Saturday, July 05, 2008

Kat's Korner: Linda Ronstadt, the very best

Kat: "I'm going back some day, come what may . . ." she promises in "Blue Bayou." Linda Ronstadt. Judy Collins if Collins had a little soul and didn't think every performance was a recital. That's what Bill said, back in the summer of 1979, and probably the worst relationship I ever had but, when you're right, you're right. Flash forward to almost the present. We were in Puerto Rico a month before the primary, C.I., Ava, Elaine, Trina and myself. We'd landed, we had the rental car, we were good to go. Or so we thought. I was driving. Who's got the tunes?

No one had packed CDs. Got to have my tunes. A quick stop for sodas and gum and I'm at the counter where they've got a hundred scratch offs, aspirin by the twos in those little packages and assorted sundry items. They've also got a little white box with maybe a dozen CDs. I'm flipping through and the only act I'm recognizing is Jan & Dean when I come across Linda Ronstadt and assume it's a quickie, cut-out or one of those 'albums' that gives you seven or eight cuts and retails for $7.99 or less because there's only one cut you know. But it's the real deal, a full fledged collection, put together by a genuine label (Elektra) and it's got 21 tracks. We'll spend every weekend in Puerto Rico getting out the vote for Hillary and I didn't the need to wait until the results were counted to know Puerto Rico was going to be a lucky region. I discovered that at the gas station where I found The Very Best of Linda Rondstadt.


"I've been cheated, been mistreated, when will I be loved?" We're in the rental. Rolling. And we've got Linda blasting on the speakers while we sing along at full volume. "It always breaks my heart in two, it happens every time."

Along with Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt was one of the few female rock acts to rake up platinum status (over a million vinyl albums shipped to stores) in the seventies. I said "shipped." Back then, the charts were based on orders, not sales. Carole King had one strong album and then her tapestry unraveled. Joni Mitchell finally got the wide audience she deserved and then began her jazz experiments. Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross were sixties carry-overs like the Rolling Stones but the seventies for Aretha were really about the death of Atlantic's interest in her and it generally seemed that Motown only gave a damn about a Diana album if everyone else was tanking and they really needed the Queen of the label at that moment. On the album chart during that decade it really was just Carly and Linda in terms of consistency. While Carly was a singer-songwriter, Linda was a singer (though she did co-write a few songs in that decade).

She sold even when the record industry went bust. Today's current panic about the state of music sales is only 'fresh' and 'new,' if you haven't lived through the panic before. But Linda's success during the great meltdown didn't help her. Yeah, Living in the USA sold huge in 1978 and 1979 but it was a case of "bad wax," not "hot wax." I knew it at the time but am amazed by the number of people I have met over the years whose stories reflects those of my friends. Purchasing the album and then having to return it because it skipped. When we were all noting our trips to Puerto Rico and the Linda Ronstadt collection, a community member in Texas wrote a column for the gina & krista round-robin about her family's four trips to a Gibson's store two towns away to get a listenable copy of Living in the USA which finally ended with her deciding on the fifth trip to just exchange the album for something by another artist and not risk having to ask the folks, "Can we go back to Gibson's next weekend?"

I tell that story for two reasons. First, there's this romantic view of vinyl today. You hear about how the sound quality was superior and a hundred other details from purists who forgot the fact that vinyl (then) was mass produced and often badly. The returns on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk due to bad pressing (or low quality vinyl) may have done more to kill it than the supposed experimentation phase the band was in. That's not a defense of CDs or an argument that they are better. It's just noting that if the history of vinyl is going to be told, tell it warts and all.

The second reason I tell the story is because, in the vinyl era, it was down hill sales wise for Linda after that and, like the Mac, that's seen as resulting from experimentation. Mad Love would go on to sell half of what Living in the USA did and Get Closer would half the Mad Love sales. Vinyl was finicky. I knew friends who wouldn't touch it directly, they'd use a cloth. I knew friends who would leave vinyl albums laying around (outside of the sleeves). But whether your nursed it like a critical care patient or treated it like an ashtray or Frisbee, skips, hisses and crackling that came about because of your use (or misuse), you took accountability for but when you took that plastic wrapper off the album cover (if you did, some were so fanatical, they'd cut a slit and leave the plastic on -- I wonder if they now have plastic covered couches?) you expected thing to play perfect. When it didn't, the artist got a bad rep.

Now no one thought that Linda or Tom Petty (whose Hard Promises also resulted in many returns) was in the plant pressing the album or testing the vinyl. But if you purchased an album by an artist and had to return it once due to problems in the manufacture stage, you could be hesitant about purchasing another album by them. If you had to return it repeatedly, you might swear off the artist because who had time for the hassle? You went into the store, you had to produce the receipt. Even for an exchange where you were getting another copy of the album, it could get tense in that time when records weren't selling. If the store had a stereo, the clerk might feel the need to play it. There would be the long walk to the stereo with the clerk where you felt like you were on trial and the whole time you were thinking, "What if it's my needle? What if, when the record's played, it's not skipping? I'm going to look like such a liar!"

If you doubt the importance that played, look at the sales on Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits, Volume One (1976) and Greatest Hits, Volume Two (1980). The first sold seven million and, granted, some of that is from the CD era. The second sold a million but had more hits that were recently known when the album came out. (The first volume dipped into the sixties and Linda's work with the Stone Poneys for some of the tracks.) Two years after Living in the USA hit number one and was certified double platinum, four years after the first collection and it spends only 21 weeks on Billboard's Top 200 while the first collection spent 80 weeks?

I've never thought it was Linda's 'punk' phase (as some identified "Get Closer" and "How Do I Make You" as well as Linda's Elvis Costello covers in the early eighties) that saw a big portion of the audience move on, I think it was the bad pressing of Living in the USA. Linda would go off into her Nelson Riddle phase beginning in 1983 and carry some of the loyal audience along with her as well as add new converts resulting (again) in platinum certifications.

Linda had other problems. She was pretty and much was made of her looks. Following her 1975 hit "You're No Good," I swore her off her for a year-and-a-half due to a six-week affair with a guy who couldn't shut up about her looks. There were some guys who were obsessed with her. They liked her music (and may have, indeed, loved her music) but they were obsessed with her beauty. In 1994, Toni got a divorce from a not-so-good marriage and the final straw for her was when, watching TV with her husband one night, she saw Cindy Crawford promoting some fitness thing and her husband patted her on the legs and said, "Ten minutes a day, hon." I completely related to that story and immediately thought of Troy, the Linda obsessed, and how he told me, the night he asked me out, that I looked just like Linda (I look nothing like Linda, I'm a red-haired, Irish-American) and that was quickly followed by a Linda concert I thought 'we' were attending but ended up feeling instead like I had stumbled into a strip show as every man drooled over Linda, including my date. ("Strip show" is not to suggest Linda did anything other than perform a solid concert. I'm referring to the intense reaction from the predominantly male audience.) "Drooled" is probably an understatement. Within a week, I was gifted by him with a little number like the one Linda wore onstage and, by the time he was 'suggesting' I cut my hair like Linda, the affair was over and I had to swear her off as well for sixteen months. "Blue Bayou" was the song that made it possible for me to listen to Linda again. A good thing because you couldn't listen to the radio in late 1977 without hearing the song.

In 1978, I lived with George who was a 'straight' and an accountant. I was going through a phase that Jackson Browne captured best in "The Pretender" -- e.g. "happy idiot." George was fifteen-years-older and what I saw as 'straight' was really just repressed. He'd managed to make it through the sixties on up to 1978 holding it together only to decide, in October 1978, that he needed to 'find himself.' He went off to Maui and took my entire vinyl Linda collection -- 45s and albums -- with him. He was going to open a surf shop or something. Last I ever heard, he'd been busted for dealing. Simple Dreams, indeed.

I say all of that because it's not just Linda's baggage she carries with her today (or, to be more honest, the baggage Rolling Stone placed on her with their tawdry, leering coverage). For some of us, she also carries our baggage. The first sixteen tracks on the collection I can easily identify with sixteen former lovers -- some of which I would prefer to forget. The bulk of which I would prefer to forget.

But she's got the voice to carry that baggage and much more. That was the big surprise when I popped the CD in. There wasn't a track I wasn't familiar with. The shock was in how strong it is and how well it all works together. There aren't many singers who are just singers that hold up in the rock era for me. They have a few songs that work and a body of work that's erratic. Like George, they seem to need to find themselves. Repeatedly. I don't know whether recording Linda is a character she assumed early on or a reflection of her own persona but recording Linda is consistent thematically. (And that's true even when she leaves the rock, pop, folk or country genre.) She's the one standing whether the battle was rewarding or futile. Listening to the collection reminds me of her film appearance in the erratic FM. More Eileen Brennan and Linda Rondstadt and the film would have been a whole lot better. But in her filmed concert appearances, where all she's doing is singing, you actually get why an FM station being 'remade' would be a huge loss, especially in her magnificent performance of "Love Me Tender."

Which brings up two points regarding The Very Best of Linda Rondstadt. One, she does better covers than anyone. I'm not sure whether I'd judge Phil Collins' version of "You Can't Hurry Love" or Kim Wilde's "You Keep Me Hanging On" as the worst Motown cover ever but I certainly place "Tracks Of My Tears" by Linda as the best reworking (I prefer it to the original but I'm not a fan of falsetto which leaves me indifferent to the bulk of Smokey's vocals -- whether it's "Ooh Baby Baby," which Linda also covers to perfection, or his oom-pah-pah "Tears of a Clown," which Linda might consider rescuing at some point in the future). Two, though you'll love the collection, you'll have your footnotes/differences. At 21 tracks, a lot is left off. For some the absence of "Love Has No Pride" may be a heresy. Others will wonder how you leave off a top ten hit (pop chart) like "How Do I Make You"?

If there's rhyme or reason to the selections, I can't figure it out. But I can tell you the selections work together very well -- sequencing of tracks and remastering. The Very Best of Linda Rondstadt doesn't just remind you (or explain to you, if you're new to Linda) why she's got a career, why she's had so many hits and why she's won so many Grammys, it also makes for a solid listening experience, a CD you can keep in the player and know you've got no filler, no tracks to skip over. I'm known for not being a big fan of collections or best ofs. So if I'm recommending this, it really is something. I long for the CD entitled The Excellence of Linda Ronstadt that mixes in something like "Rock Me On The Water" with her amazing performance of "What'll I Do" -- one that shows not only her vocal range in terms of notes, but also the vocal strength and gift that's allowed her to excel in so many genres. The CD booklet includes a track listing that tells you the song's writer(s), the album it was from, chart(s) position and producer. It also includes an essay by David Ritz whose concluding sentence probably says it, "The crowning achievement of Linda Ronstadt's work is that reconnection, that ability to transform any and all music from the ordinary to the divine." She's also 2008 Hit Parade Hall of Fame nominee and you can vote for her here.

linda ronstadt