It doesn’t bother Linda Ronstadt that it’s taken this long into her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-lauded career to release a live album.
“It always seemed to me the best place you can record is in the studio, so you can fix things if you make a mistake,” Ronstadt, who’s been sidelined from singing by Parkinson’s disease, tells Billboard about the just-released Live in Hollywood, a 13-track set from an April 1980 performance at Television Center Studios in Hollywood for HBO. She was backed by a crack band that included Danny Kortchmar and Kenny Edwards on guitar, Bob Glaub on bass, Little Feat’s Bill Payne on keyboards, Dan Dugmore on pedal steel, Wendy Waldman on backing vocals and Ronstadt producer and concert executive producer Peter Asher on percussion and backing vocals. Ronstadt recalls that the concert “was insufferably hot. It was a small studio and we had an audience, so it heated the room up quite a lot. And then they had really hot, really big lights on us.
“It’s something that should’ve been considered, but we were brave little soldiers and pushed through it. But it was really too hot to make music.”
Ronstadt herself “didn’t know that this recording existed” until longtime producer John Boylan discovered the master tape last year. And even now she has ambivalent emotions about Live in Hollywood seeing the light of day.
“It was recorded for television, which is unfortunate because television compresses things so much,” she explains. “So it didn’t turn out to be a really hi-fi record. It turned out to be a television record.” Ronstadt adds that she “just kind of smiled through it” when she heard the tapes. “I don’t like to listen to stuff I’ve recorded,” she says. “It’s just another time, and it’s a frozen in time kind of thing. I always think, ‘Why did I sing that note like that? Why did I phrase it like that? Why wasn’t it faster? Why wasn’t it slower?’ I always see things I would’ve corrected in the studio, so (listening to the recordings) is a fool’s errand for me.”
For fans, Live in Hollywood does capture Ronstadt at the end of the first phase of her pop music career. Shortly after the concert and her then-current Mad Love album, Ronstadt pivoted to the theater stage for an appearance in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance, eventually hitting Broadway, and shortly after that moved on to albums of pop standards and then indigenous Mexican music. “I was looking for something new to do,” Ronstadt recalls. “I liked pop music, but I had a lot of album-tour, album-tour, album-tour. I enjoyed making those records, but I was sort of done with it at that point. I was really excited about the idea of going to Broadway and singing operetta… and it was a long time before I came back to pop music with any enthusiasm.”
Ronstadt isn’t sure what else her vaults may yield in the future, either. “I’m away from the machinations of the record company dealings, so I don’t know,” she says. “They unearth stuff I don’t even remember doing. I always shudder when I think about them bringing something out of the vault because it’s something we rejected for some good reason back then. I don’t have a lot of say in it, really.”
Ronstadt, who performed her last concert during 2009 after noticing she was having problems with her voice, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013 and now cannot sing at all — not even in the shower, she recently told CBS Sunday Morning. “I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of suffering,” Ronstadt told the show. She said she’s learned to accept help from other people, and she busies herself now with watching operatic performances on YouTube and working with the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in San Pablo, Calif., which helps teach Latin American youth about their culture; She’ll be leading a trip to Mexico with the group later this month.
Ronstadt is also working with two others on a writing project about the Sonoran Desert, which straddles the U.S.-Mexico border in the southwest.
“These (projects) tend to come up naturally and in sort of an organic fashion. I don’t go looking for them,” Ronstadt says, adding that she tries not to bemoan the loss of her music career. “It just seems so long ago, it was another person,” she notes. “I don’t have the same life now. I tried my best. I like to think that I gave it an earnest shot but, y’know, you can never be completely satisfied. It’s always what would you do the next time — you can improve this, you can improve that. But I can’t create new (music) anymore, so I think about other things. And to be honest I have more home life now, and I like that better.”