Thursday, August 18, 2011

Road Stories: The day the music died

About halfway through my road career I worked for a few months on Linda Ronstadt's Born in the USA tour. Whatever you may think of Ronstadt's work, it's hard to overstate her popularity at that time, and her influence on all sorts of music. Besides her undeniable position as the first female rock superstar, she exposed large audiences to the work of people like Warren Zevon and Elvis Costello, and introduced a new generation to the likes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. Her refusal to perform within one of the prescribed formats influenced a number of subsequent performers to "play what the music demanded."

Linda was already having intermittent struggles with her weight by this time, 
but she was always down to fighting weight for the start of a tour. 
She rocked this Cub Scout uniform, and it was her favorite concert outfit for a while. 
Picture from here.

Linda also had the most astounding singing voice I have ever heard. There are a number of women who have been able to belt out a song over the years. But whether your favorite is Aretha, Annie Lennox,  Mariah Carey (shudder), the little fat one from the Dixie Chicks, or someone else, none of them combine the power and clarity of Linda Ronstadt. Not only was her octave range impressive, she could carry crystal pure notes from a stage whisper to a volume level I still can't believe a human can make, seemingly effortlessly. I would have sworn there were times I could hear her singing over the PA during a concert, as improbable as I know that to be. Linda says Maria Callas was better, but I never heard her, so I couldn't say.

Besides the technical quality of her voice, her interpretation of songs ranged from very good to goose-bump producing. The ballads -- like Blue Bayou and Alison -- would have the house so quiet that her voice seemed to fill your head, though everyone's favorite was undoubtedly her cover of The Eagles' Desperado. I watched the show every night from a spotlight perch about twenty feet up in the lighting rig, and I will admit to wiping a few tears during that song on several occasions.

But it was the rock songs, like It's So Easy, That'll Be the Day, and You're No Good that really showcased her with the band. And it was a good band. Waddy Wachtel on guitar, Dan Dugmore on pedal steel and guitar, Andrew Gold on keyboards, and (I think) Russ Kunkel on drums and Kenny Edwards playing bass.* Many of these people played together for other musicians, all had played on her album, and they sounded great.

For about the first thirty days, this was one of the best tours I was ever on. Linda and the band were having a great time, feeding off of each other's energy, moving around on stage, improvising -- you know, all the stuff we used to go to concerts to see. They loved it, the crowds loved it, and even the crusty old roadies loved it, though we would only admit that among ourselves.

This is from the tour before mine, and the lighting is terrible.
That's probably why they hired us.

The fun all ended when Peter Asher showed up about a month into the tour. Peter was Linda's record producer, and an influential force in music. He was the Peter of the 60's duo Peter and Gordon, before becoming A&R man for The Beatles' Apple records. He quit Apple to manage James Taylor, and produced some of the biggest albums of the 1970's. He was also a major wiener.

After watching one performance, Peter stamped his little feet, called the band and road management team together for a meeting, and read them the riot act. The gist of his diatribe was that this was not the Linda Ronstadt and Her Band Do Anything They Feel Like Doing Tour, it was the Linda Ronstadt Living in the USA tour, and people came to see the songs performed like they heard them on the records. He told Linda to remain at her microphone stand, ordered the rest of the band to "stay in their lights," and forbade any sort of improvisation or shenanigans.

Needless to say, that ended the good times. The music was still high quality, but the spark was gone. That tour became what most of the rest of them were -- a wagon train trek across the country. Each day ran into the next, all of us doing what had to be done, but looking forward to the day when we wouldn't have to do it again.

I didn't know it at the time, but that was one of the early shots in the annihilation of the concert as an artistic form of expression. Within a year, virtually every performer under major industry management was having their concerts packaged the way Linda's was packaged, namely as a set piece regurgitation of their recorded music. A couple of years after that, tape assist to fill in background tracks became common, which eliminated any ability to vary even the tempo of a song.

Music is a product now, carefully designed, produced, packaged, and marketed. Virtually all creativity and innovation is gone from the mainstream, and we are left with whatever Sony, Viacom, and the rest believe the bulk of us will continue to pay for. I know there are still people out there doing it from the heart, but music industrialization makes it ever harder for an old fart like me to find them. And it's a shame that most people will never have the opportunity to see their favorite musicians cut loose and have some fun.

* It was a long time ago, and for some reason many of my memories of that period are somewhat fuzzy. I put it down to sleep deprivation.


  1. These 'road stories' are what got me hooked your blog to begin with. I'm glad you're writing them again.

    Really, I'm glad you're writing anything with some frequency again. :)

    Surprisingly, I had never heard Linda Ronstadt sing until I clicked on that video just now. I know who she is, obviously, but I had never listened to her stuff. My dad doesn't like her, and I get a lot of my musical tastes from that era from him. So, generally, if he didn't like it, I wasn't exposed to it. And he thought Linda took herself far too seriously - he once went on a ten-minute diatribe about how when she covered Zevon's "Poor, Poor, Pitiful Me", she didn't get that it was tongue-in-cheek, and she sang it like she meant every word, and that irritated him. I think he thought she was too much enamored with her own musical talent to "get it".

    Anyway: whenever I dig through records at Goodwill (which is surprisingly often), there are always, always some of Linda's records, and I also disregard them, cause my dad said he didn't like her. Now maybe I'll pick up a few the next time I stop in to a Goodwill store. :)

  2. Granted, most of her music is not my cup of tea, but I know quality when I see it, and her voice is one of the best in the business. I might be showing my age, but her duets with Aaron Neville back in the late 80s are my favorites from her work.

  3. scripted concerts are the reason i haven't paid money to see one in over a decade. i ADORE live music, however, and find much joy in the mosh pits of local and regional acts...

    was never crazy about her music (although "Different Drum" is a pop beauty), she did introduce me to Buddy Holly... and yes, she's got pipes.

  4. @Jane: Many people shared your father's opinion. Even after spending several months around her, and a few days in pretty close proximity, I have never formed a firm opinion. She was a bit of a paradox. I will say that I saw her sing "Poor Pitiful Me" as a duet with Warren Zevon several times, and he didn't seem to have a problem with her.

    @Chris: Duets were always one of her strengths. I've also always liked her background work, like the song she did with Paul Simon on Graceland.

    @daisyfae: I've heard that Different Drum is still one of her most popular songs, forty years later.

  5. Loved Different Drums and You're No Good -- I thought her voice amazing myself. I am also a huge Callas fan -- listen to her singing 'Carmen' again and again --I concur with Jane that I love your roadie stories; keep them coming!!