Last week I went to my local art-house film theater to see the documentary film Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice for the third time. Yes, I have seen this movie three times, and I thoroughly enjoyed it each time. The last time I saw a movie at a theater three times was the blockbuster Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi, in 1983. So you can see that this film really spoke to me.
Why did I love the movie so much? I have been a huge Linda Ronstadt fan since the 1970s, and count myself among the lucky concert goers who have seen her multiple times. The first time I saw Linda in concert was at the University of Tennessee’s Stokely Athletic Center on Saturday, November 5, 1977, during the tour she did for her eighth studio album Simple Dreams. The reason I know the date of the concert? I still have the ticket stub in my memorabilia binder.
Funny how memories can be selective. I had always remembered seeing Linda Ronstadt when I was a student at UT. However, after studying the ticket stub carefully, I learned (1) I had a great seat on the 9th row (!), and (2) I gained admission via a student ticket for which I would have had to present a valid student activities card. The mystery here is that I was not a student at UT in 1977. I was an undergraduate student the year before, but in November 1977, I was 19 years old and working full-time at the university in the admissions office. Hmmmmm. Maybe whoever let me buy their Linda Ronstadt ticket also let me borrow their student activities card. I don’t remember; but I do remember that the concert was thrilling.
When I saw the documentary directed by Rob Epstein (who has won two Academy Awards for Best Documentary Feature) and Jeffrey Friedman, I was reminded of Ronstadt’s powerhouse voice and phenomenal song choices that have been part of my life since I was a teenager. For the first time, however, I was able to feel as if I was spending time with her since she narrated a good bit of the movie. She told the story of her parents meeting for the first time when her father rode a horse up the steps of her mother’s sorority house. Her father had what Linda described as a “lovely baritone-tenor voice” which he used to serenade her mother beneath her window. Linda’s mother was educated, beautiful, and encouraged Linda, her third child out of four children, to follow her bliss and be an independent woman, even if her ambition did not include marriage. And Linda says she has never regretted that she never married.
Her mother’s father was the inventor Lloyd Copeman who invented the electric stove, the automatic toaster, the thermostat for Westinghouse, rubber ice cube trays, the pneumatic grease gun, a tamper-proof envelope, and a slew of other inventions. As Linda says in the movie, her grandfather was third to Thomas Edison in the 1950s in the number of useful inventions he patented. But during an 2013 interview with NPR she points out that her grandfather worked alone and that Edison had teams of men working with him. Although her maternal grandfather patented nearly 700 inventions and innovations, Linda said he was only intermittently wealthy since he spent much of his money trying to find a cure for his beloved wife’s Parkinson’s disease–the disease that Linda herself now suffers from.
Linda’s particular form of Parkinson’s disease, called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (P.S.P.), has taken away most of her singing voice, caused excruciating back pain, required her to use a wheelchair to walk very far, and made it difficult for her to perform simple daily tasks. Sadly Linda has found her form of Parkinson’s is not improved by the use of traditional Parkinson’s medications such as dopamine.
Yet Ronstadt is not defined by her disease. She continues to define her life on her own terms just as she did throughout her more than forty-year-long musical career.
Music was simply a way of life for Linda as she grew up and the range of music she heard in her home was wide. The family spoke English, but her father sang Mexican folk songs, so Linda grew up thinking that everyone spoke English but sang in Spanish. Her mother listened to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, her sister loved country music, and one of her brothers was a featured vocalist in a nationally recognized boy’s choir. When she was a teenager she and two of her siblings sang together in a folk group in Tucson, Arizona, where she grew up, as Linda says, “on the last 10 acres of my grandfather’s farm.”
Linda did not get into the music business to be a star or to be the center of attention. She simply wanted to sing and make intricate harmonies with other singers. Some of the most electrifying harmonies she made were with her dear friend Emmylou Harris and their singing icon Dolly Parton. Together the three of them collaborated on the studio albums “Trio” (1987) and “Trio II” (1999).
Throughout her career, Linda wrestled with record company executives who wanted to confine her singing to what was the most commercially viable music to sell as many records as possible. In other words, her record company wanted her to continue making rock records that had made her internationally famous and had sold in the millions. Linda wanted to sing, could sing, and eventually did sing in more song genres (folk, country, rock, pop, opera, musical theater, Big Band standards, and Mexican folk songs or Canciones) than any popular singer has ever done. And despite the fears of her record company, she was successful at singing in all these genres.
Despite the debilitating version of the disease she has, Linda continues to enlarge our lives, not only through the startling range of her musical catalogue, but through her life story. She inspires by the example of her life: choosing to use her singing voice on the largest possible stage, choosing not to be defined by traditional female roles, speaking her mind, choosing not to be defined by the constraints of her disease, and inspiring others who have debilitating diseases.
At the end of the documentary, Linda distills the central question facing humanity to the simple words of a fellow Parkinson’s survivor who told her: “The question is not about life after death; the question is about life before death.”
Yes. We can beat each other up mentally and physically that only our beliefs are the correct ones. We can destroy each other’s sacred places and symbols. We can inprison people in concentration camps because they have a particular religious ancestry. We can consign human beings to slavery or second-class citizenship because they come from a different “tribe”, have a different color of skin, or speak a different language. We can argue until the cows come home about eternal life and which religion has the definitive answer to the pivotal question: Why are we here?
Linda Ronstadt’s life, her voice, her music, and the documentary about her extraordinary accomplishments inspire us to consider that what happens after we die is not our most important question. It is not whether we live after we die that is critical for us to know. The quintessential question is what we are doing with our lives now–before we are dead–that truly counts.
We can live our lives in a selfish vacuum, which is the example of our current national leader, or we can make a difference in the lives of others. For true happiness does not happen by staring constantly at our own navels and following our selfish whims down a rabbit hole. I have found I am the happiest when I share laughter, live my life with open arms, and take the risk to live passionately with at least two wheels on the ground. Sometimes four.
~ Anna – 10/6/2019