Linda Ronstadt and I had an affair. After a period of all too many years we drifted apart. Other lovers called and we both had other trails to explore. As she sang on the Jimmy Webb composition “we never really made it baby, but we came pretty close. Adios, adios”.
Linda likely doesn’t remember all of this as this romance was entirely in my head, the product of a confluence of raging hormones, an over active imagination, the cover photo of Don’t Cry Now and the heartbreakingly exquisite voice that broke my heart with Long, Long Time. She broke it off without ever meeting me and she did it in such a reassuring manner that I could never stop loving her. Nor could I ever look back on our years together with even a trace of the bitterness most couples have to learn to overlook.
No, I still love her even though the closest we ever came to sharing the same physical space was in 1973. We were in the same room, a big room admittedly, Madison Square Garden to be precise and she was the opening act for The Beach Boys. Now I must confess I bought the tickets to a Beach Boys show not knowing (or particularly caring) who the opening act was going to be. I was not a huge Beach Boys fan myself. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy them and Good Vibrations might very well be one of the top ten finest singles ever to grace the airwaves of American radio. My attendance at this particular concert had more to do with the tribal rituals of youth, listening to music and indulging in the mythic ruminations of mind expansion. The world was a commune, music was the landscape and marijuana was the currency.
Upon my arrival at the big room on Eighth Ave., I realized that the opening act for the California boys was the Arizona girl who would come to most embody the new California sound. If one didn’t know her earliest solo work, as I did, one should have at least recognized her as the voice of those wonderful one hit wonders The Stone Poneys and their wonderful one hit Different Drum
She hung on to the microphone like her life depended on it and sang her heart out. She didn’t move around a lot. I have seen videos of her since (after she became a headliner) where she is much more poised and animated. This is early in her solo career and if she seemed just a little nervous on the stage of “the world’s most famous arena” in front of 20,000 people screaming for the Beach Boys, it is more than understandable. But no matter there was no denying that voice. The crowd was not kind but they were not vicious either. I have seen far worse treatments of opening acts for bigger names. Years later at a midnight New Year’s Eve show with Mountain as the headliner, the drummer for the opening act, in the middle of his drum solo (which wasn’t bad- as drum solos go) decided to do this little kick the sticks out to the audience thing while picking up a fresh pair. The supposed ‘prize’ for some lucky audience members came flying back within a second, hitting him squarely in the face.
Linda wasn’t treated quite so harshly but people kept screaming for the Beach Boys almost from the second she was announced. There were some of us though that fought back for her. I remember screaming at a few people to just shut up and let her sing. I even shouted out to nobody in particular “Oh c’mon do you know who this woman is?” myself being so far and away familiar with her early work that to me she was already a star. Someone replied, “No, do you?” as they kept screaming like a banshee for Little Deuce Coupe (Really, Little Deuce Coupe-from a catalogue as deep as Brian Wilson’s-Little Deuce Coupe?) My reply? “Wait another year, you’ll see”. And I could not have been more right. Not long after Heart like a Wheel was released and all bets were off.
I never did actually meet her but we made love hundreds of times. You see, that is the power of a great singer. Linda Ronstadt had the ability to make you believe that she was singing to you, alone, in a small room, even if that small room was a 20,000 seat arena. Only the truly great singer has this power. Sinatra had it. He sings “Set em up Joe, I got a little story, I’d like you to know” and you are the bartender, Joe at 2:45 AM and no one else is in the bar for last call but you and him. It is private. It is passionate. It weeps, it laughs. It is confessional and courageous, provocative and personal, rich and resilient. There are a lot of talented people making a name for themselves on shows like American Idol, or The Voice. Many of them have the ability to perform the type of vocal gymnastics that thrill audiences in the same manner that sports events do. We look for the bar to be raised not as an artistic statement but rather more like a height to be cleared in the high jump. But singers and singing should never be equated with what Usain Bolt does in the 100 meters. The standards of sports can be measured more precisely than the standards of what moves the soul. These shows have produced a slew of people with “range” if we are only measuring range in terms of octaves on a scale. How sad that all of that range has rarely broken my heart, or awakened in me a long dormant and unexpected joy.
Three years ago, in an interview with the AARP magazine Linda revealed that Parkinson’s disease has stripped her of that miraculous ability. I can’t begin to express how much this pained me. I realize as I write this how selfish this response is. My thoughts were not about her health or what a terrible loss this is for her. No, it is all about me. I will never hear that voice interpret any new music ever again.
When I get over myself, I remember how much I do love her, still love her. I realize love has no pride. I am overwhelmed. Singing was not just what Linda Ronstadt did. She did not just sing, she was song. To hear Linda Ronstadt sing is to understand that only love could produce a voice like that. If it is killing me that she will never sing again, I can’t imagine what it must be like for her.
So I take the time to reflect. That she so embraced folk, rock and roll, show tunes, standards, country, opera , soul and the Mexican music she first cut her teeth on speaks to a heart that is less like a wheel and more like a big fat comforting quilt against the rages of a sometimes brutal winter. I barely speak a word of Spanish (to my everlasting shame) but I simply loved Canciones de mi Padre. I don’t understand all the words but I get it. Deep inside. I get it. In a world often hell bent on the beats of divisiveness and distrust, Linda invited us under her blanket for a nap and wiped our weary heads.
I do some reading. I realize her voice is not silenced at all. The records live. She has used her platform to advance the cause of music and to empower the culture of native music through her work with the San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival. Now along with other similarly afflicted celebrities like Michael J. Fox she adds another powerful voice to the education and awareness of this brutal disease.
She has never been shy about voicing her feelings about injustice and abuse of power. In an effort to increase funding and awareness of the importance of the arts and music to society she testified in front of the United States congress to increase funding to the NEA saying:
“In the United States we spend millions of dollars on sports because it promotes teamwork, discipline, and the experience of learning to make great progress in small increments. Learning to play music together does all this and more.”
Her voice has not been silenced, it has just changed. Yes, the heart is like a wheel and the records are love letters revolving in my heart and on my turntable. Still.