Documentary Review: The Sublime ‘Linda Ronstadt, The Sound Of My Voice’

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I’m on record here at B&V as being someone who hates the holidays. Well, “hate” is too strong a word for how I feel about the holidays. Perhaps I’m best paraphrasing that classic movie, Barfly when describing my feelings about the holidays, “I just sorta feel better when they’re not around.” Since I met the Rock Chick, I will admit, things have gotten at least a little better for me at the holidays, Confessions of an Ex-Grinch: My Christmas Epiphany. Now that we’ve all gutted it out through the Yule cheer and have made it safely through New Years Eve (aka, Amateur Night) we can settle nicely into the New Year, right?

Sadly, as much as I hate the holidays, January has quickly become the worst time of year in my estimation. Winter starts in earnest and you don’t have all the decorations and Xmas lights to distract you from the weather. I’m beginning to understand why Shakespeare used the words, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Back in the old days, all my coupled friends would go into hibernation after the holidays until about St Patrick’s Day. I get that strategy now. It’s cold outside, there’s no new rock and roll music and nothing is going on, everybody is paying off that holiday debt. Frankly, it’s what the Rock Chick and I do now in January – pull up the drawbridge and hibernate. I must admit this year’s January is infinitely worse as I’m participating in what is known as “Dry January,” where you eschew alcohol. It’s not been difficult to quit booze, except for the excruciating boredom of nothing else to do. I will admit, early on I did find myself wrestling for my sanity (wild mood swings for $1000, Alex), but that quickly passed. And contrary to rumor, I did not suffer the delirium tremens. Oddly I feel and sleep better without bourbon, and my weight has dropped precipitously but don’t tell my wife, I don’t want her getting any ideas about reevaluating my sobriety.

Luckily, since we’re barricaded in our home for winter, I can catch up on some of the backlogged viewing I’d intended to do… DVR and chill as the kids say… although I’m still under the impression that means something other than watching recorded videos and falling asleep on the couch. This will require further study. Anyway, last night was a nice example of catching up on my viewing. I watched a great Austin City Limits that featured Jack White’s band The Raconteurs and they played a lot from their last album that I loved, LP Review: The Raconteurs’ (Jack White) ‘Help Us Stranger’. They were followed by a groovy R&B/Soul act, the Black Pumas who are nominated for a “Best New Artist” Grammy. I dug the Pumas, although I might not rush out and buy their album. Although I plan on returning to that slow groove music. “Colors” is a great track you should check out…

The highlight of last night’s viewing is a CNN documentary about Linda Ronstadt, entitled creatively, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. I’ve been looking forward to checking this thing out. In the interest of full disclosure, I was never a big Linda Ronstadt fan but I’ve got to tell you, her music was ubiquitous in the middle and late 70s when I was growing up. She was monstrously huge. And yet, I never really paid attention, I feared she was too mellow. I do remember my friend Steve (and oddly more than half of my friends were named Steve, so I feel there is some anonymity preserved here), and he had a poster of her on his wall. I don’t think Linda ever wore a bra and well, we were all big fans of nipples – we’d never seen one up close. Juvenile, perhaps…but more evolutionary if you think about it. Regardless, that poster of Linda on Steve’s wall was about the extent of my knowledge about her. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate her much, much more and was really looking forward to learning about her in this documentary. I will say this, the documentary was aptly titled – her voice is the absolute star here, as it should be. I was blown away by her.

The documentary is mostly chronological in nature and narrated in large part by Linda herself. It quickly frames her more than ten year battle with Parkinson’s disease (diagnosed in 2009) which has robbed her of her ability to sing. Silencing that voice is one of the most tragic things I can think of. While the movie is chronological, my one complaint here is they don’t frame any of the events in time other than when she left Arizona and moved to California with a big “1964” on the screen. So when they talk about a specific album or event, it left me scrambling to the Google to figure out when that event happened. I’m nit picking but it’s a problem for those of us with musical OCD. Other than that this was a fascinating, entertaining look at one of Rock N Roll’s most important artists – folk, country, country rock, rock and roll, ballads, light opera (operetta), standards and Mexican folk – the woman could sing the phone booth. She was Norah Jones before there was such a thing. The Rock Chick said to me, “I’m surprised you’re going to write about her…” Rock and roll is a big tent, let’s include everybody whose talented.

Besides Linda narrating this thing, there’s a who’s who of Southern California rock giving commentary as well. Jackson Browne, songwriter J.D. Souther (who dated Linda in the 70s), Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Emmy Lou Harris, Dolly, David Geffen, filmmaker Cameron Crowe all show up to talk about Linda. Karla Bonoff, who I’d forgotten about shows up. Of all people, the prickly Don Henley shows up. Linda hired him as her drummer (and later hired Glen Frey and they went on to form the Eagles) and Henley is downright reverent about Ronstadt. He’s kind of a dick most the time but not here – his loyalty and devotion to Linda is unwavering. He’s so complimentary, it’s nice to see. He says, “the record company didn’t know what to do with “Desperado,” and then Linda recorded a perfect version of it.” High praise from a man who doesn’t give praise.

Born in Arizona, Ronstadt’s grandfather was an inventor. The music came from her father’s side, he was the singer. Although her mother sang and played piano as well. She had Mexican heritage on her father’s side, which with a name like Ronstadt, we never knew about, but heritage she was justifiably proud of. She started off singing folk music, like many in that generation. After moving to L.A., the Byrds hit and suddenly it was folk rock for her. She formed a country rock band, the Stone Ponys and had a hit before the record company wisely said, uh, we want the chick singer not the band. When she went solo she hired Henley as a drummer and Frey as a guitarist inadvertently creating the Eagles. She eventually hired former Beatles associate Peter Asher as her producer, signed with David Geffen on the Asylum label and her career took off. This is the period of her career we at B&V are most familiar with.

From 1974’s Heart Like a Wheel onward she kind of owned that soft rock crown for the next decade. She had 5 multiple platinum albums in a row. That’s a hot streak comparable to Elton John’s in the early 70s. She was a woman in a male dominated industry and I love how she nurtured and helped other female artists. Emmy Lou Harris, despairing and lost after Gram Parsons OD’d on heroin, was in what she describes as a “very dark period” and Ronstadt started singing with her and promoting her. She saved her. I mean in a five minute period in the documentary they sum up what an important vortex Ronstadt was to country rock and southern California rock. Everybody from the Eagles to Gram Parsons gets a mention. She was at the center of it all. While Ronstadt never wrote her own material she had impeccable taste in what she was going to cover. Either early rock classics by Chuck Berry or Smokey Robinson, a man people fear to cover, or country classics by Dolly, the woman could pick them. She recorded contemporary songwriters as well, helping their career – Neil Young (who didn’t need the help and who she opened and sang back up for), Warren Zevon (my fav, “Carmelita” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” about Jackson Browne), Jackson Browne, Little Feat’s Lowell George (“Willin'”) all had songs covered by Ronstadt. Hell, she even does a great version of the Stones’ “Tumblin’ Dice,” perhaps her greatest rocking moment.

She had grown tired of the road and hanging out with all the dudes you encounter in a rock band so she turned to Broadway and joined the production of The Pirates of Penzance, which I’d forgotten about. She crushes the operetta stuff. Again, that voice. After that, inspired by her mother’s passing, she did an album of standards with Nelson Riddle, the first artist I remember making that leap. The record company didn’t want her to do any of this – and yet both were enormously successful. She went back to her country roots following that to record the huge Trio LP with Dolly and Emmy Lou Harris, another smash success. Then she turned to traditional Mexican songs on Canciones De Mi Padre which remains the highest selling Spanish-language LP in history. Everything this woman touched turned to gold. Why, you may ask? The sound of her voice.

As you can tell, I was really taken by this documentary. Other than giving no time of reference in terms of what year certain events happened, this is a thorough, loving look at the career of one of rock and roll’s greatest singers. Her induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 was long overdue. I just wish they’d inducted her prior to Parkinson’s taking away her voice – I’d love to have seen all the people who would have showed up to perform with her. While mellow is usually outside our wheel house here at B&V, watching the warm hearted, generous artistry of this woman warmed the frozen heart of a Dry January sober, winter blues, B&V music fan. And that says a lot.

Cheers! Enjoy this documentary!