In the first of two nights with the music superstar, Ronstadt reflects on her fascinating journey, as chronicled in her new memoir, Simple Dreams.
Singer Linda Ronstadt, Part 1
Tavis: Before she retired from performing in 2009, Linda Ronstadt’s impressive career found her collaborating with so many outstanding artists, including Dolly Parton, Randy Newman, Aaron Neville, Paul Simon, Nelson Riddle and so many more.
She moved easily from folk to country to the great American songbook to operetta to the Mexican songs she learned from her mother and father. She’s now written a wonderful new memoir about her artistic journey. It’s called “Simple Dreams.”
Not that you need it, but just because I want to hear it, here’s a simple reminder of her beautiful voice.
[Clip of live performance]
Tavis: (Laughter) Still sound good to you?
Linda Ronstadt: Well, I wonder where that came from? I remember that blouse. I paid about $7 for it from a place called Zsa Zsa’s, downtown L.A. It’s like a secondhand store. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m asking you about your voice, and you talk about the blouse.
Ronstadt: I only notice the clothes I’m wearing. (Laughter)
Tavis: Does it still sound good to you?
Ronstadt: Well, I love that song.
Ronstadt: Don Henley did a beautiful job writing that song.
Tavis: You’re way too modest. (Laughter) A third time: Does it still sound good to you?
Ronstadt: It all sounds like – I go, “Where’d I get that vibrato?” (Laughter) It’s like I’ve been talking to billygoats.
Tavis: I love it, I love it, I love it. You and I were talking before we came on the air a minute ago, and I was actually very impressed that you recalled something that we discussed on this program the last time you were here. You reminded me of that.
Tavis: I do remember that part of our conversation, because I wanted to remind you of something that you said to me the last time you were on this program. I’ve quoted you around the world about this.
Ronstadt: Really? I’m so flattered.
Tavis: Yeah. No, I’ve said it over and over and over again. I say, “Linda Ronstadt once told me on my show that part of what’s wrong with our culture is what she calls ‘ear pollution.'” (Laughter) Do you remember saying this to me?
Ronstadt: Yeah, it sounds like something I’d say.
Tavis: Our conversation about ear pollution, and you’re right. There’s so much noise –
Ronstadt: It’s awful.
Tavis: – that we have to break through these days.
Ronstadt: It’s oppressive.
Ronstadt: Everywhere you go, there’s a soundtrack. You can’t really quite hear it. It’s just a little out of the range of hearing. We work so hard on those records to try to make them sound good. Like hi-fi sound was something that reached its zenith sometime in the ’70s, and every single year since they invented sound recording it gets better and better. We’ve always improved it.
Now with MP3, which just sounds awful, it’s the first time in the history of recorded music that it sounds worse. It’s really – and it’s everywhere, it’s ubiquitous.
It’s in every restaurant, it’s in every shopping place, and you just – you can’t really listen to it. It’s not an elective experience. Music should be an elective experience. You should go, “I’m going to sit down and listen to some Beethoven, by God,” and then you get to hear it.
Tavis: I think of you most often, and that notion of ear pollution, when I’m in restaurants.
Ronstadt: It’s awful.
Tavis: Yeah. I don’t know what it is. I literally find myself in certain restaurants – there are certain places in this town that I won’t go to now –
Tavis: – because they play the music so loud.
Ronstadt: Exactly, or because they play it at all.
Tavis: Exactly. There are other places I go, when I say, “Can you just turn that down?”
Ronstadt: I’ll tell you –
Tavis: You can’t hear the person you’re having dinner with.
Ronstadt: Or worse, even worse is screens, which make me feel like I’m going to have a seizure. I get on the airplane and there’s a screen in front of everything. You get into a taxicab in New York, there’s a screen blinking at you.
I think it’s going to have a tremendous effect on our brains, because those bright, saturated colors and those strong lines, they do things to your brain.
They tweak your brain and your endocrine system in a way that I don’t think is going to be very desirable. We only have a hundred years’ history of electric light. Up until about a hundred years ago, the world was dark at night. You got to have a real night so you could sleep. (Laughter)
It’s so dark outside, why go out? We might as well sleep. Okay. Now we’ve got blue light, we’ve got all this light flooding our bedrooms and things blinking, and you can’t get a decent night’s sleep. So there’s eye pollution and –
Tavis: Eye pollution and ear pollution. All right, I’m going to add that to my Linda Ronstadt frame now. We’ve got eye pollution and ear pollution, and that’s what’s screwing the world up.
You made a powerful comment a moment ago, as you always do every time we talk, about how music ought to be elective. Music ought to be elective. When you were a kid, what were you electing to listen to?
Ronstadt: Well, we had a lot of different stuff in our household. My father – I had an aunt that would go to Spain and she brought back these flamenco records.
That was my first memory of a woman named (speaks in Spanish). She was called (speaks in Spanish). It’s what we called “gypsy” music, although they like to be called the Roma.
Just brilliant, brilliant great singing, and then he used to bring a lot of records from Mexico, mainly (speaks in Spanish) was a great, she was like the Edith Piaf of Mexico.
She just, I learned so much from her. She completely affected my singing style. Like in “Blue Bayou,” I’m just trying to copy her. (Laughs) And not succeeding.
Tavis: Oh, please.
Ronstadt: But trying my guts out.
Tavis: (Laughter) It’s so clear – I’m going to jump around here, because there’s so much richness in this new book, this memoir. It’s so clear that as you, throughout your career – and this is my word, not necessarily yours – were bored or impatient or just wanted to do something different, you always found so many different avenues, as I intimated at the top of this conversation, to try new things, different styles, different sounds, different formats.
It takes a lot of courage, it seems to me, to do that and to succeed in all of it as you did. But just even to try a little different –
Ronstadt: Well it’s not – the word wouldn’t be quite so much “bored,” because music has never been boring for me, but it’s kind of like the thing where did you ever repeat a word over and over and over again?
Ronstadt: Then it stops meaning what it originally meant. When you sing the same song over and over and over again, it’s the same way. It stops meaning what it originally meant to you. It starts sounding like white noise, or my washing machine. (Laughter) It’s just a weird noise.
So I didn’t want that to happen. I had too much respect for the music to let that happen to it. I kept looking for the things that I found that I had experienced as a child.
In my brain I’d think, when I think about the living room I grew up in in Tucson, what was under the sofa cushion? You find some Mexican song or some Everly Brothers song, or some Frank Sinatra song, whatever. It was all there.
I’d go over to my grandmother’s house and she’d be playing opera. They loved opera. Not only did they play it on the radio, but they played it on their piano. Everybody learned how to read music and how to play.
I didn’t learn how to read. But everybody played and sang, whether they were professional level or not. Music isn’t just for professionals. We delegate all of our music and our dancing and our art to professionals.
It’s silly. We should be doing our own dancing and drawing. You have to have the heroes so people can be inspired, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get to do it too, even if it’s in the shower.
Art is for healing ourselves, and everybody needs their own personal art to heal up their problems.
Tavis: When did you know – you’ve been listening to music since you were a kid, obviously, but when did you know you were gifted in this way?
Ronstadt: Well, see, I thought everybody could sing, (laughter) because everybody in my family could. Everyone could.
Tavis: Everybody can sing, yeah.
Ronstadt: Everybody I knew sang, so, and I went to school and they still had children singing in those days. They didn’t play a record and have them sing along, they had children’s choirs in those days, and I always sang in the little choir.
My brother was in the Tucson, Arizona boys’ choir and he was their featured soloist. He had a great voice, soprano voice, just beautiful. I really admired him. So I just thought everybody did it. Didn’t occur to me that it was unusual.
Tavis: Yeah. But when did you know that you were gifted enough to do this professionally, that this was going to be your calling in life?
Ronstadt: Well, when I was taking arithmetic in the first grade (laughter) I said to myself, “I’m going to be a singer. I don’t have to worry about numbers.” I didn’t think I was going to be famous or a star.
I just thought that I was going to get to sing for a living and I wouldn’t have to go to work in the department store or whatever else you did if you were a woman in those days.
So I just figured I was going to sing. It didn’t occur to me to question. I was so naïve I didn’t know any better. It’s so hard to do it professionally. Don’t plan on it. No one should plan on it. (Laughs)
Tavis: This book is about your artistic journey, as I said a moment ago, so when you say now, when a great, an icon like you says, “Don’t plan on it, it’s a very difficult thing to do,” tell me more of what you mean by that.
Ronstadt: Well, there’s just such a tiny percentage of people that actually wind up doing it, and it’s not just because they’re the best ones, because there’s a lot of really good singers that don’t.
I saw a movie called “20 Feet from Stardom” just recently about the backup singers from the ’70s.
Tavis: That’s a great documentary.
Ronstadt: A lot of girls that I knew, that I worked with, fabulous, fabulous girls. They’re trying to define what it is that separates that person to be a lead singer from a background singer.
You take a singer like Mary Clayton, who can sing anybody under the table, or Claudia Lennear, when Claudia Lennear used to walk into the Troubadour, the waters parted. We would just go – my God, she was so beautiful, and she could sing so well, and she was tall.
She looked like a queen. She was just gorgeous. She had these beautiful cheekbones, and she was just fabulous. But something happens, there’s that little edge of some strange dumb luck or something that resonates with the public.
I don’t know. I can’t sing half as well as Claudia Lennear. Hats off to her, but somehow, things happened for me.
Tavis: Have you ever felt in any way guilty about that? About the fact that some of your background singers didn’t quite –
Ronstadt: I don’t feel guilty about it. I think that anybody that gets there did it. Whatever it is, the public goes “We like this,” and they’re entitled to it. Doesn’t matter what it is.
A lot of singers that I’ve heard that I may not like their sensibility, but I see that they’re entitled to whatever they get. People don’t get there without talent, they really don’t.
Tavis: But to your earlier point, talent is not the end-all, be-all, though, because there are a lot of talented folk –
Tavis: – who don’t become Linda Ronstadt.
Ronstadt: Story is what’s most important. What’s your story.
Tavis: Ah, uh-huh.
Ronstadt: You’ve got to be able to make your story clear, and your story has to resonate with the public. If you don’t have a story –
Tavis: Your story or the story in your music? Your personal story or the story in your music?
Ronstadt: Yeah, your personal story. If you don’t have story to tell the public at large – you have to be able to sort of go listen, you’ve got to listen to this or I’m going to – you have to grab the public by the collar and go, “You’ve just got to listen to this, because I’m going to die if I don’t get to tell somebody this story.”
It’s just got to be bursting out of you. You can’t keep it in. It’s like ooh. Then the weird thing that turns on you is that once it gets to the listener’s ear, it should be about the listener’s story.
They really shouldn’t be thinking about my story. It’s just my job is to evoke, not to instruct.
Tavis: How does the artist, though, help the listener or empower the listener to make that transition, from it being about your story that you want them to hear to them embracing it as their own?
Ronstadt: All the listener has to do is sit there and if something, if they get that sort of slap in the face or that sort of shock of recognition that I’ve been through this experience before, I’ve had this experience in just that way, that’s when you succeed.
That’s when you do your job. A guy like Mick Jagger, again, who isn’t as good a dancer as Tina Turner, even though he tried his hardest to copy her, isn’t as good a singer as somebody like Claudia Lennear, even though he’s got his own little thing to say isn’t as great a writer as Paul Simon, for instance.
He’s not such a crafted writer. He’s greater than the sum of his parts. He’s a great performer. There’s no way you can ignore him when he’s on the stage. When he’d be on the stage and Claudia Lennear would come on stage, the roof would blow off the joint.
It would just be that much more. Because his story resonated, and he was able to get it out there so clearly and so urgently that you just loved it, no matter whether he’s the best dancer or not. You don’t care.
Tavis: You’ve said two or three things, as you always do – that’s why I love you. You make this so easy for me. I’ve just got so many follow-ups I want to ask. Let me start with this.
Harry Belafonte, a friend of mine, been a guest on this program so many times, a great singer in his own right back in the day.
Ronstadt: Oh my God, I listened to him so much when I was growing up. So much.
Tavis: Yeah, he’s quite an artist. He had a book out, has written a memoir I guess a year or so ago, and a documentary of the same name called “Sing Your Song,” and I thought of him when you said you’ve got to have a story to tell, you’ve got to tell your story. Belafonte would say you’ve got to get the world to sing your song.
Tavis: However you define that, what has been the song, what has been the story, that you’ve been trying to tell us, the song that you’ve been trying to get us to sing, for the breadth and depth of your career?
Ronstadt: Well, the story is anything from someone just stomped on my heart to I went to the store today and I really like bread and butter pickles but they only had dill pickles, (laughter) and I’m so mad because I really wanted to make that sliced chicken sandwich with those bread and butter pickles, because it was good.
Tavis: Right, yeah.
Ronstadt: Because my mom’s from Michigan, and that’s what they do. But it really can be something completely mundane. It just depends on the intensity of your feeling.
So it’s hard to say. It changes every day. When I would be on the stage singing, I would see a movie of something that happened, I would be telling the story. I would be describing the story in sound, but my goal would be to make somebody else run their own movie.
Tavis: You talked about Jagger. Great example, and I take everything you’ve just said, because you’re right, he is greater than the sum total of his parts.
Ronstadt: He is.
Tavis: It’s a perfect – when you went there –
Ronstadt: So he gets to me.
Tavis: – I knew exactly what you were saying. (Laughter) I totally agree. He’s not great at any one of those things.
Tavis: But put it all together, you can’t deny Jagger on stage.
Ronstadt: You can’t.
Tavis: His energy is off the charts. All right. So how have you, over the years – look back now and grade yourself for me in terms of your performance on stage. What were you trying to get –
Ronstadt: Oh, I was terrible on stage. I just looked at my feet all the time. I was just overwhelmed with kind of like – just, I was a nervous wreck all the time. Just fear. I think everybody has that fear.
Tavis: The stage scared you?
Ronstadt: It scared me to death. (Laughs) I loved to rehearse. I loved music, I loved to rehearse. We’d get there and I’d go – and I’d imagine while I was rehearsing.
It’s going to be really good when I get there. I’m going to be really singing (unintelligible). But I’d get there and I’d just be looking at my feet. So it was a long time before I even said anything on stage. Then I made such a horrible faux pas, (laughs) I didn’t talk again for 10 years.
Ronstadt: Oh, I don’t know if I can tell that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Of course you can. Come on.
Tavis: Come on, you’ve got to tell me.
Ronstadt: You want to really hear it? This is terrible.
Tavis: Yeah, I want to – of course I want to hear it.
Ronstadt: This is how much you take leave of your senses. I’ve never told anyone this story, so don’t tell anyone.
Tavis: I won’t tell anyone.
Ronstadt: I’m telling it on TV. Don’t tell anyone.
Tavis: I won’t anybody.
Ronstadt: We were in someplace in upstate New York, and I knew a psychiatrist very well who was an incredible researcher. He was a brilliant, brilliant researcher.
I said, “Oh, I’m going up to upstate New York,” and he did all this research. He said, “Oh, there’s a high incidence of incest up there.”
Ronstadt: He was just saying it as a researcher. I don’t know if it’s true. He was saying this.
Ronstadt: So I get on stage. I think (unintelligible) so the band’s going, “You’ve got to talk. You’ve got to talk to them.” I went, “Oh, upstate New York. I understand there’s a lot of incest up here.” (Laughter)
I didn’t say it to be mean. I didn’t say it to – the audience didn’t like me. It was like (unintelligible). I didn’t speak again for 10 years. You just get nervous and anything comes out of your mouth. It was just a factoid that I knew. (Laughter) It was a thing I knew. It was what I knew.
Tavis: That’s a great story. (Laughter) But what’s great about it, see –
Ronstadt: No one from upstate New York is going to buy one of my books now. See what I’ve done?
Tavis: No, no, no. What’s great about that is you survived it. You survived it. Your career survived, life goes on. (Laughter)
Ronstadt: I don’t know how I did.
Tavis: You kept selling records. But I can imagine, though, that must have pushed you back into your corner really fast.
Ronstadt: I was horrified at myself. I just – because when you’re up there, you know that saying that she was beside herself?
Ronstadt: When someone’s beside – it’s almost like you get shocked out of your body, and you’re sitting over there, and your body is just carrying on as though you were still in it, and doing the best it can because there’s nobody running the controls? That’s what it was like.
Tavis: The flip side of that though is – I’m not going to call any names. I love music, as you know, but the flip side of that is going to see a show and the artist won’t shut up.
Ronstadt: Well –
Tavis: Just sing. Can you just sing?
Ronstadt: I like it when I see somebody up there and they’re really on their money, they’re really on their game. I was in the audience; I did the Motown 20th anniversary show.
I was there in the audience when Michael Jackson came out and first did the moonwalk.
Tavis: The moonwalk, yeah.
Ronstadt: I’m telling you, I never screamed, I never went to the Beatles’ concerts to scream. I never screamed at anybody’s show. I was on my feet with the entire, all of the crowned heads of Motown, and we were shrieking our guts out.
We would have gone anywhere with him. It’s just like it was a moment when he connected. That was why he was the greatest pop star of all time. It was a moment.
It came through on me. Who know – poor guy, he was a troubled guy; he had a lot of problems. But whatever that was, it was really powerful. We would have followed him to hell. (Laughter) We would have followed him anywhere.
Tavis: Is that your sense, that he is the greatest pop star of all time?
Ronstadt: I think so, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Ronstadt: I think that Frank Sinatra was maybe the greatest pop singer, but when you sing that well – Michael Jackson was a great singer too. Just one of the greatest singers ever.
But when he got up there, the way he could dance and do all that stuff, he was just amazing. He had all the best people with him. He was brilliant, just brilliant.
Tavis: You have worked with – I mentioned this earlier, and you have been fortunate, blessed, to work with some of the great songwriters.
Ronstadt: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah. Talk to me about lyrical content and how important that’s been to you over this artistic journey.
Ronstadt: Well, I think if the United States gave anything to culture at large in the 20th century, the most important contribution made was the popular song. I think the zenith of popular songwriting to the United States of America was that period that started in the ’20s and went into the ’50s.
It was the period of the great American standard song. The reason was because of migration. There was just lots of layers of migration. There was the forced migration that came from Africa. That was mixed up with the French Creole society in New Orleans, because everybody was sent to Europe to be educated, and they came back with all kinds of orchestral stuff.
There was a lot of complaining about how badly everybody was treated, justifiable complaining about how badly everybody was treated, but put into a very sophisticated context.
(Unintelligible) the sandwich (unintelligible) the bottom piece of bread for the American standard song. In the in between was Irish and Mexican and Italian and Polish and all these people just, like, yearning.
They all moved in, they’re homesick. Then on the top layer are the people that migrated from the shtetl from Central Europe, the Jews that came fleeing just terrible persecution.
So you’ve got persecution on the bottom that’s very – that’s intermarried with a very sophisticated kind of context. You’ve got persecution on the top that comes from Europe. Again, it’s very, very sophisticated and based on the orchestra.
That’s what became the layers of the American popular song. So you can take a song like, I don’t know – well, to give you a different example from our time, Bette Midler will have a show called “Thighs and Whispers,” and it works on a lot of different levels.
It works on funny and kind of sexy, but also if you’re an Ingmar Bergman fan, you get the joke. So those classic American standard songs fit the same way. You can get it on a sophisticated level, you can get it on a I’m just my heart is broken level.
You can get it on a kind of a I miss my home, where I came from. It’s really, truly a product of immigration. That’s why it makes me feel so bad right now that we don’t have immigration reform, because the people that are migrating here from all over the world, who want to come here and work, and who are very, very able and capable, because they’ve survived the trip here.
They’re great at dealing with adversity, which are the kind of people we’d want to bring into our workforce, are being shoved out of the economic pie here and not being allowed to do their best and give their best. This is a country of immigrants.
Tavis: See, one of the things I love about you is that you’ve been as courageous and as brilliant at your own interpretation of the great American songbook as you have been speaking your own truths about the issues that you think our society needs to wrestle with.
How have you done both of those, and have you paid a consequence or a price for doing the latter as opposed to the former?
Ronstadt: Well, I think if you do what’s in your heart – Joseph Campbell always says you have to follow your bliss, and if you do, doors open where you didn’t even realize there were doors.
There’s those songs from the American standards songbook bear a tremendous amount of reinterpreting because they were already sung by the best – Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday and June Christy and all the singers that I’d admired so much had already sung them.
I thought, well, what do I have to add? But I had my own little story I had to tell, and they’re such a great vehicle for telling a story. You get to – everybody that takes them on gets to do it in such an individual way, because they’re so flexible.
They bear a lot of redoing. It’s a fresh new experience each time. I learned that from listening to the singing of Rosemary Clooney, who would make a song – you’d hear a song that you heard eight million times in the elevators, riding up and down.
You’d go, “I never thought one thing about that song before.” Rosemary would sing it, and you’d go, “That’s a great song. I never listened to it in quite that way.” So there’s always that chance.
Every time you stand up on stage to sing that song, there’s always a chance you might be able to unlock the secret of that song and let it bloom in front of people so they’ll really get what it was about. Did I answer your question? I got lost.
Tavis: You did. No, no, that’s fine. (Laughter) But I want to go back at it another way, because it’s impossible to have this conversation with you, particularly since we’re talking about your memoir, and you talk about this in the book. It’s impossible to talk to you about issues and not talk about your relationship with Jerry Brown back in the day.
What do you make of the fact that life just brings him back into the governor’s office?
Ronstadt: Well, he’s got a lot of experience. (Laughter) That’s the problem we’ve had with a lot of these politicians. What happened to Bush Jr. My God – here is a guy just running the country and didn’t know what he was doing. It was just a catastrophe. Jerry’s had a lot of experience.
Tavis: You think he’s doing okay now?
Ronstadt: I think he’s doing a great job. He started with a state that was bankrupt. Of course, I always say when you’re bankrupt, spend more money. Because their spending is our earning, and that puts more money back in the tax coffers.
Ronstadt: Jerry’s kind of a tightwad. I don’t know why the Republicans are worried about him at all, (laughter) because he’s very tight with a dollar. He’s a very careful spender.
Ronstadt: But the government has to spend money during a recession, because their spending is our earning. Thank you, Paul Krugman.
Tavis: Yeah. There’s a great story, a funny story to me, of one of the consequences that you suffered from dating Jerry Brown. Remember the earthquake?
Ronstadt: Oh, the flood.
Tavis: The flood, I meant.
Ronstadt: The flood in Malibu.
Tavis: Yeah, tell the story right quick. (Laughter)
Ronstadt: I was living out at Malibu, on the beach, which is a silly thing to do, because I grew up in the desert, where the first thing you learn in the desert is you do not build a house on a flood plain.
Guess what? The beach is a flood plain, because the ocean – the beach is an elastic thing. It doesn’t stay in the same shape or the same contour. The ocean has a mind of its own; it goes where it wants.
So here we’re living in this row house in the Malibu colony. It was right on the beach. Bad idea. So one day there’s a lot of storms, and there’s just this one year of storms, and it’s just a catastrophe.
Well, the ocean decides to just knock off a room on my house. It just ate a room of my house. It had one a lot of damage to houses along there. The residents of Malibu wanted some help from the government because their houses were destroyed.
Jerry said, “Oh, no, we can’t do that, because my girlfriend lives there, and if I help them they’ll say I’m helping my girlfriend and I’m giving her special favors.” I’m like – what are we, chopped liver? (Laughter)
So anyway, so then they were ready to come with pitchforks and torches and burn the place down because he wasn’t helping. He was good. He went up and down the beach and he talked to all the residents and he figured out what was going on, and he eventually did send some help.
But my feeling is that the beaches should belong to everybody. The beaches (unintelligible) the public I think for a couple of miles back. Nobody should be able to build anything. It causes erosion. It’s a bad thing altogether.
Tavis: That takes the story of not playing favorites to a whole nother level, though. He really didn’t want to be accused of favoritism to his girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt.
Ronstadt: He didn’t want to be. (Laughter) He wanted to do the right thing.
Tavis: Even though your house is falling into the ocean. (Laughter)
Tavis: I feel so blessed to have you here for another conversation. I could do this for, like, days and days and days.
Ronstadt: Oh, good.
Tavis: So stay right there and we’re going to say goodbye for now. But tomorrow night we’ll have part two of our conversation with Linda Ronstadt. Her new memoir, “Simple Dreams,” is out now.
Until tomorrow night, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. (Laughter)
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad.]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.