been cheated, been mistreated/ When will I be loved?") was real enough. And mostly her
fault, she admits. "Live with a man who's not a musician, and he gets the 5% of your life that's not music."
Live with a musician, and the tension and jealousies become a web too complicated to negotiate. And for a
rocker it's always easy to check out - poof! - and travel on to the next town.
"I'm still on the edge," she says, "but I think I'm bringing things under control." She talks too openly about
insecurities, she thinks. It's not that interviewers lie, "but for instance you tell them that you have felt
suicidal - who hasn't? - that you had the idea of wading into the ocean in North Carolina and swimming to
New York. Then that comes out in a magazine, and it becomes a permanent fact about you, when really it's
just momentary." All of this becomes heavy to carry around, and so does the slightly frowzy sexpot image
evoked by a couple of injudicious photos, notably a rumpy shot in Rolling Stone
of Linda in a
wrinkled red slip. "So now everyone thinks I'm a piece of cheese," she says.
She pops to the telephone. Room service again? No, she calls the Plaza's elegant Edwardian Room, an
oasis that cossets the wealthy with candles and linen napkins. "Oh, hi," says Linda. "Listen, is it O.K. if I
come to dinner in jeans?" It has not occurred to her to identify herself. She has a total and startling lack of
arrogance. Also, just now, a lack of success with the Edwardian Room. Sputtering is heard. No jeans.
"Well, thanks," says Linda.
She hates - absolutely cannot bring herself to purchase - what other pretty, rich young women thank of as
"clothes." Clothes are for grownup ladies, and Linda still sticks her tongue out at grownups. During the
Inaugural celebrations, Nancy Kissinger gave a tea party at the State Department and invited Shirley
MacLaine, Clamma Dale, Linda and other women entertainers. Linda attended in jeans.
At dinner, in a restaurant somewhat funkier than the Edwardian Room, Linda speaks again of her
childhood. Her memories, except for those of school, seem to be solid and good. The family was
prosperous. She had a pony and later a horse. Her mother is a strong, intelligent woman with a gift for
science (Linda's maternal grandfather was Lloyd Copeman, a successful inventor who devised an electric
and an early form of microwave oven).
Her father, who comes from a German-Mexican family, is a guitarist who sang Mexican songs to his four
children when they were little. (Gilbert Ronstadt's name appears with Linda's and that of her friend Bass
Player Kenny Edwards as co-author of Lo Siento Mi Vida
on the album Hasten Down the Wind.
For a while, Linda continued to do what was expected of her. She put in a season as a debutante in
Tucson and a semester at the University of Arizona. "The big goals with the girls I grew up with were going
into a convent getting married," she says. "I never wanted either one. I wanted to go on the road." When
she was 18, she left home and headed for Los Angeles to crash in the same house as a guitar player
named Bob Kiminel.
The two hooked up with Kenny Edwards and formed a group called the Stone Poneys. "We were pretty
crude, although we didn't know it," says Linda.
The Poneys were fumbling for a style, but they were doing it in the right city. The center of the rock world
was about to shift from San Francisco south to Los Angeles, where the conviction hung in the sulfurous air
that rock was power. The idea keeps turning up in Linda's conversation today that the raw energy of rock
must make a statement, whether it is Jagger's statement of nihilistic mockery, her own lady-bereft keening,
or the songs raging against the war that began to come out of Southern California in the late '60s.
Colonies of rock musicians were forming in the Los Angeles subdivisions of Laurel Canyon, Echo Park and
Venice. Glenn Frey drifted in from Royal Oak, Mich. Don Henley was a North Texas State English major
before he decided to move west. They eventually formed the supergroup the Eagles.
Before long, everyone knew Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt, who had grown up around L.A. Neil Young,
Joni Mitchell and Stephen Stills lived near the top of Laurel Canyon, Frank Zappa in an old Tom Mix house
a short walk away. Browne and Frey and Henley had Echo Park apartments. Linda was in Ocean Park. Jim
Morrison of the Doors was the most successftil musician of the crew, and the hardest to locate, since he
often slept on the beach near Venice.
"We were all learning about drugs, philosophy and music," says Linda. "Everything was exciting."
The center of the rock swarm was the Troubadour, a dank Santa Monica Boulevard bar that offered
newcomers three-song auditions on Monday nights. Fast talkers who knew they needed only ballpoint pens
and promising new groups to become record company executives jostled in the Troub's murk with finger
snappers who knew they needed only luck and chord books to become rock musicians. The Poneys
wangled a gig at the Troubadour. They had hit the small time, but they were rock musicians.
By 1967 the Poneys had recorded a hit single called Different Drum
, but unequal vectors of talent
and circumstance were splitting the group. Linda, with her big, untrained voice, her instinct for musical
phrasing, her looks and not much else, found herself as a solo singer with the Poneys' Capitol Records
contract to fulfill.
Rockers make it or break it on the road, and on the road is where Linda went. It is a dangerous place to be.
"I know when I'm on the road for a long time I adopt male attitudes, real rock-'n'-roll attitudes," she says.
"I come back home talking like a trucker. I'm not as nice to people."
Then, as now, she traveled with her band, usually as the only woman. Always there are sexual problems.
She tries, not entirely successfully, to stay clear of sexual entanglements with her sidemen ("Though if
there's another act traveling with us, it can get real interesting").
Always there are talent problems. "If you find a band that can play rock 'n' roll, they can't play a country
shuffle to save their lives. I swear to God, if I could find a drummer who could play all that shit, I would
There are lady-boss problems. Most male rockers don't want to work for a woman, and a couple of years
ago, Linda was saying that her only communication with her own band was through her manager-producer,
Peter Asher. Her most recent tour was chummier, and at mid-point the principal complaint was that she had
won most of the bandsmen's perdiem money playing poker with them on bus trips.
The biggest difficulties, however, lie with Linda herself. "I learn from the road. It keeps my music alive. It
feeds me information. But the physical beating is awful." She eats too much on tour. "All of the women
singers do," she says. "Food is the only constant, consistent entertainment." Then she strays from the slim
111 lbs. she likes to be and is now.
When she is fat, or thinks she is fat, she stands frozen onstage. Strutting about the barnyard is a big part
of live rock, and Linda is not good at it even when she is skinny. So she hides behind the microphone in
her off-the-shoulder blouse, her shorts, funny socks and sneakers, looking vulnerable. What's a poor girl to
do? Smash guitars? Strangle dolls?
She stands there and sings. She lets the rambling voice loose in terrain that seems to be well known. She
finds new secrets. She goes up against the memory of Patsy Cline's recording of Willie Nelson's Crazy
Cline's version was said to be definitive. It pales next to Ronstadt's. Sweetly without arrogance, she
improves on Smokey Robinson's The Tracks of My Tears.
Linda is not really a country singer. Her voice takes on a faint nasality when she does a country number,
but there is no whine and no biscuits-sopped-in-gravy sentimentality. She has used the relative softness of
country music as a way into the lean, mean strutway of rock.
Is she an authentic rock singer? Of course, though as rock progresses through its scale of hardness, her
performances become less convincing. She knows this and has cut the rock shouter Heat Wave
from her repertory.
Ronstadt has used the driving energy of rock and the melancholy of country music to transport herself and
her audiences into a region of night town rarely explored by a mainstream singer in the past two decades.
What is astonishing is that she has the neural-overload generation, the hard cases who grew up on
yeah-yeah animal acts and Why Don 't We Do It in the Road?
screaniing for a kind of music that
their circuits have never been programmed to handle. It goes back to the cabaret singing of Ella Fitzgerald,
Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee. Linda has made the Stones' people listen to a torch singer. Try a new name:
Linda muses about the old rock power. Mick Jagger has so much of it. "He's so strong, frighteningly bright.
He has lines out everywhere.'' Jagger helped her make her way through London last fall, when she was
touring there, she says. "But he is so dangerous; feints within feints, the poison with the gift. He's as bad
as they say, and as good."
It is death for someone at the periphery of rock to move too close to a star like Jagger. "You're sucked into
his orbit. And then he moves away, and you're left going like this" - with her body she mimics a small
planet, wobbling wildly, ready to shatter into cosmic shrapnel. She was lucky, she says, or cautious;
during her long slog upward, she avoided the red giants and black holes of the rock constellations.
Now she is well clear of such temptations. The decision in late 1975 to buy property marked Linda's
readiness to draw at least a few boundaries for herself. She did not pick just any old place.
The resplendent Governor's palace, which Ronald Reagan built and Linda's pal Jerry Brown won't use,
may be the most exclusive address in California, since nobody lives there. But an absurdly expensive
beach rookery up the coast from Los Angeles called the Malibu colony must run a strong second. That is
where Linda settled, in a modest $325 000 white clapboard house. Hesitantly, not really sure of herself,
she has bought good china and silverware, "the kind of things other people get for wedding presents."
She has a couple of Mercedes autos, the people's car of Sunset Boulevard, and some municipal bonds.
Her jewelry seems to consist of a jangle of silver bracelets and a ring with a tiny heart, made of yellow
mystery metal, which cost $6 at a children's store. Otherwise, the Malibu house appears to be her single
extravagance. There she gives tea parties A neighbor girl, five years old, comes often and admires a
teapot with feet and socks. Buckminster Fuller also came once, trailing acolytes, and lectured unstoppably.
Those are the day people, "my straight friends." The beat picks up when the sun goes down. "At 8," she
says, "the 8 o'clock musicians arrive and hang out till 12. Then the 12 o'clock musicians arrive and hang
out till 4. And then the 4 o'clock musicians come and hang out till 7." Linda crashes for a few hours, and
the dreamy circle revolves again.
In addition to settling down on her chunk of Pacific ocean-front, Linda acquired a stable manager,
red-haired Englishman Peter Asher. He is widely credited for the huge improvement in her music that
began in the fall of 1974 with the album Heart Like a Wheel
. Asher was a second-magnitude star for
a while; then his vogue faded. He is detached and analytical about the rock business, quick and inventive
about rock music. "Linda is brilliant musically," he says. "Her voice is qualitatively exceptional. Sometimes,
with the band, she gives up command too readily and appears flaky."
Linda says one of the reasons her relationship with Asher works so well is that it is not a "relationship."
He is the first manager she has not had an affair with. "And that is always a bad idea. First there is business,
then business and sex, then the business goes sour, and then there is no sex."
Asher, smiling, says he has no idea where she is going. "I think she will write more. She will continue to do
her stuff, get better and better" and, he says, laughing, "steal good licks wherever she can find them."
"I'm feeling around," Linda says. "The band and I can't go much farther in the direction we've been taking."
Next week she will begin recording an all-country album. She's interested in Third World music. Bulgarian
ballads. Reggae. Hanging out.
Now it is her power that unbalances, however. It is harder for her to hang out in the old loose way. At JP's,
a Manhattan rock joint, Linda swings in at 2 a.m. Everyone snaps to attention and tries to sell something to
her - tries to hustle a song, hustle a bass player. Those who aren't hustling stay so pridefully cool their
eyeballs wrinkle from not blinking.
"I'd take three giant steps toward an early death if I could find one good song," she says. "And the only
way to do it is to drag through the bars." She is lying on the floor of her Plaza suite, doing leg lifts as she
speaks. "But it's not as much fun as it was..."