One of my favorite lines from the old sitcom WKRP in Cincinatti had Johnny Fever asking fellow DJ Venus Flytrap if he wanted to go check out Carly Simon album covers. As a kid, I could certainly identify with that idea, though for me it wasn’t Carly Simon. No, it was Linda Ronstadt. Heart Like A Wheel, Silk Purse, Hasten Down The Wind, Simple Dreams: these album covers just could not be ignored, mostly because Linda Ronstadt’s beauty was undeniable. The music? Well, I’ll get to that in a minute.
Given the sad news last week that Ronstadt is suffering from Parkinson’s disease and can no longer sing, I feel sort of guilty coming into this essay from this particular angle. But I wanted to talk through how an artist can live inside a person’s head, taking on different roles as time passes. So, yes….there was an element of cheap, raw lust involved when I listened to those albums. And maybe I’m a little embarrassed to think that those desires might have been such a powerful influence on me at the time. Heck, I was only sixteen.
But the music worked its way in. Warren Zevon might have written “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” but he didn’t have that sexy growl, at least not to these ears. Same thing went for “It’s So Easy,” sorry Mr. Holly. It was “Blue Bayou” that really got me. It was all over the radio for the longest time. I might have even said that I was tired of it. I was lying. There was a small folk group at my high school that was made up of a trio of teachers. The woman in the group (I can’t recall her name) would sing that song when they performed. The applause from the cynical student body was thunderous.
Ronstadt went on to put out music in a variety of genres, from roots to jazz/pop standards (I loved those Nelson Riddle albums) to new wave. My sixteen year old self would have been surprised to see me enjoying all of that music. Teenagers don’t like to admit that you have to grow up eventually.
There was a short period when she was working with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. I was lucky enough to see them perform in Boston. And while the three-part harmonies produced that night were quite astonishing, it was when Ronstadt finished “Blue Bayou” that the audience response just about cracked the roof of that old Orpheum theater. I had to hold back some tears at that point — I had forgotten the power of that song.
And now…this. Another great voice silenced by inevitable forces. I want to say that it seems unfair but that’s just denying the nature of life and death. All I know is that this morning I’ll let that music wash over me and I’ll look at that cover photo and smile…for many reasons. I hope Linda Ronstadt will forgive me.