Linda Ronstadt, Pirate Queen
New York Magazine- July 21, 1980
"With cat-like tread," they sing, "Upon our prey we steal. . . ."
And sitting in a director's chair, facing this motley crew in a third-floor rehearsal hall at the Public Theater, is Linda Ronstadt. She is laughing like a lunatic as actor Kevin Kline leads his merry rabble through the last act of The Pirates of Penzance.
"In silence dread/Our cautious way we feel. . ."
Ronstadt claps her wrists together, her small body jerking forward in laughter, as director Wilford Leach giggles and choreographer Graciela Daniele grins broadly. There is a zany silliness to the whole enterprise, and when the number ends and the company takes ten, Linda Ronstadt joins the other watchers in cheers. If she is nervous about making her stage debut on July 15 in the Gilbert and Sullivan masterpiece, at the Delacorte Theater, in Central Park, she doesn't show it. She looks as if she has been hanging around such halls most of her life.
"Can you believe these guys?" she says, chewing gum and shaking her head. "They are really something, aren't they?"
They are, but so is Linda Ronstadt. At 34, she is at the top of her form in the pop-music business, widely acknowledged as the reigning queen of female singers. Her glorious voice throbs from millions of jukeboxes and radios. Each of her albums since Heart Like a Wheel (1974) has sold over a million copies; she has won four Grammies and sold millions of singles. While doing so, she has forged a unique coalition of fans, welding together admirers of country, rock-'n'-roll, and middle-of-the-road music. If some feminists deplore her choice of material and her role as victim of heartless men, little girls buy her records and try to sing like her, and cut their hair short when she cuts hers, and buy roller skates when she appears on a record jacket on wheels.
"She's a kind of role model," a record-company executive says. "Girls used to wear ponytails when Brigitte Bardot wore ponytails; they tried to look like Marilyn Monroe, once upon a time; now they want to be like Linda Ronstadt."
Musically, Ronstadt has not been content to repeat herself. Her new album for Elektra, Mad Love, is a celebration of the rebarbarized rock 'n' roll of the New Wavers, stripping away the strings, overdubbing, and aural enhancers that had been part of the texture of her previous albums. And on the road she digs into this music with a new authority and power.
"I feel like I'm just learning how to do it," she says. "It's like I finally know."
In addition, Linda Ronstadt has moved out of the narrow channel of pop-music fame into the treacherous mainstream of wider celebrity. A lot of it comes from her relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown. Her trip with Brown to Africa last year was turned into a circus by the international press and probably contributed to Brown's dismal performance in this year's presidential primaries. Early in her career, she talked openly to interviewers about her various lovers, but she will not talk about Brown. Nevertheless, she is the subject of widespread gossip, a figure in Johnny Carson monologues, a target of unfair criticism, malice, rumor, and all the other elements that contribute to the steady pressure of celebrity. She is obviously not just another rock kid with two chords in the guitar and one hit single. And that makes it even more astonishing that she would take the risk of falling on her face one fine summer night in Central Park.
"There really aren't a lot of other things I could do," she explained one sweltering lunch hour in an office at the Public Theater. "I'm not interested in things that don't involve music, y'know? I mean, I'm not interested in things that don't involve a situation I can control. For instance, if I were to do a movie . . . because of the fact that I don't understand the process- 'cause it's very complicated- of how a movie is made, and because of the fact that I don't know how to act. .. ." She laughed at herself. 'Well, it would be very hard for me to control the quality of what was eventually being broadcast. It's taken me a long time to get ... to become facile enough in what I do to project my own sensibility."
She nibbled at a tuna-fish sandwich and sipped Tab through a straw. She talks emphatically and doesn't seem at all like the shy young woman in the photographs.
"I don't understand why people think that when you become famous that immediately gives you access to the movies. I mean, the movies to me operate completely on a corporate level. But in terms of the cultural avant-garde, they've taken a backseat to music, because music is still operating on a relatively small scale. It's still relatively inexpensive to make an album: $100,000, compared to $8 million or $9 million for a movie. And that means that one or two people are involved in the decision-making process, and because of that you have infinitely more control."
As she talked, Ronstadt's lustrous brown eyes narrowed and widened for emphasis, dominating her face, giving her a quality of intensity and odd beauty. Her features are not classically perfect or conventionally beautiful, but like a Cagney or a Hepburn, she has a presence that makes her hard not to look at, and those liquid eyes are the focal point. Those eyes are also what makes so many people want to cast her in movies.
"They always mention the money I could make in the movies," she said. "But if I was on location for four months, tearing my hair out, basically doing what somebody else was telling me to do, basically being an instrument for somebody else's sensibility- which has never appealed to me in my life- well, I could make as much money as that on the road for four months, beating my brains out, but doing something I liked. Still; when this happened," she said, gesturing around the room at the Paul Davis posters for past Joseph Papp productions, "people said, 'Gee, are you, you know, gonna act? Is this practice for the movies?' And it was not."
Actually, she came to the Central Park stage through the New York Times. Specifically through New York Times pop-music critic John Rockwell.
"I wanted to get involved in something that could utilize some of the areas of my singing that I wasn't able to utilize in the pop-music field," she said. "I wanted it to be within the context of something that I thought would be high quality, with people I thought would be high quality, so that I could learn from them. But not where I had to be the center of attraction, or where I would have to have full responsibility for the show. So when I spoke about this to John Rockwell, he said, 'There's one guy in town you gotta meet, and his name's Joe Papp.'" She smiled. "And I'd never heard of him."
Rockwell arranged for Ronstadt to meet Papp. He knew who she was, of course, but when he asked her if she could act, she said, "I don't know." A few months passed, and then Papp and director Leach decided that they wanted to do The Pirates of Penzance.
"I remember sitting around and saying, 'I wonder if Linda Ronstadt can sing in that higher key?' " Papp remembers. "So I called her in California. And she said, 'I'll be in tomorrow.'"
Jerry Brown was at Ronstadt's house when Papp called.
"Jerry picked up the phone," Ronstadt remembers, "and he just somehow vaguely knew Gilbert and Sullivan. He told me it was H.M.S. Pinafore, because that was the Gilbert and Sullivan he knew. And H.M.S. Pinafore was the one- coincidentally- that my sister did when she was twelve and I was six. So I knew all the songs. I called them right back and said, 'God, I hear you're going to do Pinafore. I know all the songs.' And Joe said, 'No, it's not Pinafore, it's Pirates of Penzance.' And I'd never heard of that. So I hopped on a plane and flew back to see what the music was like, to see who the people would be. I was real embarrassed. I had a little patch of pink in the back of my hair, and I had real, real, real short hair, and I said, 'I know I don't look very Victorian, but I can look that way.' They showed me the music. I don't know how to read music, so they taught me a couple of the songs, and I started to sing them, and I had this funny little voice that I hadn't used in a long time, and there was a funny stretch where air would come out but no voice, like a dotted line. But I knew I could do it. And here I am."
THAT HOT REHEARSAL ROOM ON LAFAYETTE STREET was a long way from Tucson, Arizona, where Linda Maria Ronstadt was born on July 15, 1946, the third youngest of four children. Her father, Gilbert, who runs a Tucson hardware store, is of Mexican-English and German descent, part of an old Arizona ranching family whose roots in the area precede the Mexican War. Her mother is English, Dutch, and German and grew up in Michigan, where her father invented- among other things- the grease gun, rubber ice trays, and the electric stove. Linda's older brother was in the Tucson Boys Choir, where he was a soprano, and her father has a large, rich baritone voice. Her childhood was filled with music.
"The first person I ever tried to imitate was my brother," she said. "I was four or five, and he was the soloist in the choir, and he had a perfectly glorious-sounding voice, the purest, clearest tone I've ever heard. I just idolized my older brother, as most little girls do. And I can remember one time when we were all sitting around the piano singing, and I was five or six, and my sister was playing the piano, and I started to sing. And she just stopped and looked at my brother and said, 'You got a soprano here.' And it was like I had become valid somehow. You know, my existence had been affirmed. I was so pleased to know that that was what I was in life: I was a soprano."
She discovered rock 'n' roll at eight, singing along with her sister as the music boomed from XERF in Del Rio, Texas- an amalgam of Top 40, gospel, Hank Williams, and rhythm and blues- the eclectic American mixture that has become a trademark of the professional Linda Ronstadt. There was one other major ingredient. She grew up listening to mariachi music, particularly to the big, throbbing voice of Lola Beltran, who was then the major star of Mexican music.
"I felt very Mexican," she says now, "but also strongly German. Our cultural tradition was all Mexican, with all the Mexican holidays. My great-grandfather was the first German mining engineer in northern Mexico and later had a cattle ranch, and then northern Mexico was taken over by the United States. So that part of the family has been there a long time. I felt Mexican, but then I also started to place myself in the culture as a German ethnic pool in the middle of this Latin culture. I used to say I should sing like a Mexican and think like a German, but that most of the time I was thinking like a Mexican and singing like a German." She grinned. "Lately, though, I've been actually thinking like a German. I've been getting my life organized."
She was raised a Roman Catholic, maintained a steady condition of rebellion through most of high school, never got to perform in a play or even to sing solo in the choir. I guess they thought I didn't have the discipline." Underneath her talk, and in the passions described in some of her songs, one senses that Ronstadt was hurt badly during those years and developed smoldering resentments and fears that she hasn't yet exercised. She actually "came out" at a debutante ball and wore black panties under a white gown as a symbol of her disdain; she went to the University of Arizona for one semester but didn't stay any longer. Her grades in high school had been ordinary, she tells you, but through everything she knew she had music.
"I wanted to get up and do it," she said. "I just always wanted to get up on stage and sing."
At fourteen, she had formed a folk trio with her sister and brother. It was called the New Union Ramblers, and the trio played around some of "these funny weird little clubs," coffeehouses, fraternity houses, small joints. But increasingly Linda wanted to make a union of folk music and rock'n'roll. In 1964, after dropping out of college, she decided to move on to Los Angeles. She had $30 in her pocket and the advice of her father: "Never let anyone take your picture with your clothes off."
IN THE MID-1960s, THE LOS ANGELES MUSIC SCENE was in ferment. From all over the country, kids with guitars and songs arrived at the bus stations, or wandered through Venice or the Strip, bursting with hope and ambition. Linda Ronstadt was only one of hundreds of camp followers in the guitar army, and her base of operations was a joint called the Troubadour. It became her home, her university, her occupation, and, in some ways, probably her purgatory.
"I just used to hang out at the Troubadour every single night," she said. "I didn't even drink, but I was in the bar every night, and over in the corner was Doug Dillard and Gene Clark, and that's where I met J. D. Souther, and Jackson Browne, and all the Eagles, and the Byrds, and the Buffalo Springfield. They were all there, and it was real fun."
With Bobby Kimmel, a friend from Tucson, and Kenny Edwards, she became part of another trio, the Stone Poneys. They sounded like Peter, Paul and Mary and recorded three albums together for Capitol. On the second album, Linda had her first hit single with "Different Drum." But she wasn't fully formed yet either as a singer or as a human being.
"That was the beginning of the process of stumbling and groping," she said, "the years and years and years of trying to evolve something, which is what I do now. I didn't sing like the boy soprano anymore. And I didn't even think about becoming a high soprano. That was just a little dream I put up on the shelf."
In that L.A. of music and drugs, of hippies and cultists; in that L.A. that was the scene of the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the slaughter of Sharon Tate and her friends; in that L.A., there were a lot of casualties. Drugs claimed a lot of them. Others ran out of talent or were wrecked by sudden fame. Ronstadt survived.
"Jackson and J. D., they pulled each other through some awful times," she remembers. "They encouraged each other about their writings, became each other's fans. And the women, there were very few of us, and we were really oddballs. We really didn't know how to act, or what to do, or how we were supposed to be. We didn't know whether we were supposed to be real earth mamas like Maria Muldaur, you know, with a baby under her arm and a fiddle in her hand ... or what."
Her voice softened. "I could never get it together on a domestic level. I was always just living everywhere, crashing here and crashing there. And I wasn't quite sure how I was supposed to be, if I was supposed to be true-blue and faithful to one man, or if I was supposed to be hanging out at the Troubadour every night."
One night at the Troubadour, Jackson Browne was playing in his quiet, soulful way, and a drunk kept talking loudly. Ronstadt told the drunk to keep quiet, and he gave her a shove.
"I hauled off and punched him right in the mouth," she said, in an amazed way. "I mean, I really hit him. And he went back and into the wall and would've gone down if the wall wasn't there. And of course that made it worse."
There were other kinds of trouble, and yet, when the era was over, Ronstadt was still around.
"I don't know what saved me," she says now. "I guess the German in me. I don't like being that out of control."
She got up and walked back through the halls of the Public Theater, nodding hello to strangers, and arrived at the rehearsal hall. The chorus singers were lying around on the floor, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, wearing sneakers and T-shirts and sweatbands. The place smelled like a gymnasium.
"Well," Linda Ronstadt said, "here I am: a boy soprano at last."