Linda Ronstadt possesses the kind of voice that can evoke tears of joy or tears of sadness, and sometimes both. 2002 marked the 35th year of Ronstadt's incredible recording career and a single-disc retrospective, The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt (Rhino/ Elektra), was released to mark the occasion. An artist who has performed in a multitude of genres, including rock, folk, country, blue-eyed soul, Latin and opera, Ronstadt even appeared on Broadway in the early 1980s in Joseph Papp's The Pirates of Penzance.
Gregg Shapiro: As a distinguished interpreter of other people's songs, you had a particular connection with the songs of Karla Bonoff, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Jimmy Webb.
Linda Ronstadt: I guess we were probably having the same experiences (laughs). We were on the same circuit together. Gosh, Jimmy is just a case all unto himself, but then so are the McGarrigle sisters, and, of course, Karla. Jimmy has such ability. He's such a fine craftsmen. Even though he's a singer/songwriter too, he was the guy that bridged the gap between the guy who had written on a Gershwin level to the kind of singer/songwriter guys who's banging it out in his livingroom. It was a strange category to be in in the '60s and '70s. We all loved his music. All the singer/songwriters that I knew, like J.D. Souther and Don Henley, would sit around and talk about (Webb's song) 'Adios,' and what an incredibly brave thing it was to rhyme 'adios' with 'grandiose.' Which I totally agree with.
GS: It was Sondheim-esque.
LR: Yeah, he is really good. And the McGarrigle Sisters, they're like un-separated litter-mates. They still have the dynamic of puppies or kittens that live together—they get a pecking order in their family. They have this kind of sister dynamic that is just wild. It's very apparent when they are performing and the way their songs come out.
GS: Speaking of the McGarrigles, Kate's son Rufus Wainwright is one of the finest songwriters of his generation.
LR: He's fabulous, and a wonderful singer with so much presence. Rufus and the children are sort of the outward versions of their parents. Their parents are inward sort of people, very private and very Canadian. The Canadians are so not like us.
GS: Are there members of that current generation of songwriters, such as Rufus, Patty Griffin or Aimee Mann, whose work you admire and would like to record?
LR: I recorded a Patty Griffin song called 'Falling Down' with Emmylou Harris. She was one of Emmy's discoveries for me and I think she's wonderful. There are a lot of good songwriters out there these days. I don't think the culture is supporting them as much as they should. The cream is rising to the top, as it will, like Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin.
GS: Warren Zevon is another songwriter whose songs you put your stamp on, including 'Poor Poor Pitiful Me,' which is on The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt. How has the news of his failing health affected you?
LR: Warren—what a great songwriter. He was one of those guys who were around Hollywood in those days. I moved into an apartment on Beechwood Drive up in the Beechwood Hills in Hollywood, right under the Hollywood sign. He (Zevon) had lived in the apartment before I did. Harry Dean Stanton lived out in the back. The guy (Elliot Ingber) who wrote 'Don't Bogart That Joint' lived under the garage. And the guy who lived downstairs was another comedy/ songwriter. I just felt that his (Zevon's) stuff came with the pad that I rented (laughs). I got to have those songs in addition to the house. Again, he was one of those writers that all of the other writers sat around and talked about. They would talk about 'Hasten Down The Wind' at that point.
GS: Oh, and your version is so stunning.
LR: Well, thanks. I've never heard it since I recorded it. But, I remember liking it a lot and remembering the times and what was going on with him. God, what an interesting writer. Talk about a guy who throws all the rules out. People write from their personal experiences, but he brought in a lot of other stuff. He'd just read about it and find the parts that he identified with in his reading. (For example) 'Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner,' I guess he was reading those magazines …
GS: Soldier of Fortune?
LR: Yeah, he used to read that (laughs). Who knows what was going on with Warren in those days. I'm really sorry that he is ill. I hope the best for him.
GS: During the 1970s, a time when there was an abundance of singer/ songwriters, you achieved some of your greatest chart success with remakes of classic rock and Motown tunes, such as 'Heat Wave,' 'When Will I Be Loved,' 'It's So Easy,' and 'Ooh Baby Baby.' Why did you choose those songs?
LR: I sang them because we were performing live and we always needed songs to put in the show to squeeze between those McGarrigle sisters songs and those beautiful Jimmy Webb ballads and 'Hasten Down The Wind,' and those kinds of songs. I needed a little bit of pacing in my shows. I was looking for up-tempo songs. We would do those (because) they were songs we all knew. They weren't songs that I particularly thought would have any endurance in my life. They were songs that we threw in as an afterthought. 'When Will I Be Loved' and 'You're No Good' were afterthoughts; they were what you threw on at the end of the record when you needed a couple more up-tempo songs.
GS: So, they really paid off.
LR: They did! I was always puzzled when they were hits. And a little annoyed, because I always wanted to have 'Heart Like A Wheel' be a hit. 'Heart Like A Wheel' turned out to be the song that had the most legs for me. Nobody is ever sad when I sing that on stage—I mean, it makes them sad, and I hope it does, I always want it to make them cry—but, 'Heart Like A Wheel' is one of those songs that I can carry with me until I'm 85. Those others, like 'When Will I Be Loved,' they were songs for the person I was when I was 25 or 20 or 17. They worked for about 10 years.
GS: In the event that you didn't already have a devoted queer following based on your status as a diva, you certainly increased your prospects via your performances in La Boheme and The Pirates of Penzance. Are you aware of a gay and lesbian fan base?
LR: I started to become aware of it when I went to Broadway. The guy that did my hair and make-up was my entrée into that world. He became my greatest pal. Years ago, when I was 17 or 18, Judy Henske, who was the then reigning queen of folk music, said to me at the Troubadour 'Honey (laughs), in this town there are four sexes. Men, women, homosexuals, and girl singers.' I started to listen to that. J. Roy Helland, who did hair and make-up for Pirates gave me a whole doorway into that world. There is a totally different kind of dynamic that exists between women and gay men. It's a completely different kind of friendship than it is for a woman and a heterosexual man. It is to be celebrated and loved and enjoyed. We don't know what we would do without them! I remember going all over Europe with him and we would go into different museums together. His perceptions of female beauty and mine—it was just fascinating to compare them. It made me think of the Japanese theater, where men would take the parts of women, and they do it from a studied perception of total artifice. Constructing this female with art and guile and wile and style (laughs). It was just amazing to share the perception of female beauty with him (J. Roy) and one of my girlfriends and one of my heterosexual (male) friends —it's a totally different experience. I think that we need them all. I was happy when the Nelson Riddle records tended to enlarge that audience a good bit. I got to wear big dresses and Roy enjoyed that. He ran around with us and made sure our big dresses were gorgeous.
GS: Do you have plans to return to the musical theater stage?
LR: I don't know. I put everything on the back burner when I had children in my life. My youngest is going to be nine pretty soon. They're a little older now. They don't like it when I go away. My son heard that I was going to be doing interviews today and he was afraid that they were television interviews. He said, 'Mommy, I don't want you to go on television.' We don't have a television, so how would he know? He said, 'I saw you on television one time and it looked like it was going to take a lot of time' (laughs). He wants my time to be spent with him. It just depends if some fabulous show came up. There was one thing that I really wanted to sing, which was Amahl and The Night Visitors and I had some offers to do it. It happened at a time when I don't know if I want to make that kind of demand on my voice. I thought I could have played the mother role. For so many years, I wanted to play the little boy role, you see, but I never grew up to be a little boy. I thought there was a chance, when I was nine or 10, because I learned the whole album by heart, and when I became a little boy I'd be able to sing that opera. But that didn't happen. Then I wanted to grow up to be Brigitte Bardot for a while, but that didn't happen either.
GS: The absence of recordings from your canciones and Nelson Riddle/American standards CDs are notable on The Very Best of Linda Ronstadt.
LR: I didn't like calling that 'best of,' but they did, so that's fine. They're really nice people and they're different from most record companies, so I did a lot more cooperating with them than I usually do (laughs). The reason was that we think that those (songs) are such a radical departure. The Nelson stuff sets a mood and you have to have that mood and keep rolling with it. We didn't feel like it belonged with those old rock and roll songs. The 'best of' was the period that people liked of my '70s hits and the continuation into the '80s with people associating me with mainstream pop. The Nelson Riddle and the Mexican folk music and the Caribbean influenced stuff was so specialized that I didn't think that it belonged on that collection.
GS: How do you feel about the fact that the recorded music buying public has finally become aware of music by Latin artists?
LR: Well, you see I was always aware of it (laughs). I'm so naïve sometimes that it doesn't occur to me that they're not (aware of Latin music). It's like when people said, 'Oh, my God. (you rescued) Aaron Neville from obscurity.' And I would say, 'What are you talking about?' Every time Aaron Neville would come to town to play, I'd go see him. We were huge fans. The music community knew and worshipped The Neville Brothers. We all have our self-centered existence. It's hard for me to not know that other people are not digging on the same Latin music artists that I am. And actually, there is a huge section of the world that is. It was important to me because I'd see these little Mexican-American girls trying to imitate Madonna. They've got to do that because it's part of the culture. But, I also wanted them to know that there is something else. A style and a tradition in the dancing, which Madonna herself would agree with. Traditional Mexican dancing has a lot more to do with modesty and is so sexy because the skirts come down to the ankles and the eyes are lowered a lot, and every once in a while they flash up and it's like lightning and thunder coming out of those eyes. It's so potent. Why would anybody want to do anything else? I wanted those girls to know that they had something that really was strong and it was pure Mexican and that they should feel proud of that and they don't have to sell it down the river to this kind of commercial thing that's around now, no matter how artfully assembled it is. It's hard to be a long-term success. You have to have something that is strong and clear and resonates ferociously in the general public. And you have to have talent, too. There are a lot of one-hit wonders without very much talent. But to have hit after hit like Madonna or Mariah Carey have had, you have to have talent to put behind that. It's not the only thing there is, but it's what corporatized popular culture supports. It's a shame because it squeezes the life out of the music. The artists who sustain themselves are often drawing from a rootsier thing. They do it and they get enough clout and they're able to use it. I felt life after years and years of making commercial records, I was entitled to one record (on which) to experiment (laughs). That was the Nelson Riddle record and it turned out to be a wonderful success. So that entitled me to try the Mexican stuff. I'd wanted to do both of those types of material for years, but I never figured out how in the heck to put it on a record with 'It's So Easy' and a McGarrigle sisters songs. Rampant eclecticism is my middle name. It's hard to make that stuff mush together.