When I was in my 20s, I would have followed Linda Ronstadt anywhere.
That put me in a pack with 30 million other young guys, though I did jump the line in a way by becoming a music writer and some years later getting to interview her a couple of times.
Sometimes you’re disappointed when you finally meet people you would have followed anywhere. I was not disappointed.
Anyhow, fast-forward a couple of decades. Instead of this being the ’70s, I’m now in my 70s, and on a rainy Sunday afternoon I drive to my local independent, single-screen movie theater to see Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice.
The title turns out to be accurate. The Sound of My Voice runs about an hour and a half, and most of it is Ronstadt’s voice. That means we see her singing for the first 40 or so years and today we hear her spoken voiceover narration. She has Parkinson’s, a cruel disease that if possible is even crueler to singers, because it cripples the vocal cords.
“I sing in my head,” she says, in a tone probably a bit more wistful than defiant. I remember asking her years ago if she sang off-stage and she said, “Everywhere. I sing in the shower. I sing in the car. I sing in the kitchen. I sing with the radio.”
The Sound of My Voice celebrates the joy of music, chronicling how Ronstadt parlayed that pleasure into her life’s work.
The film follows her sometimes dizzying hopscotch from folk to folk-rock to top-40 hits to popular standards to the Trio project to Aaron Neville duets to the Mexican ballads she learned from her father.
The sheer number of turns leaves the film little time even to acknowledge how eclectic a mix she sang on her early records. Since she lived in L.A. and ran with the ’70s L.A. crowd, there was a lot of Neil Young, Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon, yet she was also singing Dylan, Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, traditional gospel and the occasional bizarre tune from another planet, like Wayne Raney’s “We Need A Whole Lot More of Jesus (And a Lot Less Rock ’n’ Roll.”
One of the best musical moments in The Sound of My Voice has Ronstadt and her first non-family group, the Stone Poneys, singing an early, acoustic-style version of “Different Drum,” which in a later arrangement with full orchestration became the record that introduced Ronstadt to me and most of those 30 million other guys.
Neither version is wrong. They’re just different. Mainly, in both cases you hear the first line, 11 words, and you know why Linda Ronstadt keeps you listening.
It’s not that everything she sang was perfect. She has often said she doesn’t consider herself a great interpreter, and that’s true. I don’t go to her for Buddy Holly, Rolling Stones or Smokey Robinson songs.
Marge, who joined me in following Linda to numerous concerts in the ’70s, always said her wheelhouse was “hurt woman songs.” That is correct.
I don’t mean “You’re No Good,” her biggest radio hit, which I can take or leave. I mean the ballads: “Long Long Time,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “It’s About Time,” “Desperado,” “Faithless Love.” Voice, song. Oh my, those are fine.
She doesn’t talk about individual songs in The Sound of My Voice. She talks about styles, how much she wanted to sing standards and canciones.
That’s good. It gives depth and context to the music. What also struck me when the movie was over, though, was what she hadn’t talked about.
Clearly she agreed to do the film on the condition it focus on the music, not her personal life. Her adopted children, for instance, are not mentioned.
And that’s fine. It’s her call. She owes us nothing. But some of the silent spots here feel like they go beyond privacy.
She talks extensively about her musical influences, starting with her father. The film includes multiple comments from artists she has known and worked with, like Dolly Parton, Browne, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and J.D. Souther, with whom she lived in the early ‘70s.
J.D. was the guy who really could follow her anywhere.
What the film doesn’t include is how Ronstadt felt about those folks in return. She talks a lot about music she loves and almost not at all about people she loves.
I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t there. It means she’s not sharing. When she was living with Souther, they were at the epicenter of an exploding, hip, cool L.A. music scene. How did she feel about the people in it?
That seems relevant not as voyeurism, but because, as she repeatedly notes, music comes from feelings and emotion. She made music with these people, lived with some of them. Souther says she laughed a lot. At what? Where did all that intersect?
When Souther is asked why they broke up, he says, “I don’t remember. You should ask her.” No one does, which is okay except it does pull a thread and then leave it dangling.
Similarly, the film spends a bunch of time on her high-profile ’70s relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown, then doesn’t have a word on how she looks back on it. Or looks back on him.
If dating Brown or Jim Carrey or Star Wars director George Lucas had no impact on her music, that’s kind of a story, too.
We hear how her father and mother and family helped shape her musical life. They can’t be the only ones.
All that said, focusing on music was the right call for The Sound of My Voice. The music is what made me want to follow her anywhere in the 1970s — yes, even more than the cover of the album Silk Purse, on which she and a lot of hair are hunkered down next to a melancholy young pig.
Perhaps 70 or 80 people were in the theater when I saw The Sound of My Voice. They were all my age, as we say, and about half were men, meaning that statistically speaking, many no doubt once had the same sentiment as I about Linda Ronstadt.
We, like Ronstadt, went on to follow paths most of us very likely could not have foreseen. I’m further guessing music receded in many of their lives as careers and families and life’s attendant dramas unfolded.
One of the funny things about music, though, is that it doesn’t disappear. Decades later we can still name that tune, hum that melody, hear that voice.
So now, many years later on a cool rainy October afternoon, I have followed Linda Ronstadt to Chatham Cinema.
And I am not alone.