Linda Marie Ronstadt has been providing me with listening pleasure for 45 years, often taking a leading role on the soundtrack of my life, taking me through ups, downs, fears, and tears. Folk, Rock, Punk, Country, Broadway, Standards, Opera, Jazz, Traditional Mexican, Pure Pop, New Wave, Tropical Latin, even Children’s Music, no matter the genre, I went along for the ride. She is the perfect artist for my eclectic tastes.
Ronstadt has been somewhat closed about her private life, but she has been known to speak out about politics as a Liberal advocate, and she can be a bit of a rabble rouser. In 2004, she was evicted from the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas for speaking out against the war in Iraq to a booing audience. She supports and campaigns for environmental issues and against the Conservative politics in Arizona where she resides in Tucson. Ronstadt has long championed LGBTQ Rights and Marriage Equality.
Ronstadt has famously dated George Lucas, Jim Carrey, and, of course, California Governor Jerry Brown, but she has never married.
Life for Ronstadt is much different these days. One of the greatest female vocalists of her, or any other, generation, the Grammy Award, Emmy Award, Golden Globe and Tony Award-winning artist has taken a panoramic journey through music. Starting with her sleek classic-rock hits, so ubiquitous on 1970s radio, to her collaborations with Nelson Riddle, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, and Aaron Neville, her artistry, musical sense of adventure and that magnificent instrument have knocked me out.
After a lifetime of traveling the world singing, Ronstadt now spends most of her time at home. For more than a dozen years after the symptoms began to affect her singing, Ronstadt had no idea what happened to her. The loss of her ability to sing was a mystery:
”I knew it was something systemic. I knew it wasn’t age. Doctors looked at my larynx and said it was in perfect condition, that I had a teenage larynx.”
She recorded a small combo jazz album, Hummin’ To Myself (2002) with what she described as ”a limited palette” and was supported by her collaborator Ann Savoy on her final recording, Adieu False Heart (2006). She played her last concert in 2009.
While Ronstadt no longer sings, she can write. Her terrific, moving memoir, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (2013) was a New York Times Bestseller. Interestingly, she says nothing about that other great girl singer/songwriter Carly Simon, not a word. But, she still dishes a whole bunch. In the memoir she writes:
”Jerry Brown and I had a lot of fun for a number of years. He was smart and funny, not interested in drinking or drugs, and lived his life carefully, with a great deal of discipline.”
She said she found him to be a relief from the musicians she hung around with. But she also writes:
”Neither of us ever suffered under the delusion that we would like to share each other’s lives. I would have found his life too restrictive, and he would have found mine entirely chaotic. Eventually we went our separate ways and embraced things that resonated with us as different individuals. We have always remained on excellent terms.”
Ronstadt retired not knowing why she could no longer sing, a mystery solved years later with the Parkinson’s diagnosis. She initially suspected a Lyme disease. After her hands began to shake, she blamed it on shoulder surgery. It wasn’t until 2013, that she was finally diagnosed.
Ronstadt went public with the news in an interview with AARP Magazine, saying:
”No one can sing with Parkinson’s, no matter how hard you try.”
Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the nervous system that affects motor control. The disease develops slowly over years and is notoriously difficult to diagnose. In many cases, drug treatment can help with symptoms, but not for Ronstadt. She is among the one in five Parkinson’s patients who do not benefit from increased dopamine. Parkinson’s has reduced her gorgeous, glorious voice to a near-whisper.
Ronstadt is now living San Franciscan and she finds travel to be near impossible. She sold her historic hacienda she had owned in her native Tucson.
She says she heeds the advice from one of the most famous Parkinson’s patients:
”Michael J. Fox told me: ‘I make plans, and I keep them’.”
Tucson is just 60 miles north of the Mexican border, and Ronstadt, who is of Mexican heritage, was involved with activists supporting immigrant rights when she lived there. She volunteered with an organization called the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans.
”When I was getting ready to retire from singing, we’d go down to the border and find people in terrible shape with their feet full of cactus thorns. We’d wash their feet and bandage them. Once you’ve washed somebody’s feet, you have a totally different relationship with them.”
Ronstadt says she is horrified by the current administration’s zero tolerance policy:
”They’ve been putting children in jail and threatening to steal them for a long time, and now they’re doing it as a matter of policy. Those poor children are suffering permanent harm. It’s an outrage to keep human beings penned up like animals.”
As someone who lives with an incurable condition, she really spoke to me when she wrote:
”Joy is never merely happiness, but a mixture of happiness, sadness, wonder, relief, and fear. It’s like a physical manifestation of a complex emotion. I wonder if they could measure what it is music does to your body.”
Today is Ronstadt’s 72nd birthday.