Saturday, May 10, 2008

My Divas ~ Linda, 1976

One of the pleasures of YouTube is coming across a rare, unexpected performance by an artist you've long been a fan of. Such was the case when I discovered this 1976 performance by Linda Ronstadt of "Down So Low," a mostly overlooked track from her underrated "Hasten Down the Wind" album. While Linda performances of "Blue Bayou" or "You're No Good" are a dime a dozen on YouTube, "Down So Low" is a true rarity. I've seen Linda in concert a number of times, but I never heard her sing this uncharacteristically bluesy song--one associated with Tracy Nelson--and it's not one she's likely to perform now. Linda has never been a loose or natural performer, and this version of "Down So Low" sticks pretty close to the recorded version, but she gets more emotion out of it live, and you can see her getting down (as the title implies) into the song instead of just hitting the notes.

Linda (followed closely by Emmylou) was my original diva. Her commercial heyday occurred when I was a teenager in the 70s. Inevitably, her poster was on my bedroom wall. I remember saving the 1977 Time cover-story showing Linda looking more sultry than usual alongside the title "Torchy Rock." I still have the article tucked away in a file cabinet. Though Linda was no stranger to the radio in those days, my friends didn't listen to her: she was my own personal diva. She wasn't the obvious gay-boy choice, either. She wasn't Judy, or Barbra, or Bette, or Cher. She didn't particularly act like a diva or dress like a diva or have camp value, aside from the odd Cub Scout hotpants or Jerry Brown jet trip. In photographs she pouted in a vulnerable looking way, and she sang mostly of heartbreak, but she didn't sound vulnerable. She was a straight-ahead belter mixing pop, country and rock, a vocal role model for today's country stars but not for today's pop divas. Only recently, when occasionally browsing the Linda Ronstadt Fans’ Forum, did I discover that Linda was the unlikely diva of choice for many a gay boy who came of age in the 70s. (She recently returned the favor by singing with the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles.) We responded to the voice but also to her imperfect looks: depending on the lighting and angle, she could look beautiful or plain, like a star or like a plump-faced girl with iffy skin who happened to find herself in the spotlight. Somehow, we could relate. She was our reachable diva.

With the exception of "Blue Bayou" (her version has become definitive) and a couple of other songs, Linda's big hits haven't really stood the test of time. (She sings them now only very reluctantly and only the ones that make some sense for a woman over 60.) But much of her earlier album material has held up, even if she herself has little use for it. As divas go, you won't find one who cares less about being a diva. Ronstadt seems not to have a nostalgic bone in her body. She's indifferent towards the songs that made her famous, records and performs infrequently yet speaks of retirement without fanfare. She hasn't tried to stay young looking, or slim. She hasn't become a trainwreck or checked into Betty Ford. She made headlines a few years ago for trumpeting Michael Moore during a Vegas concert, to the consternation of some fans, yet brushed the controversy aside rather than trying to capitalize on the attention. In essence, she seems to be a very talented ordinary person who put up with fame only because it has allowed her to do, musically, pretty much whatever the hell she wants to do. She doesn't tell her fans that she loves them, because she doesn't. She has too much integrity be a true diva. But some of us are still listening.

No comments: