The Enduring Virtue of Linda Ronstadt
It's So Easy
by Calliope KurtzWhen I first discovered pop music - 1972 - a vast, variegated avalanche of sound enveloped me. So many avenues to pursue, and so much with which to reckon, I had little choice but to become a partisan. There were obvious distinctions to discern - old and new (the chronology of Hot Rocks), loud and soft (Led Zeppelin, Moody Blues), male and female (Cat Stevens, Judy Collins), ornate and stark (Yes, Cactus) and stoned and sober. This particular dichotomy presented itself with less overture upon the ears of a suburban tween but there was something distinguishing the general vibe emanating off the grooves of records by Hot Tuna and, hmm, Iron Butterfly.
Far out, or square. Back then, there was a definite legitimacy granted to music made high. So it seemed, the difference between Rubber Soul, great, and Sgt. Pepper, genius, was LSD. On smack, Eric Clapton conjured a volcanic muse (Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs) while his "clean" comeback, 461 Ocean Boulevard, was utterly dullsville. Market constituencies exemplified such divergence: teetotalers favored the (pre-disco) Bee Gees, weekend beer drinkers bought Chicago albums while heads got off on Bloodrock. Such categorization wasn't 100% accurate - The Carpenters were probably more smashed than Pink Floyd - but the chasm between AM and FM suggested otherwise.
Fewer performers on the radio in those days were as straight as Linda Ronstadt. Consistent. Professional. Unhip. When everyone else weaved and wobbled in and out of the beats and measures, there was Ronstadt, metronome bullseye every time. Perfect, in her case, was pejorative. Ditto her success which (seemingly) came so easily.
There was a lot going on in the Seventies. Bowie in a dress, Mitchell and Mingus, "Anarchy in the U.K." Who had time for a jukebox slew of rockabilly and Motown covers? Top 40. Two minute ditties, all business, guitar breaks composed of braille, a singer with the funk of an Southwestern Bell operator. Didn't she discover The Eagles? Just look at the cover of Living In The USA - Ronstadt is so adventurous she's, what, rollerskating in an office building, looking scared shitless at that. Her version of "Tumblin' Dice," a trashed-out classic, is so sober, the lyrics are actually legible. Inside the Simple Dreams gatefold, Ronstadt and band are supposedly ready to rock - but, look, the bottle of Jose Cuervo is unopened.
At the time, teenage girls had cooler music. Laura Nyro. Grace Slick. Stevie Nicks. And Janis 4ever. They were real rock n rollers. They were substance abusers. Linda Ronstadt practically defied the Seventies, never stepping foot in a detox center. No onstage breakdowns. No ‘Whatever happened to.' If the paradigm of suffering for art is characterized by Billie Holiday, Ronstadt was content, another pejorative word, to go the route of Peggy Lee. "The real hard rock n rollers are dead," she told Playboy, April 1980, right at the point when her career was about to shift into something else.
I spent the entire Seventies switching the dial whenever Linda Ronstadt came on the radio. "When Will I Be Loved," "You're No Good," "It's So Easy," jingles, la di da, tap your fingers on the steering wheel, but "Blue Bayou" - puh-leese! Later, I heard Ronstadt made a "New Wave" record. Har di har, I presumed. Forcing pop on punky Elvis Costello - girl, that's some nerve. The joke was on me. Linda Ronstadt got it fairly correct with Mad Love - all mid-Sixties guitar, bass and drums without a single damning trace of synths or canned beats. And her vocals are totally credible: check the final shouts on "Hurts So Bad" - dream on Pat Benatar, Ronstadt sounds as coolly toughened as Kate Pierson.
OK, she got better shedding the country-rock schtick, or maybe a decade's experience singing has something to do with singing better. And keeping the brain cells intact, too. Twelve albums on, she captured my interest. (I went back, though, to 1967's "Different Drum" and got intrigued: a protofeminist, postmodernist torch song - penned by Michael Nesmith, another straight showbiz person - it pairs Ronstadt with strings, a telling presagement). Going back proved her course to artistic actualization. Right around the time Ronstadt's career went from "babe to district attorney" (to quote First Wives Club), she pulled a Bobby Darin and produced What's New (from 1983).
So, returning to "Tumblin' Dice," by the mid-Eighties, our superheroic debauchees were partied out, konk, nothing left but golden oldies; meanwhile, Ronstadt was just gearing up for something astounding. Artistic legitimacy. Instant zeitgeist. Maybe there's something to be said for sobriety and professionalism.
Calling Nelson Riddle out of an ignominious retirement (stints with 101 Strings and the Muzak corporation), Ronstadt's trilogy of standards (What's New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons) mapped out a genre (Cyndi Lauper, Sinead O'Conner, even Joni Mitchell followed the lead), defined a decade (conservative and complacent) and certified Ronstadt a singer of first standing. (Nostalgic but not retro, Ronstadt, Riddle and producer Peter Asher created an Eighties palette for the American Songbook as each of the three LPs improved the formula). Her solo turns on Trio ("Telling Me Lies" and "I've Had Enough," alongside Dolly & Emmylou) sealed the deal. Technical mastery (finally) met emotional engagement.
Stephen Holden, reviewing both Mad Love and What's New, got the tempo of Ronstadt's evolution. The former, he notes "comes from the head, not the heart, [and] will undoubtedly alienate New Wave purists, since the essence of punk is furious spontaneity, and Ronstadt's ‘spontaneity' is calculated down to the smallest phrase and tiniest breath." Everyone loves the intensity borne of suffering for art. More intuition! More suffering! Less rehearsing! Holden asks "can rock & roll - supposedly a disposable, spontaneous pop form - yield to the sort of academicism with which [...] Ronstadt invest[s] it? Does it lose its life as soon as it becomes ‘serious'?"
Or, cut to the brink: Ain't desperate music wrong when played with assurance?
Three years later, Holden (moving up, in a similarly uptown trajectory, from Rolling Stone to the New York Times) confronts Ronstadt's solution to the questions just posed: "[These songs] are artifacts to be affectionately explored as much for their formal qualities as for any emotional revelation. This is not to imply that Miss Ronstadt's singing is coldly detached but that her emotional tone is studiedly even. Her readings are models of balance, clarity and warmth. [...] Linda Ronstadt has always taken pride in her songwriting taste, and on What's New that taste is 100 percent sure."
I would suggest Ronstadt eventually realized she was too sober for rock n roll, so she used the commercial muscle she built up playing rock 'n' roll to escape from rock n roll, ending up in context where her competence (another pejorative term) made sense, played to strength.
1987's Canciones de Mi Padre followed to even greater acclaim. Ronstadt then duetted with Aaron Neville for Grammy-winning radio smashes ("Don't Know Much" and "All My Life") going into the 1990's. Ronstadt's version of Jimmy Webb's "Adios," with Brian Wilson layering in California mystique, provided another radio triumph. And 2004's Hummin' To Myself, a jazz combo return to standards, has practically ensured Ronstadt a good shot at postage stamp status. It's been a long route from her misbegotten performance of Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" and it's refreshing to see an artist, especially a female one once bankable for looking cute on album jackets, so completely demolish the old 'Only the early stuff' riff.
Then again, sobriety - and its corollary, professionalism - is all about the long-distance run. Like Sinatra, it took Ronstadt over a decade to find her repertoire. Most performers who suffer for art instead of figure it out don't last that long. Lester Bangs called Ronstadt, in 1972, "one of the finest distillations ever of rock, C&W, and other vocal styles" - and did he ever miss knowing how right he was.
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