Continues to capture our hearts
By Mark Holston
It’s not a stretch to state that Linda Ronstadt is far and away the most accomplished Latina artist of her generation. Indeed, in the broad sweep of 20th Century popular culture, her many and varied career triumphs place her in the company of an elite few whose influence has been as pervasive as it has been long-lasting. The singer and songwriter, who rocketed to fame in the late 1960s, produced albums that racked up sales of over 100 million copies and made such hits as “Blue Bayou” and “You’re No Good” indelible parts of the pop music landscape. Winner of 11 Grammy Awards, she also collected a vast array of other honors, including an Emmy for her theatrical work, an ALMA (American Latino Media Arts) Award, and two Academy of Country Music awards, among many others. In 2013, she was awarded by President Obama a National Medal of Arts and Humanities for, among other things, “paving the way for generations of women artists.” In 2013, she shared her journey in her musical memoir Simple Dreams. Last but certainly not least, her long-anticipated induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed last year.
Today, due to the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, her career as a performer is long behind her. Although she seldom ventures from the confines of her Bay Area home in northern California, Linda remains a committed advocate for the arts, a passionate proponent of the Mexican-American heritage that nurtured her, and an outspoken social critic. During a lengthy and free-flowing interview with LATINA Style, she reflected on her early upbringing in Arizona, how she constantly sought out different music genres to explore, how the music industry has changed so radically in recent years, her strong interest in the immigration issue, her distain for certain politicians, and why she’s so passionate about the role of the arts in society.
“When I was growing up in the Tucson area,” recalls the 68-year old singer of her childhood in Arizona and how she perceived her ethnic and cultural identity, “we were just ‘Mexican.’ We ate tamales at Christmas time. My father and grandmother spoke Spanish. My relatives gossiped in Spanish in front of us, but we – the kids – couldn’t understand what they were saying. So they could talk about all the family scandals very rapidly!”
Her paternal great grandfather had emigrated from Germany to Mexico, where her grandfather was born. “We lived very close to the border, and we went to Mexico all the time,” she continues. “We’d go across the border just for lunch or to shop. My father had a lot a lot of friends in Mexico, and we’d attend events like the Blanco y Negro ball, which was like a debutant’s party. My sister and I would both dance. We’d go to picnics and baptisms and weddings. The border was completely permeable then. You’d just stop and show an ID. That was it.”
Being raised in a bilingual family with strong ties to Mexican regional culture sparked her first interest in singing and cultivated a passion for the music of the region, a style she would explore as a recording artist four decades later. A lifelong regret, however, has been that she never learned to speak Spanish to any degree.
“I wish I had,” Linda confides today. “My father would always speak for us when we went to Mexico. He was our interpreter. I knew how to pronounce it and we did some singing in it. My dad sang in Spanish all the time, and we’d chime in on the choruses.”
Two decades after she had established herself as a certified rock star, first as a member of the group The Stone Poneys and later as a solo performer, Linda would return to the music she had first heard at her father’s knee. “I got so restless with what I was doing,” she admits today, “that I kept wanting to do the things I had done in my childhood. I thought the music was world-class but it wasn’t getting any exposure. I thought those Mexican songs were better than the songs I was getting at that point in my career.”
Her response was to celebrate the rich mariachi tradition of northern Mexico and the U.S. southwest. The 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre proved to be one of her biggest hits, surprising her rock and country fans along with critics and music industry insiders. It sold over two million copies and is believed to be the best selling non-English language recording ever in the U.S. The project was followed up four years later with a second album of regional fare, Mas Canciones.
“It wasn’t like it is today where you could go to YouTube and look up the lyrics of songs,” she states. “When I was a kid, we learned enough Spanish to get through the songs, but when I decided to record them, I had to really do a lot of hard work to get them up to professional standards, both with the language and the pronunciation.” But, her hard work paid off, and the albums won a legion of fans on both sides of the border. “If I said a phrase in Spanish while I was in Mexico, people thought I was a Sonorense (someone from the Mexican state of Sonora). But I had to do a lot of work to get it into a musical phrase.”
Another Spanish language recording, Frenesi, a 1992 tribute to the golden age of boleros and big band-style cha-chas and mambos, were also songs she had heard growing up. “My father loved listening to Toña la Negra, a singer who was born in Mexico but whose parents were Cuban,” Linda explains. “So, although the music on Frenesi is Afro-Cuban, I heard all of those great tunes through the ‘Mexican door.’”
Yet another dramatic detour from the pop music mainstream came in the mid-1980s when she focused on classics from The Great American Songbook – standards mostly from the 1930s and ‘40s originally recorded by such renowned vocalists as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Three albums devoted to the genre (What’s New, Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons) were arranged by the gifted Nelson Riddle and lavishly orchestrated for a large, big band-style ensemble with strings. “God, they are so beautifully crafted,” she says today of the repertoire. “The sheer pleasure of climbing around in that kind of brilliant musical architecture was something I had to do. I couldn’t resist it.” Once again, she followed her heart, ignored the conventional wisdom of the day, and produced another series of mega-hits.
Looking at the music industry today, or what passes for it, gives her pause. “Everything has been turned upside down,” she comments. “It’s a landscape that I really can’t recognize anymore,” she says of what has emerged in the Internet era. “There are no gatekeepers. It used to be that every record company had its own artistic sensibility floating around like a really heavy atmosphere. Atlantic had one kind of thing and Capitol had another. They were like city-states. They had their own cultures. So, you needed to get into the culture – the record label – that was the right one for your sensibility. I was lucky to wind up on Asylum Records, which was tailor-made for what we were doing in Southern California at that time. I felt that I was with kindred souls, that they understood what I was trying to do.”
Even radio, which was instrumental in making her a star, holds little appeal today. “It used to be that you could turn on the radio and hear the singing nun, George Jones and Ray Charles all on the same station,” she says with a chuckle. “It was so great.” Now, it’s all so driven by formulas. I don’t even listen to radio except for one Mexican station in San Jose that’s great. The music is directed at the migrants. The music to me that has the most vitality to it is the pop music that’s coming out of Mexico.”
A group she is particularly fond of is Los Tigres del Norte, the famous California-based conjunto that’s wildly popular on both sides of the border. “They are just fantastic,” Linda exclaims. “What a great band! I love what they do and how generous they are. You know, when we were on stage in the 1970s, I remember Grace Slick turning her back on the audience. It was like we were too hip for the audience. But the Tigres are so generous to their audiences. It makes me ashamed of how we – the rockers – acted in those days.”
Today, Linda is deeply concerned about what’s transpiring along the border, where life has changed so much since she was a young girl in Tucson. “It’s so shocking to me that today we have the Berlin Wall there,” she states. “The two cultures were getting along just fine, and all of a sudden we have this thing that even disrupts how wildlife migrates. It’s the contractors who are involved, such as Blackwater, who have profited from putting up the fence and charging us for it. They – contractors – even drive the buses that transport the people who are apprehended. It’s created an industry, and the taxpayers are getting screwed. We are not getting any benefit but we are getting great harm. It’s creating a culture of poverty, deprivation and desperation.”
She saves her most harsh criticism, however, for politicians who have, in her opinion, only muddied the water surrounding the immigration debate. She sees the plight of immigrants as one of the defining issues of the day. “As Bob Dylan wrote, ‘I pity the poor immigrant who wishes he would have stayed home,’” Linda states. “To be displaced from your home country, in the first place, is profoundly unsettling. Then to arrive in a hostile place where people are inclined to hate you. I wish there could be some kind of shared compassion for immigrants all over the world. The immigrants who arrive here have experienced incredible adversity. Only the strong ones get here. They are the best problem-solvers.”
Today, Linda is deeply involved in a problem-solving organization called Los Cenzontles (in Nahuatl, Mexico’s most spoken indigenous language, “mockingbird”) Cultural Arts Academy. It operates out of a strip mall in Richmond, a distressed neighborhood in the East Bay. According to its website, Los Cenzontles is “a nonprofit organization, a music academy, a community space for youth and families, and a hub for Latino artists – all working together to amplify our Mexican roots here in the Bay Area and beyond.” “They work with about 300 kids a week and they learn how to play music, dance, sing, and do visual arts, and the richness that comes out of that place is just staggering,” she notes. “The kids are starved for it. It’s done in a way that reinforces their own culture. It teaches them to have pride in who they are and makes them way less vulnerable. They have a better chance of graduating from high school and going to college and not having teen pregnancy.” In addition to financially supporting the project, she has invited such musician friends as David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and blues guitarist Ry Cooder to work with the student musicians.
Perhaps surprising to some, the singer seldom revisits her own work. Although her lifelong fans continue to enjoy her singular artistry, she can’t stand to listen to her own records. “It makes me sick! I’ve listened to it so much while we were making it that I can’t listen anymore. Partly because it’s frozen. If I do listen to something,” she concedes, “I might hear a phrase or a note I liked but very seldom a whole song. And never a whole album!”
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