The singer on living with Parkinson’s, the perils of stardom, and mourning what the border has become.
It’s been ten years since Linda Ronstadt, once the most highly paid woman in rock and roll, sang her last concert. In 2013, the world found out why: Parkinson’s disease had rendered her unable to sing, ending a musical careerthat had left an indelible mark on the classic-rock era and earned her ten Grammy Awards. Ronstadt’s earth-shaking voice and spunky stage presence jolted her to fame in the late sixties, and her renditions of “Different Drum” (with her early group, the Stone Poneys), “You’re No Good” (from her breakthrough album, “Heart Like a Wheel”), “Blue Bayou,” and “Desperado” helped define the California folk-rock sound. Along the way, two of her backup musicians left to form the Eagles.
But Ronstadt, now seventy-three, didn’t rest on her greatest hits, experimenting instead with a dizzying range of genres. In the eighties, she starred in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance” on Broadway, recorded a standards album with the veteran arranger Nelson Riddle, and released “Canciones de Mi Padre,” a collection of traditional Mexican songs, which became the best-selling non-English-language album in American history. The record also returned Ronstadt to her roots. Her grandfather was a Mexican bandleader, and her father had serenaded her mother with Mexican folk songs in a beautiful baritone. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, close to the border—a place that has since become a political flashpoint.
A new documentary, “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice,” directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and opening September 6th, looks back on Ronstadt’s adventurous career. She spoke with The New Yorker twice by phone from her home in San Francisco. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.
What is your day-to-day life like these days?
Well, I lie down a lot, because I’m disabled. I do a lot of reading, but I’m starting to have trouble with my eyes, so that’s kind of a problem. It’s called getting old.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Thomas Mann, “The Magic Mountain.” I somehow got to be this age without having read Thomas Mann, and I’m trying to make up for it. I read “Buddenbrooks,” and I fell in love with his writing. His books are nice and long, so it takes a couple of days to get through them.
Who do you spend most of your time with?
My son lives here. My daughter comes over. I have really nice friends; they come over and hang out with me. It’s hard for me to get out. It’s hard for me to sit in a restaurant or sit up in a chair. It’s hard for me to stand around, so if there’s a situation where I’m liable to be caught in a doorway talking to somebody for five minutes, I tend to avoid that.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I love opera. It’s so terrible—I listen to it on YouTube. I’m an audiophile, but I’ve just gotten used to the convenience of being able to hear twenty-nine different performances of one role. I listen to other music, too. I found this Korean band that I thought was sort of interesting on Tiny Desk concerts, the NPR series. They get musicians to come in and play live in a really tiny little space behind a desk. It’s no show biz, just music. They have great stuff. They had Randy Newman. Natalia Lafourcade, who’s a Mexican artist that I love particularly. Whatever’s new. The Korean band I saw was called SsingSsing.
Is it like K-pop?
No, it’s based on Korean traditional singing. It was kind of like David Bowie bass and drums, and then this really wild South Korean traditional singing. It’s polytonal. It’s a different skill than we use, with more notes in it. And a lot of gender-crossing. It looked like I was seeing the future.
In the documentary, you say, “I can sing in my mind, but I can’t do it physically.” That sounds either comforting or excruciating.
Well, it’s a little frustrating when my family comes over from Arizona, because we would all sing together. That way we don’t have to talk about politics. It makes for harmonious—I don’t mean the pun—relations. But I can’t do that anymore, so I just invite the ones who are Democrats.
When you sing in your mind, what do you hear?
I can hear the song. I can hear what I would be doing with it. I can hear the accompaniment. Sometimes I don’t remember the words, so I have to look them up. It’s not usually my songs I’m singing. I don’t listen to my own stuff very much.
Do you ever hear yourself on the radio in unexpected places?
I listen to Mexican radio—the local Banda station out of San Jose. I mostly listen to NPR. I don’t listen to mainstream radio anymore. I don’t know the acts and I don’t know the music. It doesn’t interest me, particularly. There are some good modern people. I like Sia. She’s a very original singer.
How do you cope with the frustration of not being able to do everything you want to do?
I’ve just accepted it. There’s absolutely nothing I can do. I have a form of Parkinsonism that doesn’t respond to standard Parkinson’s meds, so there’s no treatment for what I have. It’s called P.S.P.—Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. I just have to stay home a lot. The main attraction in San Francisco is the opera and the symphony, and I make an effort and go out, but I can only do it a few times a year. It makes me sick that I’m ever not in my seat when Michael Tilson Thomas raises his baton, because he’s such a good conductor, and I miss hearing orchestral music. My friends come over and play music, and that’s where I like it best, anyway: in the living room.
As you tell it, the first symptoms you noticed before you knew you had Parkinson’s were in your singing voice.
Yeah. I’d start to do something and it would start to take the note and then it would stop. What you can’t do with Parkinsonism is repetitive motions, and singing is a repetitive motion.
You broke onto the scene with such a powerhouse voice. What did it feel like, singing with that voice?
Well, I was trying to figure out how to sing! And trying to be heard over the electric instruments. I had no idea that I sang as loud as I did. I always thought I wasn’t singing loud enough, because in the early days there were no monitors. You couldn’t hear yourself.
In the documentary, you talk about growing up in Tucson, Arizona, and how culturally rich that was. How do the current politics around the border resonate with you?
They’re devastating. I feel filled with impotent rage. I grew up in the Sonoran Desert, and the Sonoran Desert is on both sides of the border. There’s a fence that runs through it now, but it’s still the same culture. The same food, the same clothes, the same traditional life of ranching and farming. I go down there a lot, and it’s so hard to get back across the border. It’s ridiculous. It used to be that you could go across the border and have lunch and visit friends and shop in the little shops there. There was a beautiful department store in the fifties and sixties. My parents had friends on both sides of the border. They were friends with the ranchers, and we went to all their parties and their baptisms and their weddings and their balls.
And now that’s gone. The stores are wiped out because they don’t get any trade from the United States anymore. There’s concertina wire on the Mexican side that the Americans put up. Animals are getting trapped in there. Children are getting cut on it. It’s completely unnecessary. In the meantime, you see people serenely skateboarding and girls with their rollerskates, kids playing in the park. And you think, We’re afraid of this? They’re just regular kids!
I spent time out in the desert when I was still healthy, working with a group of Samaritans who go to find people that are lost. You run into the Minute Men or the Border Patrol every five seconds. The border is fully militarized. You meet some guy stumbling through the desert trying to cross, and he’s dehydrated, his feet are full of thorns, cactus, then you see this Minute Man sitting with his cooler, with all of his water and food and beer, and his automatic weapon sitting on his lap, wearing full camouflage. It’s so cruel. People are coming to work. They’re coming to have a better life. You have to be pretty desperate to want to cross that desert.