Linda Ronstadt regrets a lot of things that she's having to miss nowadays, due to Parkinson's disease restricting her stamina and ability to travel. But she'd not shedding any tears over being forced to skip her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this Thursday night in Brooklyn, a event she swears she could care less about. "That decision was made for me," she says, referring to her illness, but it's clear that she has no interest in tuning in when the ceremony is broadcast on HBO May 31, and not just because she doesn't own a TV.
Fans may feel a sense of vindication, having previously expressed concerns that an anti-West Coast bias or sexism kept her from getting in sooner. But Ronstadt doesn't care about those politics any more than she cares to listen to her old records. She laughs at the thought of even putting on "Heart Like a Wheel," which was just selected by the Library of Congress for its National Recording Registry. Her singing in those days was so bad, she feels, that playing one of her classic albums would "wreck my week."
Few contemporary singers have set such a high standard — or set one so impossibly high for themselves. Ronstadt laughed heartily as she candidly discussed her legendary perfectionism with Yahoo this week, along with subjects ranging from what she pointedly left out of her recent memoir to why she's hopeful about wheelchair-shopping.
YAHOO: When it used to be that you weren't being nominated for the Rock Hall of Fame and people would ask you how you felt about it, you said you didn't care. So it's consistent of you, now that you're being inducted, to say you still don't care.
RONSTADT: Well, honestly, everybody else in the whole world has thought about it at least 50 times as much as I have. It's a non-issue for me. I never considered myself a rock 'n' roll singer. I sang it; I like to eat! And I enjoyed it, for the most part, what I sang. But I never felt that I was defined in that way. I went on to other things.
YAHOO: But you must have been aware that a lot of your fans and contemporaries were saying it was a disgrace that you weren't in the Hall.
RONSTADT: I never even knew a thing about it. Honestly, somebody told me something about in the late '80s, I think, and I never gave it a thought from that day until this came up. It's apparently a television show. I never had a television for 30 years, so I didn't know about it. I was invited to sing on the Academy Awards one time, too, and it just didn't seem like something I was in the mood to do, so I declined. That doesn't mean I don't like the Academy Awards; I watch 'em. But I've never seen the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don't know when it comes on or anything about it. It's not important to me. You're always grateful to not have to work in a vacuum; I've won various awards, and I'm very grateful that people tend to acknowledge it. But it's not what I think about, ever.
YAHOO: Last year, when your friend Randy Newman got inducted by Don Henley, there were a lot of mixed feelings going around. Because on the one hand, as a fan, you think, "Oh, sweet vindication. Why wasn't he in sooner? Justice served at last." And on the other hand, you remember that it probably doesn't affect anyone's appreciation of his music one iota.
RONSTADT: Yeah, who gives a s---? Who cares? If you can be as good as Randy Newman and have that talent, the reward comes in getting up and doing the work every day. And he knows when it's good. I know what I did that was good, and I know what I did that wasn't good, and that's enough for me. Some of the stuff I did pretty well; some of the stuff I didn't do so well. But when I was doing it well, I caught that ride and it was pretty good. [Laughs] Nobody else can give you that. That's something you do all by yourself, and nobody else can acknowledge it or take it away from you. I go, "I sang that song really well; that's what I was trying to do with it." And that's its own reward. It's the only reward, really.
YAHOO: Last year Henley gave a great induction speech for Randy, and he was very barbed in all the things he had to say about the Hall of Fame, and its alleged bias against the West Coast and certain politics that come into play. His bandmate Glenn Frey will be inducting you, and I'm wondering if there will be any similar barbed tone, or if you've talked with him at all about what he'll say.
RONSTADT: I have not talked to him. You'll have to call me up and tell me what he said. I just adore Glenn, but I'd much rather talk to him about how his kids are doing. I mean, for one artist to say something about another is just a kind of an excruciating experience. [Laughs] Like, if I go to see a James Taylor concert or something … I think James is a really good guitar player and really, really fine songwriter, and he does a great show. But if I wanted to go and tell him that, it would embarrass him terribly. He'd be looking at his feet and I'd be looking at my feet, and we'd both be miserable. So I'd go, "Hey, James, how are things going? How's the tour?" We don't talk about that so much.
YAHOO: You've said you can't go back east for the induction ceremony because of your health. But it sounds like you wouldn't have wanted to go anyway, so maybe this provided the excuse you needed. Would you have gone if you could've, or are you just as happy that you don't have to?
RONSTADT: Well, it's not something I have to think about. That decision was made for me.
YAHOO: The other honor of the moment is that the Library of Congress just added your 1974 album "Heart Like a Wheel" to the the National Recording Registry. Your response, as reported, didn't make it sound like you were especially proud of that album.
RONSTADT: Well, I wish I had sung it better! I just didn't know how to sing very well by then. I was just learning and trying to figure things out. My phrasing wasn't very good and my time wasn't very good. I was working with such a limited voice. If I had done "Heart Like a Wheel" after I had done the Nelson Riddle record, it would have been a much better record, because my voice would have relaxed and I would have had more facility with it. I'm glad that people like it, and I love the title song. It was the one thing on the record that I thought was good. I thought that [producer] Peter Asher did a really good job on the track for "You're No Good." But, you know, I'll never listen to I'll never listen to "Heart Like a Wheel" again. [Laughs] I don't have the courage.
YAHOO: In your memoir, you said that finding the song "Heart Like a Wheel" rearranged your musical landscape.
RONSTADT: It really did. I mean, it gave me a doorway into what I was really looking for, which was the art-song. It opened the door to a lyric that expressed a wider philosophical range, not just "I'm in love with you and you broke my heart and now I'm sad." There's a place for those kinds of songs, too! Because those are experiences that we have as human beings. But it's not the only thing there is. And "Heart Like a Wheel" was way more of a broader perspective on life and how you're going to go rolling through it.
YAHOO: Just prior to "Heart Like a Wheel" really establishing you as a star, you wrote that you were at "a discouraging plateau," and the head of Capitol Records had tried to force you to make a choice between country and rock.
RONSTADT: Yeah, it was logical, what they were talking about. They weren't being unreasonable. If anybody was being unreasonable, probably I was. But I just didn't see myself fitting into any of those niches.
YAHOO: In your memoir, you pretty much skip over all the huge albums that came after "Heart Like a Wheel" in the 1970s.
RONSTADT: Well, there wasn't anything particularly new on those records. We'd established something with "Heart Like a Wheel," and there wasn't anything that I could have described that was vastly different, except that we went in the studio with the same personnel and recorded another one pretty much the same way.
YAHOO: Pretty much the entire mid- and late '70s are summed up in a short chapter in your book called "Getting Restless," which is all about how much you hated playing arenas. You have a lot of colorful phrases for the sound in those venues, like "zombie sound that refused to die" and "flushing the toilet with the lid down."
RONSTADT: Isn't it the truth, though? [Laughs] I mean, that's what it felt like to me up there. It just felt like this roar that you had to compete with all the time, between the air-conditioning and the crowd circulating and all of that sound ringing around. Nothing was made for art. It was just made for maximum jamming of human beings into one space and breaking off all the money you could. I know some very wonderful music has been made in those spaces. I've seen some. I went to see [Prince's] "Purple Rain" concert and thought it was fabulous. I've seen Paul Simon in a space like that, and he's so good that you can't kill it with a shovel. But I'd much prefer to see Paul Simon in a smaller theater that's a dedicated space for music. But we all made a lot of money, so that made us pretty happy. But we were not very happy about the music we were playing in those spaces. And it changed the music so much. There were a lot of bands that developed their sound particularly around that big coliseum sound. But there are talented people even doing that, like Metallica.
YAHOO: You've called yourself a ballad singer first and foremost, and said you felt it necessary to include uptempo songs so people didn't go to sleep.
RONSTADT: You know, being a "ballad singer" used to be kind of a derogatory way of speaking about girl singers. "Oh yeah, she's a ballad singer" — meaning, in that earlier era when jazz dominated pop music, that you couldn't scat like Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald. But I'm a ballad singer, and I don't make any bones about it. I'm very happy to sing ballads. I think that's where my voice finds its most expressive range, and I have room to stretch out musically and vocally. But even I get tired of singing ballad after ballad. [Laughs]
YAHOO: So did you enjoy singing rock 'n' roll songs like "Back in the USA," or was that really just to vary the album or the set to keep people interested?
RONSTADT: I enjoyed singing it. When somebody as masterful as Chuck Berry writes a song, it's always fun to climb into the rigging or get a tour of the architecture of how the song's constructed. That's an interesting song, because it builds on a couple of different kinds of shuffles that roll and change as the song progresses. And his songs are based on a piano shuffle, not a guitar figure. So once I figured that out, it was easier to figure out the phrasing. And while I was singing it, I was walking around in that construction going, "Oh, look at this," and "Oh, look at that!" But after a while, I'd rather hear Chuck Berry sing it.
YAHOO: You said recently that the quintessential Linda Ronstadt songs for you were "El Camino" and "El Sueno," songs from your childhood that you included on your "Mas Canciones" album.
RONSTADT: My family sang in English too, but we sang stuff in Spanish, when we knew the words. It's what I started out with, that kind of harmony singing and that kind of sibling sound. Those songs to me are more sacred than any hymn could ever be. The Mexicans are very poetic, and they have a long, long, long tradition over thousands of years of beautiful poetry. That stuff satisfies me on every level. It's traditional, it's highly evolved, it's got youthful poetry in it, and a greater philosophical range of expression. The deepest wounds of romantic love are also in there. With a cool rhythm! It's like being carried along by a beautiful river over a couple of gentle rapids, and a couple of funny waterfalls that you have to go down, and then you're back on the river again, rolling along.
YAHOO: So if you had your choice, would one of your records of Mexican music be the album you'd have put into the National Registry, instead of "Heart Like a Wheel"?
RONSTADT: I wouldn't put an album in. I'd put moments. [Laughs] I'd put a measure here and a measure there… Usually you're not thinking that much about it, but it kind of registers when you do something pretty cool, and then when you do something kind of s----y, you go, "Oh, I blew that, but I have another measure coming up; I have a chance to fix it." Music isn't like “I sang that song and it's frozen and that's the way it was”… I remember moments that I've had with each song where I sang it really, really well, and I wish I could have a collection of that. But nobody gets to have that.
YAHOO: So some of those peak moments for you were not on record, but live?
RONSTADT: I think none of them were on the records!
YAHOO: Some of your fans were clamoring for you to write another book, because there was so much about your life that you didn't cover — personal things.
RONSTADT: Well, I had no intention of covering them. It was a book I wrote about music. I don't have any burning desire to tell the rest of my story, because it really was based all around music. That was the most important thing that happened.
YAHOO: You left out almost anything about your personal relationships. So it was kind of shocking to pick up "Willin': The Story of Little Feat" [a recent biography by the famous Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong-Torres] and see you talking so incredibly candidly in there about your romance with Lowell George.
RONSTADT: Well, [Ben] trapped me. I mean, I was at dinner at his house, and I started talking about it. I haven't read that yet, so I don't know what he wrote. I will tell personal stories about myself to friends, but I'd forgotten that he was writing a book about Lowell. So I'm sure there's stuff in there that I never would have given over to a publication, out of respect for Lowell's wife. I'll have to get Ben's book. He could have made stuff up, you know! [Laughs] He's capable of that.
YAHOO: Do you ever read other people's memoirs, like Neil Young's?
RONSTADT: I've read parts of Neil's memoir. He's such an interesting guy that whatever he does is always interesting to me. But I read a lot of Henry James and Edith Wharton. The only fiction I like is 19th century fiction, 18th century fiction. I haven't not read it because I don't like it. I just lived it, so I I tend to want to read about stuff that I don't know about.
YAHOO: You've always had a broad range of non-musical interests, and you were never one of those people like Dylan who always had to be on tour. Not being able to sing, does that leave a huge hole in your life?
RONSTADT: Yeah, it leaves a big hole in my life. My friend came over the other day with three darling, twentysomething, adorable girls; they're called the T Sisters, and they sang all afternoon a cappella. It was so great! I would have given anything to throw a harmony on, but still I loved it... This weekend, Emmylou Harris is coming to town, and I'm going to go to her soundcheck, because the venue where she's playing is going to be too hard for me to sit through a show. The best thing here in San Francisco is we've got the ballet and the opera and the symphony, three things which I'm wildly passionate about. But the last time we went, it was to my favorite ballet, "Giselle," and I couldn't sit through the whole thing. I had to leave about 12-15 minutes before it was over, and I was just devastated. So the next thing to do is go wheelchair shopping and figure out if I can get through the ballet with a wheelchair; then I'll be in for a couple more years going to the ballet.
YAHOO: You lived in Arizona through the mid-2000s, and were active in Democratic politics there, but it sounds like you moved back to San Francisco because, politically, you'd had it.
RONSTADT: I kind of have had it. The thing that changed me finally and made me move back was that my children were coming home from school with friends that had opinions that I didn't agree with. Like, lots of little kids would make homophobic remarks, for instance, which I didn't like. And I'd have to explain that to my kids: "We don't talk like that. We have a lot of friends who are gay — they're your Uncle So-and-so and your Aunt So-and-so, and they send you presents every Christmas that you really like, and you wouldn't want to hurt their feelings because they're nice people!" Things like that. Also, the idea that Tucson has turned into a car culture. It sort of has to be, because the weather is so bad, so you have to drive around in your air-conditioned unit. But I got tired of always being on the losing side. Everything that I liked over there would always lose, because there was this whole bunch of people that had immigrated from places like Alabama and New Jersey that weren't from around there that didn't understand the relationship that we'd always had in Arizona, economically and culturally, with the other side of the border.
YAHOO: With your new duets compilation, is that something you'd thought it would be nice to have packaged in one collection, or was it somebody else's idea?
RONSTADT: We'd thought of a duets compilation back in the '90s, because I had done so many duets with so many different people. I was gonna put on some new stuff with Aaron Neville, but it was too hard to get everybody in the same place, and we went back and forth about material. And then my voice started to tank, so I just decided to leave it. Then Rhino decided that they wanted to have it, so I thought, "We'll put together what we've got." We did have one new track that I had done with Laurie Lewis, which hadn't been released.
YAHOO: Any time anyone is going to do a compilation of yours, it's going to be pretty eclectic. It's good that you sequenced it yourself, because any more random assortment of styles would have given people whiplash.
RONSTADT: I know! Exactly. To have a duet with Ann Savoy followed by a duet with Bette Midler — I mean, it's both female voices, but it's so completely different. I'm very proud of that record I did with Ann ["Adieu False Heart," from 2006]. That's the last thing I ever recorded. That was when I was singing really on fumes. I thought we had a shared story that we really wanted to tell, even though I felt like I was singing with a limited palette. Or painting with a limited palette — forgive my mixed metaphors. I felt it was a real honest record. After that, I just couldn't sing well enough to make a statement. I had no voice at all after that. I only had a quarter of a voice for that record. I knew that there was something physically wrong; I just wasn't quite sure what it was. I wondered if I had spasmodic dysphonia, like my friend Linda Thompson has. Turns out spasmodic dysphonia is not unlike Parkinson's disease, in terms of how it cripples up your voice. I was already singing then not at full strength. Finally I just couldn't do it. I couldn't produce sound or get to the pitch. I had no pitch control, no way to dial in color, texture, flavor, or anything. But I thought "Adieu False Heart" was a good record. And I don't ever say that about any of my records, because I don't like any of them! [Laughs] I like moments on a few later ones. But if I ever hear one, it can wreck my week. I carefully not listened to the record with Ann, too, because I don't want to wreck my week. I want to remember that one for the sheer bliss we had doing it.
YAHOO: Just as the eclecticism of your career made sequencing this duets album difficult, it must have been hard putting together a setlist for some of your later tours.
RONSTADT: Well, with the shows, I'd usually take one kind of band and play one kind of music. With the Nelson Riddle stuff, I only played the Nelson Riddle stuff. With the Mexican music stuff, I didn't do one thing in English. So that was reasonably easy. Later on I did a combination show that included some of the Nelson material and some of the hit stuff, so I had to have a band that could play both jazz and rock 'n' roll. That was hard, and it was always tough to get the right musicians. I'm glad I don't have to struggle with that anymore, in a way. I just wish I could still sing.