Linda Ronstadt arrived in Honolulu, drowsy and a little on the dowdy side, in a red rock T-shirt, blue Lee overalls and sandals. Her hair was a postflight brunette tangle, with a string of gray here and there. On the eve of one of her favorite holidays — St. Valentine’s — she was Number One on the pop charts with her album, Heart like a Wheel, and her single, “You’re No Good.” The flip, “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love with You,” was in the Top Five, meantime, on the country charts. And after the show tomorrow night at the Waikiki Shell her latest tour would be over, pau, as they say here.
At the gate, before she’d even had a chance to rub her eyes, the local concert promoter, a young, earnest-looking Korean named William Kim, stepped up and greeted her: “I’m here to give you your first lei,” he cracked. A photographer maneuvered into position. Ronstadt blinked her eyes and backed off. She turned to Peter Asher, her manager. “What is this crap all about?” she asked. Finally, properly introduced, she accepted the lei and allowed herself to be pecked on the cheek — but not to be photographed. As she climbed the steps of a Wiki bus headed for Baggage Claim, she turned to Asher again. “Was that rude?” she asked.
The day before, in Hollywood, Linda was reconsidering something she had said in an interview for the book, Rock ‘n Roll Woman — that she was basically an unhappy person. That was in early 1974, shortly after the release of Don’t Cry Now, an album that had taken over a year, some $150,000 and three producers (not counting herself) to complete. Now, she had her first hit single since 1970’s moderate success, “Long Long Time.” She was about to finish a smooth and successful tour, a five-week run that showed off a more musically assured Ronstadt than ever. And in Peter Asher she seemed to have found an astute manager and a compassionate, trustworthy producer. Could she possibly still be unhappy?
Well . . . yes. “I’m more confused than ever about that,” she said. “I went through an intensely happy period for about six months, and then it changed, real fast, last summer and that’s when I got fat.” She wailed, as if betrayed: “I went, ‘Oh, no! It’s all a lie!'”
Away from the album covers, Ronstadt still has an open, Sally Fields-cute, country-cousin appearance (with a shape she describes as approximating “a fire hydrant”). At age 28, she often looks, acts and sounds like a little girl. To punctuate unpleasant thoughts or flashes of guilt or excitement, the wide eyes widen, the comic-strip perfect lips stretch out in dumbfounded anxiety, and the voice revs up, sometimes getting loud and strident. Now, she is quiet, reasoned:
“I don’t know, I may be just an unhappy person forever. I’m very dissatisfied with everything. I’m hard to please and very restless, so it’s always a battle between that and my real deep desire to have a home and roots, which is a kind of contentment which is beyond description when you find it. And I’ve only had glimpses of it.”
For her body, Ronstadt joined a health club in Los Angeles and went through a rigorous program of running seven miles a day. For her head, she has been seeing a psychiatrist for the last six months. “I think it’s helped,” she said, “but I’m getting restless about that now, too. I do everything for about six months, then I go, ‘Pfft — next!‘
“I had to start going because I couldn’t perform. I just felt very alienated. I would stand onstage and look at the audience, and they would appear dehumanized to me; they weren’t human beings and I wasn’t a human being and I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to be there to hear it. I didn’t have anything to say to anybody, and I found it very difficult to concentrate. But it’s changed; I don’t feel that way anymore.” She shifted around in the sofa.
“It’s harder, though. There are more people looking at me and people come up and say, ‘Gee, you’re dada-dada-da!’ and I don’t like that. I feel dehumanized and sort of insulted. People intimidate me like mad, so I try to be as polite as I can be and stay as withdrawn as I can. But very often I come off rude.”
Onstage at the Waikiki Shell, Linda Ronstadt was reserved; she made only a brief mention of Valentine’s Day. She wore her standard tour apparel: blouse tied at the waist and blue jeans. No lei. She barely moved onstage, holding the mike stand with both hands and allowing her hips to sway on the fast numbers only as much as a tapping foot seemed to require. Still, when it got down to the singing, she checked in strong and clear. The little girl has always been a woman in song, but now the powerful voice is more controlled; Linda is able to express multiple emotions in a single phrase, snarling out one word and crying another in “I Can’t Help It if I’m Still in Love with You.” Hot-pointed anger and heartbroken concession all at once. Despite a lingering flu, her control of falsetto and of the mid-glide up from falsetto back to chest voice was remarkable.
But some in the crowd were not there for musical appreciation. One fan tossed a heart-shaped box of chocolates to her in midsong and it startled her. “I thought it was a bomb,” she said with a decided lack of diplomacy after inspecting the contents. And, as she began a fragile number, “Keep Me from Blowing Away,” she was suddenly faced with a large blond man who’d swayed his way up to the stage apron, then somehow vaulted up onto the stage. Just as he was getting a good look at Linda — who kept singing — a security guard caught up with him and Ronstadt’s stage manager hauled the young man backwards off the stage and back onto earth. For the next minute, the dazed man was shuffled, pushed and dragged around while members of the audience yelled for the authorities to leave him alone. Ronstadt stayed at the mike, trying to concentrate on the song, eyes intently focused somewhere above the audience in the trees and the carbon blue skies. After the song, she attempted to shrug it off: “Looks like ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ here tonight,” she said. But after the show she was torn. Sure, she was frightened by the hulk. “He looked so scary. He was just there all of a sudden. He looked like a gorilla. You never know what anyone might do to you. But, boy, I felt bad for him ’cause he was obviously so loaded. And I heard his head, it went crack against that floor . . .” She shuddered and groaned. “I went, ‘Ohh, no . . .’
“But I also felt I didn’t want him up on the stage.”
It is not a happy Valentine’s Day for Linda Ronstadt. In Hollywood, she had stayed up late with Peter and Betsy Asher making a valentine for Albert Brooks who was in the studio finishing up a new album. But here in Waikiki, she watched a couple walking in front of her, holding hands, and she pined away for Brooks. “Oh, I don’t have anybody to kiss me,” she complained. At night’s end, she disappeared, alone, into a Sheraton elevator.
Linda Ronstadt was always a lover. She learned about the birds and the bees, the boys and the girls, at age seven from a cousin who was one year older. In junior high in Tucson, Arizona, she started dressing up sexy. “I was trying to be Brigitte Bardot,” she said. In rebellion against the nuns at the school — St. Peter and Paul — she went “boy crazy.” At Catalina High, she went out with older men, among them a steel guitar enthusiast with whom she left town at age 18. In Los Angeles, she sought a career in music and became the object of attention — the kind that led to too many wrong relationships, too many years of hating her own records and concerts, too many sad songs to sing and, today, to a still uncertain Linda Ronstadt.
Welcome to the top of the pops.
Our stay with Linda began in Berkeley, where she had given a concert. We would hit Davis, near Sacramento, for two shows at the University of California campus there; Bakersfield, 300 miles away, for one show and Tucson for two hometown concerts. After a few days’ rest in L.A., the tour would end in Honolulu.
Linda — and most of her band — are afraid of flying and most of the tour had been by bus. On the eastern swing, just finished, they had rented Hank Williams Jr.’s custom vehicle, called “The Cheatin’ Heart Special,” with nine bunk beds and plenty of room for playing cards. Now the group was making do with the largest mobile home they could find. There was one long seat up front, two bunks built into overhead shelves and two tables, one front, one rear, with a kitchenette between them. There would be little sleeping, but lots of blackjack, with stakes constantly reaching serious proportions (“Last game,” Linda said, “they all owed each other their houses”). Linda would join the table on another trip, but for now she was content to chat and work on a sweater for Albert in cream and jade heather colors.
Linda talked freely, with a bright, winsome manner, and began to reveal herself. Her father, Gilbert, 63, of Mexican and German descent (Ronstadt is a German name), is a musician, a guitarist and a singer who has sung informally with mariachi bands on visits to Mexico. He also crafts jewelry, and now runs Ronstadt Hardware (“Established in 1888”) in downtown Tucson. It was Pop who exposed her to music other than her early Sixties staples: folk music and rock, “especially the Beach Boys.” Her father, she said, is “into melodies, and he made me listen to Peggy Lee and Billie Holiday . . . ” Her sister kept Hank Williams records on all day long until Linda was hooked. Now, she lists Williams, along with Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye among her favorite male singers. She’s also listening now to Sinatra. “Those Nelson Riddle arrangements are so sensitive . . .” And George Jones and Tammy Wynette, recently split. “I saw him singing ‘Grand Tour’ on television and I sat there and cried like a housewife,” said Linda. “He’s one of my heroes.”
She talked about love. People commit suicide without it, she offered. “I was reading about a study that showed people did it because they couldn’t make an intimate connection with another human being. You need that — or else it’s religion or drugs. I could never handle religion. And drugs — there’s no way out of that.” She resorted to plenty of cocaine she said, during the Neil Young tour of early 1973 when she had to face 15,000 Neil Young freaks as an opening act, often as a last-minute booking and an unwelcome surprise for impatient Youngies. “I had to have my nose cauterized twice — I think they shot sodium nitrate up there — I’m okay now. I don’t put anything up my nose anymore, except occasionally my finger.” She looked at my notebook and winced, disgusted with herself.
On Highway 80, just south of Fairfield, the bus broke down and required a half-hour stop, but Linda wasn’t disturbed. She talked about Led Zeppelin. “Andrew Gold from the band is indoctrinating me,” she said. “Their stuff is like insect music to me. I can’t listen for a long time without getting a headache, but I’m getting to understand it.” A little later she asked a question of no one in particular: “What’s Plant look like? That’s such a great name for someone who sings like that.”
A few other men’s names popped up: Governor Jerry Brown, comedian Steve Martin, Little Feat’s Lowell George, songwriter Tom Campbell. They’ve all been boyfriends — excepting the new governor of California. “We just went out a couple of times,” she said. “There was no romance. I met him at Lucy’s in L.A. — they have the greatest enchiladas — he was secretary of state and thinking about campaigning. And then he called me later and asked for me to help in his campaign. I said, look, I don’t know anything; I’m the worst. I don’t watch TV; I just read what I want to read about. I said, please, I’m in no position, I can’t even be responsible for my own vote and I still feel that way.” Did she vote for him? “I didn’t vote last election ’cause I was at the fat farm . . . ” She is betting Andrew Gold $200 that she can best him to a 15 pound weight loss inside of two months. Gold, the eclectic member of an all-eclectic band, appears trim, but Linda knows better. “You should see him with his clothes off,” she said. “He looks like a 12-year-old around the shoulders, and about 40 years old with his belly.” Anyway, she will begin her diet in earnest today. But her first stop, on arrival at the hotel in Davis, was the coffeeshop where she watched pies revolving in a display case.
After the soundcheck, she returned to the hotel and placed a call to Brown, who invited her to breakfast and a tour of the old governor’s mansion the next morning. But the group’s schedule would not allow the visit.
The first show in Davis went well, but she called for another quick soundcheck and some unhappiness with the monitors was quickly taken care of. Backstage, Linda shared her upstairs dressing room with the band, and the music of Roger McGuinn and his band was barely audible. Nostalgia . . . and a sense of irony . . . pervaded the group. There were quick nods and tributes from the band members — several of whom are on their first tour of any substance — to the man who introduced them all to folk rock . . . who tonight was their opening act. But they didn’t dwell on rock & roll’s roller coaster. In fact, after a round of “Many Rivers to Cross,” most of the attention in the room was given to yo-yos.
Don Francisco, the drummer, had invited a buddy from his hometown, Pensacola, Florida, to the Davis shows, and the friend, a jaunty, chubby, curlyhaired 33-year-old named Paul Lybrand, happened to be the Duncan Yo-Yo champion of America. Champ, in fact, since 1972. Duncan pays him to tour the country nine months a year, doing promotional exhibitions at schools. He brought along a brown paper sack full of yo-yos. Linda had watched him spin through a series of neat tricks in front of the food table and decided to let him do a spot during her own set. Now, in the dressing room, the band and road managers and crew members were throwing the yo-yos in all directions while Linda sat and knitted.
Peter Asher laughed. “As soon as we offered him the gig, he went out to his car and got his jacket — this red blazer with the yo-yo champion emblem on it.” The laughter is just short of deprecating. But short.
At the five-minute cue to go backstage, Linda called out, “Ten more stitches,” completed them and moved easily to the mirror, where she knotted her blouse at the navel — “Not to make me look sexier,” she said. “I want to look thinner” — and put on some light makeup.
The show was, again, smooth. During the Dolly Parton number, “I Will Always Love You,” a nervous Paul Lybrand, in his championship jacket, rehearsed furiously backstage, Walking the Dog, bending down to let the yo-yo do the Creeper, snapping the string to form the Man on the Flying Trapeze. This would be a high point in 25 years of yo-yoing. Onstage, he came through with a tight, five-trick set that lasted only 50 seconds, with Gold and Francisco offering support on piano and drums. The crowd had greeted him with freak-show laughter, but wound up whooping and hollering. Lybrand did Duncan proud.
The show ended with Linda soothing the audience with the ballad, “Heart like a Wheel,” accompanied only by Gold on the piano. The crowd, up for the last two numbers — “You’re No Good” and a razzle-dazzle reading of “Heat Wave” — stayed up and paid attention.
And it’s only love and it’s only love
That can break a human being
And turn him inside out
Up near the stage, the audience looked like an assembly of kids getting a light scolding; moustache-fingering thoughtful, as if listening to a eulogy. Linda Ronstadt is no longer just a slice of country pie.
In the mobile home on the way back to the hotel, the entire band was up front, playing around with a scat sing of the instrumental parts of Led Zeppelin’s “Dancing Days.” Ed Black, a blond baby-faced guitarist, stood by the screen door and Ronstadt looked up from her knitting bag, pleased. “This is just like a family in a house,” she said.
The band is Andrew Gold on piano, guitar and vocals; Kenny Edwards, a former Stone Poney along with Linda, on bass and vocals; Dan Dugmore on pedal steel and rhythm guitars; Ed Black on pedal and lead guitar and occasional piano and Don Francisco on drums. It is a friendly, tourtightened unit, one of Linda’s best. Gold and Edwards had worked behind Wendy Waldman, a longtime friend of Linda’s from Tucson days. The two men had also formed a rock band and opened for Ronstadt at a McGovern benefit at the Daisy in Hollywood. Edwards, an affable sort, a kind of cross between Elliott Gould and Fred MacMurray, is not at all uneasy about his return to the Ronstadt fold. When he split from the Stone Poneys, it was because he wanted to rock, while the Poneys’ leader, Bob Kimmel, wrote mostly folkie, Pentangled material. Now, he is rocking. Francisco is another whose face reminds of others — in his case, Richard Greene and Roger Daltrey come to mind. Francisco is a former history and geography teacher and barker at a topless joint in San Francisco. He was hired for the band late last year, just before the tour. Dan Dugmore is also a recent addition, joining after a tour with John Stewart. Ed Black, a former guitar teacher, met Linda almost four years ago on the road, when he was with Goose Creek Symphony. A half year later, he got a call and his first assignment was to overdub one note for the Linda Ronstadt album — the last steel guitar note on “I Fall to Pieces” — originally played, live, by Sneaky Pete at the Troubadour.
Over the course of her solo career, Linda Ronstadt has been understandably wary about her backup groups. For one thing, she felt inadequate — she didn’t know how to talk in musical terms, she said and couldn’t give effective orders. For another: “Backing up a girl wasn’t cool at all. They didn’t want to do that. They wanted to be rock & rollers and have this sexual identity they get by being up onstage with their guitars.”
The extreme example occurred in 1972, when she hired Glenn Frey and Don Henley, now Eagles. “I knew Glenn was a temporary thing,” she said. “I knew he was going to be a star the minute I met him, he was such a hot shot. I loved him. When Glenn met Don, they wanted to form a band right away.”
The current backup men also have aspirations (in fact, Gold has signed an artist contract with Asylum Records), but they seem to have a sense of duty. Francisco, before his audition, got a tip that Ronstadt liked, more than anything, a good back beat with emphasis on the high hat, the snare and the bass. “And that’s exactly what I play.”
“She doesn’t like complicated licks,” said Black. Dugmore completed the thought: “It’s understandable. You’re trying to showcase the song and the singer, not the band.”
Sitting around the front of the bus while Linda played blackjack, Black, Francisco and Dugmore also seemed uniformly devoted to Linda as a person. Were they ever tempted to advance beyond a professional relationship?
Black spoke first. “There’ve been a couple of instances of more than a musical thing,” he said, “but I don’t care to go into it.” He slowed down, and added: “You know.” Francisco confessed: “At the outset I had amorous designs — a straight-out crush. But then I got to know her as a friend . . . ” Which would not have stopped me, I was going to say, but I was interviewing them. Dugmore remained silent. “He’s married,” said Black, “so he has to watch out.” More nervous laughter.
On the road to Bakersfield, Ronstadt talked some more about drugs. She has taken just about every drug around, she said in answer to a question. But she’s given up almost every one. Grass once made her hands swell, she said. Cocaine made her “feel terrible. And I also can’t take opiates,” Nor can she drink. A steady diet of gin, she said, made her dizzy and she thought she had vertigo. Other drinks gave her skin rashes. She tried heroin “once or twice, but it’s not for me.” She can take speed and declared Methedrine her only remaining vice. “But it makes me sneeze too much. But the fat farm [actually the Ashram, in Los Angeles, affiliated with Ronstadt’s now defunct health club] taught me that running does the same thing speed does, and it doesn’t make you feel bad, so now I run whenever I can.”
Her current obsession is food. And, between mouthfuls of a burrito from a roadside burger stand, she expressed a desire to kick, for professional reasons: “I can sing better after shooting smack in both arms than after eating too much,” she said.
Linda turned to a man-on-the-street question feature from the San Francisco Chronicle. The question was, “Do you like hairy girls?” Ronstadt: “Jackson [Browne] and J.D. [Souther] aren’t hairy. I like furry men. Albert’s hairy.” She brightened. “You can cling to him and slide all around. He’s just like a human teddy bear.”
The next day, the day of the Bakersfield concert, the Los Angeles Times‘s review of Linda’s concert at the Music Center was out; it was a rave, headlined: “A Triumph for Linda Ronstadt.” The show had ended with Maria Muldaur joining in on “Heart like a Wheel.” Linda slowly read the review and looked up at Asher with only one comment: “Hmm, he didn’t say anything about Maria.”
Bakersfield was where Ronstadt lost her temper, something her friends say she has learned to keep in check in recent years. Onstage, she is easily distracted by exploding flashbulbs. At Bakersfield Civic Auditorium, the stage is only a foot or two high and the front row is only the width of an aisle away from the edge of the stage. After the opener, “Colorado,” Linda asked that all flash pictures be taken during the second song, “That’ll Be the Day.” But one man in the front row either didn’t hear or didn’t want to hear Ronstadt’s request and he kept shooting away. On the instrumental break of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” she gestured for him to quit — and he didn’t.
Last time she got really mad, Linda tried kicking in a door and broke her leg. Before that, she heaved a wax candle at a loudmouthed customer at the Troubadour (she was in the audience, not onstage). Here in Bakersfield, she completed “Silver Threads” and hurled her tambourine, Frisbee style, at the flasher. “That was for the asshole who keeps taking flash pictures,” she said and repeated her request.
Linda recovered and rolled through the rest of the hour-long set with ease; she received, an encore call from a mostly tepid crowd. After the concert, she packed up her knitting case quickly, joked with the band and talked with Asher and crew members about the sound system. As for the tambourine incident, she was sorry — not about having thrown the instrument, but about her poor aim. “I hit some girl in the shin,” she said, and made a face that said something between “Oops” and “Yikes.”
But the show was over, and Linda was coming home.
Linda Maria Ronstadt comes from singing stock. At age three she was listening to music on the radio and begging her mother to play the ukelele. “I remember doing it in baby talk,” she said. Linda was serenaded on birthdays with a family favorite, “Las Mananitas.” Her parents frequently hosted dinner parties and invariably her father would pick up a guitar around 10:30 and family and friends would gather around for a group sing that would last till two or three in the morning. And the kids were allowed to stay up. “We’d be lying on the floor trying to hold our eye lids up,” said Linda, “but they’d let us sing along, without trying to make us perform.” Linda learned much of her music from the records of Lola Beltran, a master of the falsetto studded, rancheros style of singing.
At Tuscon International Airport Linda was greeted by brother Pete, 33, a policeman, his wife, Jackie, and two kids, Phil and Mindy. Linda was immediately the neat aunt, modestly famous, to the extent that they hear her songs and ask for the concert on the radio. “Oh,” Linda responded. “Do you still have that Snoopy radio?”
At home, Linda was greeted by her mother at the door; they had seen each other a couple of weeks ago, when Mrs. Ronstadt, known to friends as “La,” accompanied the tour through several Eastern cities, sleeping on “The Cheatin’ Heart Special” and winking at the funny-smelling smoke. “I had so much fun I forgot I was 60,” she said. Linda’s father, a fair-sized man with expansive, Cugat facial features, embraced his daughter inside, patting her three times on the ass, and gave her a gift: a gold heart on a setting of wood. Linda, suddenly the little daughter, immediately asked for a chain to go with it. Sister Suzi, 35, a housewife, brother Mike, 21, bearded and hoping to be a singer himself, and an assortment of in-laws, nephews, nieces and friends dropped by. In a quiet moment, everyone sitting around waiting for someone to talk, Mom asked: “How does it feel to be Number One, Number One and Number One?” Linda made a dunno face. “I’m not crying,” she shrugged and sat down on the carpet to listen to Phil’s singing, on tape, of “Snoopy and the Red Baron.”
The family was in a reminiscing mood and the center of the stories, of course, was number one daughter, how she, Suzi and Pete were such a dynamite group in the folkie days, playing Tucson parties, pizza joints and, one time, a bra and girdle sale downtown. “Linda had a solo spot,” said Suzi. “She sang things like ‘The Trees They Do Grow High.’ She was so cute and little, and she wore a black dress with a string of pearls.” Bob Kimmel, the Stone Poney who played bass for the Ronstadts on occasion, remembered Linda at age 14: “She had a phenomenal voice. The quality of it, the characteristic Linda Ronstadt sound, was there.'”
On the way in from the airport, Linda had casually told Pete: “We’re not doing ‘Silver Threads’ and ‘I Can’t Help It’ too well. You wanna sing with us?” And Pete, who’d effectively killed the family act when he decided to join the force, casually replied: “Sure. In fact, we’ve worked up some la-las for ‘Keep Me from Blowing Away.'”
At the house, the three, plus Mike, worked out parts for the Hank Williams classic, while La sat at a distance, smoking and making requests for “So Fine.” At the soundcheck at the Tucson Music Center, the band seemed happy to step back and make way for the family. The harmonies, onstage that evening, were difficult to hear — the sister is a little mike shy, and all three were unaccustomed to electric backing. But what was audible was pleasant, as it was at the house. If Pete hadn’t become a cop, it could very well have been Linda and the Ronstadts.
It was late by the end of two shows, but the Ronstadts had planned a party for the band, the family and a few friends, featuring Mom’s Mexican cooking. The first little scene at the party was Peter Asher’s entrance. As soon as the timid-looking manager was pointed out to Mr. Ronstadt, Linda’s father went over, hugged him and whisked him away for a little talk. Later, everyone fed, Mr. Ronstadt accepted a guitar from Mike and began to sing a lilting Spanish song. Linda joined in on the chorus, in high harmony. On another number, with Pete taking over on guitar, Mr. Ronstadt reached out and held his younger daughter’s hand for a fleeting moment. Guests looked at each other with soft smiles. A rock & roll party, indeed . . .
Back in Los Angeles, on the eve of Hawaii, Linda recalled the family sing and, to the best of her ability, the songs. “They’re all revolutionary songs,” she said. “One was ‘El Adios del Soldado,’ a song of great heartbreak, about a soldier riding away. This guy says, ‘Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m going off to battle, but I’ll be back tomorrow.’ And the next day, his ghost rides back.”
We were in Albert Brooks’s house, in the Hollywood Hills: nice place, white walls, lots of recording equipment. Linda moved in last Christmas but has hardly been there; her cartons are still in one room, unopened. If she and Albert stay together, they’d want another house, she said. And if they split, she’d rather not go through another packing job. Life, as always, is unsettled.
I asked about her parents’ response to her success. “They’re proud of me. I left home at 18 and they didn’t stand in my way. They thought I was too young, but they knew I wanted to sing. My father gave me $30 and he gave me this advice . . . ” Linda started to titter . . . ” which was, basically, ‘Don’t let anyone take your picture with your clothes off.’ “She laughed. “Watch out for those guys in the city.’ And he gave me a two-dollar bill with a corner torn off, which I still have.”
Linda went to Los Angeles, at the behest of Bob Kimmel, the first beatnik Linda ever ran across in Tucson. Kimmel moved to L.A. when Linda was still a senior at Catalina High. He wrote her about the L.A. music scene and invited her out. She tried a weekend during the Easter break of 1964 and sang with Kimmel at the Insomniac, a small club in Hermosa Beach (it is now a parking lot). By the time she was out of high school, Kimmel had met Ken Edwards, who hung out at the Ash Grove and picked up music from ‘the likes of Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and saw player Larry Hagler. Later that year, Linda made the split from home and in L.A. she heard Kimmel’s plans for a group. “It was going to be five people. We had an electric autoharp and a girl singer, and we thought we were unique in the world. And it turned out the Jefferson Airplane and the Lovin’ Spoonful had beaten us.” The dream was trimmed to a trio, and one night, doing their wash and minding their business, they got discovered.
“There was a place called Olivia’s, which was an amazing soul food place down in Ocean Park [between Venice and Santa Monica]. Everybody ate there. The Doors were getting together then and they ate there. We used to do our laundry across the street, and these two guys — they were sort of would be managers — were eating lunch, and they heard us rehearsing [with Kimmel on guitar] all the way across the street, through the traffic and the dryers. They came over and — you know — ‘We’re going to make you stars.’ They took us down to see Mike Curb, who was working for Mercury, and we thought, ‘Wow, this is it!’
“But they wanted to call us the Signets; they wanted me to wear evening gowns and work in Vegas. They wanted us to make surfing music. They hired the Hondells to play on our records. We made a couple of records, ‘So Fine’ and a couple of Bobby’s tunes, and then we told them to forget it, ’cause we wanted to be called the Stone’ Poneys, and I wanted to wear this denim skirt I had.” A comic who worked at another club in Hermosa Beach stepped in and offered to get them a hoot at the Troubadour; he did, but immediately after the set he introduced her — and only her — to Herb Cohen, a folk manager and promoter. “He and Herb came and grabbed me and started to propel me out the door, and they took me to Tana’s, next door, and Kimmel wandered over eventually and I remember Herbie saying to Kimmel, ‘I don’t know whether I can get you guys a contract, but I can get your girl singer recorded,’and that was sort of the beginning. Trouble in the ranks. And I said, ‘No, no, I won’t sing without the group.'”
Without Cohen, the Poneys got a job at the Troubadour, opening for Oscar Brown Jr. “It was so demoralizing,” said Linda. “He had a band and this amazing chick he married [Jean Pace], and he got a very uptown black audience. It was such a blow to our confidence that we broke up. I moved to Venice and Kenny and I continued to play at a couple of places, but we were starving to death for two or three months. My mother sent me rent money.” When Linda heard a record by one of Herb Cohen’s acts, the Modern Folk Quartet, on the radio she thought she’d blown her chance, but called him anyway. “He tried to get me together with Frank Zappa to cut a demo. Jack Nitzsche was looking for a girl Rolling Stones kind of singer.” Ronstadt considered herself provincial at that point but she was open, she said, to “modern music.” But the matchup went nowhere, and she regrouped with the Poneys. Cohen stuck with her — and the group — and introduced them to Nick Venet, a producer who shortly after meeting the group got a job at Capitol Records.
“Capitol wanted me as a solo,” she said, “but Nick convinced them I wasn’t ready, that I would develop. It was true. I wasn’t ready, to do anything. I still wasn’t ready when I became a single.” Still, she was constantly being pushed. “I remember when we first recorded, Nick and Herbie put their arms around me, took me out in the hallway and said, ‘You realize that you’re going to be a single if you’re good.’ I still thought the situation would resolve itself, that we would develop as a group and they would see it that way.” A first album, sort of soft/folkie, We Five sounds with Linda doing lead on several cuts, flopped. The second album included a rock number pulled out by Venet called “Different Drum,” with Linda backed by four L.A. sessionplayers. Before “Drum” hit, in late 1967, Capitol sent the group out on a promotional tour. “We did things like open for Butterfield at the Cafe au Go Go — which was worse than Oscar Brown.” Linda looked sorrowful at the memory. “Here we were rejected by the hippest element in New York as lame. We broke up right after that. We couldn’t bear to look at each other.” Edwards split for India.
But the Poneys had a hit. Linda and Kimmel pulled themselves together, hired some help and toured with the Doors. “Second acts,” Linda laughed. “It’s really the pits, you know?” After the tour, Kimmel left and settled in Big Sur for a year, working as a vegetable gardener and night watchman; he now operates McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles.
Capitol squeezed out one more album, this time with Linda and all session musicians, and called it Linda Ronstadt, Stone Poney and Friends, Vol. 3. But she was definitely on her own now — and, once again, in poverty.
“See, the Poneys were taken off the books after the second album. Since it was a hit, they made royalties off it. But I didn’t. I paid all by myself for the third album, which was expensive and it put me severely in the red by the time I started recording my first solo album. I never made any royalties until . . . well, I’ll make some at the end of this next royalty period . . . I’ll make a bunch.” Don’t Cry Now, her first album for Asylum, sold over 300,000 but royalties were swallowed up by recording costs and the advance she had received for switching over.
Her first solo album for Capitol, Home Grown, was produced by Chip Douglas and had her running through songs by Dylan, Randy Newman, John D. Loudermilk and Fred Neil. To her, it’s an easily forgotten album. So is Silk Purse, produced by Elliot Mazer in Nashville, despite the hit, “Long Long Time.”
“I hate that album,” she said. There was no hesitation in saying so. “I’m sure Elliot doesn’t think it’s very good either. I couldn’t sing then, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was working with Nashville musicians and I don’t really play country music; I play very definitely California music, and I couldn’t communicate it to them.” And the one song she liked — Gary White’s “Long Long Time” — was ignored by Capitol until L.A. radio airplay forced the label. “They released it,” said Linda, “but they told me, ‘Don’t bring us another country single.'”
Linda then met John Boylan, whose production work (especially on Rick Nelson’s record of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me”) she liked. “I wanted someone who knew what I was trying to do and would do what I wanted. So eventually we moved in together.” Boylan became her producer and, from here on, things get a little muddy. Boylan became her former boyfriend — Linda met and moved in with J.D. Souther — and she dropped Cohen as manager. She tried for a friend, Peter Asher, but he was managing Kate Taylor and feared a conflict of interests. “Just,” said Asher, “in terms of a gig coming up that would be ideal for both, and one would have a hard decision to make.” Boylan agreed to manage her.
These shifts burdened Ronstadt through what she calls “the bleak years, when I was just grinding it out.” One of her problems, she said, was her tendency to fall into dependent, father-daughter relationships. “Herbie Cohen gave me a perspective on the music business — how it was basically all bullshit. But he was older than me — he’s 40ish now — and he intimidated me. I did everything he did and I related to him in a whiney, wimpy way. But he wasn’t a musician and couldn’t help me with the music. He had me on the road with any old kind of band, which is terrible, and if I needed a guitar player, his idea would be to call up the musician’s union.
“Boylan was more effective transmitting things, but we argued a lot; we competed enormously in the studio. I just didn’t trust him, I didn’t trust anyone then, and I was always afraid that something was going to get pulled over me. I was punch-drunk from producers. I must have been very difficult to work with.”
And Boylan was another dad-kid relationship. “I’d wake up and call him and ask, ‘Gee, what should I do today? What socks should I put on?’ It was very unhealthy, and it went on for a couple of years. And finally, in the middle of the Neil Young tour, we were just getting on each other’s nerves too much and I was turning into an idiot, and I wasn’t doing any thinking for myself, and it wasn’t right, because of course you have to make your own decisions.”
On the Young tour, in Boston, Linda ran into Kate Taylor, who told her she wasn’t working anymore and that Asher might be free. He was. Literally.
“Here I had a situation with Herbie Cohen where I was still paying commissions because I couldn’t get out of that contract — it was seven years or something horrible like that; I’m still paying him off — and Peter was really groovy. He waived commissions for a year and really worked his ass off for me.”
Linda began Don’t Cry Now with John Boylan. “I knew Peter wanted to produce it, but I was too paranoid; I was too afraid to move from another situation again. John had got me off Capitol, negotiated the deal with Asylum — I was going to make an album for Asylum, then another one for Capitol — and that’s when Peter came into the situation. I continued for a few months to try to record with John, but it was apparent our relationship had deteriorated to the point where we couldn’t work together anymore.”
She asked Asher to help on a couple of tracks (“Sail Away” and “I Believe in You”), and while they were among the best sounding, ultimately, to her, she called the sessions “disastrous” — “I had personal problems or something else was happening.” One of her better songs on the Young tour was a version of the old Betty Everett hit, “You’re No Good,” and she tried cutting it. “It was terrible,” said Asher. “I had the wrong rhythm section. They were very good, but they were playing the wrong kind of thing. We gave up.”
“Then,” Ronstadt continued, “I started rerecording everything with J.D. Souther. We were like kids in the studio, just inept, and we took a lot of time. But I learned a lot and it was worth it, almost, because it was such hard work. After that experience, I knew so much more when I went into the studio with Peter, so it was easier for me to talk to him; it wasn’t like I was a person who didn’t know how to do what she wanted to do.”
It is all finally coming together. After six years at it, she is even feeling all right about being a solo singer. “I didn’t feel at ease about it until this month,” she said. “I mean I finally feel that I’m doing okay as a singer, and that we’re doing good shows, and the band is cooking and it’s great.”
“See, my voice was always the thing I hated the most. I thought it was nasal. But I always had lousy sound systems, and I never knew I was a loud singer till this year, I never heard myself; I sang by radar. I would oversing, ruin my voice and never develop subtle nuances, or try to experiment. Being onstage was always an unpleasant experience for me.
“I always thought I was horrible. If people didn’t like me, I thought they just had good taste.” She laughed. “But I didn’t think it always had to be bad or I would’ve quit. I thought it was bad because of reasons I had to correct and I was right. What I finally did was, when I got Peter, I finished off Don’t Cry Now and two days later I had to be on the road, I had to take this band I put together real fast, with a lot of good musicians, but people who couldn’t play with each other. And Peter was looking at it, and I thought, ‘My god, he’ll think this is terrible and he’ll quit!’ That’s when I realized it was up to me; I’d have to pull it together, get up onstage and take command. And I did. I started playing guitar onstage, ’cause we needed an acoustic guitar player. I remember sitting in the dressing room rehearsing “Long Long Time” between shows, so I could go onstage and do it. And Peter was impressed that I was able to pull it off.
“The band before that was so clumsy. We’d play ballads and it sounded like elephants playing, it was so musically unrefined. And I’d feel bogus about it and couldn’t stand up onstage and say, ‘This is great music and we’re gonna lay it on you.'”
A book of the onstage wit and wisdom of Linda Ronstadt would wind up just a shade thicker than a book of Nixon’s factual statements about Watergate. We now know that the adolescent giggling is part of Linda’s character when she’s nervous or ill at ease. Also, a person is not normally stocked with a variety of giggles from which to choose for crowd-pleasing purposes. So hers is an awkward one that gets Peter Asher, for one, “empathetically squirmy.”
“Uh, it makes me uncomfortable,” he said, “because it means she’s uncomfortable. The solution is to get everything right.
“They say a pro can handle whatever happens, but the trouble with proness is: You start to get unreal and have fixed lines. To be real like Linda, you almost have to be nervous or embarrassed — or, if someone in the audience is objectionable, you have to dislike them — not necessarily throw her tambourine — but mentally, you have to.
“Joni Mitchell suffered from the same things. She’s done shows where she’s burst into tears and run off. In a sense, they’re both in the same situation, of trying to say what they think.”
But when it comes to story-telling, Joni wins, even with her giggles. Linda, without the aura and the stance of writer of the songs she sings, can come off like a babbling idiot in comparison. Recently, however, she has learned to edit herself and now her remarks about the songs she sings are illuminating and to the point.
“I knew people thought I was dumb,” she said, “and I encouraged it a lot of times, ’cause I would get onstage and be very self-conscious.” Offstage, “People would get me in situations and actually try to make me feel dumb . . . Yeah, so they’d have more control over me. Peter and Betsy, I met them in New York five years ago and they were so nice. I always do better on the East Coast, for some reason. People who I met on the East Coast thought I was neat and intelligent. People I met on the West Coast thought I was an idiot who always threw drinks around the Troubadour bar, so it was fortunate I met them on the East Coast. They moved out to Los Angeles and would invite me to parties and Peter was an intelligent person I could talk to and he would talk back to me like a person, not like somebody he wanted to ball, or somebody he thought was silly and could push around. All I needed was somebody to react to me like that.”
Peter Asher is a thin, redheaded, eyeglassed, shy sort, British and a teen idol ten years ago, the Peter of Peter and Gordon. Since then he has shied from performing — except for background bits behind the acts he has produced and managed, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt.
Their five-year friendship, he said, has helped in the studio. “Her musical instinct and ear were exceptional and almost always right,” he said. “People in the past have tended to discount that, but I think it was because she had a hard time getting people to understand her.” Linda, he said, chose most of the songs and worked out the initial vocal arrangements on Heart like a Wheel. Instrumental arrangements were a cooperative matter among Asher, Ronstadt and Andrew Gold.
One of the few and major arguments about the album was over “You’re No Good.” Asher had resurrected the song and, with Gold, tried to come up with a guitar track. “We’d been there all night and tried a million things. Finally we built up this montage of all these guitar overdubs which we were very proud of by the end of this 12-hour thing. Linda came in the next day and didn’t like it. And for a while she actually tried having someone else [Ken Edwards] overdub something else. But in the course of listening to it several times, she completely turned around.”
Linda had heard part of Asher’s remarks, and I asked her what she didn’t like about the guitar lines.
“Oh, I thought it sounded like the Beatles,” she said. And it does. I turned back to Asher.
What about the time, in Tucson, when Linda’s father took Asher aside. What did he say?
“He said he was glad to meet me, that he was glad she was successful and thanked me. And he said he hoped she was making some money that she would keep, because she wouldn’t be doing this forever. He knows she’s never made any money in the past.”
I asked Asher for the secret of his success with Linda. “I think the thing it’s frequently attributed to is that I’m the first person who’s managed and produced her with whom, as they so delicately put it, there is a solely professional relationship. It must be a lot harder to have objective conversations about someone’s career when it’s someone you sleep with.”
Ah . . . but what about temptation? Or, as I so delicately put it, “Was Betsy ever insecure that you might fall into a relationship with Linda?”
Asher smiled. “I’ve no doubt it’s crossed her mind,” he replied. “Crossed my mind.”
I always felt I fell in love with people for neurotic reasons,” said Linda. “It’s nice to like someone who is nice to you for a change.” She likes Albert Brooks, the comedian. For once, she is not in competition with a musician/boyfriend. Based on eight months together, Ronstadt says it’s too hard to tell about him. “But he’s the nicest person I’ve known.” At a hotel in Los Angeles, after an interview, she called him to let him know she was on her way home. She baby talked to him, asking if he was smiling, even though he’d been up all night working on his album and fighting with engineers. And even though he and Linda weren’t on the best terms. “I’ll make you smile,” she cooed into the phone.
Linda doesn’t talk much about her love life, but from the songs she has chosen to sing and the stories she has told about her frustrations, I began to toy with the word “heartbreak” for her story. I told her this in Hawaii and she perked up.
“I’ve been heartbroken a lot,” she said. “That’s a key word. It’s like that John David song — ‘Faithless love, where did I go wrong/Was it telling stories in a heartbreak song . . . ‘
“When you choose to become a singer and sing about stuff like that, it means you choose a life like that. It naturally means it’ll be overbalanced in areas that don’t contribute to emotional security and continuity with anyone. It contributes to an overall person who is more paranoid and volatile; you have to stay sensitive and more vulnerable in that way and things change so fast; people like you for such strange reasons, for such untrustworthy reasons, that pretty soon you don’t know who to believe or trust.
“The weirdest things make me fall in love. Usually, it’s whatever I happen to be missing right at the moment. I can have a guy I’m in love with who has everything but one thing; then the next guy I meet has a whole lot of that one thing and I go, ‘Oh, I’m in love with him,’ but he hasn’t got any of the other things. So it’s usually very illusory.” Ronstadt emphasizes the ill.
At L.A. International, the plane to Honolulu was delayed and Linda and Peter made small talk. Bonnie Raitt needs a producer and two suggestions have come up for her comment: two producers who have worked with Linda. She dismissed both — one as too sloppy, the other as a jerk. “You should produce her,” she told Asher — “even though I might be cutting my own throat.”
They also talked about Asylum. They have begun planning an album, which the company wants ready for release in May, and if they don’t deliver, David Geffen is considering releasing a single from Don’t Cry Now. Meantime, Capitol, having already released a collection of old Stone Poneys and solo tracks under Linda’s name, is now thinking of repackaging the first and worst Poneys album under her name. Since Capitol owns the album, there is nothing to be done, but Asher hopes to stop the company from representing it as a Linda Ronstadt album. “If the Beatles had broken up and split into obscurity except Ringo,” he reasoned, “I don’t think you could put out Revolver and call it Ringo Starr.”
Speeding toward Hawaii, Peter Asher relaxed into the latest Reader’s Digest while Linda watched The Sting. Asher had already gone through Business Week, and he’d read the New Yorker at home. Seconds later, he nudged my attention and pointed to an article he’d found about a leukemia victim in Nashville. He wanted me to note the title, in romantic pink type:
“Linda’s Extraordinary Triumph and Rebirth,” it read.