Sunday, September 01, 2013

Linda Ronstadt: "I Ain't Saying You Ain't Pretty"

Linda Ronstadt recently with Santana

Linda Ronstadt's memoir will be out September 17th
 by Amelia M.L. Montes (

"I grew up singing Mexican music, and that's based on indigenous Mexican rhythms.  Mexican music also has an overlay of West African music, based on huapango drums, and it's kind of like a 6/8 time signature, but it really is a very syncopated 6/8.  And that's how I attack vocals."  --Linda Ronstadt

They were lyrics I really hadn't heard a woman sing before, and to me, they meant everything.  It was 1967 and Linda was singing “Different Drum.”  I suddenly looked up from my homework, stared at the radio, and heard her words:

You and I travel to the beat of a different drum
Oh can't you tell by the way I run
Every time you make eyes at me

You cry and moan and say it will work out
But honey child I’ve got my doubts
You can’t see the forest for the trees

Oh don’t get me wrong
It’s not that I knock it
It’s just that I am not in the market
For a boy who wants to love only me

Yes, and I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty
All I’m saying is I’m not ready
For any person place or thing
To try and pull the reins in on me . . .

Linda Ronstadt dressed as una Adelita
The voice was silky strong, the words pragmatic and smart.  She had her reasons to be single.  She knew herself enough and loved herself enough to stand her ground.  The song had originally been written in 1965 by Mike Nesmith (yes, of “The Monkees” 1960s television show), but when Linda Ronstadt sang it, it meant something completely different.  In fact, I've never heard Mike Nesmith sing it (and maybe that’s a good thing). 

Billboard in downtown L.A. announcing her concert, "Living in the USA" at The Forum
Hearing “Different Drum” now with a twenty-first century perspective, it doesn’t seem that revolutionary, but in the 1960s, Ronstadt singing the line, “I’m not ready,” was novel.  There were so many women singing whiny straight love songs at the time.  Even after Ronstadt recorded “Different Drum,” Laura Nyro (whose voice and songs I did and still do like) came out with “Wedding Bell Blues” in 1969 (“But kisses and love won’t carry me, ‘til you marry me, Bill”).  “Save me,” I used to say when that song came on, and I’d quickly change it to something else. 

“Different Drum” was indeed “different” on so many levels.  At age 9, I immediately knew this song would be important for me. I created an image of Linda Ronstadt holding the reins, not being “tied,” following her dreams.  She was beautiful and her looks were familiar to me:  the dark hair, the tenor of her voice that matched that of Amalia Mendoza, Lola Beltrán, Lucha Villa, and others.  

“Mira hija,” mama would tell me, “la Linda es como nosotras.”  “She’s like us because she’s one of 
us.  Es Mexicana."  

It’s not like I hadn’t seen Mexican female singers on TV.  My parents owned a number of female Mexican albums and watched Mexican television which also featured Mexicam female singers.  But Linda Ronstadt was singing on “U.S.” television with other Anglo-American singing stars. She even shared billing with The Doors (and she wasn't impressed at all with Jim Morrison).  

There was Linda on television wearing the kind of hoop earrings mis tias would wear. 
 And she had dark hair like my sister’s shiny dark straight hair.   “Si—la Linda es como nosotras” and with “Different Drum,” she was saying “pues let me be” on so many levels. 

Also—she didn’t change Nesmith’s lyric: “I ain’t saying you ain’t pretty.”  It was the first time I heard “pretty” addressed to a boy.  I assumed, of course, that Linda’s lyrics were addressed to a “boy” who wanted a relationship.  The word “pretty” caught my attention because it encouraged me to create an image of a male who was definitely not mainstream, but queer.  Linda was playing with ideas of gender at a very early period.  She was “different” and “offbeat” and I completely related to her sensibilities.  Much later, in 2003, she said, “Rampant eclecticism is my middle name.” Perhaps her eclecticism was a natural impulse since she had such a wealth of diverse riches from which to draw:  a Mexican, German, English, and Dutch family background; a family who loved singing all kinds of music:  Mariachi, rock, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, opera, country, choral, conjunto, various African music.  She took it all in and made it her own.  She also created her own eclectic personal life and has been able to keep a low profile (well, except when she was with Jerry Brown, Jr. perhaps). She's never married (deftly holding on to the reins) and she adopted two children who are now in their teens. 

The album title "Simple Dreams" is now the title of her memoir
Last week, Ronstadt announced she cannot sing anymore due to her Parkinson’s Disease diagnosis.  The recent article in the New York Times (click here) describes, as always, a very strong woman, positive in the face of disease, and humorous as well. The article also discusses her love of literature.  Linda is described as a "voracious reader who can quote Henry James verbatim."  So when Michael Pollen urged her to write a memoir, she hesitated:  "I don't have any craft.  I don't have any skill.  And he said everybody has at least one good story in them that they can pull out."  Michael's words worked.  Simple Dreams:  A Musical Memoir will be coming out September 17th.  

Another reason for writing the book had to do with her financial situation in the face of illness. Yes, she has certainly recorded a number of songs that are still enjoying air time today (just heard "Blue Bayou" on the radio the other day). Yet she did not write most of her songs.  Songs like "Different Drum" (Nesmith) and "Blue Bayou" (Roy Orbison and Joe Melson) are not hers and therefore, she does not receive any royalties from air time.  She made her money from touring and she is unable to do so now.  Perhaps Simple Dreams will open up a new avenue for her in the area of writing.  We shall see.  I look forward to getting my copy.  In the meantime, I'm going to replay Linda singing "Tumbling Dice" (click here to watch!).  I think she sings it much better, the lyrics "tumbling" out of her mouth decisively "different" and totally hotter than Mick Jagger's version.  Orale Linda!  Dale gas!  You just keep on going now with the writing.  Michael Pollen needs to tell her she has much more than one good story.  She has many and we want to read them all.  Here's also a short video (click here) on Linda's eclectic style which include interviews with her and other musicians, producers speaking about her musical legacy.  

“So good-bye I’ll be leaving
I see no sense in this crying and grieving
We’ll both live a lot longer
If you live without me.”  
("Different Drum" final lyric stanza)  

Still beautiful and strong!


Luzma said...

Amelia, dear, is it true that for the longest of times she wanted to hide her Mexican identity by becoming so americanized that one had to REALLY look at her information to find out that she was MexAm? However, people of my own heritage never hid that they were Boricuas like Rita Moreno, Jose Ferrer and Paoli the opera singer...What is the beef with that? This song, never the less, by Rons. reminds me of my self when I was told I was fea because I was a Lesbian.

Anonymous said...

Love her so. From her earliest interviews she spoke of her heritage. The sound of her voice was so gorgeous and full it took your breath away. I remember when I first heard her sing in Spanish at the height of her fame. I was a kid on Long Island, Ny and have been a fan ever since.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Saludos Luzma y "anonymous"-- gracias for your responses. I am not aware (when I was 9 years old) that Ronstadt was hiding. My mother "outed" her to us. In my house, we just knew--and there was a sense of pride.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Amelia ML Montes for your blog today. Linda has given us so much wonderful music and I send her all my blessings. I saw her first at the Forum opening up for Neil Young. She was standing downstage barefooted with long dark hair and singing with ease in her beautiful voice. I never concerned myself with her ancestry only her music. I do remember her always taking about all the different music she grew up listening to. How lucky are we that she gifted us with the songs of her father and all her life. Growing up in the Seventies, it was great to see someone who looked me: sometimes thin, sometimes fat and someone who did things her way with the big boys in music. I will be grateful and will love her for a "long, long time".

Linda Rodriguez said...

Lovely blog, Amelia. I remember LR speaking of her heritage in a very early interview, so I don't think she was hiding it. Perhaps the company putting out her records was, but she has always openly claimed it.

Michael J. said...

Thanks for your comments about, and insight into, Linda's first hit single. I haven't thought about her take on the song quite that way and it's interesting. She really is an independent voice on so many levels. I respect her greatly and look forward to reading her memoir.

Latino Heritage said...

First time I saw Linda was while I was ironing and watching a daytime talk show; might have been Mike Douglas. I wanted to sing like her and for the little bit of her personality she was able to share in a short tv talk segment - I wanted to be independent like her.

As a Michael Nesmith fan I was familiar with the song, but her interpretation was different for the very reasons you mention. This was a woman who was sharing this sentiment.

If you get a chance do listen to the Nesmith version the 1972 LP - And the Hits Just Keep on Comin'. Nesmith on guitar and Red Rhodes on steel pedal guitar are a sweet bit of cowboy rock - all SW with slightly worn boots.

But in the end, even Nesmith gave the following quote - “Linda did more for 'Different Drum' than I ever did -- or ever could have,” Nesmith concluded. “She breathed eternal life into it.”

Olga said...

I love Linda Ronstadt! This blog took me down memory lane. My favorite album of hers is Canciones de mi padre. Thanks, Amelia, for keeping us up to date with her musical career and with her new writing endeavor.