Back in the Van with Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt has announced that she has Parkinson’s disease and that nobody can sing who suffers from that.

Since this post is mostly going to be a very specific type of love letter, I wanna get my fresh complaint out of the way: no, Ms. Ronstadt, people with Parkinson’s can sing:

What she no doubt means is that she’s certain she can no longer sing well enough to ask people to pay to hear it.

She’s done stupid things: playing South Africa when she shouldn’t have; dissing the Ramones; interpreting New Wave almost as clumsily as she exalted syrupy-strings pop; revisiting her Latin roots too tame, too late; okaying an LP cover where she sat in a sty next to a pig (at least they didn’t use the one where she’s hugging the pig). But nearly 35 years ago, there were a few minutes that I experienced a transcendent encounter with Linda Ronstadt’s voice, one of the three or four such events in my life, and it deserves a tribute here.

I was beyond miserable. Most days I was alone after I left work. The only folks I knew well lived halfway across the state and I had nothing to drive. No girlfriend, not even date prospects. I was not going to school, nor had I established any writerly contacts, let alone published anything. I hated retail and understood at last that managing the finest record store imaginable would not be different enough from the finest widget store. The whole move to Boston was spiraling downhill, but I had a deep horror of going back, surrendered and resigned. As a Missoula buddy put it, “Milo, we’ve had so many good-bye parties for you, you’re going to have to go away at least for a little while.”

Here I was, in the fading November light toward New Hampshire, doing the part of my job I despised the most at the record store (which will remain nameless, partly because it wasn’t much of a name). The store had one outlet, up in NH, and twice a week some hapless minion had to drive to the place in a van loaded with new releases and restock. I would never get behind the wheel of such a deathtrap now. The sole emphasis of its design was on carrying capacity, not maneuverability or even safety. There were side mirrors, but no windows in the back. The blind spots were so huge I could easily shift lanes or turn right in front of a tanker truck and not know it. I wasn’t used to driving (no car, remember) in the heavier traffic and snarls of little roads in the Northeast.


No particular fixation on Ronstadt at the time. Any clunk could hear that she’d become a major mercantile force of the 1970s by reinventing the art of the cover tune with Peter Asher. And it would be pret-ty unusual not to have had a cluster of unclean thoughts about those eyes, lips and thighs and no underwear. (I mean, she didn’t sprawl on that bed in Rolling Stone wearing only her shortie slip so you’d think “hmmm, nice material.”) Still, I thought a crude comment by a Boston DJ — “that was Linda Ronstadt doing ‘Blue Bayou’, which is better than being kissed by you” — was kinda apt. I preferred the fantasy of Patti Smith — who was more like the bohos I had hung around with — and nearly came to blows with this snoid who suggested she was only fit to endorse dog food.

Ronstadt’s treatment of “Blue Bayou” coming over the radio made time stop that day. Her other beyond-all-boundaries cover was “Tumbling Dice” (still the finest female treatment of a Rolling Stones classic), but that was more a matter of her smarts and “Blue Bayou” was just her throwing her voice and soul around you. No accident that it was written by Roy Orbison, one of the supreme little-hope yearners in rock and roll. He was the music’s first star who was more funny-lookin’ than Bill Hayley (say it: geeky, even homely). His bottomless wanting was honed in the endless isolation of the back row of the class, year after year, and you could tell.

I’d heard Ronstadt’s hit who knows how often before, but this was different. The instant she cranked up the energy with “I’m going back someday” about a minute in, the air next to me in the van split open and I looked toward the passenger seat and there she was, singing right next to me, absolutely real. The song and I had fused. It was my whole being that moment. I knew she was 5′ 2″, about a foot shorter than me, and indeed she was. One time I’d look over and she would be in the blue-sequined gown, the next time in the Dodgers uniform, but that didn’t make her seem a whit more imaginary.

“I’m going back someday, come what may, to Blue Bayou.” What was Blue Bayou, Linda? Montana? Happiness? Then I realized with a jolt that as long as the song played, she and I were in Blue Bayou.

I began to shed tears. The tune ended, and Linda Ronstadt vanished. She was not like a dream; more like an actual spirit that had flowed out of the radio into the van and then back. I couldn’t remember if I’d been watching the snowy road or not. Lucky that I didn’t veer off and plow into a ditch. Just as I did a couple months later when, exhausted, I fell asleep at the wheel. I was never asked to drive the van again after that. But all that matters about that time remains the close encounter with Linda Ronstadt and “Blue Bayou.”

5 thoughts on “Back in the Van with Linda Ronstadt

  1. Beautiful. I had mixed feelings about her back in her heyday, because of the Sun City thing and the kittenish Rolling Stone covers. But in my old age, I really have come to appreciate her voice and (most of) her cover choices in the early-mid ’70s. “Long Long Time” is just the perfect weeper. I’m sad to hear about her health issues. Sigh.

  2. Pingback: This Is a Sure Thing, Anyway — Top Five Posts I Was Glad Were Very Popular | Miles To Go

  3. I remember that Blue Bayou song was the only time my mother told me she actually liked a song that came out of the radio;after i let her hear Alan Price’s “Glass Mountain”

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