A New Voice For Parkinson’s Disease
In the late 1960s, the petite, young Linda Ronstadt, newly arrived on the L.A. music scene, unleashed a voice that would permeate the radio for years to come and leave music writers grasping for ways to describe it—“strong and solid as God’s garage floor,” intoned a 1977 Time cover story. That rich tone and galvanizing power turned songs like “You’re No Good,” “When Will I Be Loved,” and “It’s So Easy” into Top 10 hits. In August, however, Ronstadt, now 67, revealed to A.A.R.P. writer Alanna Nash that she has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer sing. The announcement preceded the publication of her book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir. By phone from her home in San Francisco, Ronstadt spoke with Vanity Fair about her career and her struggle with Parkinson’s disease.
Mary Lyn Maiscott: You describe music very well in your memoir. I was thinking if you want to be a music blogger, that would be a way to go, too.
Linda Ronstadt: I’m so not current it’s embarrassing. I listen mostly to live music, and mostly my musical experience was playing music with other people. That’s what musicians do about 99 percent of their time. Whoever is near and compatible and socially interested enough to do that, that’s who you hang out with. In the Troubadour days it was all those songwriters that I hung around with all the time, so I could get songs and find out what was going on. So we all knew each other, and we just carried each other’s word around.
Did you feel like you were part of music history at that time?
No—everybody was just working on stuff all the time. It was just work, what we did. J. D. Souther, I lived with him and he was writing songs all the time. I’d hear him in the other room, plinking away on the piano or guitar. And he’d show me his stuff when it was just begun and I’d listen to it and think, that one’s going to be finished pretty soon, I want to record that. I kind of had dibs on it.
He’s on Nashville now, isn’t he?
Yes, he is. I saw him the other night. He flew up to Washington, D.C., to have dinner with me, which was so sweet. We had a great time. We just went to a little neighborhood restaurant. He was friends with Christopher Hitchens, and I think it was Hitchens’s favorite restaurant. We went in his honor, I think. Very nice little Italian restaurant with tasty food that you don’t have to have a reservation 50 years in advance to get into.
People might be surprised that you are rather critical of your singing in the book. I hope that you occasionally get a thrill when you hear your incredible sound.
I had plenty of voice, but how you use that voice is informed by other factors. There are plenty of people with better musicianship. Of my own peers, Bonnie Raitt has way more musicianship than I do. Jennifer Warnes is a way better singer than I am. And they were around. I was hearing them [laughs], could hear them on a daily basis, so . . .
When you were singing a song like “Love Has No Pride” or “You’re No Good”—these were not songs you had written—did you tend to think of someone in particular?
It wasn’t always the same person. There would be something that would match something that was going on in my life—maybe not the whole song, maybe just a line, [where] I’d go, “That says how I feel about this better than anything else I’ve found lately. That really expresses what I need to say right now.” And then you figure out a way to make the rest of the song fit. And sometimes the song works all the way through. A song like “Heart Like a Wheel” doesn’t falter in one note or one word, not one syllable, not one consonant. It was so completely what I felt I needed to say, and it was shared by lots of people. But [with] a song like “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” there are a lot of—it was very much a guy’s song about gnarly encounters in hotel rooms. [Laughs.] I had to leave some of the verses out.
Jackson Browne taught me that song. He came out to [my house on Malibu] beach one night with J. D. Souther, and we were sitting up playing music one night—I’ve got a tape of the whole thing. Jackson taught me “Poor Pitiful Me” and J.D. taught me “Blue Bayou.” The verse in “Poor Pitiful Me” was “I met a girl on the Sunset Strip,” I think, “She asked me if I’d beat her / She took me up to her hotel room / And wrecked my mojo heater.” It was really funny, and I’m saying to Jackson, “I can’t sing those words, man! That’s not who I am. . . . I have to leave that part out.”
You say that it took you 10 years to learn how to sing, but you also mention that you didn’t have any formal training until you did The Pirates of Penzance[in 1980]. So what were you referring to?
I had to get out of my own way. Hildegard von Bingen said that singing is like being a feather on the breath of God. Which resonates to my atheist soul . . . You have to keep that little column of air under there, and I had gotten so panicked, my singing style had a lot of fear in it, and my throat was too tight and I wasn’t letting that air out properly. So I was a feather that had fallen to the ground—it’s just lying on the concrete floor.
By the time I got finished withPirates, I had way more facility with my instrument.
Did that change at all as you got older?
Well, as I got older I got Parkinson’s disease, so I couldn’t sing at all. That’s what happened to me. I was singing at my best strength when I developed Parkinson’s. I think I’ve had it for quite a while.
You think you’ve had it longer than when you received the diagnosis?
I’m 67 now, so it may have started as early as 51.
Are you going by your singing or other—
By my singing. They have a new way of diagnosing Parkinson’s disease; it’s with an algorithm and they record your voice and compare it to an algorithm. That’s a way they can get an early diagnosis, but it’s not in general use yet. I know somebody that has access to the research, so since my voice has been recorded over the years I might be able to pinpoint when it actually developed, and I think it’s been going on for a long time. I was sick for a long time, but as you get older you do develop aches and pains, and it’s harder to walk and stand up and you get stiff. You know, my hands were shaking and I thought, Oh, I’m old.
So you didn’t get that checked immediately.
It didn’t occur to me to go to a neurologist. I just went to my regular doctor, my chiropractor and said, just, my back hurts.
Can you literally not sing, or you’re not supposed to?
No, I can’t sing. I wish I could. Ninety-eight percent of the singing I did was private singing—it was in the shower, at the dishwater, driving my car, singing with the radio, whatever. I can’t do any of that now. I wish I could. I don’t miss performing particularly, but I miss singing.
Did you read the A.A.R.P. piece on their Web site, referring to the piece they did on you, saying that there’s some kind of voice therapy?
There’s all kinds of stuff out there . . . but it’s nothing that can give you singing back. Singing is such a complex mechanism. You have to be able to do a whole lot of things at once that require repetitive movements of your vocal cords . . . I couldn’t do any of it [anymore]. I was onstage just yelling really, just shouting. And I can’t even do that now. If I try to put any pressure—I can’t project my voice very far. And my speaking voice is affected. I tried to do the audio version of my book, but I couldn’t do it. My voice didn’t have the strength, and I didn’t have enough range of expression.
Stuff that was easy—like, it used to be easy to brush my teeth, and it isn’t anymore. You wouldn’t think it would be something you would have to concentrate on, like a really difficult movement that you have to coordinate, like threading a needle. You’d think that brushing your teeth wouldn’t be like that. When it started to be hard to do things like that, that’s when I went to the neurologist.
Your last solo album was Hummin’ to Myself?
Yeah, and the last album I did was with Ann Savoy. It was called Adieu False Heart. I’m very proud of that record. Those two records I made with almost no vocal ability at all. But I just acted like I was working with a limited palette, like a painter would do—you know, it’s only browns and ivory and black.
You mentioned to someone that you felt you recrafted your voice to do Hummin’ to Myself.
Yeah, I did. I put a different voice together, and there’s a lot of stuff on there that I’m very happy with. If you compare it to What’s New, I had [on that record] way more color, more breath, more airiness, more access to the upper process of my voice. So I had to use what I had, and pitch was harder. With that stuff pitch is incredibly critical. I’ve usually had a pretty easy time with pitch; I tend to sharp a little bit, but—it was tough, I was really sweating the pitch on that record. But then I got there.
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Gary Chandler is a prion expert. He is the CEO of Crossbow Communications, author of several books and producer of documentaries about health and environmental issues around the world. Chandler is connecting the dots to the global surge in neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, chronic wasting disease and other forms of prion disease. The scientific name for prion disease is transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. The operative word is “transmissible.” Even the global surge in autism appears to be related.