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It was nearly, not quite but nearly, possible to be overwhelmed by her looks, and notice nothing else. If you were a guy growing up in the 1970s, and hetero, you almost certainly had a thing for Linda Ronstadt. You probably had a thing for her if you weren’t hetero, or even if you were, but female. You almost had to give your head a shake. It was simply impossible to look away. You could sink so deep into her root beer eyes that you almost didn’t hear her any more, and if she’d ever been inclined to complain that she was so beautiful nobody took her seriously, you’d probably, for once, sympathize – but she never uttered any such whine, and anyway, everybody did take her seriously. She was the real deal.

Songs of the Day is an ongoing tribute to great song writers, so I guess an entry like this is a bit anomalous. I’m not aware of any significant song-writing credit attributed to Ronstadt, but here’s the thing: nobody, nobody ever, had a better ear for a great tune, and nobody, but nobody, was ever able to sing a great tune the way she could. I’d argue she had the finest voice of her generation, and she used it to popularize all manner of compositions by song writers both famous and not so famous, all of them invariably excellent. Her taste was as impeccable as her delivery. She loved really great song writers, and they loved her right back. It must have been such a privilege to listen to her interpretation of one of your songs. It must have felt like hearing your own work for the first time.

Listen:

Real Emotional Girl

Texas Girl at the Funeral of her Father

Ronstadt’s affinity for Randy Newman is evidence enough of her superb taste in writers. Newman, God bless him, is surely one of the best popular composers of the last hundred years, but his singing voice is a bit like Bob Dylan’s – you know, not so good. The material is usually so strong that it doesn’t really matter, but wow, look what happens when he sticks to piano and lets Ronstadt carry the vocals.

Real Emotional Girl showcases her talent for inhabiting a song so thoroughly that she makes gender irrelevant. This is supposed to be a guy talking, and here’s how obstinately perverse Randy Newman can be: he once said in an interview that this wasn’t a love song at all, and that its narrator was supposed to come across as an insensitive lout, since he shouldn’t be talking like this to strangers about the girl’s most private inner self. If you go along with that, Real Emotional Girl is just the drunken rambling of a goof at the local bar.

I flat-out refuse to see it that way. No. You can’t watch this performance and think this is anything but the testimony of someone who loves this fragile young woman so much that it’s actually painful. He’s afraid for her. It isn’t safe out there. She could break. You gotta hold on tight to her. Not a love song? Yeah, my ass.  Linda obviously knows better.

Ronstadt sings it with such consummate sensitivity, it’s as if it was written about her, especially for her.

Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father reminds me a bit of James Taylor’s Millworker, which I went on about in an earlier segment (see the Songs of the Day archive). This time it’s her dad, not her grandpa, who was the sailor. He’s being laid in the dirt, and she’s standing all alone in the rain. I do sometimes wish that Randy would stop doing this to me, but no, he didn’t just decide to do it, he decided to up the ante and have Ronstadt sing it, which is just cruel. Go ahead and tell me you don’t fall all to pieces when she sings Papa, we’ll go sailing. It makes me wonder whether she’s so bereft that she means to kill herself so she can join him in the hereafter, and it just wrecks me. That’s just me, though, right? I guess I’m the only sappy one around here.

Different Drum

Back in the sixties, Linda used to front a band called The Stone Ponies, and Different Drum is the song she did with them that made everybody sit up and take notice. It was written by Mike Nesmith – you might recall him as the guy in a toque who filled in as the John Lennon analog for the Monkees, that phony, manufactured-for-TV imitation of the Beatles that couldn’t quite manage to be as big of a joke as it was supposed to be.

I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty she sings, which can only mean that this was another one supposed to be sung by a guy. The whole thing is purely masculine, actually, talking about escaping the clutches of a lover before it’s too late to avoid being tied down and reined-in. It’s the time-worn story, fear of commitment; this is absolutely a typical boy-man talking, but by the time she’s done with it, you’d find it incongruous – off-putting, really – to hear it voiced by a man.

Willing

OK, you see what I’m on about here – this is one meant to express the emotions of a lonely and most emphatically male truck driver. Written by Lowell George of the band Little Feat, this is about a guy on the road, out on some endless stretch of empty highway, yearning for a pretty girl way back home in Texas named Alice.

I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow
I’m drunk and dirty, don’t you know
But I’m still willin’
Out on the road late last night
I’d see my pretty Alice in every headlight
Alice, Dallas Alice
And I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari
Tehachapi to Tonopah
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made
Driven the backroads so I wouldn’t get weighed
And if you give me weed, whites and wine
And you show me a sign
Then I’ll be willin’ to be movin’

One look at her, and you know Linda was never once what you could call “drunk and dirty”. Even if she ever was, no, actually, she wasn’t. So you tell me. How does someone so quintessentially feminine make this sweaty, brawny lament of a modern urban cowboy entirely her own?

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me

This time the writer is Warren Zevon. He’s usually thought of as a relatively unheralded thinking person’s song writer, so of course she covered him:

Tracks of My Tears

Nor should it come as any surprise that she wanted to sing Smokey Robinson’s best:

At the end, she gives a little shrug, like she’s thinking that she doesn’t actually know herself how she does it. It just comes out.

The First Cut is the Deepest

Then it’s Cat Stevens, and it’s good to be reminded that before he became everyone’s favourite book-hating jihadist, he was flirting with greatness.

Tumblin’ Dice

Now it’s the Rolling Stones. I repeat: the Rolling Stones. Look, it’s the immutable laws of physics that’re being up-ended here, nobody can perform a credible cover of the Stones circa Exile on Main Street. It can’t be done. You may as well pour out a glass of water, expecting the contents to splatter on the ceiling. Yet she took possession of Tumblin’ Dice so thoroughly that kids like me were surprised to learn later that it was first done by Mick, Keef et al.

Under African Skies

One of Paul Simon’s signature songs off of Graceland. Ronstadt is just the back-up vocalist here, singing harmony. Now, this is Simon at his very best. This is an artist who was awarded the Gershwin Medal for Popular Song. This is his vision, his achievement, and you might suppose his alone. Except, it’s also hers:

I’ve read that the lyrics about the girl from Tucson Arizona were added by Ronstadt herself, who grew up there: 

In early memory
Mission music
Was ringing ’round my nursery door
I said take this child, Lord
From Tucson Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
And she won’t bother you no more

I bet she nailed it on the first take, and that there were ecstatic little shivers in the control room when she lent her soaring accompaniment to the bridge. Try to imagine it without her.

The Star Spangled Banner

This is here just to prove a point. I’m no fan of the piece, believe me. Indeed, if you ask me, the American national anthem is about the most dreadful example of its kind. Its off-kilter melody was stolen outright from an old English drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven, written in honour of a wine-loving Greek poet – no, seriously – and its lyrics, as Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, are peppered with a few too many doubtful question marks to be taken seriously. On top of its other shortcomings, it’s almost impossible to sing, and most of the luminaries who go on TV to give it the old college try manage to make an even more appalling hash out of what’s already a wretched and pre-ordained hot mess. Bad renditions of the thing at various sporting events over the years have become the stuff of legend.

It can be done right, though. I have on disc a video of James Taylor re-imagining the anthem at the start of a baseball game, it’s lovely, and once, back in 1977, I tuned into the World Series and saw Ronstadt sing it in Dodger Stadium. It was game three, I think. Dark where I was, but still sunny out in California. I can’t find a better video, this is pure VHS low fidelity, but it gives you the gist of it. She just belts it out with typical pitch-perfect assuredness. It’s mesmerizing, cheesy organ and all, proving that even the suckiest pile of dog’s breakfast can only suck so hard when you hand it to Linda. At the end, the announcers are beside themselves, one saying “she’s a hall-of-famer, isn’t she? Wow.”

Below is an image I found on line. I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s line from Manhattan, spoken to Mariel Hemingway: “Are you kidding? You’re God’s answer to Job. I do a lot of terrible things, but I can make one of these”. Yeah, OK, and you can do sunsets and beaches, and amber waves of grain, and other such shit, but Lord, let me ask you something, due respect: seeing as you can make one of these, why in pluperfect Hell would you stop at just one?

Sigh.

How unbearably shitty is the Universe? Well, it’s unbearably shitty enough to give Ronstadt Parkinson’s, and cripple her to the point that she can’t sing any more. It’s as if the Cosmos woke up one morning and realized it had mistakenly lavished an unthinkable tonnage of gifts upon one person, and decided it was time to savagely rebalance the books.

Now and then, despite being a total egomaniac, I read something and think that I couldn’t have said it better myself. Here’s an example:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/different-drum-the-power-of-linda-ronstadts-voice

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