An Interview with Linda Ronstadt
by Tony Phillips
“I got the words and I got the tune. I’d like to croon it under the moon, but I got nobody to hear my song so I’m hummin’ to myself.” They’re lyrics from the title song of Linda Ronstadt’s new CD of American standards called Hummin’ To Myself. But they could also describe that legendary singer’s chagrin earlier this year when the head of Las Vegas’ Aladdin casino packed up Ronstadt’s bags and told her to get out of town. While she was finishing up an encore of her hit “Desperado”, she dedicated it to filmmaker Michael Moore — praising him from the stage as a “great American patriot” and “someone who is spreading the truth” — her bags were waiting in a hotel limousine idling at the curb just outside the stage door.
Throughout her tour, she had been registering voters and closing each show with an endorsement of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. When she arrived in Las Vegas the gig went off with the usual mix of “yays and boos” according to Ronstadt, but CBS News detailed a fracas of people storming out of the 4,500 seat theater amid concert posters and tossed cocktails. “I walked off the stage, picked up my purse and headed for the door,” Ronstadt continues. But a representative from the hotel wouldn’t let her leave until the casino owner spoke to her. When Ronstadt spotted her suitcases in the trunk of a hotel limousine, she figured out what was happening. “I got the suitcases, walked half-a-block to my tour bus and left. I was annoyed, but kept my room key. We’ve often talked about auctioning it off for charity,” she laughs, adding “I didn’t even realize it was a national story until I got a call from Michael Moore and he apologized for getting me in trouble.”
It’s no coincidence Ronstadt’s recent turmoil revolved around cars and drivers. Perhaps only automobiles are more “left coast” than this ten-time Grammy winner. From her romance with California governor Jerry Brown to the roller-skated, knee-socked cover of 1978’s platinum-selling Living in the USA, it’s hard to imagine a singer more identified with the California brand. The Tucson transplant began her rock and roll adolescence there with performances at “a beatnik dive on Hermosa Beach called The Insomniac which is now mercifully a parking lot” and reached fruition in 1974 when she released the breakthrough solo record Heart Like a Wheel and its accompanying #1 single “You’re No Good.”
California driving even inspired Ronstadt’s 30th record, Hummin’ to Myself, on her new home, Verve Records. “I was driving up the coast of California and listening to a Chet Baker record,” she remembers, “because I had just seen The Talented Mr. Ripley, which featured a lot of Chet Baker songs, And I fell in love with the idea of a really small setting for my record: just piano, voice and bass and drums, maybe a trumpet.” And the songs she selected to perform in this intimate setting? “Songs I love so much I can’t stand it,” she replies, “sometimes I think if I don’t get to sing that, I’m going to die. The ones I feel that way about I put on this record.”
Frankly, if her 17 gold and platinum selling albums were automobiles, she would have racked up plenty of tickets for failure to signal. In 1980 Ronstadt flew east to visit New York theatrical producer Joseph Papp. “I asked if he’d give me a job,” she chuckles, remembering her naivety. Still, Papp must have seen something in this self-described “rock and roll refugee” because three months later she got a call to play the lead in his revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater.
“I was just blown away,” she recalls, “but I didn’t have a clue. I didn’t know stage left from stage right, how to sing, anything about working in theater at all. Fortunately my manager did and gave me some pointers, otherwise I’d have really been lost.” The woman who finished up the seventies with five more top ten albums following Heart Like a Wheel before she was cast as Mabel in Pirates didn’t know how to sing? Constant self-doubt is almost part of the process. You’re no good, indeed.
Following Pirates Ronstadt continued to make a series of left turns starting with three platinum-selling albums of lushly arranged standards recorded with renowned composer Nelson Riddle and his orchestra beginning in 1983 with What’s New. In 1988, she recorded her first of two Grammy-winning albums of Mexican folksongs with Canciones De Mi Padre and a Grammy-winning.tropical Latin recording, Frenesi.
So Hummin’ to Myself is a redux of her Nelson Riddle trilogy? Not according to Ronstadt, who explains. “I felt that since Nelson died, I didn’t want to work with an orchestra,” she explains, “I had done that with him and I just didn’t have the heart for it, but I really wanted to work on the smaller setting.” Rather than making her task easier, she points out “the simpler the music, the more musical you have to be.” Though she’s understandably proud of her “grown-up record” she admits she “never listens to stuff when I’m done with it.”
Not looking back is nothing new. “When I was six,” she remembers, “I knew I was going to sing. I had no idea of being a star. It just was something I knew I was meant to do.” And even back then, venue was as important as repertoire. “I never saw myself in clubs or boxing arenas,” she states, “I always saw myself on a concert stage. After Broadway, I’d rather die than go back in one of those arenas. I was a really shy person growing up. When I wound up onstage singing rock and roll, I had to affect a kind of bravado that really wasn’t me.”
Ronstadt may affect bravado for the stage, but it comes effortlessly during our hour-long interview from Tucson. She is opinionated and pulls no punches. She’s raised her two adopted children without television and freaked when a friend brought her son to a fast food restaurant. “It’s not only bad for people’s health, but the labor practices it encourages are awful,” she rants about the fast food industry, “people are working for $5.50 an hour with little chance of advancement. It’s anti-community. It’s anti-labor. It’s every bad thing you could imagine.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger calling the California legislature “economic girly men” is also deemed unconscionable from a woman who knows from the governors of California. “He said it in a bullying way, rallying that “he-man” antigay feeling. It’s like throwing the first rock at someone’s head which doesn’t kill them but can incite a whole mob into a frenzy of rock throwing that could kill. I live in Arizona where a bunch of cowboys came into a bar and killed a gay guy — a friend of mine’s lover — and didn’t get anything but probation.”
Asked if she might be having a wink at the whole Vegas brouhaha with standards like Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me A River,” Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” and “Get Out Of Town” and Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” on her latest record, she exclaims, “God, no!” Her love of these songs predates her Vegas scuffle by more than twenty years. “’Never Will I Marry’ was a song we took a couple of swings at in 1980. It wasn’t sitting right. I finally figured that arrangement out in the shower. I just felt if I didn’t sing it I wouldn’t be able to sleep. When I was 50 that octave jump was easy, but at 58 I’m going, ‘Oh, here comes that octave jump. I better start training.’”
So Vegas aside, might she be training for a tour? “I’ll probably do some concerts,” she admits, “but I haven’t decided yet. I started this when I was 17 and I’ve been on the road a long time. I’m not a road dog, or a road goddess as I told the girls we should call ourselves. I want to see my kids and take them to baseball. It’s their turn.” Still, even the demands of single motherhood couldn’t prevent her from making one of the simplest and most beautiful records of her career. In fact, these songs have a lot in common with her kids. “They’re little stories of your life,” she says, “and you just have to tell them. They are family songs that have been around forever and, again, if I couldn’t’ sing them I would die. But I’ll get to sing them plenty.”