Sometime after 1989, I conspired to run away from home with Linda Ronstadt. Though the singer herself was unaware of my plans, I drew inspiration from her single “Adios,” a valediction to a lover of her youth. “We never really made it, baby / but we came pretty close,” she warbles in the song’s first chorus, and something about this near-miss, this faded hope and wistful resignation, encapsulated the clotted disappointments of my suburban childhood in post-Reagan America. Other parts of the song, however, projected a world very much outside of my own, and I envied the song’s reckless experience, its confident pursuit of a break, and, most of all, its singer’s lush voice. Though there are a number of reasons why ultimately I didn’t run away, it is most charitable to think that, principally, I didn’t know where Ronstadt fit into my plans. A voice can be a guide, but I couldn’t figure out how also to make it a destination.
Last week, Ronstadt announced that she had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which renders her unable to sing any more. Voices are impermanent things, changing with time and use, wear and tear. A multi-octave range comes with an expiration date, as anyone lucky enough to possess one knows. Of course, we can hear Ronstadt’s voice again. Thanks to the biographical accidents and the technological developments that make rancheros’ daughters into international stars, we have a fantastic collection of recordings. No one will have to suffer the loss of Rondstadt’s voice as much as she perhaps does.
Nonetheless, there is a cool irony in the fact that few female performers—of her or any generation—was more of a voice. Ronstadt never wrote her own music, and her thirty-album, forty-five-year career was built on the vocal interpretation of standards in a staggering array of musical genres, including country, rock, jazz, folk, pop, show tunes, opera, and canciones. Her original recordings (of which “Adios” is an example) were written and usually arranged by collaborators. Ronstadt’s astounding staying power was due in equal measures to her uniqueness and her adaptability.
Like the performers to whom she is often compared—Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—Ronstadt’s vocal harmonics could move gracefully between tense and relaxed notes, consonant and dissonant sounds, creating smooth, melodic textures and bold, sharp counterpoints. The range and power of the latter are what’s rare about her voice. But given that Ronstadt’s vocal virtuosity outstripped that of her colleagues, it’s striking how many of her best-known songs begin with the emphasis not on the singularity of her voice, but on its capacity for melody. Her opening notes tend to match pitch with the music, rather than more dramatically pronounce their own power. Ronstadt’s voice was a mighty weapon, but song to song, its first salvo rarely seemed to be on the offense.
For example, a 1973 “Midnight Special” performance of “You’re No Good” opens with shots of the piano and bongo drums that drive the song’s rhythms, but when the camera turns to Ronstadt at 0:11, her lyrics “Feeling bad / Now that we’re through,” are performed in a dulcet monosyllable that echoes those percussive rhythms. Her backup singers provide more melody, until the chorus at 0:35, when the rough and throaty declamation “I’m gonna say it again” reveals more of her singular vocal capacities.
This musical structure—which front-loads vocal-instrumental melodies and punctuates the tune with Ronstadt’s more distinctive vocal moves—is entirely characteristic of her best known songs. (We see it too in the performance of “Adios” above, and the note she hits at 0:53 is downright humbling.) And though other female vocalists (think of Amy Winehouse or Nina Simone) would not shy away from opening a number with a harmonic counterpoint, Ronstadt seems to have preferred a structure that, relatively speaking, hides the singer behind a carefully composed inconspicuousness—a structure in which a first-time auditor has no reason to suppose that the melodies which open the songs will yield to the kind of gorgeous high and low notes that precious few people besides a young Linda Ronstadt could perform.
From her 1967 Stone Poneys hit “Different Drum” forward through four decades, her most beloved songs follow this pattern, even if such well-blended sounds were not the real source of Ronstadt’s distinction or arguably the best use of her talent. Indeed, one her most gorgeous contributions (in my mind anyway) is the backing melodies she offers to “Under African Skies” on Paul Simon’s Graceland. Officially credited but otherwise underacknowledged, Ronstadt’s vocals come through especially strong in the song’s second verse, which, not coincidentally, Simon wrote about her:
In early memory
Was ringing ’round my nursery door
I said, “Take this child,
Lord From Tucson, Arizona
Give her the wings to fly through harmony
And she won’t bother you no more.”
Simon saw that Ronstadt’s talent was for harmony, yet the song used her talent largely for melody.
Something about her tendency to begin by matching pitch, like the tendency to sing covers and interpret standards, calibrates the power of Ronstadt’s voice. One way of explaining this tendency would be to say that Ronstadt was trying to hold herself somehow in reserve. Delivering familiar songs and familiar melodies commands attention without being too showy. Another way of explaining the tendency would be to read it as the evidence of a supreme technical mastery. Nothing showcases a nearly singular vocal instrument better than a familiar song.
But quite apart from the question of why Ronstadt might gravitate to such arrangements is the question of why her fans do. Rather than the boorish fanfare of a Christina Aguilera—belting notes to show, again and again, that she can—Ronstadt’s persona projects a refined kind of elegance. Giving audiences something exquisite and rare that is also governed by restraint and technical mastery, her most popular songs work powerfully to code the underside of talent as beauty. It would be difficult to listen to Ronstadt’s music and find it too much: too full, too loud, too precious, too overdone. Instead, here is a vocal talent capable of rare sonic intensities, and yet its intensity never feels overwhelming.
It may be no accident that the beauty of her voice, in its many performances, achieves something different than Ronstadt’s biography. The woman who was featured on six times on the cover of Rolling Stone, who dated a California governor during his bid for the presidency, who holds the all-time record for the most consecutive certified platinum albums—that woman could never maintain her elegance, could never be simply beautiful. The messy fanfare was always part of the singer’s life off-stage, fuelled by the tripartite antagonisms of the music industry, the media, and public opinion. And though the world and the music business have changed a lot since the late ’60s—in part thanks to battles Ronstadt fought and won—the music and the life must be characterized differently. When life happens, shit happens; but on stage, the voices keep singing.
Until, of course, they can’t any more. But I’d like to think this was an eventuality that Ronstadt anticipated. While I was plotting my childhood escape to the tune of “Adios,” I listened to the rest of the album. Cry Like a Rainstorm opens with a song called “Still Within the Sound of My Voice,” a piano-driven anthem to an unavailable lover, who can’t be found but might be able to listen. The song’s bridge imagines the possibility that sounds reverberate without reaching their destinations:
I am calling like the echo
Of a passing train that cries
One last time before it fades into
The distant hills and dies
The song tells us that the problem with singing is that you can’t be sure anyone will hear you. By a strange but sure corollary, the song also tells us that the problem with running away is that you inevitably take home with you. But sometimes—just sometimes—a sound, a voice, leaves us where it found us, and in the best sense there will be nowhere to run.
Jordan Alexander Stein: Not always the theory guy.