On Saturday, we learned that Linda Ronstadt, who is sixty-seven, has Parkinson’s disease, and that one effect of this is that she can no longer sing. It’s incredibly sad news.
This seems as good a time as any to reflect on Ronstadt’s greatness, which might cheer us up a little. She has made several decades’ worth of records: her Stone Poneys era, in the sixties, which included the sterling Mike Nesmith cover “Different Drum,” the song that introduced the world to her amazing voice. Her fantastic seventies rock-meets-country solo recordings, in which she covered everyone from the Everly Brothers to Smokey Robinson to Waylon Jennings. (Also notable from that era: one day, her backing band went off and formed the Eagles.) Her eighties forays into Gilbert and Sullivan (remember “The Pirates of Penzance,” with Kevin Kline?) and the Great American Songbook, with Nelson Riddle, as well as guest vocals on Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” A couple of Fievel numbers on the “American Tail” soundtracks. Her “Trio” country collaborations with fellow-legends Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and her Spanish-language canciones recordings, on which she sings the traditional Mexican folk songs that her family loved when she was growing up, in Tucson. Later, more jazz and standards.
Ronstadt also did one of the all-time great “Simpsons” cameos, in the 1992 episode “Mr. Plow”: the character-assassinating “Plow King” jingle for Homer’s business rival, Barney, which she sings in English and Spanish (“Señor Plow no es macho / Es solamente un borracho”). It cannot be said that she hasn’t made full use of her talents. And she’s publishing her memoir, “Simple Dreams,” in September.
As it happens, “Simple Dreams,” the album, from 1977, was my introduction to Ronstadt’s music; it got a lot of play, often at my request, in the cassette deck of my family’s station wagon when I was a kid. (Like many people my age, I’m partial to seventies Ronstadt.) She helped make country safe for seventies rock fans; in our car, we had rock (the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Rod Stewart), folk (Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, the Pentangle), soul (Aretha Franklin), and the kind of country rock in Ronstadt’s cohort: the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It was a wild time, and she helped us, or at least me, make sense of it all. She seemed to have it more together than, say, Arlo, and felt more trustworthy than, say, Rod Stewart.
“Simple Dreams” is representative of what makes Ronstadt special. It starts with a roar: a happy snarl of guitar at the beginning of “It’s So Easy.” Then her commanding vocals make the easiness of falling in love sound both joyous—like it’s the whole mad, wonderful point of life—and enraging, because there’s no denying the idiotic whims of the heart. The background vocalists repeating “it’s so easy” evoke oldies radio (the song was written by Buddy Holly), and that catchiness, combined with the power of Ronstadt’s voice, embodies love’s silliness and magnificence. Ronstadt is in control all the time, no matter what she’s singing—what she makes sound easy is singing with the force of a hurricane. Her howl at the song’s end, triumphant and frustrated at once, always made the people in our Ford Fairmont laugh with admiration. She’d proved her point.
What happens next? An acoustic guitar, calm, and mournfulness; Ronstadt likes switching moods and genres not just from album to album but from song to song. “I hear mariachi static on my radio, and the tubes they glow in the dark,” she sings. Warren Zevon’s plaintive “Carmelita” is narrated by a guy—Ronstadt, here—who’s pawned his Smith & Wesson and is “all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town.” When I was little, this song was a mysterious puzzle, a story whose details were unfamiliar to me; it made about as much sense as “Norwegian Wood.” But the sorrowful beauty was clear, and the mystery only amplified its power. When I asked, and was told, what heroin was, the fact that I couldn’t imagine Ronstadt herself strung out on it, wanting to be held tighter by a woman named Carmelita, did nothing to detract from its emotional tru
On “Simple Dreams,” as elsewhere, Ronstadt took a range of genres and styles—often music written and sung by men—and made it her own, putting her voice into other artists’ loneliness, anger, tenderness, and wit. Her choice of material is smart and bold, and the power of that voice transforms each song; you’re always aware of the strength of her interpretation. On “Simple Dreams,” she doesn’t just range from Buddy Holly to “Carmelita”; she goes to “Blue Bayou,” which somehow, with all due respect, blows Roy Orbison’s original out of the water. Then she covers a Stones song, “Tumbling Dice,” and out-Jaggers Jagger. She sings a quiet, sad song called “Sorrow Lives Here,” and gives emotional heft to the dying-horse bum-out “Old Paint.” And she does a second Zevon song, “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” which begins with a comic, pathetic suicide attempt—“I lay my head on the railroad track… but the train don’t come ’round here no more”—and gets more messed up from there. Yet the singer still sounds in control. It’s life that’s crazy, that voice seems to say, and the people you encounter in it:
I met a boy in the Vieux Carré
Down in Yokohama
He picked me up and he threw me down
He said, “Please don’t hurt me, Mama”
The characters in these anguished songs have a huge amount of authority because Ronstadt’s voice is so strong and nimble, capable of ranging from contralto to soprano, and because she interprets lyrics so sensitively and intelligently. On her other albums of that era, she covered several haunting songs about isolated women who were distanced from love or society or both. These include “Louise” (“Everybody thought it kind of sad / When they found Louise in her room… Louise rode home on the mail train”), “I Never Will Marry” (“I’ll be no man’s wife / I expect to live single all the days of my life”), “Ramblin’ ’Round” (“I never see a friend I know / As I go ramblin’ ’round”), the rollicking “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” (“I don’t want your lonely mansions / With a tear in every room”), and the supremely creepy “Hobo,” about a woman in a “lonely house” who lights a candle “hoping it would catch the eye / of any vagabond that passed it by.” Ronstadt’s voice, always a knockout, is a perfect balance of strength and restraint on these songs; she makes the women sound formidable and manages to give their loneliness dignity.
So if Ronstadt’s voice ennobles people in lonely houses—weeping women who get snubbed by hoboes—just imagine how she can transform ordinary heartbreak. When she sings, “I’ve been cheated / Been mistreated” at the beginning of “When Will I Be Loved,” you don’t think, Oh, boo hoo. You think, Wow. I want to be like that. She is a master of the love-gone-wrong genre—a group that includes many of her best songs, like “Hurt So Bad,” “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You,” “Some of Shelly’s Blues,” “Long Long Time,” and, especially, “You’re No Good.” I’ve got a message for you, heartbreak, she seems to say. Scram. She manages to sound like she’s holding back even when she’s singing full throttle—she’s knocking your socks off, but it doesn’t faze her. In fact, she’s just giving you what you can handle. The sound of Ronstadt’s voice—invincibility, bravery, emotion channelled into intelligence and art—is the sound of overcoming anything.
Photograph by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty.