Bright lights, big city
The suburban town south of Atlanta wasn’t big enough for me and the others who lived there. So I left. It was high time to start anew, leaving behind friends and places I grew up seeing most everyday. Midtown Atlanta in the fall of ’75 wasn’t the posh area it was to become in the years ahead, but it was tree-lined and welcoming. Four friends, Charles Ott and the three Willson brothers from Sunnyland Farms, were good enough to let me move into the two apartments they rented on 8th Street. The new abode was close to my job at Peaches Records and Tapes and to The Great Speckled Bird, where I wrote record reviews and shared in duties such as bundling papers for distribution, answering the phones and sweeping the floors. On some days, my sweeping was much better than my writing.
In the October 9, 1975, issue of the Bird, I lavished high praise on Linda Ronstadt’s new album, Prisoner in Disguise, calling it her best work yet, while referring to Ronstadt as “the most outstanding female vocalist today.” I wrote that? With Ella Fitzgerald, Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin all working at the time? It seemed a certain writer was too eager to curry favor in the big city.
My roommates had observed unguarded enthusiasm in some of my reviews. They thought I was just as eager to please the guys at the record labels as I was to inform the readers. Their point was valid. After all, as I told friends, if my reviews were published, I’d get free albums, then a job in the record business — and I’d get to meet girls. I got the free albums, some that I passed along to the roommates. I got the job at Peaches. And on the day I moved to 8th Street, I got to meet Linda Ronstadt.
On October 29, twenty days after my review on Prisoner in Disguise was published, Linda Ronstadt performed at the Fox Theatre. Mike Randell, the Elektra-Asylum promo man, asked that I show up before the concert to interview Ronstadt’s guitar player, Andrew Gold, who had just released his own album. We talked backstage. It was the usual pleasant back and forth. Gold was very nice, as was Ronstadt when we were introduced. “Haven’t we met before?” Ronstadt asked. And she asked me again. In awe, I struggled not to sound like Mumbles from the Dick Tracy cartoons, so like Jack Nicholson told Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, I declared, ” No, I think I would remember.” Randell told Linda about the review I had written on her new album. More pleasantries followed. It was no doubt the type of chatter Ronstadt had engaged in a lot those days. She had her fans and she had her critics — and the critics were fans too. Rock critics, a group largely composed of males, were inclined to provide Ronstadt with kudos. Guys who might be even-keeled when assessing other artists were very positive when approaching Ronstadt’s work. She had to realize it.
My friends were impressed with the backstage story as we walked back to 8th Street, but noted I was headed home with them instead of one more glamorous. As it was, the closest any of us got to such glamour was the following August, when Ronstadt’s next album, Hasten Down the Wind, was released. The formula was the same as on the three previous albums: a sprinkling of songs written by well-known rock and country artists, a few by up-and-comers like Warren Zevon and Karla Bonoff, and some oldies. At the time, I was impressed, especially with the energy she brought to Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” acknowledging such in a review for Creative Loafing. The review published; I got my ten dollars and thought little about it until a friend called and took me to task.
“You were way off when you wrote of how excited Linda sounded on ‘That’ll Be the Day,'” my friend, who I respected a lot, said over the phone after reading the review. She went on to say Ronstadt’s approach was contrived. Her recordings were little more than commercial exercises, the kind of music we usually mocked. Didn’t I realize that? I took my friend’s comments seriously; her observations were usually keen. So I listened again to Ronstadt’s albums, particularly the four since ’73’s Don’t Cry Now, which set the pattern she’d follow through the rest of the decade. Yes, they were formulaic and predictable. Worse, Peter Asher, who did fine work on James Taylor’s early Warner Brothers albums, proved a cumbersome producer for Ronstadt. The recordings were often clunky and chunky, forcing Ronstadt to use every bit of her exceptional vocal range when it was hardly necessary. Thus, her renditions of “Love Has No Pride,” “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” and the dreaded “Desperado” came off more like anthems. She possessed a lovely voice but fell into competing with the boys in the land of Arena Rock, where nuance goes missing.
Yet that approach went over well with the public. Linda Ronstadt garnered seven straight platinum albums. Those of us in the business of selling records looked forward to her new releases even if we found them repetitive. Times were tough at Peaches. Such big-sellers kept the doors open a bit longer; taste took a back seat to job security. But there was no denying that, as writer-musician Peter Stone Brown remembers, “It became uncool to like (Ronstadt).” The zeitgeist was working against her. When Elvis Costello learned that George Jones and Linda Ronstadt had each covered a song of his for future release, he indicated the Jones recording would make him happy artistically and the Ronstadt cover of “Alison” would please him financially.
There Are Some Things You Can’t Cover Up
Her renditions of Costello’s songs (there were three on her ’80 album, Mad Love) were turn-offs. Ronstadt was trying too hard. Needing a break from the rock scene, she found refuge with selections from the Great American Songbook. Working with bandleader and arranger Nelson Riddle in the mid-80s, Ronstadt released three albums of pop and jazz standards, each going platinum. The collaborations with Riddle not only rebooted Ronstadt’s career — even as her rock audience dwindled — they also made her feel musically-centered. Years later, she told Joel Selvin of The San Francisco Chronicle “it wasn’t until I found Nelson Riddle that I had music I could live with.” Ronstadt observed she could sing the standards “as works in progress,” noting, “They’re so sturdy, so finely constructed. You can’t get bored with them.”
The “works in progress” by the Gershwins, Cahn, Mercer, Carmichael and others lifted Ronstadt’s spirits as a singer but from the late ’80s through 2006, she pursued an array of genres that allowed more room for discovery. Recordings with Aaron Neville, Ann Savoy, Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, plus three Spanish language albums showed Ronstadt venturing further than she had in her days as rock and roll heartthrob. And give her credit: She’s been as tough about those days as any of her critics. “I hated those records,” she told Selvin. “I never thought of myself as a rock singer. I was interested in songs like ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ and I liked the others for about 15 minutes.”
Ronstadt may have agreed with Dave Marsh’s opinion that she butchered Buddy Holly’s songs. Or that her take on Dylan’s “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind” was better off forgotten. But no worries, she would regroup, her lovely voice in tow. In 1998, she revealed how confidently she could possess a song. It was, coincidentally, on another Dylan composition, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” The song is one of Dylan’s most fascinating ever, one that even the best interpretive singers should approach knowing that the original, which may or may not have been a personal remembrance, was beautifully delivered with words and images that long resonate. Nina Simone understood that. Her rendition, from ’69, was stark, yet moving. Neil Young, in a ’92 concert tribute to Dylan, fashioned a measured and heartfelt version. From watching and listening to Young’s take, one concludes Young also understands. It’s a serious song: a contemplative piece of observation, revelation, recovery, and perhaps redemption. Covering “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” isn’t like proffering another version of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.” It’s a challenge, one that Ronstadt handled with grace and gusto.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” was featured on Ronstadt’s We Ran album. Critics liked the album, but her bygone rock and roll audience passed it by; only 60,000 copies were sold. She was a long way from platinum, but in a good place. We Ran is a thoughtful collection, mostly produced by Glyn Johns, with solid playing from great players, including Mike Campbell and other Heartbreakers. No oldies are revived on the album, although lesser known beauties by Bruce Springsteen, John Hiatt and Doc Pomus — as with “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” — are given elegant treatments. Surely Ronstadt doesn’t hate her work on this recording.
Ronstadt recently shared the sad news that she has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer sing. The syndrome cheats her and her audience from taking in more of her musical offerings, when many listeners, even those who long ago stashed her albums in forgotten corners, are thinking anew of her vivid and vibrant artistry. Adieu False Heart, Ronstadt’s last album, recorded with Ann Savoy in 2006, may very well be her best, even topping We Ran. Recording as the Zozo Sisters, Ronstadt and Savoy deliver cajun and folk offerings of songs by artists such as Richard Thompson, Bill Monroe and Julie Miller. The last Ronstadt-Savoy performance on Adieu False Heart is an affecting take on “Walk Away Renee,” twice a hit in the ’60s, first by the Left Banke, then by the Four Tops. It’s a song of discovery and loss, one fitting now that we reflect on Ronstadt’s illness and wish her strength to carry on.
Let The Song Go On
In a recent conversation with longtime Atlanta musician and radio personality Guy Goodman, high points of Ronstadt’s career were remembered and emphasized. Goodman includes among his many friends the great songwriter Jimmy Webb, who coaxed Ronstadt to record “All I Know” with him in 2010. The recording was a highlight of Webb’s Just Across The River album. Webb and Ronstadt bring a sweet vulnerability to the song, quite a difference from the stately and highly expressive version by Art Garfunkel in ’73. It’s an evocative piece of work to take in time and again while considering Ronstadt’s body of work. Webb, whose songs have been given great lift by Glen Campbell, Johnny Rivers, Richard Harris, Rosemany Clooney and many more, told Goodman that in his opinion, Ronstadt “is the best.” Goodman, kind to all but patronizing to no one, says that’s good enough for him.