Sunday, October 27, 2013

She sang so much, she wrote so little (Ava and C.I.)

Linda Ronstadt's is know for being the voice of seventies radio in a way that few other men or women came close.  In a better world, aspiring singers would have emulated her and not the vocal gymnastics of plastic soul.  Simple Dreams, her new autobiography, charts the cost it takes to earn that voice as well as how quickly you can lose a voice worth listening to -- even in the book you write yourself.


Looking back on her career, Ronstadt's most important imparted lesson is you can't grow stagnant.

She grew up in a family with musical diversity at a time when even top forty radio offered a bit of diversity.  Performing live led her to California and folk rock gave Ronstadt her first hit ("Different Drum").  She could have stayed with the same formula but didn't.

She sought out songs that really spoke to her.  Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like A Wheel" was one such song but it was difficult to get support for recording it.  (Producer Peter Asher would hear her performing it live and the song would go on to be the title track of her first chart topping album.)   Finding the material that moved her was not step two and meanings, not beats, were part of that important search.

Surroundings also shaped her sound.   She acknowledges that the popularity that propelled her from club performances to arenas impacted the music because so much was getting lost in the shift. Her number one hit, "You're No Good," also resulted from the demands of performing.  She needed an uptempo song to close with and this Betty Everett 60s classic suited that need.  A major reworking of the song resulted in Linda's biggest hit.

Before the seventies were over, she was exploring three-part-harmony with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris.  This would eventually lead to an eighties country chart topping album (Trio) and a 1999 sequel that went top ten on the country charts (Trio II).  The eighties would find her performing live in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance in Central Park and then on Broadway (big change, Patricia Routledge was replaced with Estelle Parsons on Broadway in the role of Ruth) and then in the film (Angela Lansbury took over the role of Ruth).  She'd follow that succeess (Tony and Golden Globe nominations) with the far less successful performance in La boheme.

But by then, she'd found a new recording passion: torch songs. 1983's What's New would be a breakout success.  The follow up, Lush Life, less so.  By the time For Sentimental Reasons was released (1986), she was trying her fan's patience.  That's not noted.  It should be.

Pursuing your muse is important.  And Linda learned much from the three albums of torch songs and the mariachi Canciones de Mi Padre and the country and western Trio that followed.  But five albums of doing everything but what your fans want?

In 1989, Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind found her returning to modern pop and it was a hard sale.  Radio would have to create hits before the album really started selling.  It would have been nice if Linda could have reflected on that.

How do you go from a string of number one albums, being crowned the singer of the decade, selling out arenas and stadiums, to left without an audience?  And how does that feel?

Maybe it felt great.

Maybe it felt freeing.

Linda, for example, has as much a tortured relationship with the press over their calling her a country singer (in fairness, she raked up 7 top twenty country hits in the 70s) as she has with them focusing on her love life.

So maybe the 80s muse she followed -- operetta, opera, big band, Spanish-language mariachi and country and western -- was a liberating grenade that took out all expectations?

But by the 90s, there's a tone, a slight trace, of what happened.  It's never fully formulated or outright stated.  It's just there in the same way her long love of animals is just there. (See the passage where she refers to sneaking her favorite ballads onto the albums -- she's making a comparison to when she'd sneak in medicine to her dog.  But she doesn't mention the dog and readers may be left confused.)

If you're going to write about how you kept growing artistically, you also need to note how much the growth cost.  Joni Mitchell, for example, has never shied from explaining how fame turns on you.

Linda never shies from Joni and mentions her in passing several times in the book.

Not noted in the book?

Carly Simon.

It's a glaring omission.

For a number of reasons including that 1981 found Carly Simon performing a collection of jazz standards (plus Simon's "From The Heart") on the album Torch.  Stephen Holden would review the album for Rolling Stone (which gave it four stars) and he'd note, "Until now, the only rock singer who's really embraced this genre has been Harry Nilsson."

Linda's three torch albums followed Carly's 1981 release.  Linda wouldn't be the last to copy Carly.  But in a book of grace and praise, Ronstadt's failure to credit Carly stands out.  We know why it happened.

Linda didn't want to make waves.

Ever since James Taylor's crazy mother Gertrude went ballistic over a photo of Carly and James singing live on Martha's Vineyard -- a photo that revealed just how old and ugly James was -- he's really demanded that friends not mention Carly.  (For the record, James Taylor's Mommy issues rival those of Norman Bates.)

Linda didn't want to make waves.

Too bad.  It hurts her book.

To her credit, Linda doesn't foam at the mouth with school girl lust over Taylor the way Carole King did (see  "Carole King's Conditioned Role and Desire (Ava and C.I.").  But her failure to even acknowledge Carly will be seen as bitchy by many.

That's because the two aren't just peers, they're often tossed up against each other in fan discussions (such as here).  This would have been a great time for Linda to have made clear there was no rivalry.  The press was trying to create one just last year in coverage over the two women being signed to write their autobiographies.

But they are peers.

And it's time women stopped playing so stupid.

Linda will get into The Rock &; Roll Hall of Fame (she's on the list of nominees) and will become one of the few women to do so.  Would she have (finally) made the list were it not for her revealing she had Parkinson's in August?  Maybe not.  There's been no push for Linda until now.

But the reason so few women are in The Hall?

Sexism.  That includes women playing into it.

As long as some women vie for the token role in a male defined world, women will be under-represented in all walks of life including artistic recognition.

Women need to start linking with their peers when they write books.  They need to create a team.  That's what the guys and their fan boys have done.

Women could and should do the same.

And a sense that they have each other's back would go a long way towards helping all women.

Linda should know that.  When she was doing her torch song albums, Rickie Lee Jones publicly mocked her and what Rickie saw as Linda's failed attempts at singing jazz.  As a result of a number of other issues -- including Linda performing in South Africa during apartheid -- people were lining up behind Rickie.  The only thing that really sent the villagers home with their torches was Joni Mitchell speaking up.

It's not in the book, so much isn't.  But it happened and Linda knows it did and Linda was grateful for Joni's support.

Unlike Linda, Joni Mitchell can, and will, speak of Carly Simon.  It goes to strength and confidence.

Carly?  There's not a more generous person when it comes to crediting her female peers.  She's also extremely generous when it comes to crediting women who came before (such as Odetta and Judy Collins).

And that's why it's really starting to piss a lot of people off that so many are basically taking sides in a marriage which dissolved in 1983.  It's why a number of us are starting to point out how sick and disgusting James Taylor is.

One of our favorite Carly songs is about how James tries to ban her name and her presence.  From the opening verse of 1995's "Halfway 'Round The World."

Thank you for informing me
That I was banned from Canada
It comes as no surprise to me
Last month it was Africa
Since you’ve been ambassador
There's trouble at the border
La la la la la la la
Halfway 'round the world

In the bridge, Carly observes:

For whatever reason
You would keep me
Halfway 'round the world
I believe it's like a kind of compliment
I must be quite a girl
Quite a girl
La la la la la la la
Halfway 'round the world

Ir's an obsession on James' part.

Peers in the music industry are not sycophants like the late Timothy White, they don't need to behave like him.  (For really bad biography, see White's book on Taylor and grasp how hard  White worked -- at Taylor's request -- to render Carly and her ten year marriage to James invisible.)

Those who are choosing to tell their own stories and omitting Carly?

They look petty.

And they harm women in the process, all woman.

But to those who don't know what's going on, they just look petty.

And that's a shame because Linda's got praise for Emmylou and Dolly, and for Nicolette Larson and Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Loudon Wainwright III issued no gag order over his ex-wife Kate) and Maria Muldaur and Chrissie Hynde.  She even shares a brief conversation she once had with Janis Joplin.  But she can't even mention Carly's name.  Which led a man who once played guitar for Linda to tell us we were falling for the trap, "She's not gracious.  She's only praising women who aren't her peers.

And that's how some will read the book.  As Linda herself writes, she wasn't very gracious to others during the seventies when she was crowned The/A Queen of Rock.

The omission of Carly damages the way Linda's seen.  It also begs readers to wonder about other omissions.

There's her love life.  Linda has every right to close the door on that and has many times.  But if you're going to write about your affair -- and she does -- with Jerry Brown (California's perennial governor), you've opened that door and people have every right to wonder why you're not writing of others (for example, George Lucas -- which was a much more serious affair than the one with Brown).

There's her breaking the United Nations cultural boycott so she could go to South Africa.  She wasn't the only artist to do so in the eighties. Tina Turner did.  Tina Turner was flat broke and took on all the debt from the cancelled tour when she walked out on the abusive Ike Turner.  Tina had no recording contract but she had the IRS at every concert grabbing their take of the house.  By contrast, Linda was the most successful female singer in the US in terms of money.  The year before had brought not only another chart hit, another hit album but also big money from the tour including big money from NBC to broadcast a concert live on their radio stations.  So her decision to go to South Africa is not the same as others.

Equally true, Tina talked about it in real time, talked about it in her book I, Tina and has never shied from the topic.

Linda doesn't talk about her trip these days.  And she doesn't write about it in the book. But Aaron Latham (Rolling Stone) covered the 1983 South Africa concert tour:

Linda Ronstadt is special, and yet she went to South Africa. She is special, and yet she chose to perform in a reviled racist country. She is special, and yet she gave six concerts in the cradle of apartheid. She is special, and yet she lent her talents to an especially mean place. She is special, and yet she allowed her very specialness to be exploited by an outlaw nation in search of legitimacy. Her special price: $500,000. 
[. . .]

 "The last place for a boycott is in the arts. I don't like being told I can't go somewhere. Like when they told Jane Fonda she couldn't go to North Vietnam. Of course she should have gone to North Vietnam."
But, of course, Jane Fonda was not paid a half-million dollars to visit Hanoi. 

That may seem like ancient history to some but, if that's the case, so is the career that resulted in eleven Grammy wins for Linda.  And while she stays silent, her fans try to grapple with her decision to break the boycott and perform in South Africa.  When she appeared last month on Lenoard Lopate's WYNC show, a third of the listener comments were about her 1983 performances in South Africa.  More commented on that than did on her Parkinson's.

Again, it didn't have to be this way.

But what a person doesn't say can be as important as what they do say and when you're omissions are notable, one leads to another.

The omissions, and there are many more, overshadow this slim but often charming book.  Careful readers will not only notice the omissions, they'll notice that the singer really wanted to be an actress.  For example, the book features 16 pages of photos -- far too many of her in The Pirates of Penzance -- and she writes at length about taping an episode of The Muppets' TV show -- writes at great length about that, far more space than she gives to recording any of her number one albums.

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