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Linda Ronstadt on Living With Parkinson’s and Lamenting ‘the Idiot in the White House’

Story by Laura Hilgers, illustration by Olivia Wise

“There’s an aria in that scene in Room with a View, when she’s standing in the field and he comes and kisses her,” says Linda Ronstadt, referring to the 1986 movie that stars Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands. “Do you remember it?” the rock icon and winner of 11 Grammy Awards asks a visitor. “You should go back and listen. My God, it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard.”

Ronstadt, 71, is reclining on a cushioned chaise lounge in the living room of her Richmond District home. Her head is propped against a pillow. It’s the position in which Ronstadt feels most comfortable now, nine years after giving up singing because of Parkinson’s disease. The neurodegenerative disorder has caused her hands to tremor slightly. It has robbed her of much of her mobility. It has not robbed her of an active mind, her (sometimes salty) wit or of music.

The aria to which Ronstadt refers is “O Mio Babbino Caro” from the 1918 opera Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. The movie rendition, sung by the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, is soulful and heartbreaking. Ronstadt listens to many arias these days, mostly on YouTube, even though she calls the video app “the great equalizer” because “the sound is so shitty.”

“It’s almost all I listen to now, opera and classical music,” says the singer of hits such as “When Will I Be Loved” and “You’re No Good.” She recently also became enamored of the “Casta Diva” aria from Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera Norma, and listens to recordings by Maria Callas, Renee Fleming and Frederica von Stade. “Opera is such a distilled expression of emotion,” observes Ronstadt. “It’s so concentrated, sometimes it’s kind of hard to take. But sometimes it’s the only thing that will express what you’re feeling.”

Despite her physical limitations, Ronstadt remains in a conversation with music. She also remains in one with her fans, through a series of multimedia shows called “A Conversation with Linda,” three of which will take place this September, at Dominican University of California (in San Rafael), Folsom Lake College and Mountain Winery in Saratoga. She’s been doing the show since 2013, when she created it to coincide with the tour for her book Simple Dreams.

The shows highlight Ronstadt’s four-decade career through videos (including some “really crappy video we got off YouTube,” Ronstadt adds, laughing), rare personal photos and recordings of her music. Ronstadt, who never liked performing, now enjoys the Q&A sessions with her audiences at the end the most. “They give me a dialogue with the world,” she says.

Peter Dalton Ronstadt, Linda’s 32-year-old nephew and part of the Ronstadt Brothers band along with his brother, Michael Gilbert Ronstadt, recently saw the show in Linda’s hometown of Tucson and says he found it “amazing, when it’s presented in a snapshot like that, to see the variety and command of all the different art forms she touched upon.” From her start singing folk rock with the Stone Poneys in 1967 to her final albums singing traditional Mexican songs at the turn of this century, Ronstadt covered everything from chart-topping pop music to Mexican folk tunes to torch songs. She even sang opera, appearing in the Central Park, Broadway and film versions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance. She produced 31 gold and platinum records, earned a National Medal of Arts (bestowed by President Barack Obama) and a 2014 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

“It’s pretty unparalleled, what she did,” says Meredith Rutledge-Borger, curator for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, Ohio. “I can’t think of another artist who has that kind of range and crossover appeal in so many different genres. Well, I can’t think of one who has tried that many different things and been as successful as she has been.”

Rutledge-Borger credits much of Ronstadt’s success to the singer’s strong-willed insistence on being herself. “Rock and roll has traditionally been a boys’ club,” says Rutledge-Borger, “and Linda is an example of a woman who made a place for herself in that club and dominated. She became a best-selling artist on her own terms and switched the code by going into different genres, not just staying in the role that perhaps the music industry wanted to put her in — in the role of the girl who is just pretty.”

A conversation with Ronstadt will quickly debunk notions that she is — her still radiant smile, withstanding — “the girl who is just pretty.” Or that she ever was. Her living room is lined with built-in bookshelves that include everything from a weighty biography of Hitler to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. Though she dislikes modern fiction, she consumes contemporary nonfiction and classical fiction with the avidity of a college professor. Her taste in fiction includes Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters. “Henry James is my favorite,” she says. “I’ve read everything he’s ever written, except all the short stories.”

Ronstadt traces her active mind to her mother’s side of the family. “My grandfather was an inventor,” she says, “and my mother was always thinking up stuff.” Her maternal grandfather, Lloyd Groff Copeman, invented the first electric stove and the flexible rubber ice cube tray.

As for her broad range in musical tastes, credit goes there to the entire musical Tucson family — half German, half Mexican — in which she grew up. She often says that she never tried singing anything that she hadn’t heard in her family’s living room before the age of 10. 

Her grandfather was the conductor of the Club Filarmonico Tucsonense, a brass band, in the late 19th century. Her father sang Frank Sinatra tunes. Her sister loved country music. Her mom played Gilbert and Sullivan on the piano nonstop. On Saturdays, her grandmother tuned her television to the live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera. Ronstadt’s two children, both in their 20s, are now musical themselves. 

Tucson — and the Sonoran Desert from which her Mexican side of her family hails — are also where Ronstadt formed her liberal political views, which center mostly on immigration issues and occasionally veer toward “the idiot in the White House.” She says, “What’s going on in the border is such a tragedy. It’s just the saddest, what our government does. The number of people who die there every year, and the fact that they’re separating children from their mothers now — it’s just cruelty.”

Though limited by Parkinson’s, Ronstadt offers financial and emotional support to liberal immigration causes such as the Arizona-based Humane Borders and No More Death. She also stays close to her former boyfriend, California Governor Jerry Brown, whom she describes as a “basically kind, very decent person with good values.” He was a visitor to her home at Thanksgiving.

If Ronstadt is frustrated by her inability to be out in the world, advocating for liberal causes, she doesn’t show it. She seems to have found an acceptance around the Parkinson’s. “I think if it hadn’t come on so slowly, it would have been harder,” she says. “But the way it came on was that every day, I could do a little less. So I’d get up in the morning and say, ‘Well, this is what I can do today.’ I do what I can, and fortunately I don’t have to work.”

But the music remains in her head, whether she’s listening to arias or to the concerts her nephews, the Ronstadt Brothers, hold in her living room when they visit. “I wasn’t very happy about not being able to sing, I can tell you that,” she says. “But I had years to accept it. And you know, I can still sing in my brain. Sometimes, I even look up the words to songs so I can sing it all the way through and am not going la la la in my head. I can still hear really well so I hear music in quite a bit of minute detail. So that keeps me pretty busy. I’m still very involved in music. I just can’t perform it.”

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