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Growing up on a ranch outside Tuscon, Arizona, Linda Ronstadt always knew she wanted to be a singer. Her musical family played and listened to a wide range of styles, including opera, classical and Mexican folk music. Ronstadt landed her first recording contract as a teenager and in 1974, released “Heart Like a Wheel,” a mix of oldies covers and contemporary songs like “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved.” The album hit No. 1 and has never been out of print in 40 years. Ronstadt went on to sell more than 100 million records. But last year, she announced that a Parkinson’s diagnosis had forced her to stop singing. Diane talks with Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer Linda Ronstadt on her career in music and her life today.
Watch Linda Ronstadt perform “You’re No Good” on Burt Sugarman’s “The Midnight Special.”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Legendary singer Linda Ronstadt has sold more than 100 million records in her 40-year career. She's best known for chart-topping hits like "You're No Good," "Blue Bayou," and "When Will I Be Loved?" Ronstadt was the first female artist in popular music history to release four consecutive platinum albums. But last year, a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease forced her to stop singing. She's in Washington D.C. this week, where yesterday she received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama.
MS. DIANE REHMLinda Ronstadt joins me in the studio to talk about her rise to stardom, her life in music and living with Parkinson's. You are, of course, welcome to join us. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And Linda Ronstadt, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. LINDA RONSTADTThank you so much for having me.
REHMI'm so glad to see you.
RONSTADTWell, I'm delighted.
REHMTell us about that ceremony yesterday and how you felt.
RONSTADTWell, I think most artists always will say, I don't know if you agree with this or not, but I felt like a fraud. You know? I felt surely they'd made a mistake and they would be telling me any minute that, you know, I needed to go home. I was on the wrong list.
REHMI didn't know anybody else in the world felt that way.
RONSTADTI think everybody -- well, I think a lot of people do. I mean, I just think, you know, I guess because art is an ongoing process and you always think you're going to correct the mistakes you made the day before. It's just painful for me to listen to any of my old records.
RONSTADTI can't bear it. It'll wreck my week, you know, ruin the month actually. I'll always think I can't sing and never was able to sing and now here's proof. You know?
REHMOh, my gosh.
RONSTADTSo it's like that kind of. But otherwise I was delighted. And I am a great fan of President Obama and think he has been a fine president. And I'm very pleased that we've had to have someone of his grace and his dignity, which is rare in American culture these days.
REHMDo you think, in part, it comes from his Hawaiian upbringing?
RONSTADTWell, he -- there's a beautiful, beautiful ancient culture in the Hawaiian Islands and an old tradition of a lot of diversity. You know, there are Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Okinawan, and they all had to get along. And so there's a high level of lovely, beautiful manners, you know? People treat each other with respect and courtesy in the islands that you don't find in the mainland. And I think -- and there's a real gentleness, you know? Of course people stand up for themselves too. You don't want to get into a fight with a Hawaiian.
RONSTADTBecause if you want to push him, he's a tough guy, you know? But he'll give you an out before. And I think that he reflects a lot of that. Maybe his background in the Hawaiian Islands...
REHMHe was very warm.
RONSTADTHe was very genuine and he was very present. And I liked that. He was very aware of what was going on around him. We've had so many people that have just been, you know, so egotistical or so completely full of themselves they can't tell what's going on around them. And I don't think that's the case with him. And his wife Mrs. Obama couldn't be more impressive. My god, she's beautiful. She's very beautiful in the photographs...
RONSTADT...but she's 50 times as pretty.
RONSTADTAnd little looks going back and forth between them, you know? You can tell that that's a strong relationship. I was very impressed. I expected to be impressed and I was very much more impressed...
REHMGood. I felt the same way. You published your memoir last year. But it comes out in paperback this September. So why was it the time to write your memoir?
RONSTADTWell, I felt that there'd been enough written about me that I didn't get to have, you know, my say in. And the book is really about the music. I mean, I think that there are a lot of singers out there, many singers much better than I am. But what I think that I did that was different was that I sang an unusually -- had an unusually diverse repertoire. And I wanted to write about how that came about and why those decisions weren't purely arbitrary, that it was really what my background was, how I grew up, you know?
RONSTADTI didn't grow up hula-ing, with hula and slack-key guitar. I grew up with Mexican music blaring at me, you know, from...
REHMYou know, I think the thing that surprised me the most was how extraordinarily musical your entire family was.
RONSTADTWell, they all were. I mean, you know, they're -- here's what I think. I think everybody's musical. If you're given a chance and it's cultivated early in your life, like from age of two or one, then you're -- everybody has a chance to be musical. Everyone is musical. It's an essential part of our biochemistry. It has to be there. It helps us with a job of work, it helps us to identify our feelings, it helps us to express our sorrow or our joy. And it's essential. You know, art is essential. It's not a frill, it's not an extra thing.
RONSTADTKarl Paulnack, who is the head of the Boston Conservatory, is fond of pointing out that in the concentration camps, there wasn't food, there wasn't love, there wasn't anything to sustain a human being. But there was always art. That was the last thing to die in the concentration camps. So that is how essential art is to human existence and to human survival.
REHMSo in the memoir, you did not write about Parkinson's disease.
RONSTADTI didn't know -- well, when I started the book -- I was almost finished with the book when I found out that I might have it. And they said they'd give me a final diagnosis in nine months. And I said, well, for that nine months, I'm going to believe I don't have it. You know, it's a little grace period that I just walked around with this idea that I wasn't going to have it. But it turned out not to be true, so...
REHMHow has it affected your voice?
RONSTADTWell, it affected my voice first, I think. And I think I started having it in about the year 2000. It took away the sheen of all the beautiful kind of resonance that people have in human voices when they sing. There's a whole lot of notes that dance around. There are a lot of sympathetic frequencies, a lot of sympathetic tones that dance around. That was gone. And it's in that area that you do all the kind of mystical steering that you can dial in emotion or pitch, you know, both very technical parts of singing and the more spiritual parts of singing where you bring in emotion, veracity and whatever...
REHMDid you feel it or did others tell you they heard it?
RONSTADTNo, I could tell, because I -- you're very acutely aware. As you know, you speak, so you're very acutely aware of what goes on with your voice...
RONSTADT...at every minute, every day.
RONSTADTAnd so it's a -- and in order to speak, or especially in order to sing, there are a huge number of vibrations per second, you know, hundreds that you have to do with singing, in order to sort of reshape your vocal cords on a very exquisite level to form different planes for the sound to bounce off of. So when you don't have that ability, you're not singing. You're just shouting. So I was shouting for several years.
REHMWhat did you think was going on with your voice?
RONSTADTI knew it was mechanical. I kept going to the voice instructor and he'd say, you're just neurotic. You're a perfectionist. You don't -- there's nothing wrong with your vocal cords. Did you have that problem?
REHMSame thing they said to me.
RONSTADTAnd they told you it was emotional.
REHMThey said, it's all in your head.
RONSTADTYeah, right. Well, it was all in my throat. It was all in my head, because my brain cells were being destroyed, you know, and they weren't able to send the message neurologically to do all those muscular movements.
RONSTADTSo, and I would do my voice exercises. I mean I'm real -- I really work. You know, I'm a craftsperson. I really work at my craft. But I couldn't -- no matter what I did, I couldn't make it work.
REHMAnd once you knew you couldn't make it work, you didn't want to sing anymore.
RONSTADTWell, I couldn't. You know, I'd start -- I'd sing a few notes. Like the first few notes would sometimes come out. And then it would feel like my voice was -- had a cramp in it. It would just stiffen up like a board. It would just get stiff as a board. And there was no moving it, you know? And it is that way to a certain extent with talking. But talking is a -- you know, I can speak. I can make myself speak. Because I can stop when I need to. I don't have to hold a note...
RONSTADT...on a consonant or a vowel.
REHMAnd your grandmother, I gather, had Parkinson's.
RONSTADTYeah, my grand -- my maternal grandmother had Parkinson's disease. So I imagine there's a, you know, there's a genetic component. And then there's, you know, probably your environment pulls the trigger. I grew up with the perfect storm. They say pesticides can affect it. They sprayed my entire neighborhood with trucks of DDT. It was just clouds of DDT. We used to run behind the trucks and the clouds of DDT, because it was like being in fog, you know? And then my father had a box full of mercury when I -- because he worked in silver a lot, for fun, you know, he had a hobby of working in silver.
RONSTADTAnd we'd find the mercury and we'd play with it and we'd hit it with a hammer and shatter it. We thought it was -- so it was in the carpeting, you know? I mean my house was full of mercury. And then I went to Africa and I got a tick bite. And I came back, my health was never the same after that. So apparently there are tick-borne diseases that can set it off.
REHMWhat about anyone else in your family? Anybody else come down...
RONSTADTNo, I just know about my grandmother. That's all.
REHMYeah. Yeah. And so your sister, your brothers...
RONSTADTMy sister is seven years older than I am and she can climb up on the roof and fix the cooler, you know? She's unbelievable. There's a real streak of longevity and...
RONSTADT...you know, she's bio -- she's bionic. I don't know.
REHMWell, you know.
RONSTADTShe can still sing, too.
RONSTADTYeah. Everybody in my family can sing, except for me at this point.
REHMAnd that's what you all did. You all sang together from such an early age.
RONSTADTWell all sang together. And again, as I was starting to say before -- I've lost my headphones -- not on a professional level necessarily. But to the fact that -- effect that everyone, we all sang together. We sang in the car. We weren't ever bored. We sang when we were washing the dishes. It made the job go better. And we always -- and we sang at the dinner table. We weren't allowed to bring a book and read at the dinner table. That was considered rude. But if you wanted to sing, you could sing all you wanted.
RONSTADTAnd we were all -- my father would just start singing and we'd just sing harmonies, you know? Spanish, English, didn't matter, we would sing. Or he'd sing some opera aria and we'd all sing.
REHMDid you ever think as a group you might perform professionally?
RONSTADTWell, my sister and my older brother and I had a trio. We called ourselves the New Union Ramblers. That was the sixties, you know? We were trying to be cool. We were trying to be folky. And we sounded nice. We had that sibling harmony, you know? We didn't know very much about what we were doing but we did our best. And we played a little clubs. And then I really wanted to be where there were -- it was a big pool of musicians and a lot of reception for that. I wanted a place where the culture would actually resonate to the kind of music that I loved and it turned out to be Los Angeles.
RONSTADTThere were clubs like the Ash Grove and the Troubadour, there were -- I mean, imagine if President Obama has a culture that could resonate to his dignity and his intelligence. It would be so nice. We wouldn't have people like John McCain, you know?
REHMLinda Ronstadt, her new book will be out in paperback this September. It's titled, "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir." Short break. We'll be right back.
REHMIf you've just joined us, Linda Ronstadt is my guest today. Her book titled "Simple Dreams" still out in a hardback but coming in paperback in September, it is what she calls "A Musical Memoir." We have a posting on Facebook from Cheryl who says, "Could you please tell us about the other musicians in your family, i.e. your nephew Michael?"
RONSTADTOh, we call him Mikey. There's Big Mike who's his dad who's my younger brother and who's a traveling musician. And he's in a group called the Ronstadt Generations with Mikey who's my nephew and Petey who's the other brother. And Mikey's a master's level cellist and he also plays the guitar really well. He can play anything really with strings that you pick up.
RONSTADTAnd is really well versed in various rhythm cultures, like Caribbean rhythm culture and here, too, and Mexican.
REHMSo this musical sensibility just goes all the way through this family.
RONSTADTWell, there was always -- eclectic mania prevailed always in our household. My grandmother and grandfather loved opera and classical music. And my grandfather had been -- in the 19th century was a conductor of sort of a military band, a kind of oompa brass band. And he wrote compositions and arrangements for that band, conducted it and taught everyone there. He seems like the Music Man except he was the real deal. He could really play, you know.
RONSTADTAnd my grandmother loved opera and she listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcast from the Met. Every Saturday we'd go over there and sing along with it. We -- everybody knew the arias. You know, you knew all the major arias and played them and sang them on the piano, not to the point where you could go stand on stage at the Met but so that you could sing it for yourself in the privacy of your sorrow or your joy or whatever you wanted to express. You know, so that went on and everybody played guitar, ukulele or something, piano, badly...
REHMBut tell me about that first album you made.
RONSTADTWell, it was stunning that it didn't turn out nearly the way that I had imagined in my head. And also, you know, you always -- we always copy -- people that wanted to have art that you start out by copying somebody. And then you're completely surprised to find out you don't sound anything like it because then trying to copy you don't get there. But you get to something and that's where you start. Everybody copies.
RONSTADTSo I was amazed to find out that I didn't sound like Judy Collins or Joan Baez or whoever I was trying to copy in those days, you know, Mary Travers maybe, Hank Williams, didn't sound anything like him. So -- and I wasn't very knowledgeable about the recording process. I didn't know that much about music so it was hard for me to control it and make it turn out to be an extension of my musical whim. So I didn't like it very much. You know, I was disappointed in...
REHMYour first hit came with the band called Stone Ponies.
REHMWas that when you knew you had arrived?
RONSTADTWell, we knew something. We didn't have any money and the car was broken. It's in my book, but the car was broken down and we stopped at a -- we had stopped at a gas -- we pushed the car into a gas station because it wouldn't work. And the guy told us the car was completely dead. It would -- you know, some horrid -- throwing a rod or something where we'd never be able to drive again. It was our only car.
RONSTADTWe had this huge double bass in the backseat so we're taking that out of the back and standing there in the gas station with, you know, two guitars and a huge double bass. What are we doing to do? So -- but in the back of the gas station I could hear the intro of A Different Drum, and I thought, we have a hit record. We didn't have any money.
REHMYou had no money, but you had a hit record.
REHMYou say it's hard for you to listen to your own music. Why is that?
RONSTADTWell, music is for us always a work in progress. Like I say I don't like to listen to recorded music very much. I'd rather listen to live music. When I record, for me the music is always live.
RONSTADTSo I spend, you know, weeks with live music in the studio. And then it changes imperceptively or perceptively as we go along. You know, it's never the same after we've had it on the road for ten days as it was in the studio.
REHMSo are you correcting what you hear in your own mind?
RONSTADTI feel like I'm expanding it emotionally or expanding it in some way musically. You know, I just get better at it and I know how to do it better.
REHMTalk about the lyrics here and what they meant to you.
RONSTADTWell, I really like those lyrics. I think that my generation -- my sister was seven years older than I was and she was the generation where you got married and you wore a panty girdle and you cooked in a room where they're waiting for the husband when he came home. And he...
REHMNow we wear Spanx, right?
RONSTADTYeah, something. I still wear cotton socks and clogs. But, you know, it was a different -- the husband paid for everything. The woman didn't work. It was, you know, she wasn't independent. And in my generation, which was right after World War II, that began to change. And I just never could quite go with the idea that somebody could tell me what to do, you know. I didn't like it.
REHMLinda, I wonder whether you can remember what it felt like when one of your songs hit the top ten.
RONSTADTWell, that -- well, this one did. I think it went to number three or maybe it was number one. I can't remember. But again, it's such an ephemeral deal, you know. And I knew that by that time. I knew that if there wasn't another hit really soon that we were going to be working -- we were going to be standing on the side of the road with a broken down car again, you know.
REHMSo you got to keep doing it.
RONSTADTAnd we had to hit the road. That was the main thing. I had to hit the road. So I went out on the -- the band sort of disbanded at that point. Kenny Edwards didn't really like the idea but he wasn't that crazy about the music we were doing. We didn't know how we could change it. He went to India to study with some Indian guru. And he -- Kenny was always a smart kind of intellectual guy, a reader. And Bobby went and started a club called McKay's, which is still going this day in Los Angeles, very successfully. And I went on the road with The Doors. In fact, I think Kenny and Bobby came with me on that tour with The Doors.
REHMWhat about "I Can't Help it If I'm Still In Love With You"?
RONSTADTWell, I met Emmylou Harris -- I met her in Texas but she was from this area. And I came back -- every time I would come back to this area we would get together and we would spend all night long -- stay up all night playing music. We'd go over to John Starling's house who lives out in Bethesda and we'd play bluegrass music. And Ricky Skaggs was a lineman for one of the counties around here working as a lineman.
RONSTADTAnd he would come over and sing tenor and each us everything we needed to know about bluegrass music. So that's how I started singing with Emmy.
REHMWe have an email from Richard in Washington who says, "I love Linda's collaborations with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton." How did that come about?
RONSTADTWell, I met Emmy because somebody in the Flying Burrito Brothers told me that she was doing country rock like I was trying to do. And there weren't very many people trying to sing country music, you know, from pop music. He said, you two girls just have to meet. You're really going to like each other. Well, how often does that happen, you know.
RONSTADTSo I did meet her. She was singing with Gram Parsons. I met her in Texas. And we just loved each other's -- what we were chasing, you know. I loved her -- I fell in love with her voice. Emmy has a real urgency about the way she sings. It's like it's so urgent that you listen to her because life or death depends on it.
REHMSo here you are making music, making albums. Tell us about making the album "Heart Like a Wheel."
RONSTADTWell, I'd heard this song in a taxicab called "Heart Like a Wheel." Jerry Jeff Walker had sung it to me. It was, you know, just 6:00 in the morning as the sun was coming up. And it is -- for all practical purposes I think we could define it as an art song. It is a beautiful, beautiful song. It wasn't quite folk music. It certainly wasn't rock 'n roll, it wasn't pop music. I didn't know what it was but I knew I had to sing it. And I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in.
RONSTADTSo I went back to Los Angeles and I started begging producers and record companies that I want to record this song "Heart Like a Wheel." They go, that's corny, it's not a hit, you know. So I just held on to it. I sort of put it away in my back pocket because I don't want the song to get its feelings hurt. And then one night we were getting ready to play at Carnegie Hall and Andrew Gold was in my band. And he'd learned this song for some reason from some place and he was playing the intro to it. I said, I love that song. Let's put it in the show tomorrow. So we put it in the show and we got a tremendous response from the Carnegie Hall crowd.
REHMDid you have somebody in mind when you sang this?
RONSTADTAlways. Always. Every song, yeah.
REHMReally. And that sort of helps.
RONSTADTWell, it just depends on who you're talking to, you know.
REHMYeah, you're talking to someone when you're singing.
RONSTADTAlways, yeah. I mean, I have to say sometimes you sing about disappointment. It might be disappointment that you just went to the market and you were trying to buy, you know, a certain kind of bread and butter pickles and they didn't have them, so you just -- it's ongoing. It's not the same each time. And it could be one person at the beginning of the sentence, somebody else in the middle of the sentence and somebody else at the end. You know, it's not always the same person. Because you don't always -- because the feeling doesn't always fit one person or one situation but it's always flexible.
REHMWho is that on the instrumental?
RONSTADTThat's Andrew Gold. He -- I met him when he was about 16 or 15 -- he was 15. He was in high school, just barely in high school and he was playing. His father was Ernest Gold who wrote -- oh gosh, he wrote Theme from Exodus. He wrote a whole lot of movie themes. Very talented guy. And Andrew was -- and his mother was Marni Nixon who sang West Side Story.
REHMOh, my gosh. And who sang for Audrey Hepburn.
RONSTADTAudrey Hepburn, yeah.
RONSTADTIf you needed a soprano in a movie you got Andrew's mom Marni Nixon. Andrew was loaded with talent. He could write and conduct and arrange and do everything. He was -- play.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got lots of callers waiting. We'll open the phones.
REHM800-433-8850. Let's go to Richard in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Hi there, you're on the air.
RICHARDOh, hi Linda.
RICHARDSo, glad to listen to you speaking about your career. I'm a bassist that was in Atlantic City. I was on the Merv Griffin band. I got to play with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Vic and Diane. The pianist I worked for was with Steve and Edie for years, Pete Jackson who passed away.
RONSTADTOh, fantastic. So you played with good players.
RICHARDYes, and I just wanted to thank you first, Linda, for recording the Great American Songbook of which we musicians are so in love with. And we love to play these songs and we love to improvise on these songs. And as a bassist, you know, these songs that were so important, you know, in American history, this is one of our great contributions. And to hear you record this music was so inspiring that someone in pop music and doing -- did such a great job with it. You were swinging, because I'm a swinging player.
RONSTADTWell, thank you.
RICHARDAnd to hear you swing and to do that was just such a joy. My question is, is how was your experience with recording, you know, the Nelson Riddle arrangements? What was your experience like?
RONSTADTWell, I wanted to record standards because I think what the United States gave to the culture -- world culture at large is the American popular song. And it's absolutely -- you know, the zenith of its development was -- were the American standard songs. Because that combination of, you know, people who were brought in chains from Africa, then the Creole culture down in New Orleans which was very much a European thing. And then the people that migrated here, the Irish and the Italians and the Jews, and then that was the top layer of the sandwich, sort of like very refined European orchestral meeting this kind of five-beat West African rhythm culture.
RONSTADTAnd that's what created the American standard song. Without those elements it's not really that, you know. Because rock 'n roll is a different rhythm culture. It's two and four but that five-beat rhythm culture, it's just a different thing. And the lyrics were so beautifully crafted, they were complex lyrics. They have an intellectual high literate reference with something that just is basic as I fell and got my heart stomped on. And it was all layered, you know, so you could get it on any level. You know, you could get it on an intellectual level. You could get it on a purely physical, spiritual, mental, any kind of level you wanted.
REHMLinda Ronstadt and her book "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir" comes out in paperback this fall. I know you're enjoying the conversation. We'll take a short break and be right back.
REHMAnd, Linda Ronstadt, here's an email from Walt, who says, "You did such a great job with mariachi music. Please explore this."
RONSTADTWell, Mexican music was in my ears and in my radio and in my dad's mouth, you know, from the time that I was born. I thought when I was a little girl that people sang in Spanish and they spoke in English. So I thought, I just thought Spanish was this sort of musical language somehow. And we learned all the songs kind of phonetically. I didn't always know what they meant until I recorded them professionally.
RONSTADTBut it, you know, even though I grew up singing those songs, it was still -- they're really difficult to sing. Again, it's a different rhythm culture. The rhythm culture of the song is indigenous Mexican. It’s not West African, it's not European. And it's just harder than heck to try to learn it. And fortunately, since I grew up listening to it, I was able to do it. But it took a lot of wood-shedding to get myself up to a professional level so that I could sing the Mexican stuff.
REHMYou know, I wonder how much serious teaching you had, musically, or did you simply…
RONSTADTI didn't have any formal…
RONSTADTI didn't have any formal teaching. I remember I wanted piano lessons so badly. And my mom sent me out to this Catholic nun at our Catholic school, you know. And I didn't do something right and she hit my hand. And my mother was really upset. But instead of finding me another teacher that wouldn't hit me, you know, I just never got -- I never got piano lessons. So I would sort of learn by ear. I would sort of copy what my sister and brother would play in their piano lessons.
RONSTADTBut with Mexican music, it was simply a question of just listening to records. I listened to Lola Beltran and Amalia Mendoza and the Trio Calaveras and the Trio Tariacuri. Those were my four big sources, you know, of the songs that I learned. And I listened to my dad sing. And some of the songs that I recorded, I had never heard a recording of. I'd only heard the family sing, very old songs.
RONSTADTAnd so we just sort of put them together with some kind of an arrangement. I got the Mariachi Vargas because they had the reputation of being the best in the world. And they were the best in the world next to the Mariachi Los Camperos, who are in Los Angeles still. And I played with them until I gave up singing.
REHMUntil you gave up…
RONSTADTUntil I retired, yeah, the Camperos.
REHMWhat does it feel like to hear from all these people who adore your music, who love listening to you? Is there just this horrible sadness in you that you cannot sing anymore?
RONSTADTWell, the saddest thing is when I run into my nephew Mikey, and my own nephew Petey, who are quite a bit younger than I am, and they're singing and writing songs now. And they play their songs for me and I go, "I can sing a harmony for that. I can -- you know, that's -- the harmony just comes into my head, but I can't sing it. And I know that I can blend with them because it's the family voice, you know.
RONSTADTAnd I know that I could sing with them. And I just feel so bad that I got shortchanged out of that whole generation of my family, singing with my family. I sing with cousins, but not, you know, I sang with cousins, but I didn't get to sing with those nephews.
REHMAnd the Parkinson's disease has affected your entire body.
RONSTADTYeah, it has. I mean, it's just like brushing my teeth -- it's a weird thing. I didn't know what Parkinson's disease was going to be like because I was very young when my grandmother died. But I didn't, you know, when you're trying to brush your teeth, your whole -- all your muscles clamp up, you know, like they're trying to brush your teeth, too, like in your toes and everything.
RONSTADTSo I'm so tired by the time I get done brushing my teeth I have to go lie down, you know. So it's things like, I mean, traveling around and doing shows or -- I mean, even if I could sing I don't think I'd be able to travel. It's very hard to ride on a plane or, you know, getting dressed. All those things. Anything that requires any kind of -- like getting my hands through my sleeves is really hard.
RONSTADTIt makes me cuss every day.
RONSTADTAnd getting in and out of the car, I'm so slow that, you know, if you're trying to hurry for traffic, you're trying to get out of a crowded street, you get run over because I'm so slow.
REHMNow, do you still drive?
RONSTADTI don't drive. I'm done driving.
REHMYou don't drive. So you have help with you most of the time?
RONSTADTYeah, I have to take somebody with me. I mean, I take a wheelchair if it's going to be more than three blocks or if I think that I'm going to be sitting in an uncomfortable chair, even though a wheelchair's a bit uncomfortable, too. But, you know, I just can't sit up in a straight-backed chair for very long. Or all those things -- I really get it now, what it means to be disabled.
RONSTADTIt means you can't do that. Like yesterday, to not be able to get up and walk across the room and start a conversation. I couldn't do that, you know. So I thought, well, this is what it really means to have a disability. You can't do what you want to do.
RONSTADTBut I -- by the same token, I've very grateful for the kind of facilities that, you know, the kind of lobbying that people did where there was legislation for handicap facilities in restrooms. And that's incredibly helpful to me now. And I've very grateful for it.
REHMDo you ever say to yourself, "Why me?"
RONSTADTWell, I just figure it was a genetic accident, you know. It's just the roll of the dice. And when I think about it I think, well, I had a really long turn at the trough. And I had a pretty good life. And, you know, now it's time to pay the piper, I guess.
REHMBut you're still…
RONSTADTEverybody has something wrong, you know.
REHMYou're still enjoying life.
RONSTADTYeah, I do. And I, you know, I mean, I know it gets much worse. I was with a friend who's a singer just three days ago. We had dinner together. And she is wheelchair-bound and…
REHMShe has Parkinson's?
RONSTADTYeah, much worse than I do. It's much -- she -- all she can -- she had the operation so she can sing a little bit.
REHMShe had an operation on her vocal cords?
RONSTADTNo. She had that deep brain stimulation.
REHMOh, she had the deep brain stimulation.
RONSTADTYeah, but my doctor said I'm not a candidate for that. So…
RONSTADTI think it's not advanced enough yet. It's very risky. You could lose your ability to speak altogether and I don't like to take that risk, you know. You can get a blood clot, I guess.
REHMDo you live alone or with a helper?
RONSTADTWell, my -- I have an assistant that comes in five days a week, you know, for the day. And probably I'm going to need somebody at night soon. I don't know when, how soon that'll be. My daughter lives in the house in the back. So she's in and out, bless her heart. She helps me with little stuff, you know.
REHMYou've never married.
RONSTADTNo. I never have.
REHMBut you do have…
RONSTADTI had a lot of boyfriends.
REHMYou had a lot of boyfriends.
RONSTADTI had a lot of boyfriends. I didn't want to eliminate too many of them.
REHMYeah. But you wanted children.
RONSTADTI love children. I -- and I really did want children. So I wound up with two children that I adopted. And they're big now, thank God. Thank God they grew up to bigness. So most of, you know, they're pretty much responsible for themselves now, but I look over them carefully.
REHMBut you wanted to raise them on your own.
RONSTADTWell, it just seemed like the chance of disagreeing about how they should be raised would, you know, just -- as soon as my children were born, it just didn't seem like there was room for somebody else's opinion. It just didn't, you know. I mean, it's great if the other person's opinion is always supportive and wonderful and you're in agreement. But that doesn't always happen. And I never had a date after my daughter was born.
RONSTADTThat was just the end of that part of my life. I don't know why. I just was -- I just thought, you know, I've got enough going on here with taking care of this person, trying to keep her alive.
REHMAnd try to take care of them as a single mother, and as a performer. It had to be tough.
RONSTADTWell, I quit working a lot. I mean, when they were little I really just didn't work. I stayed home. Especially during the school year. We, you know, I drove them to school. I used to listen to your show driving them to school and back in the morning.
RONSTADTIt was my mainstay. So I thank you for that. But, you know, I was there in their lives. And then in the summertime when I did tour a little bit, they went with me on the bus. And they loved the bus because we didn't have any television, and we didn't have any computers. And they'd get on the bus and there'd be all these TV and computers, and they'd go, "We love this. We'll be staying on the bus," you know. And I'd go, "Oh, my God. My children are being corrupted."
REHMDid they sing?
RONSTADTOh, they can both sing. And my son's a good guitar player. But neither of them have any ideas about being professional, for which I'm thankful. It's a very difficult life.
RONSTADTWell, there's no regularity. What is it Flaubert said? "Be regular and orderly in your everyday life like a bourgeois. So that you can be violent and original in your art." I love that. I've tried to live by that, you know.
RONSTADTBut I love Flaubert. He's good. But, you know, it's hard to -- it's hard to have a regular life. There are a lot of -- it's hard to keep from getting very defensive, you know. It's hard to keep yourself to be an open person because everybody's jumping on you. And everybody wants something. And often somebody's disappointing, you know, there's somebody disappointing, you feel rejected or you feel like your music isn't good enough. All those things you have to go through, they're very disconcerting, you know.
REHMAll right. Let's take another call. Here let's see who's been waiting. How about Samantha, in Dallas, Texas. Hi there. You're on the air.
SAMANTHAHi. Good to talk to you, again.
SAMANTHAAnd hello, Linda.
SAMANTHAWell, you know, Diane, I'm with the Parkinson Voice Project. And we specialize in the treatment of voice disorders associated with Parkinson's. And I thought I might be able to educate your listeners a little bit about what causes the voice disorders in Parkinson's.
RONSTADTWell, tell us. Is that the LSBT program or Big and Loud or…
SAMANTHANo. At Parkinson Voice Project we have developed a program called Speak Out, which is founded on the teachings of Dr. Daniel R. Boone, who in the 1950s…
RONSTADTI know him.
SAMANTHAOh, you do?
RONSTADTI know him from Tucson.
SAMANTHAWonderful. Good. Well, Dr. Boone, in the 1950s discovered that people with Parkinson's can make their voice more normal, better quality of voice, better articulation by using intent. And basically, Parkinson's destroys the automatic function of the brain. And so what happens is the -- so voicing and breathing, articulating, with somebody without Parkinson's, those movements, those actions are automatic. We don't have to think about them.
SAMANTHABut automatic movements are dopamine dependent. So they need dopamine. And by the time a person with Parkinson's has any symptoms, they have already lost 60 to 80 percent of the dopamine in their brain. So anything that was automatic, including everything with a voice, but also things like blinking and walking -- we normally don't have to think about those things, now we have to think about them. We have to use the intentional pathway.
REHMAll right. And, Samantha, I'm going to stop you right there. I am going…
RONSTADTThis is very helpful though.
REHMIt's very helpful. I have been out there and have seen the work that Samantha has done with that voice project. I highly recommend it. I have witnessed the difference it can make in people who undergo her training. And I would highly recommend that you see her. I have her contact information.
RONSTADTI'll do it. I've had some of this work, but I haven't done enough work.
REHMWell, Samantha is a great teacher.
REHMA really great teacher. But I want to get back to that question of the changes in your life. Because there are a great many people who find themselves, as they get older, affected in one way or another. And who, as a result, begin withdrawing from life.
RONSTADTI feel that way myself. I really do. I'm pretty happy to sit in the corner and just listen now. I'm always interested in what's going on. I like to learn. I was always a reader and I like learning. I gave myself my own education. I didn't go to college.
REHMNor did I.
RONSTADTOkay. Good. We'll form a club. We'll form a sorority.
REHMWe'll form a sorority, absolutely.
RONSTADTBut I, you know, but I'm always interested in finding out what's going on. And I would always get in and ask questions. And then that's how I would learn. But I find now that I just kind of sit. And way more passive in a conversation. Maybe that can be changed. I don't know.
RONSTADTI think it's an impulse I have to fight. You know, I make sure that I get out a couple of times…
RONSTADT…a week with people, even though I really would rather just stay home and lie down, because when I'm lying down that's the only time I really know where I am in space. You know, I'm not careening off the walls.
REHMAnd how about reading?
RONSTADTI'm a reader. And I read all the time, you know. Now, I don't remember as much. I used to be able to remember everything.
REHMYou know, there's so many of your songs that are in my heart. And this one, in particular, "When I Will I Be Loved."
REHMThis was actually written by Phil Everly.
RONSTADTPhil Everly, whom we lost recently, yeah. Wonderful singer, wonderful writer. I mean, one of the great harmony singers of ever in the world. You know that was a great harmony group, The Everly Brothers. They could do that thing that siblings could do -- that only siblings can do, you know.
RONSTADTYeah, you have to grow up pronouncing the language that way. You know, with the same kind of accent, with the same kind of regional accent. And then the genes just give you sympathetic resonance in your vocal cords that, you know, that sound alike and tune into each other in a certain kind of way. You can only get that from siblings.
REHMAnd you have felt that.
RONSTADTWell, I -- we just tried to copy them as much as we could when we were kids growing up. We copied them.
REHMYou tried to copy The Everly Brothers.
RONSTADTThe Everly Brothers, of course. You know, they were on the radio all during the '50s. They were so fabulous.
REHMThey were wonderful. They were fabulous. This, too, is fabulous.
RONSTADTThat was Kenny Edwards and Andrew Gold singing with me. We -- they're both gone. Both of them. I toured with them for years and years. They were -- Kenny was in the Stone Poneys and he came back and played with me and my band for years after that.
REHMSomebody asked whether you're still in touch with the Stone Poneys.
RONSTADTWell, Kenny, you know, like I said, is gone. I still see Bobby Kimmel. He's moved back to Tucson, just about the time that I moved back to San Francisco from Tucson. But I see him when I go there. And we're in regular contact. We talk all the -- he's in a band, actually a vocal band with my cousin's wife, who used to be married -- who used to date Jimmy Webb, who also writes a bunch of my songs.
RONSTADTHe wrote a song called, "Where's The Playground Susie" that I tried to record in the early -- in the late '60s about her. And then she later married my cousin Johnny Ronstadt. So she's now Susie Ronstadt. But anyway, it's funny how everybody that you know, knows everybody else that you know. There's only about 300 people in the world.
REHMWhy San Francisco now?
RONSTADTWell, the politics were getting so gnarly in Arizona. I just, I mean, I grew up in Arizona, I love it. I'm a part of the desert. I feel like, really, I'm from the Sonoran Desert, which is -- extends to both sides of the border. I'm really from that part of Mexico also. And I hate that there's a fence, you know, running through it. And I think it should come down as fast as it can, just like the Berlin Wall. We have to take the damn thing down.
RONSTADTBut, you know, that fence howls and moans at night when the wind blows. People say it's howling for the people that are died because of the fence going up. But, yeah, I still see him, still see Bobby Kimmel.
REHMAnd I'm so glad to have seen you.
REHMThank you, Linda.
RONSTADTThank you so much.
REHMLinda Ronstadt, her book titled, "Simple Dreams," is a musical memoir coming out in paperback in September. And once again, congratulations on that Presidential Arts medal.
RONSTADTThank you so much.
REHMThanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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