Nobody understands heartbreak like Linda Ronstadt did between 1969 and 1975. Nobody. Not even a novelist who has spent half a century exploring heartbreak through a series of epic, life-rupturing literary works, renowned for their dissection of the romantic condition. Ronstadt might have been singing lyrics written by other people but her understanding of heartbreak is in the rigorously discerning choice of material that characterises her early career and, most of all, it’s in her voice. Did you think ‘Birds’ was a uniquely beautiful, tender, aching song when Neil Young sang the original on his ‘After The Goldrush LP’? Of course you did. You’re not made out of reinforced Teflon, after all. But listen to Linda sing it, two years later, on her self-titled third album (or sixth, if you count the folkier, softer three she did with her early band, The Stone Poneys). The ache is bigger, wider, but, somehow, even more tender. There’s a wobble when she sings “It’s over” but there’s a strength, too: something giant and solid and resolute but utterly redolent of being a person, with internal organs, who needs to be cuddled at night. Then, as it fades out, there’s applause. “This was LIVE,” you think the first time you hear it, totally wrongfooted. “It sounded that good LIVE? How is that possible?”
These three first albums of the post-Poneys period are oddly difficult to get hold of in the UK where, flummoxingly, even a couple of years later when she became a superstar, Ronstadt’s country queen status has never quite translated. That self-titled album – seven studio tracks and three recorded at The Troubadour nightclub in LA – is, for me, the pick of the bunch. It’s Ronstadt discovering a bigger sound than the one on her first two solo LPs, no less country but twice as cosmic: as big a sound as she ever needed, and, it could be argued, as popular music itself has ever needed. It’s a perfect meeting of recording technology, sleep-deprived country soul, darkening chemistry from deep in the hippie ether, tight session players (JD Souther, Glenn Frey, Sneaky Pete Kleinow), songcraft and intangible west coast blue sky magic, and, as a result is, I have convinced myself at many times during the last couple of months, one of the nine ultimate experiences available to humans (I forget what the other eight are now). I’ve certainly been no stranger to heartbreak in recent times in my own life as I’ve come to love every up and down and open-chested declaration of these records, but that’s not it: the innate power of them is their ability to make you feel something, even if you weren’t feeling it before.
I love the first two Jackson Browne albums and I believe his music to be pretty much the exact opposite of weak but I went back and listened to his original version of Rock Me On The Water after listening to the one here and it suddenly felt like someone had made me a glass of lime squash when there wasn’t really enough left in the bottle to justify doing so. Its “You’ve left it to somebody other than you to be the one to care” line becomes a more significant one when delivered by Ronstadt. She makes you understand it, in an “Oh, right” way. Just as when she sings “But you think I should be happy with your money and your name and hide myself in sorrows while you play your cheating game” on ‘Silver Threads And Golden Needles’ from her ‘Hand Sown.. Home Grown’ solo debut I find myself thinking “Yeah: you unfaithful bastard, trying to win my love with your material crap” even though the nearest that that’s actually come to happening to me in recent memory, and probably ever, was when my friend Jenny sent me a multipack of salt’n’vinegar Hula Hoop Pufts through the post as a kind but rigidly platonic gesture. Also, if there is a better argument for the invention of the gatefold sleeve than the inner fold-out here I have not seen it, and I own a fuck of a lot of gatefold sleeves. Everything is perfect: the hair, the far-off, melancholic expression. “Yes, I look impossibly good here,” say Ronstadt’s eyes, “but in a year’s time, for the cover of my follow-up LP, a record company executive will give the green light on a decision to airbrush me, and that will be the beginning of the end.”
Not knowing Ronstadt’s work and seeing her in concert around this period must have been like admiring a blooming wildflower, turning your back for a second, and finding that it had somehow transformed into a giant redwood. The young Dolly Parton was dainty and amazingly beautiful too but you must have kind of known, looking at her at the same time, that she’d sing the way she does. Not so with Linda. How often must she have been underestimated, in an era when the underestimating of female singers was virtually an Olympic sport? In fact, these three albums could conceivably be the most dangerous three albums to underestimate in the history of country rock, if not in the whole of rock itself. But that’s also because, amidst their defiance, amidst all their romantic strength, they are full of admissions of human weakness too: they’re not about becoming a robot or an icy shithead when you’ve had your heart broken; they’re about becoming stronger and more the person you’re supposed to be. The only record I can think of that comes close to them for its transference of post-romantic feelings onto the listener is ‘North Hills’ by fellow country-rock west coasters Dawes: an album so smeechy with the self-knowing embers of lost love it could probably make you feel like the deepest, longest and most torrid love affair of your life had gone up in flames, even if you’d never been in a relationship.
For all that, the Linda song I am most fascinated by at the moment is not one of the heartbroken ones; it’s her version of ‘In My Reply’, by the underheralded singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor. I’m sure Taylor, whose own original delivery of the song is inferior, must have felt the same ambivalence many songwriters felt when they heard Ronstadt was covering their work: “Great! What an honour. And, y’know… kerching!” but also “Shit. She’s absolutely going to wipe the floor with me.” It’s an anomaly in Ronstadt’s early catalogue, a song more befitting of some expert short storyteller like Alice Munro than a 70s songwriter, which covers a huge amount of narrative ground in just over three minutes, and involves an omniscient narrator who seemingly travels the world, offering a shrugging, complex kindness to men defined by greed and deceit, by uttering the white lie “I do not know” at pivotal moments in their downfall. Who precisely is this narrator? A humble shapeshifting nomadic god? Or just some wise dude, or dudette, who gets about a bit? Whatever the case, as ever, Ronstadt makes the voice her own. In the final verse she/the narrator/Taylor/God receives a call from someone, presumably in the aftermath of a concert, telling her that she/he stole the show. Again, the chorus is repeated: “In my reply I lied a bit and said I did not know.” Whether it’s true or not, this is a pleasing image of Ronstadt after her own concerts, and one you can well imagine, after hearing her sing all these great, wise, strong weak self-aware songs in her great, wise, strong weak self-aware voice. She knows she smashed it and blew everyone else off the stage, because she’s got that solid quiet confidence, but when people rush up to her to tell her of her greatness, she shrugs it self-effacingly off because, while she might be a tough, outrageously talented cookie, she’s also one who won’t stop priding herself on modesty and grace.
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