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Singing to herself

Genre-jumping singer Linda Ronstadt no longer performs in public, but in her head, the songs remain the same by Ellen McCarthy The Washington Post | January 7, 2020 at 1:40 a.m. | Updated January 7, 2020 at 1:40 a.m.
"I like to do whatever I want," says Linda Ronstadt, pictured here outside her home in San Francisco. "Within reason." (The Washington Post/Jessica Chou)

SAN FRANCISCO — Try telling Linda Ronstadt where she can't go, what she can't do. Go ahead.

But before you try, picture her at age 4, not yet in kindergarten, riding a pony fast and free through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, evading rattlesnakes and adult supervision.

Picture her as a teenager, giving her parents only a couple hours' notice before riding off to Los Angeles to be a singer. Picture her performing for stadium crowds, a megastar with big brown eyes and short shorts, the dream girl of a generation, taking on folk, rock, pop, country, Latin music and American standards.

Picture her doing anything other than watching her own induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, let alone attending the ceremony. Picture her showing up to the White House to receive the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama, then picture that medal collecting dust under her bed.

Which is probably where the Kennedy Center Honors she received last month will also be stashed (she "suffered through" that ceremony in person) because all of that — the reverence, the recognition — isn't important to her. The only important thing to Linda Ronstadt, ever, has been the part you can't picture: the experience of singing. Singing what she wants, when she wants, in relentless pursuit of perfection.

"It tells what I am," she says from her home in San Francisco.

Ronstadt's not a songwriter. Her fans are an afterthought, her fame an annoyance. Singing is the thing. It's her obsession, her identity, her release. It is her pony and her desert.

Is. Was.

Picture her now, at 73, confined in a body that mostly just shuffles haltingly through the house. A degenerative disease, similar to Parkinson's, has stolen her voice, along with her abilities to ride and run and strum a guitar.

That theft marked an obvious loss for the musical world, and, it would seem, an incalculable one for her. Because as far as anyone can tell, Linda Ronstadt can't sing anymore.

But try telling her that. Go ahead.


Ronstadt lifts her legs onto a settee in her whitewashed living room a few blocks from the Bay. From here she can look out the French doors to a garden still blooming with hydrangeas. Everything is just as she prefers. Bookshelves overflowing. Black-and-white photos of her parents on the grand piano. An original print from Disney's Snow White front and center on the mantel.

"I like to do whatever I want," she says. "Within reason."

What she doesn't want to do is drink the water her longtime assistant puts next to her, though she knows she should. Her appetite is diminished, along with her mobility. But she also doesn't want to spend time feeling sorry for herself, she doesn't want to listen to her old albums, and she certainly doesn't want to talk about her reign as the Queen of Rock.

"I thought I did pretty well," she says, "But I didn't think I was the greatest at anything."

Rolling Stone deemed Ronstadt "America's best-known female rock singer" in 1978. By then she'd put out hit recordings of Clint Ballard Jr.'s "You're No Good," Roy Orbison and Joe Melson's "Blue Bayou," and Warren Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." But as far as Ronstadt is concerned, she "didn't really start singing until about 1980." Meaning, she didn't start singing to her own satisfaction until then.

Ronstadt's fans are far less critical. Between 1969 and 2009, she released more than 30 albums, won 10 Grammys, had 21 Top 40 hits. For four decades, she was ubiquitous.

And then she was gone. Because if she couldn't sing to her own satisfaction, she'd rather not sing at all.

Even if it meant giving up a lifelong vocation, one she felt was sealed in her genes before birth. Ronstadt's paternal grandfather, a Mexican immigrant who ran a hardware store, was the conductor of a brass band. Her father was a baritone crooner who played venues around Tucson. Her brother was a soloist with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus. Ronstadt was 4 years old when she decided she was a singer, after joining her older siblings in a song around their piano and hearing her older sister remark, "Think we got a soprano here."

"I remember thinking, 'I'm a singer, that's what I do,' " Ronstadt wrote in her memoir, Simple Dreams. "It was like I had become validated somehow, my existence affirmed."

She spent endless childhood hours by the radio, listening to American folk songs and Mexican ballads. If there were musicians on the street or a concert in town, she was drawn like a supercharged magnet. "I wanted to learn everything I could learn," she says, brushing away a strand of lavender hair dyed to match the color of her soft sweater.

As a teenager, she performed with her brother and sister around Tucson, but she always preferred singing at home, without a microphone. To Ronstadt, singing was a verb, maybe even a calling — not a ticket to fame or fortune. "I didn't think about it in terms of being on the stage," she says. "I just thought about singing."

In 1965, Ronstadt dropped out of college after one semester, broke the news to her parents — who were devastated but handed her $30 so she wouldn't starve — and headed to the West Coast. She moved into a beachside bungalow in Santa Monica and started playing coffee shops with two buddies, who together called themselves the Stone Poneys. The group had a breakout hit, "Different Drum," that got airtime on the radio as they toured through what Ronstadt remembers mostly as "roach parlors" around the country. Ronstadt, with a crystalline voice and lungs that seemed to elevate every note to the heavens, attracted industry attention almost immediately.

"Somebody recommended to me that I go to the Bitter End [a nightclub in Greenwich Village] to hear this extraordinary woman sing," recalls Peter Asher, a producer who worked for the Beatles' record label and was managing James Taylor's career. "And everything they told me was true. That she was extraordinarily beautiful and she was an amazing singer. She sang barefoot in these really short shorts. And that everything about her was spectacularly exciting in every way."

Another young talent in her position might have been vulnerable to the pressures of industry executives with opinions about what she should be singing, but Ronstadt had her own ideas. Choosing songs was as much a part of her talent as singing them. Ronstadt didn't write her own material but was an exacting interpreter — more Yo-Yo Ma than Bob Dylan, with an instrument that just happened to be lodged in her throat. If a line in a song spoke to her life, she'd work it through ceaselessly until she had refit it for her own voice.

In her memoir, Rondstadt recalls the moment a friend sang her a few lines from a song called "Heart Like a Wheel" by a Canadian songwriter, Anna McGarrigle.

And my love for you is like a sinking ship

And my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean

"I felt like a bomb had exploded in my head," she wrote. Ronstadt ingested the song, recorded it and released it into our collective consciousness.

Singers Linda Ronstadt (from left) Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris pose in New York, Feb. 11, 1999. Together, they were the supergroup Trio, and this photo was taken at the release of their second album together, Trio II.
(AP Photo/Jim Cooper)
Singers Linda Ronstadt (from left) Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris pose in New York, Feb. 11, 1999. Together, they were the supergroup Trio, and this photo was taken at the release of their second album together, Trio II. (AP Photo/Jim Cooper)


That was the part she loved. The rest of it — the fans, the money, the acclaim — was beside the point.

"It wasn't what I was after," she says. "I just sort of did music regardless of the audience. I didn't think about my fans."

This apathy toward the supposed rewards of fame protected Ronstadt from many of its pitfalls. A staffer on The Johnny Cash Show knocked on her hotel room late one night, demanded to be let in and then proceeded to take off all his clothes, she says. He told her he could open doors for her professionally, help her land more television appearances. Ronstadt, then in her early 20s, just laughed. "I said, 'I hate singing on television!'" she says. "He didn't have anything he could hold over me."

Ronstadt soon got a reputation for being difficult. Asher, who eventually signed on to be her producer and manager, blames sexism as much as anything. "In that era, there was a 'Don't you worry your pretty little head' factor," he says. "She couldn't actually be super-intelligent and well-read and interesting if she's that beautiful. ... But she happens to be both."

But it's true that she was uncompromising. In 1980, at the height of her hitmaking power — after she'd toured with The Doors, had the members of the Eagles as her backup band and became the first woman to sell out stadiums — she left Los Angeles to join the Broadway production of The Pirates of Penzance. Advisers and friends, worried it would be a career-killer, warned against it. She did it anyway. Afterward, she wanted to record an album of old standards by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and the like. She heard repeatedly that audiences would balk. She did it anyway. When she decided to make a record of Mexican music, she was told it would flop. It was released in 1987, went double platinum and became the highest-selling non-English album in American history.

That was the happiest chapter of her career. Because she was in full control, of the music and her ability to sing it.

Then, in 2000, as she was recording a song with Emmylou Harris, she detected something wrong in her voice.

For years, no one believed her. They blamed her perfectionism. As time went on, her pitch started to go and her voice lost its range. Doctors could offer no explanation. But she wasn't willing to put out albums that weren't up to her standards.

Now, picture her onstage for the last time. It was Nov. 7, 2009, in San Antonio. She is in her glory, performing with Mexican dancers and a full mariachi band. As she stood there, "every show I ever did flashed before my eyes," she says. "It ran like a movie in front of me."

When she was done, she went home and burned her stage clothes.


"The cat goes outside," Ronstadt says as the fog rolls in and her fireplace crackles. "He tells me what's going on out there."

It is 10 years since her last show. Now, she says, she'll go 10 days at a stretch without leaving the house. She can still walk, though gingerly, and even add a log to the fire when it gets low. But her hands tremble, and even sitting upright becomes painful after a while.

"But I haven't been bored, and I haven't been depressed," she says. "As long as I have a good book, I'm not bored."

There are people around, much of the time. In her early 40s, Ronstadt adopted two children who are now young adults living in San Francisco. Ronstadt's beloved assistant, Janet Stark, is with her five days a week. And every Sunday, a professional chef cooks brunch for whoever is around. Sometimes Bonnie Raitt comes over for tea. "We discuss what it was like to be girl singers on the road." When Emmylou Harris is in town, she brings over her laundry. It's fun, Ronstadt says, but "not as much fun as singing together."

Ronstadt had several high-profile romances — including with politician Jerry Brown and filmmaker George Lucas — but she never married. "I have no talent for it," she explains. "Not a shred. I don't like to compromise. If I want a pink sofa and somebody doesn't want a pink sofa, I'm not going to go for that. I want the pink sofa." (She got the pink sofa, and it still sits in her living room, although today it wears a white slipcover.)

Compromising with illness has been a challenge. It was more than a decade of frustration from the time Ronstadt noticed her instrument beginning to fail her to the time she was diagnosed, in 2012. (Doctors thought it was Parkinson's at first, but Ronstadt recently got a diagnosis of progressive supranuclear palsy.) She has tried to adopt an attitude of "radical acceptance" about her condition, but what she misses most — besides knitting — is singing with her friends and family.

Which is not to say she isn't singing at all. She is. Almost incessantly. Sometimes involuntarily. She sings as she putters around the house. As she strokes the cat. As she talks to friends.

It's just not audible to anyone but her.

She wakes up most mornings to the sound of the "Missouri Waltz" played by clarinets on the jukebox in her head. She hates it. "I don't like the lyrics. I don't like the tune. And I don't like it with clarinets," Ronstadt says. "But that's what it plays."

To drive it out, she'll learn a new song.

"I can still sing in my brain," she says. "I have to keep the seed alive."

Go ahead, try telling her she can't — not really.

Then picture her alone in her home, on her pink sofa with the white slipcover, deep in focus. Picture her working out the phrasing, the rhythm and harmonies just as she always did; and then singing it, in perfect silence, to the only listener who ever mattered.

Style on 01/07/2020

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