Well, let me tell you that it hurts so bad

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I examine the woman who helped pioneer the marriage of country and rock, shone a light on the unrecognized works of struggling songwriters, proudly sang music that celebrates her Mexican roots, and was the first of the pop stars to revitalize interest in the jazz pop of the Great American Songbook:  Linda Ronstadt.

******************

I remember once reading a great line in the critique of a new album by some amazing singer (I think it was Annie Lennox), and the critic said this:  “Her pipes are so outstanding, I think she could sing me the New Jersey phone book and I’d still love it.”

linda-ronstadtLinda Ronstadt has recorded such a broad variety of music in her 40-year career, and done so in such convincing fashion, that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if she had indeed attempted to sing the phone book, or a cookbook, or a history book.  Good grief, she has successfully wrapped her voice around so many genres — from country ballads to traditional Mexican rancheras, from New Wave rock to Sinatraesque torch songs, from Motown classics to Southern California folk rock — there’s no reason to think she couldn’t have found a way to make even textbooks sound melodious.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who has tried more different styles and nailed it than Linda has,” said her longtime musical collaborator Bonnie Raitt.  John David Souther, Ronstadt’s one-time paramour and cherished friend, added, “Her range is huge, and there’s not too many people who can pull it off the way she has.”  The great Dolly Parton put it this way:  “Linda can literally sing anything.”

Or, more accurately, she used to be able to sing anything.  In 2011, Ronstadt chose to retire from the business, and although she didn’t say so at first, it was because she was suffering from what was first diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease but is, in fact, a Unknown-147degenerative malady called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), which robbed her of, among other things, the ability to control her vocal cords.

She withdrew from any public appearances, but by 2018, when asked to participate in a documentary about her life and career, she relented, and the result, “Linda Ronstadt:  The Sound of My Voice,” is a thoroughly enthralling video journey, narrated largely by Linda herself.  I strongly recommend you seek it out to re-familiarize yourself with her and learn more about her remarkable life.

Ronstadt came from a Tucson, Arizona, family of music lovers.  “My father had a lovely baritone voice and loved Mexican love songs,” she recalled.  “My mother was big on Gilbert and Sullivan.  My brother was a soprano soloist in a church choir when he was a boy.  My sister was a Hank Williams fanatic.  My aunt preferred classical music and opera.  So I was fortunate to have all these different influences, and I soaked them up like a sponge.

buckley

Linda at home, 1962

“We sang all the time.  We sang at the dinner table, we sang in the car, we sang with our hands in the dishwater.  It was kind of isolated living on a 10-acre ranch outside Tucson, so we had to make our own entertainment.  The radio was my best friend.  We picked up plenty of amazing music.  We got Louisiana Hayride. We got ’50s pop radio.  We got plenty of songs from south of the border.  I loved them all.”

At age 15, Ronstadt started a vocal group with her brother and sister they called The New Union Ramblers, performing at community get-togethers and school events.  But her sister married young and started a family, and her brother became a police officer, so Linda decided to head out on her own to pursue her musical dreams.

In the early ’60s, the place where everything seemed to be happening was Los Angeles, so she headed to the West Coast at 18, split the $80 rent with two roommates in a Santa Monica beach cottage, and started frequenting the various venues where people with similar interests hung out.  The beatnik dives.  The Ashgrove, famous for traditional folk artists.  The clubs on the Sunset Strip.  And, of course, the Troubadour.

At first she waited tables and washed dishes — “I had no problem with that, I’d been doing it my whole life” — and performed in The Stone Poneys, a trio with musician Kenny Edwards and songwriter Bobby Kimmel, just acoustic guitar, mandolin and three voices.  “We practiced every day and played out whenever we could,” she recalled, “and it was a pretty eclectic mix of songs we would try, even back then.”

In 1965, when The Byrds took Bob Dylan’s folk song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” added jangly electric guitars and a rock beat and made it the #1 song in the nation, “all the record labels scurried around looking for new acts,” Ronstadt said.  “Everyone wanted to try to define what it was going to be, this cross-pollination of country, pop and rock.”

The Stone Poneys had cut a couple of demos, including a charming country tune written

Linda1968767

Linda in Malibu, 1966

by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees called “Different Drum.”  Capitol Records heard it and liked the song but not the arrangement.  “They wanted to re-cut it,” she noted, “and we were thrilled, but then we showed up at the studio and everything changed.  They had an orchestra in there!  I’m thinking, ‘This is not the way I envisioned it,’ but it’s a good thing they didn’t listen to me because it became a big hit.”

Capitol offered a record deal, but not to The Stone Poneys.  The deal was for Linda as a solo singer.  “Kenny headed off for India, and years later played bass and guitar on several of my albums.  Bobby started McCabe’s, a combination guitar store and music venue that’s still a Santa Monica landmark.  Meanwhile, I was essentially a harmony singer with no material.  People thought I was brave…but I was nervous.”

It wasn’t long before Ronstadt was making appearances on “The Johnny Cash Show” and “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” and sat with Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson, despite the fact that her early albums didn’t sell well.  On her 1969 debut, “Hand Sown…Home Grown,” she leaned away from folk and more toward country and rock, and radio stations weren’t sure what to make of her.  Same goes for “Silk Purse” (1970) and “Linda Ronstadt” (1972), which had diverse song lists that ran the gamut from Hank Williams’s “Lovesick Blues” to the Goffin-King oldie “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and from Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” to Livingston Tylor’s “In My Reply.”

Because she wasn’t a songwriter, Linda made it her business to keep her ear to the ground in order to discover the great new songs being played on Open Mic Night at The Troubadour.  “What a treasure trove that place was,” she recalled with a sigh.  “Kris Kristofferson.  James Taylor.  Tim Hardin.  Laura Nyro.  Neil Young.  JD Souther.  Joni.  Jackson.  Elton John!”

ronstadteagles

Ronstadt performing at The Troubadour with Jackson Browne (left) and The Eagles’ original lineup

The Troubadour was also where she met the guys who would constitute her first touring band:  A drummer from the band Shiloh named Don Henley and a guitarist from Longbranch Pennywhistle named Glenn Frey.  The two bonded on that tour and ended up amicably parting ways with Ronstadt so they could start their own group you may have heard of:  The Eagles.

Ronstadt had strong opinions about the songs she wanted to record, even if the record label didn’t always agree.  “I loved singing upbeat R&B tunes like “Rescue Me,” but I also wanted there to be room for some of the superb young songwriters I was hearing, like Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) and Henley and Frey (“Desperado”),” Ronstadt said.  “And it took me until my fifth album before I could convince anyone to let me record Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Heart Like a Wheel.'”

Speaking of which, it was her 1974 LP “Heart Like a Wheel” that really put Ronstadt on Unknown-144the map.  As I see it, it was a perfect storm — the right singer at the right time, with the right songs and the right producer.  Peter Asher became her manager and regular producer, taking tunes like Clint Ballard’s “You’re No Good,” Lowell George’s “Willin’,” Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and McGarrigle’s title cut and turn them into polished gems that radio program directors ate up.  “Heart Like a Wheel” reached #1 on both the Pop and Country charts.

This began a five-year string of chart-topping LPs (“Prisoner in Disguise,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Simple Dreams,” “Living in the USA”)  that made her the undisputed queen of country rock…or was it pop rock?…in the Unknown-143’70s.  On the singles charts, the songs that performed best for her were remakes of well-known hits (Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and “It’s So Easy,” Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA,” Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby”), but frankly, I always found myself more drawn to the gems by up-and-coming songwriters Ronstadt championed, like Karla Bonoff (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Lose Again”) and Warren Zevon (“Poor, Poor Pitiful Me,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Carmelita”).

She defied convention wisdom several times in her career.  The first time was in 1978 R-1473431-1338954045-8748.jpegwhen she covered newcomer Elvis Costello’s New Wave tune “Alison,” then recorded three more Costello songs on her first real departure, the rock album “Mad Love,” which featured lots of electric guitars and even a synthesizer.  Her gamble had mixed results; the album reached #3 on the pop charts but failed to chart at all on the country charts.  In fact, Ronstadt never made a dent in the country charts as a solo artist ever again.

But no matter, as she had other fish to fry.  First she turned heads by starring in the Broadway production and film version of “The Pirates of Penzance,” of all things, winning great reviews and a few award nominations.

Then came her boldest move.  Ronstadt had always admired the works of George and Ira Gershwin and Hoagy Carmichael (cynically disrespected by young hipsters as “elevator Linda-Ronstadt-Whats-New-1983-music”) and wanted to do a whole album of that kind of material.  “She decided this was what she wanted to do, and more important, was authentic at doing,” said Souther.  “She was told, ‘No, don’t do this, it’ll ruin your career.’  But she did it anyway.”

To my ears, the trio of albums she recorded with Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra in the 1980s was possibly the finest singing Ronstadt ever committed to vinyl.  The way she curls her voice around “Someone to Watch Over Me” or belts out “What’s New” is simply magnificent, better, even, than her pop rock chart-toppers.  Millions of music lovers agreed with me; “What’s New” reached #3 in a year dominated by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Men at Work’s “Business as Usual.”  Time magazine calling it “one of the gutsiest, most unorthodox and unexpected albums of the year.”

Said Linda in 2005, “I was so focused on folk, rock and country that I got a bit bored and felt the need to branch out, and this would be the first of many hikes down roads not typically taken.  I now realize I was taking a tremendous risk, and that (label honcho) Joe Smith’s opposition was a matter of him looking out for the company, and for me.  But when it became apparent I wouldn’t change my mind, he gave in, adding, ‘I love Nelson images-86so much!  Can I please come to the sessions?’  When the albums became successful, Joe congratulated me.  I resisted the urge to tease him and say ‘I told you so.'”

Her handlers also attempted to dissuade her from her equally radical left turn toward the Latin music of her childhood in 1987.  It proved less popular, at least on the mainstream charts, but “Cancions de mi Padre” broke records in the Spanish-speaking markets and brought Ronstadt much inner happiness.  “That music is anchored in my blood, in my soul,” she said.

Next came “Trio,” a hit-and-miss collection of country tunes with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris that had been in the works since they first attempted recording together in the late ’70s.  As you might expect, it topped the country charts but also PartonRonstadtHarris,jpgreached #7 on the pop charts (which sparked “Trio II” seven years later).

In 1988, while attending a New Orleans concert by the great Aaron Neville, Ronstadt was singled out and invited to the stage to sing with him, and they both felt it went so well that they agreed to record four songs together, which proved to be the highlights of her next hit LP, “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind.”  Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s Grammy-winning “Don’t Know Much” rightly snared most of the attention but, as usual, Linda wisely saved space for several fine new songs by Jimmy Webb and Karla Bonoff.

Her popularity began to wane a bit in the 1990s.  She failed to match the chart success she’d achieved thus far (“Feels Like Home” fared best, stalling at #75), but the LPs featured a wide range of beautiful interpretations of forgotten or ignored gems such as Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” Goffin-King’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” Tom Petty’s “The Waiting,” Brian Wilson’s “In My Room,” Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” and Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”  Her final release, “Hummin’ to Myself” (2004), revisited the American Songbook catalog with subtle beauties like “Cry Me a River” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

images-88As she gradually lost her ability to sing, Souther said, “To have this marvelous instrument that could hold the notes, hit the notes, shape the notes, and then to no longer have it…it must have been quite a reckoning.”

But as Asher put it, “I know of no one who could handle that kind of difficult adjustment in a more logical and thoughtful and intelligent way than Linda.”

At first Ronstadt was despondent about it, but soon grew philosophical.  “I lost a lot of different colors in my voice  There’s a lot of things you do in singing, you turn your voice to different planes to make different sounds, and gradually I couldn’t do any of that anymore.  Singing is really complex, and I was made most aware of that by having it vanish.  I still sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.”

“You know, I’m grateful for the time I had.  I got to live a lot of my dreams, and I feel lucky about that.”

 

Rush: Catch the mystery, catch the drift

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists who I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  At other times, I have used this space to honor artists who recently passed away.

Truth be told, I haven’t been much of a fan of Rush over the years.  They’ve been around since 1974, they have a catalog of 16 studio albums, and they were recently inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.   But if I were to list 50 artists/bands who I believe are “worthy of focused attention” as subjects for my blog posts, Rush would probably not be on that list.

The recent death of celebrated Rush drummer Neil Peart, however, justifies a fresh look at Rush’s music and Peart’s contributions to their legacy.

*****************

I have recently been introduced to a profound quotation from 19th Century British

rush

Geddy Lee, Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson

philosopher Herbert Spencer that I find very relevant for this week’s post:  “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — and that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”

 

I must confess that I fell victim to this principle when it came to my attitude toward Rush.  Perhaps I didn’t exactly hold them in contempt, but I was at best ambivalent and never really investigated their albums to learn more about them and see if there might be at least a few songs I liked.

And here’s why:  From the first time I heard Rush’s early single “Fly By Night,” I was immediately turned off by the voice of lead singer Geddy Lee.  It’s high-pitched and often incredibly irritating, and it made me want to lunge at the radio knob to change channels.

And that’s a shame.  I was a big fan of the progressive rock genre in the ’70s and ’80s, especially the musical works of Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis, among others.  Rush was Canada’s representative to the overwhelmingly British genre, and if I’d given them the time, I might’ve found some great stuff.

When Peart died a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help noting how many rock music fans mourned his death, calling him one of the best four or five rock music drummers of all time.  This caught my attention and made me wonder:  Maybe, just maybe, I haven’t given Rush a fair hearing over these 40-plus years.  So I have made it my business the past week or two to dive headlong into Rush’s catalog to see if there’s anything to my liking.

Unknown-136I’ll tell you this:  Lee’s voice is still a major obstacle for me.  But I will also acknowledge that the music — the instrumental excellence of guitarist Alex Lifeson, Peart’s stunning drum work, Lee’s bass and keyboard contributions — can no longer be ignored by me.  This was one tight musical trio.

Lee and Lifeson were Rush’s songwriting team throughout the group’s tenure, and they evolved from writing straight-ahead rock in their earlier years to a more dense, stretched-out progressive rock style and, later, to more radio-friendly pieces that favored more synthesizer and less guitar in the arrangements.  I’m pleased to report that I’ve discovered some really amazing tracks in each phase of Rush’s development.

Interestingly enough, Peart was the band’s chief lyricist.  You don’t often hear of rock drummers who also write lyrics, but it turns out that Peart had a deep interest in fantasy, science fiction lit and classic English poetry that he adroitly used in his allegorical story-telling.  Later on in Rush’s catalog, he dwelled more heavily on exploring humanistic, social, and emotional issues.

Rush’s roots were in the suburbs of Toronto, where Lifeson, Lee and original drummer John Rutsey were high school classmates in the late ’60s.  They honed their chops at school dances and clubs for a couple of years before releasing their first single — a cover of Buddy Holly’s classic “Not Fade Away” — in 1973 on an independent label.  When they Unknown-140had assembled enough original tunes to fill an album, they released their debut LP “Rush” in early 1974, which showed a strong influence and resemblance to early Led Zeppelin (check out “What You’re Doing” and “Finding My Way” in particular).  The album perked up the ears of music director/DJ Donna Halper at WMMS, a highly influential FM station in Cleveland, who put the blue-collar rocker “Working Man” in heavy rotation.  That caught the attention of Mercury Records, who re-released the album in the US that summer.

Health difficulties and a distaste for touring caused drummer Rutsey to resign from the band at that juncture, but they had the good fortune of landing Peart as their new drummer in time for their first US tour, warming up for Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann.  As Lee and Lifeson steered Rush’s music more to prog rock with 1975’s “Fly By Night” LP, cd2014864a3ee93f850c2d5e92d16c10Canadian fans pushed the album to #9 on the charts there, but it stalled at an unimpressive #113 in the US.  I still cringe at the title-song single, even though it got decent airplay in major markets, but I’m drawn to “Anthem” and “Rivendell.”

The “2112” album, which included a complicated 20-minute title track as well as a handful of shorter tracks, was the first Rush album to make an impression in the US, peaking at #61 in 1976 and eventually reaching triple-platinum status (three million units sold).  I found it interesting to hear how, on slow-tempo tunes like “Tears,” I found Lee’s vocals far more listenable in the lower registers where they were free of the high-pitched warbling heard on most Rush tracks.

Now firmly on their way, they chose to resist Mercury’s request that they write more commercially accessible tracks and instead maintained their prog rock approach, which was influenced by the likes of King Crimson and Yes.  Rush headed to England to record their next two albums (1977’s “A Farewell to Kings” and 1978’s “Hemispheres”), where they broadened their palette of instruments.  Said Lee, “We were so influenced by those British bands.  They made us eager to write and record more interesting, more complex music.”

Unknown-139Lifeson experimented with more classical and 12-string guitars and Peart diversified his kit to include triangles, glockenspiel, wood blocks, cowbells, chimes, even timpani and gong.  A sampling of YouTube video clips of Rush performances from this period dramatically show why Peart was developing such a great reputation as a dynamic drummer.

From these albums, the track I found I liked best was the nine-minute instrumental “La Villa Strangiato,” and I liked it best precisely because there were no Lee vocals to endure.  It got me ruminating on the notion that, if Rush had chosen a singer with a more appealing voice — someone with pipes like Jon Anderson, perhaps, or David Gilmour, or Peter Gabriel — it’s entirely likely I might’ve been a Rush fan all these years.

By 1980, Lifeson and Lee decided that, as much as they enjoyed indulging in protracted-length songs, they might also like to enjoy the rewards of commercial success that came with songs the radio might actually play.  They wrote tunes like “Freewill” and the rather Unknown-142obvious “The Spirit of Radio,” which featured elements of the increasingly popular reggae and New Wave genres, and the resulting album, “Permanent Waves,” zoomed to #4 on the US and UK charts.  Rush’s 1981 follow-up, “Moving Pictures,” continued this pattern of more commercially aimed tracks, with similar success on the charts (#3) and in ticket sales for their now arena-sized concerts.

Unknown-141I was as pleasantly surprised by the softer strains of “Different Strings” and the New Wave beat behind “Red Barchetta” as I was predictably turned off by the robotic inanity of the hit single “Tom Sawyer.”  Lee’s ever-increasing use of sequencers and synthesizers quickly became the band’s cornerstone, consequently pushing Lifeson’s guitars further into the background, and “The Camera Eye” from “Moving Pictures” would end up being Rush’s final lengthy track.

The synthesizer-based format, with flourishes of ska and funk, served Rush well through the ’80s, as their subsequent four LPs (“Signals,” “Grace Under Pressure,” “Power Windows” and “Hold Your Fire”) all reached the Top 10 in the US and the UK and, of Unknown-138course, their native Canada.  Rush seemed strongly influenced by The Police, U2 and Phil Collins-era Genesis at this point.  When I blocked out the worst moments of Lee’s vocals, I found some appealing songs on these discs, with “Losing It,” “The Enemy Within,” “Territories” and “Prime Mover” as the standouts.  Peart’s drumming on “Territories” is mesmerizing.

Beginning with “Presto” (1989), at Lifeson’s insistence, the band opted to abandon its keyboard-saturated sound and return to more guitar-centric arrangements and their original power-trio configuration.  From 1991’s “Roll Your Bones” LP, I found “Ghost of a Chance” very compelling, but then, not much memorable for me showed up on their next few releases.  Rush continued to chart in the Top Five, but in ever-decreasing sales numbers.  The band went on hiatus in the late ’90s after Peart lost a daughter and then his wife to tragic early deaths, but the band then resumed touring and recording in 2002, releasing the unremarkable “Vapor Trails” and “Snakes and Arrows.”

images-85Fans must’ve been delighted with what will apparently be their final LP, 2012’s “Clockwork Angels.”  I found three solid entries here — “BU2B,” “The Anarchist” and the title track.  After a career featuring several albums that contained multi-part suites, “Clockwork Angels” was actually Rush’s first bonafide “concept album” with all tracks part of a song cycle with lyrical continuity.

For his part, Peart considered the LP his finest work, both in terms of lyrical consistency and his drumming.  “In the sessions, I played through each song just a few times on my own, checking out patterns and fills that might work, and then called in Nick Raskulinecz (their new Nashville-based producer),” Peart said.  “He stood in the room with me, facing my drums, with a music stand and a single drumstick—he was my conductor, and I was neilpeartdw450his orchestra … I would attack the drums, responding to his enthusiasm, and his suggestions between takes, and together we would hammer out the basic architecture of the part.”

In 2015, Lifeson’s struggles with arthritis and Peart’s challenges with tendinitis seemed to bring their touring days to an end, although they said they wanted to continue recording new material.  Sadly, though, Peart lost a three-year battle with brain cancer just three weeks ago.

The idea of Rush somehow continuing without Neil Peart is probably sacrilegious to many fans.  If Lifeson and Lee are nonetheless motivated to give it a try, they may want to go out as The Lee/Lifeson Band, or even as solo acts, instead of keeping the Rush brand alive with another drummer.  Still, the value of that name is enormous, and if Journey can play stadiums without Steve Perry, I suspect Rush can do the same without Peart.