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Epiphany #3

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Lost among the end-of-year lists, photo montages, and Google commercials about famous people who died and their impact on humanity or Hollywood is the death of Linda Ronstadt's voice.  Because of Parkinson's Disease affecting her throat muscles, that voice left us forever in 2013.  When I am reminded of that, as I am tonight, I am disconsolate.

It might be easy to dismiss or to forget about Ronstadt.  You haven't heard from her in years, and neither have I.  You may know some of her hits, may hum or sing along when they come on the radio--"Different Drum," "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," "You're No Good," and a wealth of others, but I'll wager you don't own a single one of her CDs (and neither do I), unless you were into those torch songs of her later prominence.  She wasn't a songwriter, relying instead on remaking hits or catching-on songwriters like Karla Bonoff or Warren Zevon before they became better known.

She got plenty of FM airplay in the 70s and 80s; she rocked the arenas.  I saw her once in 1974, sandwiched in a triple bill between America and James Taylor.  She kicked out a good set of country-inflected hits.  Because of the way she worked, redoing other people's hits or cherry picking from songwriters, I liked her or dismissed her, based on the song she was singing.

But I really liked her because of her other career--adding her voice to other recordings.  She sings on Neil Young classics like "Heart Of Gold" and "Old Man," on all of Harvest Moon and the raunch-country side of American Stars And Bars.  She is the voice harmonizing with Paul Simon on "Under African Skies" and with Emmylou Harris on "Western Wall."

It is rare for me to love and to celebrate a voice, partial as I am to songwriters over singers.  But Linda Ronstadt was different.  Like Emmylou Harris, whom I have previously celebrated on these pages, she made other people sound better.  And she took risks with her voice.  One of my favorite moments in her canon is "How Do I Make You?" from Mad Love in 1980, when she took on the New Wave that was ushering in the decade ahead.  On that song (which rocks), her voice reaches for notes and cracks, a direct contrast to the careful instrument it is on her slick records.

I am realizing all of this tonight because I heard 29 seconds of Linda Ronstadt singing, and it made me want to cry that her voice is gone.  The record is Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School by Warren Zevon.  The song is "Empty-Handed Heart."  Down in the basement, I put the iPod on "shuffle" for all of Zevon's songs, and, about five songs in came "Empty-Hearted Heart."  Zevon writes ballads of lost love well, and this is one of his best.  About two-thirds of the way through, he starts repeating "And I've thrown down diamonds in the sand" over and over.

Over top of that, Ronstadt sings the descant, a counter melody:

Remember when we used to watch the sun set in the sea
You said you'd always be in love with me
All through the night we danced and sang
Made love in the mornings while the church bells rang

In all of my listening to music for over fifty years, it is one of the most beautiful and beautifully-sung melodies I've heard.  Every time I hear it, I play it again.

Yes, people die, and we justly mourn and celebrate them.  Zevon himself is, of course, gone. But sometimes an essential part of a person's being dies with equal tragedy.  The loss of Ms. Ronstadt's voice invites a reconsideration of that voice and of all of the beauty it contained.

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