Miss Linda R.
Some people have blamed my attachment to the 1970s as the reason for my devotion to the singer Linda Ronstadt, the subject of the 2019 documentary The Sound of My Voice. And while I agree that the decade was formative for me and admit that I wept openly during the final episode of The Mary Tyler Moore show, I don’t think that’s quite it.
It’s easy to say it was the voice. Even Linda’s most terrier-like detractor, alleged music historian and cabana boy for Bruce Springsteen Dave Marsh, called it a “truly remarkable instrument.” That is, before he added that she was an “utterly horrid interpreter of pop music.” (Go fetch some heated towels for the Boss, Dave.) Anyway, in Linda’s case, the generic use of voice isn’t accurate. Her voice was spectacular in so many different applications. It was powerful and voluminous in its breadth when she was belting a number. “Blue Bayou” is not a particular favorite of mine, but I heard her sing it live many times, and each time when she went high on the chorus (“I’m going back someday”), I experienced what some call a transcendent moment. It’s true that such transcendence has also been precipitated by the combination of chocolate and raspberry for me, but beauty is beauty.
When Linda sang pianissimo, her voice evoked a different, ethereal beauty. Listen to her very last recording, a duet with Jimmy Webb called “All I Know,” where all the angels that formed her vocal cords showed themselves for one final performance. Linda also had a touch of soul in her toolkit, though she rarely explored this aspect. Listen to her slide up to the good every time on “You’re No Good” or to the muscular glissando at the end of the doo-wop song “Too Soon To Know.”
Even as a teenager I suspected that Linda Ronstadt was singing from a place of primal ache; not from the standard well of boy-broke-my-heart but from the depth of real loss. Maybe there had been tragedy in her life, but I’m guessing it was more primordial than that: a child being separated from her mother, even if temporarily; or the abandonment of a friend or a pet, things long forgotten for the most part except in one tiny, aching corner of the soul. I never listened to “Try Me Again,” or “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” or “Love Has No Pride” and believed the pain was really fed by some boy who done her wrong. (Besides, Linda appears to have been the heartbreaker in her romances. How many people can say they broke off an engagement with George Lucas?)
Much has been made of Ronstadt’s genre-hopping. But what’s truly amazing is how she found audiences in all these wanderings. After releasing Get Closer, (which the rock press considered a failure for selling only 900,000 copies), she made the 180-degree turn to standards with the first of her three albums with Nelson Riddle, What’s New, which sold nearly four-million copies. For those who think that 1983 is ancient history where youngsters like me knew big band music, the truth is that What’s New was not hip, contemporary or cool. Even a devoted fan like me needed some time to get used to that record, especially because by then I was too old to be singing into the handle of a vacuum cleaner pretending to be Linda. (Not that I ever did that. There is no photographic evidence.) But I came to appreciate the architectural genius of those songs which she introduced to a new generation, saving them from “an eternity of riding up and down elevators.”
Her album Trio, with Dolly Parton and EmmyLou Harris came next, and again, with its polite country-parlor sound, it had no commercial prospects. But the beauty of those harmonies must have put a message out to the musical mercantile universe, because even with no pop hits, it went platinum a couple times. What I still can’t believe to this day is how she managed to attract an audience for her next venture, Canciones de mi Padre, an album that should have, by rights, torpedoed her career. Songs from early twentieth century Mexico? Yet somehow she sold nearly three million copies of it. Maybe it sold because of people like me who would have bought a record of her yelling at kids to stay off her lawn. Probably, though, she lured an audience of a different demographic than usual. This album is not a favorite of mine, though I tried to like it, much as I have throughout my life tried to like a peskily unappealing new in-law. I was relieved that for her next album, she teamed up with Aaron Neville for a pop album, Cry Like a Rainstorm…Howl Like the Wind where her voice sounded more voluminous than ever, recorded as it was at the Skywalker Ranch studios.
I haven’t loved every one of Linda Ronstadt’s records. I think some of her hits are insubstantial compared to the solid material on the albums they come from. And if you’ve ever read an interview with her, she doesn’t seem to like any of her own work. But there are too many bullseyes within her catalogue for me not to love Linda.
I learned about Linda’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease while I was at the gym amongst other lumpy, old people who were teenagers when she was at her rock star peak. I happened to look at the TV monitor with its closed captioning of the news story. My headphones at the same time were offering up Linda’s version of James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes,” a song which has always struck me as a suicidal lullaby. It was a profound moment for me, the intractable fan in his mid-fifties learning that the only singer that mattered was now voiceless, while the young Linda glided effortlessly into falsetto at the very end of the last line, “And you can sing this song when I’m gone.”