Linda Ronstadt had her chance…but who’s going to get it now?

In creative commons, creativity, culture, education, Miraverse, music industry, npr, technique by Michael Tiemann

Growing up in the 1970s, Linda Ronstadt was one of the first female vocalists that made me want to spend more time on the Rock and Roll side of the FM dial and less time listening to classical music on our local NPR affiliate, WMHT. But a few weeks ago, completely by chance, I heard her talking about her experiences in the Music industry as a special guest of the NPR news quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, and the course of the interview practically wrote a blog posting for the Miraverse concept. Here’s my transcription of the relevant stories:

[3:08] Peter Sagel: Now what happened? Were you dissatisfied with being an international rock star?

Linda Ronstadt: I didn’t like playing in arenas, because they didn’t seem to me to be very appropriate places for music. People go out and buy beers and mill around and light a joint and, you know, get a hot dog, and it just didn’t seem like a place that was set up for an evening of magical reality—which is what we like to think we give to the audience.

PS: Couldn’t you say “I just want to play smaller theaters and charge $1000 a ticket”?

LR: No. Listen—in those days you could get a $10 ticket, which is the way it should be I think.

PS: No! No! Don’t tell them that!

LR: But I mean there are a lot of things that drove the price—there was Ticketmaster, which takes a huge percentage, and then everybody had to have more smoke and more lights. Because you can’t play music in those big places, so you have to do something. And it has to be a big bold gesture. Because there’s so much reverb in there. You know things are echoing around and echoing around. You get there and the guitar solo from the band that was playing there a week before is still ringing around in there. So noone can hear you.

PS: I read once that in regard to—and those Nelson Riddle records were big in my life—I read once that you really didn’t like, you didn’t feel at home with the music you were playing until you discovered Nelson Riddle.

LR: Well, I didn’t discover Nelson Riddle late. I discovered—I’m there for the first time around.

PS: Oh, I see.

LR: You know, because I was born in 1946. I felt that I was artificially encouraged to cop a kind of tough attitude you know because Rock and Roll is kinda tough. And it was quite an identity crisis that women have. You know there’s Janis Joplin, she’s very funky and wore a see-through blouse and she’s actually quite literate and quite a shy and lovely person, but she had to be a really red-hot mamma and you know drinking—what did she drink? She drank some…Southern Comfort and being drunk and kind of slobbering, or whatever it was you were supposed to be doing. I don’t drink, so it’s kinda hard for me to get the right amount of slobber going.

PS: Yeah.

LR: I was kind of a shy child growing up and a bit timid, and so I had to sort of invent this big, kind of tough bravura thing, and I didn’t feel like I wore it quite authentically.

PS: Did you ever miss it when you sort of made the change in the 1980s to the smaller venues?

LR: Oh no! I like to play for the smallest audience possible. It’s just hard to get paid. You know, I mean even with a $10 ticket. That Paul Simon line—angels in the architecture—I really wanted that. I wanted a theater that was like the way the Greeks designed theaters so that you focus your attention on the stage. I mean it’s a small thing to expect. You know, when you’re actually standing there on the stage you kind of hope that people put their attention there instead of off looking at the beer sign or the whatever. People got greedy, and I think also for entertainers after we got into those big colluseums, we didn’t go and see each other’s music anymore. In the old days when I used to play in the Troubador which was a little folk club that held 300 people in Hollywood. You know we all went and saw each other. I saw every single night and every show of Jackson Browne, and James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and Elton John and Carol King—whoever was through there, singing, so we could be influenced by each other. But after we got in the Coliseums, well nobody wanted—first you can’t park. It’s hard to go to those places. And the sound’s awful. The last time I went to see, I think it was Prince. I went and saw the Purple Rain tour. Because I’m such a slobbering…I could slobber for Prince.

PS: Oh sure! Who doesn’t?

LR: He’s really good.

[7:25] PS: Are you still performing? Do you still sing in clubs or theaters of you’re liking?

LR: I still do concerts. I sing with the orchestra. I have all these great Nelson Riddle charts—I have a stack of them—very fabulous. That was my gift to myself in 1980. I decided I wanted grown-up music and I didn’t want to be on stage singing “It’s So Easy”, which is a perfectly reasonable song when you’re you’re young and out to get “it”, but, you know, when you get to be 60 you’re kinda not out to get “it”, you kinda stay home at night and I wanted a song for that.

PS: Right.

LR: So I filed to mail myself this present into the future. I called up Nelson Riddle and said “Will you do these arrangements for me?” I didn’t know if he’d ever heard of me. And it turned out he hadn’t. But…

PS: Wait a minute! 1983 was your…

LR: Yeah, he didn’t have a clue who I was.

PS: Really?!

LR: And he probably wouldn’t have liked it anyway. He hated Rock and Roll.

PS: Clearly not a subscriber to TIME. Or Newsweek, for that matter.

LR: Well, he asked daughter, and his daughter said, you know, “It’s OK. Her checks won’t bounce. You can write for her.” And we had a fabulous time. I had so much fun with him. And the little secret is that why we all want to—all us rocker, geezer types—are coming around to standards, eventually (although I did it as a younger woman), those songs are just beautifully written and they beg to be interpreted and reinterpreted and reinterpreted and each person gets to make them his or her own because they’re enormously flexible and they’re enormously sturdy in their musical construction. They’re really just little jewels of artistic expressions.

PS: You were in fact one of the first, I think you were the first modern pop signer to turn around and do an album of standards. Which, as I say, as become almost de rigeur for pop singers. People like Rod Stewart, when they get to be a certain age. Do you feel at all guilty about that? That we’re now afflicted by Rod Stewart trying to be Dean Martin?

LR: I just feel that I had in my little way I may have rescued some of those songs from spending the rest of their lives riding up and down in an elevator.

PS: Bravo!

Bravo indeed!! Linda Ronstadt enjoyed that fleeting moment when rock was a form of folk music—music that folks listened to, instead of events produced for markets delivered by military-grade industrial sound systems. When musicians took inspiration and learned from each other, rather than fearing that a song would be examined for possible copyright infringement. And she had a chance to learn what great music sounded like by actually hearing it.

I hope that when the Miraverse opens, and when Linda finds herself in North Carolina wondering “where’s a really great place to experience real music?” a friend will tell her that there’s a session at the Miraverse, and that they could use a little help making sure “it” happens. If somebody knows what microphone and preamp she prefers, just let me know and I’ll have them waiting!