By Nicholas M Tolhurst
I’m sure everyone sings. Singing is one of the few human attributes that bring out modesty in most people—most of us insist we can’t sing, yet I hope we all sing in our hearts and in our solitude. I sing and I can’t imagine not singing. The great singers of our lives are rarely modest and rightly so; we wouldn’t hear of them otherwise. Some singers have monstrous egos and voices to match and you can’t beat Streisand in those stakes. Others have the egos without the voice and Madonna is the leader of that pack of hucksters who have always dominated the commercial music industry. Linda Ronstadt has always been there, up front, behind the scenes and working selflessly to bring others to few. If you were lucky, she was one of the voices of your generation.
The very saddening news has just come through on the UK’s Daily Mail that Ronstadt is no longer able to sing because of her Parkinson’s condition; it doesn’t say how the loss of her voice affects her. One would think the loss unimaginable, but there is something sanguine and heroic about Ronstadt as a performer that might enable her to meet the loss on her own terms. At the age of 67, there was every reason why a voice like hers could have gone on forever, because she brought to her extraordinary natural gift an outstanding technique and intelligent musicianship.
Ronstadt’s career is exhaustively covered on Wikipedia and it should be scanned just to scope the range and depth of her influence on popular music from the late 60s on. Up front is a quote from Christopher Loudon of Jazz Times who noted in 2004 that Ronstadt is:
‘Blessed with arguably the most sterling set of pipes of her generation … rarest of rarities—a chameleon who can blend into any background yet remain boldly distinctive … It’s an exceptional gift; one shared by few others.’
Can’t argue with that. Ronstadt delved into different genres and had great success in each endeavour. While I am not a fan of everything she has done, there’s something for everyone to like, indeed to marvel in her singing.
Her first major hit was Different Drum with the group the Stone Poneys. Written by Mike Nesmith of eventual Monkees fame, Different Drum, to me, defined Ronstadt as an artist, particularly as a woman artist in the heavily male-dominated rock music scene of the 1960s. (People overlook that the summer of love was still very much a straight, white man’s kind of summer lovin’.) Nesmith wrote the song as a man singing about a woman—Ronstadt turns the gender tables making it a personal manifesto of freedom that was powerful in its day and still knocks me for a loop when I hear her sing it.
Nesmith is probably a great song writer (I should know more about him) and I think Different Drum is one of the best songs of its time. Look at these lyrics; they don’t suggest any ready rhythm or ‘songliness’, yet the eventual musical setting manages to wrangle the rhymes into some internal sense, while Ronstadt effortlessly negotiates the wandering, almost through-composed melodic line.
You and I travel to the beat of a different drum
Oh can’t you tell by the way I run
Every time you make eyes at me
You cry and moan and say it will work out
But honey child I’ve got my doubts
You can’t see the forest for the trees
Oh don’t get me wrong
It’s not that I knock it
It’s just that I am not in the market
For a boy who wants to love only me
Yes, and I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty
All I’m saying is I’m not ready
For any person place or thing
To try and pull the reins in on me
So good-bye I’ll be leaving
I see no sense in this crying and grieving
We’ll both live a lot longer
If you live without me
This is no ordinary pop song. Personally I love the verse: ‘Yes, and I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty, all I’m saying is I’m not ready for any person place or thing to try and pull the reins in on me’. It’s just a sentence, but what a powerful sentence for a woman to declare. It’s a sentence that could be read as a template for Ronstadt’s life.
Ronstadt’s Canciones di mi Padre is an outstanding album of Mexican songs that she delivers with utter virtuosity. At once cheesy, flamboyant and passionate, these songs are a revelation to anyone weaned on anglophone commercial stuff like me. I can only recommend you search them out. In particular listen to Ronstadt singing La cigarra. Note the measured vibrato that she can time with the rest of the instruments, smile at the calculated sobs, try and tap out the jumpy, off-centre 6/8 rhythm and keep up with the crazy accents and, just check out the top notes Ronstadt produces, first in her chest then in the finest soprano head voice. I am smitten every time I Iisten to this album. Music should not be this sensual.
Ronstadt always recorded with the best musicians and generously supported the best with her own voice. When she sings, we feel it bodily and, in our feeble ways, take wing with her voice.