Plenty of American parents are disturbed by the prospect of a gay schoolteacher, but on the other hand would they feel queasy if Linda Ronstadt infiltrated the Cub Scouts? Not to worry. That Cub suit (right) is just one of Linda’s whimsical concert costumes, and the run of men she’s seen with offstage these days are not Scouts—save possibly for California’s Gov. Jerry Brown. Of course, protests Ronstadt, no one should believe all those columns coupling her with Mick Jagger or President Carter’s son Chip et omnes. “I wish I had as much in bed,” she cracks at 31, “as I get in the newspapers.”
Indeed, the musical breakthrough she has achieved involves sexism more than sexuality. She recalls predicting five years ago that “a girl would come along to open the door for white female rock singers. Before,” Linda says, “we lived under the shadow of Tina Turner, feeling we had to do hot blues licks—or be considered a little butch.” But then, says Ronstadt, came “Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac and the Wilson sisters of Heart—that’s the revolution.”
That’s also sisterly magnanimity. In the past three years Linda has outsold and outclassed all that competition as interpreter and voice of womanhood amid the din of the male indulgence that is rock ‘n’ roll. No other songstress in history has had five straight platinum LPs (Hasten Down the Wind, Heart Like a Wheel among them), and her gross is upwards of $60 million retail.
Linda hits men like the charts—with a bullet. Her album illustrations engender images alternating between Vulnerable Sex Kitten and Self-Probing Liberated Sister. Not only can she have it both ways on that score, but her loose network of friendships includes the captains in L.A.’s formative Mellow Mafia of musicians (the Eagles, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, J.D. Souther, Andrew Gold) as well as leading L.A. rock ladies like Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt and the promising soundalike Karla Bonoff. Yet tellingly, Ronstadt’s mentor is Dolly Parton, symbolizing Ronstadt’s unrivaled role in the bridging of country and pop in the soft-rocking ’70s.
But Linda, to extend the Eagles’ metaphor of the transient, hedonistic Hotel California rock scene, doesn’t just rent a room for one-night stands. In her latest and elegantly refined album, Simple Dreams, Ronstadt sings Buddy Holly’s famous line “It’s so easy to fall in love” on one track and “I Never Will Marry” on another. It would appear that now, despite an unprecedented peak of artistic confidence and power, she has all but discarded, in a complex mix of disillusionment and emancipation, her own dreams of a nuclear family. “At first I didn’t get married because I was busy getting my career going,” she reflects. “Then it was because I hadn’t seen enough of the world. I thought I might meet the Man in England, for example. I treated it like shopping for shoes. Now I realize I didn’t get married because I just didn’t want to. My mobility was more important. As the years have passed, I’ve come to feel that maybe I never will get married.”
Though currently sleeker (5’2″, 107 lbs.)than she’s been since eighth grade and seemingly cured finally from the curse of her adolescent complexion, Ronstadt still frets over her stage manner (frequently she’ll be klutzy and inane in her patter). At least she has no more doubts about her sexual presence, often appearing onstage in shamelessly sawed-off shorts, or satin hotpants and high heels, at once flaunting and defusing her own considerable smoky, pouty sensuality.
But if life is lonely at the top, rock’s Most Eligible Bachelor Woman isn’t always alone. “This is a date year, just like high school,” she says a bit mischievously. “I have lots of boyfriends but it’s mostly rush and thrill.” Yet Ronstadt has maintained close ties—after the thrills were gone—with J.D. Souther, comedian Albert Brooks and most other exes, including even the managers who preceded her genius record-producer incumbent Peter Asher. (“I’ve never understood people who say after a divorce or a breakup, ‘I never want to see him again.’ What you liked about him in the first place hasn’t gone away just because you aren’t lovers anymore.”)
Ronstadt has wisely used her fame, unlike so many of her peers, to realign and stabilize herself in the real world, rather than to retreat from it. Having survived cocaine, speed and a shrink, she’s now eased into domesticity, sharing her $325,000 1920s New England-style beachhouse in Malibu Colony with a longtime friend, songwriter Adam Mitchell, and his daughter, Kirsten, 6. “It’s completely platonic,” she insists. “That’s why it’s so comfortable. We can talk about his girlfriends and my boyfriends as close friends.”
At his urging, Linda fights her “foodaholic” addiction by jogging along the beach or skipping rope inland, running up and down stairs in hotels or swimming in their pools. She bakes bread with her own flour, stone-grinding it personally. During a recent six-month self-imposed sabbatical, Linda “cruised around and looked at all kinds of lives. I met astronauts, TV people, doctors, politicians. I discovered there was something more to life than the music business and different kinds of men than musicians,” she reports. “I used to think they were the only men I could get involved with.” Now she has discovered, “They aren’t exactly the most trustworthy lot.” Ultimately, she hopes to check out of ” ‘Hotel California’—people in Malibu are highly transient—and move to a neighborhood where everybody else has been in the same house for 40 years.”
Those rooting instincts result as much from the nomadic music world as from her tight haut-bourgeois family back in Tucson. Her social mother encouraged her into the debutante rounds for a year. Her father, whose German ancestors lived in Mexico, owns a hardware store and exposed Linda to “ranchera music.” Linda gave the University of Arizona one semester, then quit in 1964—at 18—to go to L.A. There she fell into a folkish trio, the Stone Poneys, which three years later had its first success, Different Drum.
Linda’s currently in Malibu again, recuperating from a summer tour, during which she once had to quit mid-concert from exhaustion and illness, but went on to complete a record-setting 12-night sellout at L.A.’s Universal Amphitheatre. She has signed to do a CBS special, though she distrusts the medium and doesn’t even have a TV set in her house. As for her future as a composer, she is discouraged. “Writing is a totally foreign process,” she says. “I’m an interpreter.”
Indeed, her voice is as powerful and emotionally fluent as she’ll ever need, no matter what she sings: “I’m not going to do rock ‘n’ roll forever,” Ronstadt declares. “I want some grace and dignity in my old age. If I continue singing I’ll probably settle into the notion of a chanteuse, a cabaret singer, doing something timeless.”
Single, married or in between, though, Linda is a skeptic, reconciled to a certain quotient of torment, along with the contentment. “I’m now ready for the advanced emotions,” she ventures. “For the more profound feeling beyond the blush of romance—a strong committed relationship.” But love, she’s found, is like the road: “Some nights it’s just not going to be good.”