My heart sank. Surely millions of hearts sank.
How could there be any other reaction to hear Linda Ronstadt on CBS Sunday Morning, humbly and thoughtfully musing about the fact that the Parkinson’s Disease she was diagnosed with in 2013 has deepened to the extent that she can’t even sing in the shower? This is a woman who once said, “Music is meant to lighten your load. By singing … you diminish sadness and feel joy.” With shimmering honesty, she said she fears suffering but does not fear dying.
I can’t help but admire her dignity and resilience in the face of such a battle. This made me think of the many reasons I’ve admired her over the years. In 1967, “A Different Drum” was my soulful teen-hippie anthem (and still my favorite song of hers). Her confident, aching contralto was clearly the voice of the Stone Poneys. But, aside from her musical majesty, there was always an air about her, an integrity and rectitude that wonderfully contradicted a rock-chick persona that was mostly projected on her. She was a part-Hispanic girl from Tucson, Arizona, with an un-threateningly pretty face, cool boyfriends, and big earrings; people underestimated her for the longest time.
Underestimation is good—it lets a person keep her integrity quietly cooking, unnoticed.
Linda Ronstadt: No Kiss-and-Tell
When, in 2013, she published her memoir Simple Dreams she refused to make it at all about her glammy former boyfriends and ex-fiances. She had a very long relationship with recent and twice California Governor Jerry Brown, was engaged to Jim Carrey, was engaged to Star Wars producer George Lucas, and dated everyone from J.D. Souther to Albert Brooks. Pause to take all of that in! Rather, she made the memoir about the music that gave her life such meaning.
She was so unpretentious, she surprised interviewers by opening the door herself.
Some years ago, she moved from L.A. (where she almost single-handedly made the restaurant Lucy’s El Adobe an “in” place in the ‘70s) to San Francisco, to live more simply. Surprisingly, she said she’d never felt at home in L.A. She was so unpretentious, she surprised interviewers by opening the door herself: no assistant, no help. And, like many others (Diane Keaton, Charlize Theron, Sandra Bullock et al.), she quietly adopted two children as a single mother: in late 1990, a daughter, Mary Clementine, and in 1994 a baby boy, Carlos.
With modesty and irony, she wore her musical fame (11 Grammy awards, the National Medal of Arts and Humanities, 45 albums, 21 Top Forty records, more than 100 million records sold) so lightly you hardly noticed. “She was a wonderful dichotomy: so much fun but with an undercurrent of melancholy,” says writer Aimee Lee Ball, who interviewed her for a woman’s magazine in the ‘90s and now hosts the website www.EatDarlingEat.net. “She was wearing an extremely beautiful diamond bracelet,” Ball remembers, “and I remarked that perhaps it was a loving gift from a generous friend, `Are you kidding?’ she said, `I should only find somebody who would buy me things like this.’”
An Original Voice, An Original Mind
Steve Wasserman, longtime esteemed editor and agent and now publisher and executive editor of Berkeley’s Heydey Books, says, “I remember well when Linda Ronstadt and I were introduced, nearly ten years ago, by John Rockwell, a mutual friend and former longtime music critic for the New York Times. She was considering writing a memoir that would explore the music that inspired her to become a singer and was looking for a literary agent. I was then living in Connecticut and she was in San Francisco. We spoke on the phone for nearly an hour and I suggested that I thought it best that I fly out to the Bay Area, take her to lunch, so that she could get a sense of the cut of my jib and to see whether the chemistry was right between us. She agreed.
“At her suggestion, we met at Greens, a marvelous upscale vegetarian restaurant. When she walked in, I was struck by her pink Uggs and matching sweatshirt. But what was most memorable was her talk—the rushing cascade of sentences by a wonderfully alive and curious person. Working with her was a dream. She proved to be a writer as talented as she was a singer: allergic to cliché, possessed of an original and supple turn of mind, modest with an exemplary lust for life. Sheer bliss.”
She proved to be a writer as talented as she was a singer.
Rolling Stone’s Senior Writer David Browne said the news of Ronstadt’s total inability to sing is “so sad and also so deeply, cuttingly ironic, given the majesty of her voice.” Browne remembers hearing Ronstadt sing ”It’s So Easy”’ on her 1980 Mad Love tour with musician Danny Kortchmar. “I couldn’t believe the power and volume of her singing. To know that it has been silenced is heartbreaking.”
Kortchmar himself posted on Facebook a link to a video of Linda performing `Live in Hollywood.’ “Too good not to share” he said.
The Reality of Parkinson’s Disease
There was always an air of integrity and rectitude about her.
It’s a delicate situation. We want to praise Linda Ronstadt—for her music and her decency, but we don’t want to be maudlin. Rather, it’s good to take a page from her realism. She knew the game for a long time—women in rock get made out to be charmingly trashy or at least super-gamey when they’re really thoughtful and sensitive. In 1977, when Ronstadt was put on the cover of Time in a sexy dress and pose, she told the writer that the late Janis Joplin was “artificially encouraged to kinda cop a really tough attitude (and be tough) because rock and roll is kind of tough (business).” She felt that wasn’t quite authentic. In fact, Ronstadt said, Janis Joplin was “lovely, shy, and very literate in real life”—the antithesis of the “red hot mamma” she was encouraged to be.
Kudos to Linda Ronstadt. It is tragic that we cannot hear her sing again, but we can take inspiration from the happy life she has created for herself and for her calm honesty. When this deservedly much-loved woman was asked if she had any “stinkers” among her songs, she said, with a laugh, “Oh, my God, I have a litany of them!” The calm self-deprecation projected a protective, and resonant, way of dealing with life, and that rueful modesty and pragmatism has taken her as far as her music has.
Sheila Weller is the author of seven books (three of them New York Times Bestsellers), the best of which is Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, which Billboard magazine recently named #19 of the best music books of all time. She has been writer of major features for Vanity Fair, a recent longtime senior contributing editor at Glamour, a has written for the New York Times Opinion, Styles and Book Review and for just about every women’s magazine in existence. She has won 10 major magazine awards.