October 19, 1978
Rock's Venus takes control of her affairs. by Peter Herbst
She is now. She's had four platinum albums in the last four years, her newest, Living in the U.S.A., shipped double platinum and she's had a steady stream of hit singles. But with her success has come a raft of problems. When I interviewed Ronstadt two years ago, she was struggling to deal with the terrifying novelty of being a celebrity. She suffered, Ronstadt said at the time, from free-floating anxiety, a serious lack of confidence in her voice and a somewhat scattered personality. And she was quick, perhaps too quick, to discuss the details of her personal life ("I wouldn't say open- I was compulsive,' she says).
Now, two years later, she exudes self-confidence and a striking sense of purpose and seems to have gained a firm hand over the affairs of her life. She refuses to be pushed around, either by fans invading her privacy or by causes and candidates asking her to donate her services. She's about to risk a major move, leaving the comforts of L.A., her home for twelve years, for the uncertainty of New York City. She's less willing to discuss her personal life ("It's not anybody's business to air my laundry anymore," she says).
But as we talked, once at a hotel named the Cross Keys Inn in suburban Maryland and twice at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Ronstadt's base of operations while she and her band (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bass guitarist Kenny Edwards, drummer Russ Kunkel, keyboardist Don Grolnick, pedal steel player Dan Dugmore) toured the Northeast, she revealed a stubborn streak of conservatism, a strong need for privacy, a fear of performing and a longing for a kind of settled life she thinks she might never attain. And she talked about her music, which remains the compelling presence in her life.
My grandfather was a rancher in Arizona. His father was the first mining engineer in the northern part of Mexico and he was also in the Mexican army. He was born in Germany. My grandfather also owned a wagon-making shop which was eventually turned into a hardware store in Tucson. My dad grew up on the ranch and in the hardware business.
Ronstadt's Hardware Store?
Right. And he also wanted to sing- he was a wonderful singer. My father had a radio show when he was in his twenties. Oh, he was so dishy, so good-looking, the real dashing type. He rode his horse up the steps of my mother's sorority house. He was a real cowboy. My mom came from Michigan and my grandfather was a real well-known inventor. He invented things like the grease gun and the electric stove. My mother was not quite East Coast but sort of back East, sort of DAR. I'm starting to learn a little bit more about my family history.
I had thought you had Mexican ancestry, or that was just your father?
Yeah, Mexican-German on my father's side, and English also- he's Mexican, German and English. My mother's side is German, English and Dutch.
In my heart I feel Mexican-German. I feel if I were to organize it correctly I would try to sing like a Mexican and think like a German. You know what I mean? I get it mixed up sometimes anyway. I sing like a Nazi and I think like a Mexican and I can't get anything right.
You have a sister and a brother or two brothers?
Two brothers and a sister.
Did anybody in your family have an outstanding voice?
Well, my older brother actually had a beautiful soprano voice. My father always had a rich, melodious, lovely slow vibrato. He was a baritone, I guess, but he could get it way up to tenor notes. Beautiful voice, just so thick, it's like honey. His voice has lots of soul and no time. My dad had the worst time in the universe. It comes from not playing with a band a lot- he has got that Creole drag time. I can always harmonize with him because I know exactly what kind of sense of time he's got. But boy, it really rubbed off on me. My older brother was the one I always tried to copy because he was in the Tucson Boys Choir and he had a glorious soprano. I wanted to sing like that. I can remember sitting at the piano. My sister was playing and my brother was trying out something and I went, "I want to try that." My sister turned to my brother and said, "Think we got a soprano here." I was about four and so I remember that real well.
So I was a soprano for a real long time and then one day, I was fourteen, my sister and brother were singing some folk song that was probably something they learned off of a Peter, Paul and Mary record. It was called "The Stockade Blues." I came walking around the corner and I just threw in the high harmony. I did it in my chest voice and I surprised myself. When I started out with my chest voice I could only sing straight, with no vibrato. As I have gotten older, my voice has turned more like my father's. My older brother really had the most musical talent.
What does he do now?
He's a cop. He's good at that, too. He's a captain now. He always wanted to achieve things like that. He likes to be on the street.
What does your sister do?
She got married and had a million kids.
Does she live in Arizona?
Yeah. She has her hands full with the kids I think. She does probably more than any of us.
When did you decide that you were real good? That, coming from a family of people who were musical, you were special?
When my sister said, "We have a soprano." I just went, "I'm a singer, that's what I do." And when I went to first grade as far as I was concerned that's what I was. I remember there'd always be a certain time of the day to get up and sing, you'd have to sing some hymn or the way you sing in churches. Everybody would be real embarrassed and wouldn't want to do it but I knew I could. It didn't occur to me that I wasn't very good until I started to do it for a living. I realized that it was hard and I wasn't real great.
What does the invasion of privacy do to your life?
What it does is it makes people look like enemies all the time, 'cause you never know what someone's going to do. Somebody will come up and say, "Gee, you and some other singer (who you think is the worst singer in the world) are my favorite singers..." Or you're trying to have dinner with a friend and not have people... I mean, it's a distraction and it's an annoyance and they don't realize it's rude. You see it coming and you start to wince and you start to get defensive, because as far as I'm concerned that person is going to hurt me. The only thing I can do is look cold or I can be rude- I can tell them just flat out, "Go away, don't bother me" or I can sit there and put up with it and store a lot of pissed-offness. No matter what, it's a no-win situation.... This is one of the major icky side effects of my job and if I don't want to go completely nuts, I'm going to have to put up with a certain amount of it.
Has it gotten a lot worse in the last couple of years?
A lot worse, yeah. There's been so much press, you know. I went to some beach club on the Fourth of July and I couldn't believe it. I mean we just got jumped on- literally jumped on!
Do you find it easier in New York than other places?
Sometimes it's easier, but on St. Patrick's Day I got chased by millions of people, literally chased. And I came running up the steps of the Plaza and there were these four little boys after me. They had locked the doors and they wouldn't let anybody in unless they had a room key and my room key was in the bottom of my purse. I was sort of going, "But you don't really understand. Those people are chasing me with green faces."
Basically, people are just rude. I mean, they just don't have any manners. They're only thinking of themselves. They'll say, "But this is the only chance I'll ever get to talk to you." That's not my problem, you know. There isn't really any reason for them to talk to me. If they want to hear me sing they can go buy a record- that's the way I feel about it.
Do you think that, to some degree, the reason you're a star is because of people like that?
But I don't think of myself as a star. I didn't set out to become a star, I set out to become a singer. I would have sung no matter what. The star part is just something that they made up in Hollywood in 1930.
But you do play along. Your album covers are very sexy and you're a sex symbol to people. How can you say you're not a star?
I'm not saying I'm not a star, I'm just saying that that's not what I set out to be. I wanted to be a success and being successful means that I have more freedom with the music, that I can have a bigger budget for my albums, that I can afford to hire better musicians who I really like to play with, and that I can become a better singer as a result of playing with really good musicians. And the more successful I am on the road then the better show we can present. We can get better monitors, we can hear better onstage, you can fly around in Lear jets. All of it makes us more comfortable so we can do a better show. The stardom aspect of it is an unpleasant side effect of success, because a businessman can become an enormous success without having his privacy completely destroyed.
So alluring album covers make it possible to do what you want musically?
Yeah, it's just basically the same. What should I do, put out an ugly picture? People look at it and they go "Uuugh." It's incidental, you know what I mean. It's nice to have pretty pictures. It's part of the frosting on the cake for the audience.
Do you feel like you've taken control of your life in the last couple of years?
Yeah, I think I have.
What happened to get that going?
Well, I got a little older. It's wonderful that age gives you this amazing perspective and a couple of extra little facts that you need to know. It really helps a lot. I'm kind of a survivor, and I don't think that I could have gotten this far if I hadn't been. Being a survivor doesn't mean that you have to be made out of steel and it doesn't mean that you have to be ruthless. It means that you have to basically be on your own side and want to win. The person that's the best at that of anyone that I've ever met is Dolly Parton. She's just amazing at being ambitious without being ruthless and at being so sensitive to other people's needs. She's a great lesson to me.
What happened to the album you were going to make witb Dolly and Emmylou Harris?
We're going to make it, it's just going to take a long time. It's not easy for three different managers and three different record companies to come to an agreement. Say we made a record and Dolly's record company thought that it was something that she shouldn't have out just then. Say she had an album out then and it would be competing with her own album. It's also difficult trying to find a style to record us in when we have three completely different styles. They called me up when I was on the road and said, "Hey, let's do this," 'cause we've talked about it for so long and wanted to do it for so long. And I just went, "Oh sure, we'll do it, we'll just go out and sing and we'll make this record- and it'll come out and everybody will say, 'Isn't that nice,' and that'll be the end of it." I told Peter about it and Peter just sort of went, "Ohhh." He didn't stand in my way- he never does if I want to do something- but he knew that it was going to be a hell of a headache, and it was.
You did record some tracks?
We recorded some stuff, but let me tell you, we did it in ten days. Now, I've never made a record in less than three and a half months, and I don't think Dolly has, and I don't think Emmy has either. But we got scared because Emmy had to go on the road and Dolly had to start writing her album and I only had a certain amount of time off, and we wanted to do it so badly. I remember Dolly just making these decisions. She said: "We're just going to have to try." And Emmy's got kids- Dolly was such an inspiration to her because she's so well organized. I remember Emmy saying, "Well, I'm just going to do it for Dolly, because it shows me that I'll just have to get things organized, I'll simply have to do it."
I was the most flexible of the three because I have no family and I had just come off a tour. So we just went, "We'll just hold our breaths and try." Well, it wouldn't have mattered if Jesus Christ and Buddha had been producing that album- you can't do something like that in ten days. We thought that somehow we would just break all the rules and we would do it, and we didn't.
We got a couple of things that are just lovely. One particular thing just turned out gorgeous, just the three of us with an acoustic guitar and God, it just killed us when we heard it. I learned so much singing with them. There were times when I would have to match Emmy's vibrato and Dolly's intonation in order to blend, finding out that I could make noises with my throat that I did not make. I was able to apply it on this album and really got my voice up another notch, which I probably obliterated with this tour.
I noticed the brewer's yeast. Are you on a health kick?
I'm real off and on trying to be healthy. It's just that when I eat so badly and I start to get sick that out of guilt I start pouring brewer's yeast in my orange juice.
Do you jog when you have a chance?
That's the one thing, that's the only panacea that I've ever known of. I'm convinced that it can make up for lack of a good diet, but that a good diet can't make up for lack of exercise. Also, running is the best and I think the only real cure for depression. There have never been any drugs that I could take that would make depression go away. Depression, you know, seems to affect women worse, but it is such an insidious crippler because it starts and you are aware of it the first few days that you feel bad, and then it just kind of settles in and it prevents you from doing things. After a while you get used to it. You don't realize how much it's preventing you from living the way you want to live until something lifts it. I'm just so afraid of it now that it stops me completely cold. If I get depressed, I just go to bed for a week.
What happens on tour?
I run, I run. I have one of these little things, if I can't go outside, that you run on. It's got little springs, it's like a little trampoline. I have ways of tricking myself. I have weights in the room and then I have weights that go on the truck so they're at the sound check and I have weights put in the studio, and I have them at home too, so that no matter what I do there's never any excuse.
What are your plans for touring this year?
We're just going to do this tour, which is a month, and then we're going to do another tour which will be a month and then we'll probably do Australia and New Zealand and Japan, maybe. I'm not really sure if we're going to do the one that would be another month.
'Cause it's too rough on me. It's really hard, you know? I mean, just the physical changes, hopping in and out of the plane every day and hopping in and out of the hotel. And endless long empty hours of waiting that are the hardest. And then there's the repetition of the sound check, which makes it hard to get yourself in the frame of mind to really want to do the music. Plus the music is repeating over and over and over, and if you play music and it's not satisfying, it's painful.
That's why you like to do new stuff in your shows?
Yeah, but there's a lot of hits I can't throw out. It would be unfair to charge the kids money to come and see it if they can't see those songs, 'cause they haven't heard 'em every single night for the last nine years. So we really do try hard to find ways to change 'em so that it won't be too weird for the kids but so we'll be able to stand it. You can't always do it.
How do you sing a song that you've sung 200 times? How do you get some feeling into it?
Sometimes something new will happen to make that song come alive again, to give it a little bit of a fresh interpretation. Sometimes I'll go, "I'm just going to sing rhythm." Or sometimes you just sort of try another attitude with it, you know: sometimes my attitude will be real tough, sometimes it will be sort of cute. I'm sure there are more ways to sing the songs than I often do, but over the years they've changed a lot. One song is "Willin'." That's something I never get tired of.
Last night I was thinking while I was standing onstage that you have to perform to the audience. I have a tendency 'cause I'm so scared of them, to dismiss them entirely. I try to pretend they're not there and I just do the show with the band. No wonder I think it's boring. So I was thinking last night that you have to include them, you can't take them for granted, no matter how much they like you. Your attitude should be that they're a bunch of nonbelievers and you're the only person that could convince them.
Do you think sometimes that you don't do enough onstage?
I think that most of the time I don't do enough onstage. It depends on how you look at it: you can say basically I do enough because I get up there and sing and I don't hold back; but in terms of getting to be pals with the audience every night, I've gone through periods of being able to do it and then I've gone through periods where I just looked at them and I didn't know what to say to them.
Do you ever watch Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen onstage?
Never seen Bruce Springsteen. I've seen Mick Jagger really only once. I went to an Anaheim concert but I couldn't see any of it 'cause everyone stood up. I never got to see the show and I was real disappointed, so I flew to Tucson just to go. It was a wonderful show. I loved it and I got so many great ideas, he's a teacher you know.
What was it like to sing with the Stones?
I loved it. I didn't have a trace of stage fright. I'm scared to death all the way through my own shows. But it was too much fun to get scared. He's so silly onstage, he knocks you over. I mean you have to be on your toes or you wind up falling on your face. He's amazing. Mick just scolds all the time, you better do right: he's usually right when he scolds.
What do you think when you see people moving around that much?
I like it but it would be silly for me to do something like that. I'm not naturally that outgoing; it would be very strange. My sister could have done that, she was the oldest and she was the most outgoing. I was the youngest for six years till my brother was born, so I was sort of trailing around singing the high harmony.
Do you think you're going to cut back touring as the years go by?
Yeah, I do, and I've actually given some vague thought to something else I could do. There are a couple of avenues open to me, some of them that are completely not involved with show business at all.
Well, I don't know, I hate to say it really, because it steals thunder, you know what I mean? Talking about it sort of takes some of the energy away from it.
No, no, no, no, that's show business. See, the reason movies are weird is because you don't have much control, and for me to do a movie would be a gigantic risk. I'm not saying that I wouldn't do it.
Do you think that you might make records but not tour?
I don't think that's possible really. I can't think of anybody that's been successful doing that, and if they have been, it's really been the exception. You pretty much have to tour if you want to make records. It's like you do the record, you do the tour. But touring is a way of life and it's a steady occupation. Some people are... that's what they do, that's how they identify themselves. They really see themselves more clearly in a state of flux. And I am in a state of flux. But I'd like to establish something a little more than that. I'm not sure I can. But I'd like to do something else, too.
Do you feel that being in rock & roll touring creates a prolonged adolescence?
Yeah, it sure does.
Well, maybe you're coming out of your adolescence in a way?
I think it's the loneliness. I think that some people are loners by nature. Some people are real afraid of being close. An illusion of intimacy is created by the little family group that travels around the road and by the amount of energy and affection you get off the audience every night. It does not penetrate into my soul. It's valid, but I just can't recognize it.
Is it conceivable that you might not make records at some point?
Uuuh, no. I like to work. But I don't like to be harassed. It's hard to say, maybe I'm not very happy, because it seems like I'd do something. I like to go camping, that's what I really like to do.
Do you like to be alone?
It's boring, there's no one to talk to mostly. I know this is going to sound really corny, but what I like the very best is when there's people over for dinner. I can barely cook but I can bake good bread, and when there are people that are close and my little brother Mike and Marilyn and Lois (Marilyn is my foreman at home, she oversees all the construction and she takes care of all the animals, she used to work for a vet and she's just one of my dearest friends), those people are in the kitchen and we're all sitting around and Nicky's always got her guitar and we're singing or something like that. I mean, to me that's heaven, that's my favorite thing to do.
Do you think about having children, that your career prevents that?
I think the fact that I haven't met a man that I want to have children with has prevented me from having children. It's interesting that you would bring that up, 'cause I was sitting with two other lady journalists that I know and a guy, and we were talking about that. The thing that I thought the most about was that if I did get married and have children and it was too comfortable for me, it would take away my desire. Right now I have to keep going because it's the only way to survive.
So you're saying a family would be a substitute for what you're doing?
It might be, and it's also an excuse. If you have a family, there's always an excuse not to do it. I'll do any excuse I can think of to not go on tour.
I suppose if I did have a family and it were successful as a family that maybe I'd be very happy, and maybe it wouldn't matter whether I went out on the road. The only thing that really matters is whether you're satisfied with the work you're doing. The thing that would be horrible would be that if I had a family and I would, through inertia, sort of give up my singing. If the family wasn't a success and if it were an unhappy family, I can't think of anything worse. It's a big gamble, a big risk, but it's a moot point because it just isn't an issue right now. I don't know anybody that I would like to have a family with.
Well, does it scare you that maybe in five years things will be the same and you will be touring and you'll be making albums and you'll be farther away from...
That I'll just pass it by? I think of that sometimes, and I think that again enters whether it's a choice. One thinks that one has a choice. I think that duality is omnipresent. It is both a choice and it is decided for you. It's not that I domn't look around every now and again and sort of go, "Uuh, what's around?" you know. But I mostly only meet people in show business and I'm not really interested in show business. I like 'em in ties and three-piece suits.
Do you think that the fact that you have this very directed career and music is the center of your life is a way for you to avoid finding somebody that you might want to settle down with?
I honestly don't. Freud says sometimes a cigar's a cigar you know, and I think that this is a cigar. I did have talent for singing; I chose to become a singer. I did just get up and leave home one day when I was eighteen years old and say I'm going out to L.A. to become a singer. "Goodbye Mother, Goodbye Daddy." That was my choice, but after that things were just sort of decided for me, and all the little byproducts of being a singer make it very difficult to form a relationship that lasts- not only because of the kind of person that it turns me into but because of the kinds of people that I come in contact with, and the kinds of people that I become attracted to.
It's only natural, for instance, all during my twenties that I would be attracted to people that excelled at what I did, people like John David Souther, who I think is brilliant, you know, or Lowell George, whose musicianship is so wonderful. It's only understandable that there would be fatal flaws in our relationship that would make it just very difficult to trust each other or to surrender to each other, so to speak. So there you have it. It's a tough one. I used to think, "It's so terrible and tragic." I don't even think that anymore. I just think that's just one of the cards that I got.
I started to read a book called Flower in Willow World. It's about the history of the geisha. I'm very fascinated with the whole concept of the geisha. The forerunners of the geisha were in China and they were called "singing girls"- they actually were the ones who were responsible for acting as catalysts to high fashion, art, all of the arts, including literature, calligraphy, dancing and music. And they were the ones who associated with the most important men, the people from the government and the people from the military and the most successful merchants. They were highly educated and they had an enormous impact on the cultural development of China and later on Japan, where the geisha was expected not only to sing and dance and draw and paint and act, but she was also expected to be able to sit at the tea table, for instance, and discuss high finance and politics with the gentlemen who came around. She wasn't just someone that you were supposed to hire to get laid- she was supposed to be that complete aspect to complement a man. She had apparent freedom in that she could have many lovers and had access to all these ideas and could act as an emulsifier to blend all these elements of the military and business and government.
The wife in Japanese society was the head of the household, and because Japan is so family oriented, that really is a position of enormous power. The wife has no apparent freedom but she has this power and she also has a stable position forever. Now if a geisha wanted to be taken as a concubine into someone's household, maybe after her beauty or her ability to charm or seduce began to fade, she would always have to be second to the wife.
The price you pay for security.
Exactly, and that really went straight to my heart. It teaches you not to fool around with somebody else's husband, for one thing. You know you're always second to the wife, and also it's the best lesson of which path to choose, and to me those are still the two paths that are open for women: it's the geisha or the wife.
Do you think that's unfortunate?
I don't think it's unfortunate. I think it is the order of things. I think that is the natural order of things. I think that maybe in that time and civilization, maybe that was a good thing. I mean, women do seem to be by nature more inclined to be monogamous. I'm going to incur the wrath of every women's rights person, but I just think that that's more of a natural inclination.
Not in my experience.
Maybe not, maybe we're starting to get trained out of it. I'm more inclined to be that way. I'm not saying that I've only had one lover- my nose would grow clear to the other side of the wall- but my life is set up for it. A man can have more children and it's sort of a thing for them to just go around and fertilize every woman. The independent woman that has a career is different, she's the exception to the rule. It's an unnatural situation in a sense.
But wouldn't you say that that's increasing?
It is increasing and God only knows what the results will be. I don't know, I'm no expert. But a woman that has a family, just because of the fact that she bears children and has to stay home and a certain amount of her duties are taken up in tending to the family, that makes her less inclined to be promiscuous.
So you're saying that instead of taking the role of the wife you took the role of the geisha?
Yeah, most people are single in my business anyway. It's just that that's the way I see myself. It's just a strange choice. You have apparent freedom but you're not really free, you know, because probably the most, the greatest thing you can aspire to is domestic bliss and tranquillity, probably the highest state of being for a human being.
What's it like to know people who you came up with, who you played music with in the beginning, who haven't really made it to your level, or who haven't made it at all? Do you lose friends because of your own accomplishment?
It depends on how strong they are. I love that line in a Joe Walsh song. Something about "I haven't changed. Everybody else has." You know? It's really true! I mean it really is their attitude and their reaction to you that makes you react to them. It's not that you changed so much. It's just the way everybody else reacts to you that makes you go nuts. Everybody treats me like I'm weird now.
Real close friends treat you like "Linda Ronstadt"?
Some people did. And they didn't stay around. They couldn't. Neither one of us could stand how uncomfortable it was. And then there are people who were so sure of themselves that it didn't matter. And I'm so grateful for those people. I mean, it's the only continuity in my life. You hang on to them forever.
It must be very hard to come to a city like New York and meet a lot of new people.
It's hard to sort them out. It's like going to a place where they speak a foreign language.
How do you sort them out?
I don't know how to, exactly. You try to be real standoffish, because sometimes people worm their way in on the pretext of something. People say to me, "You're getting harder and harder to get to." My relatives say stuff like that. I've had to design it that way because it screens a lot of people, and so you're left with the most aggressive people. And lots of times the most aggressive people want to get at you for the worst reasons. It's a strange way to make friends. You have to sort of erect a fence and say, "Okay, scale this." It's like living on top of a glass mountain.
What can you do to change that?
Nothing. I think it's the only way to do it. Keep moving and keep it vague. I never make plans in advance. They want to know what I'm doing next month, I don't know. But if you shut it all off, then you don't get any input. You gotta stick your neck out, all the time.
Do you feel stronger and more capable of doing that now?
I've always been a risk-taker. I was when I was two. I take so many risks in my daily existence I think that it's made me very conservative in other areas. I don't take risks skiing, or driving my car, I don't jump out of airplanes or parachute or things like that, but I think the personal risks I take are enormous. That's why I have to be... I try to cut corners on the risks. But gotta take risks. The album and the tour are specific activities and after that, everything's unspecific.
What happens after that?
Take geisha lessons? I don't know. The trouble with being a latter-day geisha is that those geishas really could do it. They could dance and write and do art and they could act and they could sing. They could do everything to perfection. I'm only a half-assed geisha. I can only sing.