Tehatchapi to Tonopah...
driven every kinda rig that's ever been made
driven the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed...
- Willin', by Lowell George
Linda Ronstadt included this truck driving tune on her Heart Like a Wheel album in 1975, a song performed originally by Little Feat. Driving my bus route a few weeks ago, I was humming along to the words of this song, not wanting to torture my passengers with the warbling horror that is my singing voice. Suddenly I choked up and couldn't hum it any more.
The news had recently broken that my favorite lady vocalist, the crooner of my youth, had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The muscles surrounding her vocal chords have been irreversibly damaged, and she said one day she discovered could not sing a note. Her velvety, multi-octave, supercharged instrument is forever silenced. Her interview with Diane Sawyer was fascinating. Linda displayed a matter-of-fact acceptance of her forced retirement. Although her sadness was evident when she discussed it, there was no whining. I admire her gritty attitude and steely toughness.
I've been playing a lot of Linda's music lately, from the country-rock albums of the 70s to her collaborations of 1940s standards with Nelson Riddle. I've Got A Crush On You, a Sinatra standard, is so seductive it sounds as if she's crooning it directly to her listeners. For my birthday earlier this month, my wife gave me Linda's autobiography, Simple Dreams. It gives a no-frills look at her life without the Hollywood gossip nonsense that pervades (perverts, maybe?) most of today's “tell all” tomes of musical stardom. You can tell she is a person of high class as she low-keys some of rock's most historic moments she was part of: backup singer with James Taylor on Neil Young's Heart of Gold; gracefully giving her blessing to the parting of two band mates who left to form the Eagles; and countless stories behind some of her greatest songs and the arrangements which made her renditions of them so special.
(I've Got A Crush On You)
Perhaps it's an unhealthy to love the music of one artist so completely, but her unique ability to send shivers down my spine with a single musical note is a talent few other musicians have. My justification for such unrequited love is balanced by the fact I have an equal affinity for everything James Taylor as well. But James still has his craft. Bonnie Raitt retains her magic, and many other artists I am so very fond of are still ticking along. However, none of them (sorry, Bonnie) graced my teenage bedroom walls in poster form. Linda has been with me since I was eight, when I first heard her sing Long Long Time and Different Drum with the Stone Poneys, and I've never grown tired of her. Some bands or artists never evolved, and some just fizzled away. Linda constantly tested new waters, refusing to be typecast into any one genre.
We have similar backgrounds in that I, too, was raised in the Arizona desert with wonderful parents. My father was also an incredibly gifted musician. Early on I learned how powerful an instrument the human voice can be. Dad was an extremely talented tenor soloist and classical guitarist. He twice sang the tenor solos of Handel's Messiah at Eastern Arizona College in the early 70s. Dad constantly practiced his vocal exercises; his soaring tenor going up the scale and down again are forever etched into my childhood memories. His main focus of interest were the rich and haunting music of the Appalachian Mountains, railroad and hobo songs, and Old English folk tunes such as Queen Jane and Greensleeves.
Like Linda's brother Pete, who later became Tucson's Chief of Police, I once sang boy soprano in a choir. I learned early on the power of a properly-tuned, practiced voice. While I never advanced my musical ability as adolescence warbled my own instrument, I was keen as to what constitutes a powerful voice. As a result, nowadays the only thing I can play is the radio or an iPod.
While I loved the Beatles and other rock bands of my youth, my vocal tastes also ranged from Nat King Cole to Ella Fitzgerald, and instrumental geniuses from Louis Armstrong to Andres Segovia and Herbie Mann. While other kids my age found one particular type of music and stuck with it, I was enjoying the craft of many different artists others may have labeled “sissy music”. Disco disgusted me because it seemed plastic and trendy. Country intrigued me for its storytelling quality and rugged individualism. Rock fueled my already-excited libido, while the velvety-smooth Karen Carpenter soothed teenage angst. Linda, with her haunting and powerful vocals, her twists and turns in musical styles, and modest personality, never failed to entrance me. That's not even mentioning her natural beauty, inside and out.
Linda seemed destined to be a country star when she burst onto the scene in the 70s. Yet throughout her career she has explored so many different styles, each of her albums broadened my cochlear horizons to genres I hadn't bothered to explore. She could go from country to rock to Sinatra to Mexican to Broadway to Cajun to folk with an ease I've never seen from another artist. Her braving the critics' wrath to sing whatever interested her always impressed me. And each time she experimented with a different type of music, she nailed it. While my beloved wife does not like Linda and cringes whenever I express my love for her wonderful voice, she grudgingly accepts my one-sided, 45-year long-distance love affair with her.
Somehow, I do not own every one of Linda's recordings. I've seen her in concert twice: once at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix in 1976, and once in Tucson in the 80s. The first show I remember this beautiful woman on a revolving stage, belting out Lose Again to an ecstatic crowd and giggling shyly afterward as the crowd erupted in ear-shattering applause. Her “thank you” sounded like it came from a little girl, not the icon she was in the process of becoming. In 1975, I first heard the album Don't Cry Now, a largely country-oriented group of songs. I was instantly mesmerized, and eager to hear more. Her soulful rendition of Colorado, written by her longtime pal John David Souther, is simply amazing. Next came Prisoner in Disguise, which included my favorite tune of that era, Silver Blue, another of JD Souther's creations. Her release of Hasten Down the Wind brought us an even more refined and powerful bluesy rock tempered with her searing rendition of Willie Nelson's Crazy and Karla Bonoff's haunting Someone to Lay Down Beside Me. Also found on this album is a song she wrote herself in Spanish, Lo Siento Mi Vida. Try as I might to sing along, her effortless transition from low to high notes was impossible to imitate. In addition to Simple Dreams, where she treated us to Blue Bayou and Ooh Baby Baby, she included a Warren Zevon tune, Carmelita, which aptly explores the darker shade of night. Each of her releases surprised and transfixed me. I could write an article on each album, but these four probably catapulted her from undeserved near obscurity to superstar status. In each new release, you could hear the improvement in her voice. It has always been obvious that she is a perfectionist, always striving to find exciting canyons for her voice to soar.
I was afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Count Basie when he brought his orchestra to play at the community college I attended. As editor of the student newspaper, I assigned myself the honor of interviewing this musical icon. However, given my love for music and true understanding of this man's historical importance in American history, I should have given the assignment to another reporter. I was mesmerized, entranced, and too excited to be effective. I had listened to his recordings and those of his peers from my earliest years. As he exited stage left after the concert, the Count was met by two beautiful women. They simultaneously kissed him on either cheek. One placed a fresh cigar in his mouth and the other lit it as they escorted him backstage where I was waiting to meet him. He warmly shook my hand and put his arm around my shoulders as we walked to his dressing room where he graciously offered me 15 minutes of his time. I was in awe of this man for his historic contribution to jazz. This made for an awkward interview. I was simply too starstruck to ask a question. This tickled his funny bone and he smiled. “We're both just people, you and me,” he said quietly, trying to soothe my nerves. “So relax... ask whatever you want.” His generosity helped, but it was easily the worst interview I ever conducted. Here we were, in the middle of Podunk, USA at a tiny community college miles from nowhere, and all I could think of to ask was “So how do you like our campus?” Good grief! A musical icon at the level of Duke Ellington and Satchmo, yet that was all I could think of to ask! The rest of my questions were equally horrible, and as I sat at the typewriter the next day, I panicked at the lack of a substantial quote in my notebook. Most of what I had written the night before was illegible. The results of that wonderful opportunity were weak at best, and I was treated to a well-deserved smack on the head with a rolled-up newspaper by my journalism professor.
So given this bit of personal history, I've often wondered how I would react if I had the chance to meet Linda. I would like to think I've learned from the Basie incident. Fantasies of being stoic and not drooling on her, enjoying fascinating conversation, and having witty and intelligent things to say are what I would hope for. People who have met Linda, including my daughter as a child, remember her being loving, sweet and fun to be around. Of course, meeting her is far from a realistic possibility. The closest I've come is through my daughter's recollections and the wonderful gift from my mother-in-law of an autographed CD of Linda's last solo recording, Hummin' to Myself.
Linda's voice cannot be silenced, thanks to her many recordings. My clumsy choice of adjectives cannot begin to do justice to her contributions to my musical memory. History will rightfully list her as the first Queen of Rock and an enduring legend. In my heart, just below my wife (who will always reign supreme where love is concerned), Linda is challenges my father as my favorite vocalist. My father's hearing is so poor now, he cannot hear the music well enough to play or sing. Linda's voice is silenced by a devastating disease. The loss of these wonderful voices saddens me, but I have recordings of them both. Dad would understand if she sometimes edges ahead of him, because he's the one who introduced me to the wonders of the vocal instrument. Thank you Dad, and thank you Linda, for you both have given me gifts I can enjoy several lifetimes over.
Vaya con dios.