Let’s get sad.
Let’s get very, very sad. Let’s get profoundly sad. Let’s talk about the saddest songs ever sung.
In fact, let’s not just talk about them. Let’s get inside them. Let’s crawl inside the very chord structure of romantic sadness. And let’s get Linda Ronstadt to take us there.
After all, when you want to talk about yearning and longing and hopeless aching romantic sorrow and pain, you seek out Linda Ronstadt: she was the one who taught the baby-boomers how to cry like, well, babies. And let’s begin by talking to her about what some consider the Ultimate Sad Song: “Long, Long Time.”
Do you remember “Long, Long Time”? If you haven’t heard it, you’re lucky. Because from the opening weeping steel-guitar hook, the song is paralyzingly sad. By the time she reaches the final refrain—
I’ve done everything I know
To try and make you mine
And I think it’s gonna hurt me
For a long, long time . . .
—it has managed to reopen every aching wound of romantic loss you’ve ever experienced, and some you haven’t yet. A legendary classic killer sad song.
There’s almost a kind of superstitious cult around the lethal tear-jerking power of this song. Like the one that grew up in previous generations around “Gloomy Sunday.” People would talk about that song in hushed and superstitious tones and refer to rumors that because it was the cause of so many suicides, it had been banned from the airwaves; it was just too lethally sad. I knew several women who swore they’d worn the grooves thin in “Long, Long Time” jags, playing it over and over again addictively to exorcise their hearts of sorrow.
So I’m having dinner with Linda Ronstadt in a Greenwich Village restaurant, and we’re talking about the nature of romantic sadness, about Linda’s theory of the sadness at the heart of sexual excitement, about the tear-jerking power of the key of D, the heart of sadness in Anna Karenina, and other such ultimate sad questions, when I ask Linda if she’s aware of the cult status “Long, Long Time” has achieved as the Ultimate Sad Song.
“Actors have told me that,” Linda Ronstadt tells me. “A lot of people have told me that, but actors particularly, that they play that for their big crying movie scene. For me it’s a song called ‘Talk to Me of Mendocino,’ which I did finally record myself, but actually when the Endearables sing it, I could cry every time. I cannot not cry. And I didn’t record it for years because I couldn’t not cry trying to sing it.”
What was it about “Long, Long Time”? There were two main theories I wanted to check out with Linda. First, the Unrequitedness Theory. According to one woman I know, the woman who’s singing it never had the guy she’s pining over. It’s pure unrequited longing.
“Is the love in that song unconsummated?” I ask Linda. “Does she ever actually sleep with him?”
“Who knows,” she says, sounding a bit annoyed at the question.
“Well, you sang it.”
“I slept with him on several occasions,” she declares. “And he was married, too.”
Oh. Okay. Let’s set aside the Unrequited Theory.
“I can remember the day I recorded ‘Long, Long Time,’ ” Linda is telling me. “It was 10:30 in the morning, but I was really into this kind of achy feeling, because the music—it’s in these chords. I think my phrasing was horrible, I think I kind of butchered it, but it is definitely in those chords. And it happened to the musicians, who are jaded session players. As soon as the fiddle player and Weldon Myrick, who’s the steel guitar, began to play those chords, they got real into that and became personally involved ….”
“What is it about the steel guitar that makes it so weepy—it sounds like a teardrop, doesn’t it?”
“I don’t know, but like the Irish pipes and like the shakuhachi, you can temper it by moving up a semitone or down a semitone in a smooth line. You don’t go [she sings a jumpy transition], you go—”
She sends her voice sliding up and down in the sad whine of the steel guitar. It’s a very convincing imitation.
“It sighs and weeps,” Linda says.
She sounds a bit wistful singing that line and recalling that “Long, Long Time” session. She hasn’t sung with a steel guitar on an album for, well, a long, long time.
She’s gone on to ostensibly more sophisticated forms of sadness since her steel-guitar period, which neared its end with that heartbreakingly sad Simple Dreams album, the one that featured her biggest-selling hit, “Blue Bayou.”
Yes, she’s gone on to the world-weary weltschmerz of her two Nelson Riddle albums, What’s New and Lush Life. She’s explored the operatic mode of sadness in her recent La Bohème production.
And yet I got a sense in my conversations with her that these new forms of sadness haven’t made her, uh, happy. That in some ways she longs to return to that blue bayou in time when she’d reached such a perfect pitch of sadness that she had the heart of the whole nation in her hands ….
“What kind of music got to you emotionally when you were growing up?” I ask her.
“Well, there were the doo-wop songs of the late Fifties,” she says. “Like ‘Daddy’s Home,’ and ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ by the Skyliners. They had that funny kind of romantic shimmer that made you sort of creamy when you heard it.”
And then there was a certain kind of Mexican music that had that same creamy effect. “There’s a kind of singer called the huapanguero; they do this yodel up in the falsetto just like the doo-wop singers do. The most well-known example of that is a song called ‘Malagueña Doloroso.’”
She sings a Mexican tune.
“My dad, you know, is Mexican and sang that music all the time. Oh, I love it.”
Is there a specific key or chord that this music has in common with doo-wop that evokes a certain mournful romantic emotion?
“There’s something very mystically strange about the key of D, with the low D on the bottom,” she says. “We used to play it on our guitars with the guitar in an E tuning, where you drop the bottom string down, and when you play that chord with the low string on the bottom, it’s unbelievably powerful, and I don’t know what it is that it does.”
She starts talking about other secret chordal-emotional connections: “When we were kids, we always sang together. But there were musical intervals that used to frighten us. We’d get together on the bed at night and we’d try to weird each other out with music, and the weirdest thing that we could sing together was—”
She sings an eerie three-part tone that goes low-high-low and sounds exactly like the chilling police sirens of occupied Europe you hear in espionage movies.
“I found out later,” Linda says, “that this is called the Devil’s Interval. Now, I’m not superstitious. I’m sure it doesn’t really summon up any external evil spirit, because I don’t believe that exists. But I won’t sing it when I’m by myself. I just wouldn’t do it.”
I mention to her that when I interviewed Bob Dylan he told me, “The key of D is the key of regret.” At the time I’d wondered whether that was just a Dylan put-on. But are there other keys that conjure up specific emotions?
“The key of G, open G, is a hell of a key too,” she says. “He writes everything in G, Dylan does. He plays the C chord against the G all the time.”
And what would she say that is, in emotional terms?
“It’s hard to explain, but that stuff seems to be quite directly rooted in Irish music, traditional Irish music. The harmony stuff that I sang with my brothers and sisters, when we wanted to really get into weird stuff—that is, safe weird stuff, not dangerous weird stuff like the Devil’s Interval, but weird, way out there, adventurous, really liberating stuff—that had the same kind of harmonies that they use in Irish music, and in Appalachian music because it’s frozen from the ancient Celtic roots.
“They use a lot of things that they call suspensions in harmonies, where you suspend the line. They do it in bluegrass singing all the time. Their suspensions are these incredible strength- and power-giving things. It’s called the ‘high lonesome sound’ in bluegrass. Those things are kind of solitary and courageous, and when you think about the Celtic culture—they were roaming off across the Irish Sea to these islands in this godforsaken little comer of a planet—you can sense in the music a sort of fearlessness that comes from a wonderfully profound curiosity and desire to seek out the large expanse and the story of over the hill. My two favorite instruments are the Irish pipes and the Japanese shakuhachi, the flute they play. And they can just curl my hair and give me goose bumps and make me cry. It’s the most deeply disturbing thing.”
“Well, it’s a multilayered emotion, like the components of joy. Joy is never merely happiness, but a mixture of happiness, sadness, wonder, relief, and fear, and those instruments seem to be able to express those seven-layered emotions—it’s like a physical manifestation of a complex emotion. I wonder if they could measure what it is music does to your body.”
Linda is a big believer in not merely the emotional effect but also the physiological effect of music. “I wish somebody would wire everybody with electrodes and take blood samples,” she says, to demonstrate how powerfully certain chords can affect body chemistry. “Music came out of physical processes. The first rhythm chants were work chants and also to get you into an orgiastic state of losing yourself for the courtship ritual, so you could become abandoned and you could actually achieve this thing, which is to get through the divide between human beings.”
Ah, yes. Orgiastic losing, abandonment, the divide between human beings. It’s all there in Linda Ronstadt songs. And yet, what’s the source of the sadness, the divide between human beings, the heartbreak and the hostility? Does it go back to the very first moment of cell division, is it built into the doubleness of the helix? Linda thinks hostility is built into the chemistry.
“I often felt that my attraction to certain men is based on smell,” Linda tells me. “My theory has always been that smell—if something didn’t smell right you should never fight it, that if it does smell right it’s a way of gene codes signaling to each other that it would be a good genetic combination. That’s why you can be attracted to people that you don’t like very much— because they have the right breeding. Somehow I think it’s much more physical than any of us ever dreamed.”
“That feeling of falling in love, to me it’s like a little death, because in both you give up.”
What complicates it even more, she believes, is the hostility she finds haunting the chemistry of sexual excitement. Not only are you attracted to people you don’t like, she thinks, but not liking them is at the heart of the attraction.
“A friend of mine is Robert J. Stoller. He’s an amazing guy. He’s written some great books on the subject of sex and published a paper for a psychiatric journal at one time that suggested that romantic love was based on, for lack of a better word, hostility. That the tension that was created—that flirting was a form of hostility. The tension became that line that pulls you back, and without that, you didn’t have romantic love. You might have friendship, but not romantic love.”
You have to have resistance?
“There are so many people who torment themselves over the idea that they’re supposed to be with somebody that’s easy to be with. Somebody that’s, like, just a best friend. Then they sort of berate themselves and say, ‘Why don’t I have these sexual feelings for this person?’ ”
It took me a while, but I managed to locate the book by Linda’s sex theorist. It’s called Sexual Excitement—the Dynamics of Erotic Life. And despite its provocative title, it’s a truly tragic theory.
Stoller gets his theme from an early, overlooked paper of Freud’s, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” in which Freud argues that “the curb put on love by civilization involves a universal tendency to debase sexual objects,” and that an “obstacle is required in order to heighten libido, and when natural resistances to satisfaction have been insufficient, men have at all times erected conventional ones so as to be able to enjoy love.”
Debasement and obstacles. If this is not everybody’s favorite idea of love, it is what love songs are about.
Stoller concedes that hostility is not absolutely essential between men and women. There are, he concedes, those few blessed with moments in which they “experience sexual excitement lustfully, joyously, openly and lovingly without being propped up by heavy doses of revenge and degradation” in the mind.
“Human beings are not a very loving species, particularly when they make love—” Stoller says and adds, regretfully, “too bad.”
Maybe that’s what Linda Ronstadt talks about when she talks about love as death.
“That feeling of falling in love, to me it’s like a little death,” she tells me. Love and death are similar, she says, “because in both you give up. When you die, you literally give up fighting to live. There’s a point where you’re still questioning—‘Maybe I should keep trying to breathe’—and then you give up. And with love it will go ‘Maybe I should keep looking for someone else’ or ‘Maybe I should keep trying to resist this.’ And when you finally fall in love, you just have to say, ‘I can’t resist it anymore. I have to surrender myself to it.’ And I think it’s like the way the ritual of being born again works. You surrender yourself to what you are …. It’s sort of the same thing as Alcoholics Anonymous, where you admit that you’re helpless to control your own life—you admit it and that gives you great strength. That and whatever chemical reaction there is. It’s certainly a chemical reaction, too.”
What is it about Linda? Where did she get this taste for melancholy? She paints for me a picture of childhood solitude and apartness, a time haunted by nightmares.
“I grew up about twenty miles outside Tucson, and at the time there wasn’t a soul in sight. We lived on a dirt road with ten acres around us. I didn’t go to kindergarten, so the first grade was a hell of a shock, because I didn’t know any people that weren’t related to me. So I was a loner. I’ve been this way ever since three. I find that a lot of people I know in the entertainment world like humanity in general but don’t love individuals. I’m exactly the opposite. I think humanity is kind of horrendous but that some individuals are really nice. Basically, I like zebras better than humans,” she says.
And then there were the nightmares.
“I can remember all the nightmares I had from the time I was a year old,” Linda tells me.
“From a year?” I ask skeptically.
“Yeah, a year and a year and a half old because I was in my crib, I know, and I know we got rid of my crib at a certain time.” They were terrifying nightmares, she says.
“I read that people that have a lot of nightmares are often creative, that the creativity becomes the escape valve for a lot of anxiety that you have that creates the nightmares. It’s the only way your mind can take the pressure off itself. And I’ve always had nightmares since I was a child, and I did not have a particularly unhappy childhood.”
Then what were the nightmares about?
She’s reluctant to get too specific about it, but she says they began when her mother had to be taken to the hospital during an illness.
The killer sad songs that Linda Ronstadt has sung lock her childhood nightmares right into our grown-up ones.
“They were mostly separation-anxiety dreams,” she says, “nightmares about being separated from my parents. And I can remember them all absolutely vividly right now to this day, and I still have nightmares. I used to sleepwalk when I was a kid. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I have to sing—a need to compensate. If you’re happy, you don’t need to compensate.”
I don’t know why, but as she was talking about her nightmares I had a vision of Little Linda thrashing around in her crib in the grip of a terrifying separation-anxiety nightmare—and passing it on to us, distilling that terror over the loss of love in her heart over the years and pouring its sad elixir into corrosively sad songs. Songs about romantic separation and loss that have that nightmare edge of a loss beyond consolation; the dread that the hurt won’t ever heal, that “a long, long time” means forever.
It has been said that the characteristic neurosis of the baby-boom generation is not the outmoded Oedipal complex but a wound in the psyche that begins earlier, is more deeply rooted: separation anxiety. Hooked on unprecedented love, attention, and Spockian indulgence, we’re love junkies whose withdrawal symptoms are the pangs of separation anxiety. The killer sad songs that Linda Ronstadt has sung lock her childhood nightmares right into our grown-up ones.
While Linda’s busy devouring her fish and my fries I take the opportunity to tell her my theory that contemporary killer sad songs serve the function of emotional catharsis that the nineteenth-century novel did for its mass audience.
Linda looks up to tell me that certain nineteenth-century novels have changed the way she looks at life.
“Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina—I learned so much about myself from those books. They were the most profound part of my growing experience …. ”
“You learned that … ?”
“That I’m not alone in my predicament. That was an incredible revelation.”
Her predicament. She’s a little vague about exactly what that predicament is, but one could venture to guess that it has something to do with her being an independent unmarried woman who still believes in romantic love in a time that—after a brief period of experimentation—is once again as convention-minded when it comes to love and marriage as the hypocritically moralistic societies that crushed Emma ’s and Anna’s romantic delusions.
Of Anna Karenina, Linda says, “It was such an amazing book it just blew my brain into a different sphere of thinking all at once.”
“When did you first read it?”
“Seventy-six,” she says. “I was existing in this very narrow cultural context back then. It was pretty much the Troubadour, and what happened to us after the Troubadour. And Anna Karenina widened my context.”
You’ve probably heard about the Troubadour—the L. A. music bar/nightclub that was home to all the best West Coast Desperado songwriters, space cowboys, melancholy steel-guitar players. Singer-songwriters such as Neil Young, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne, various Eagles, all there at the Troubadour: the sultans of sadness. Some of them wrote the killer songs Linda Ronstadt sang, some of them were linked to her romantically, some both.
The sound they all created—that electrified, acid-tinged, cosmic-cowboy, dreamy-loner melancholy, that distillate of post-Sixties romantic disillusion—is perhaps best compared to the verse of the Cavalier decadent poets, that “mob of gentlemen who wrote with ease,” whose elegant carnal verse both mourned and celebrated man’s fallen nature.
It’s a sound that J. D. Souther captured in a song of his Linda recorded that goes: “Black roses/White rhythm and blues.”
Just how would you define “white rhythm and blues,” I ask Linda as she digs into her chocolate cake with chocolate-ice-cream topping.
“J. D. and I are big fans of the Everly Brothers,” Linda tells me, “and J.D.’s always called that white rhythm and blues; the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, he calls it killbilly music. It’s what he does.”
“Killbilly, yeah, like killer songs, the songs about killing the heart. I always liked that image of black roses, white rhythm and blues because all those people that were hanging around the Troubadour then, they were all people in a state of transition. So our relationships were intense but they didn’t last very long because our situations would change so radically and drastically that it was impossible to keep anything for very long. Because it wouldn’t give you what you needed and you wouldn’t give it back what it needed. So that’s very romantic, but it’s tainted.”
Very romantic but tainted. At the time, Linda says, “it was necessary. That’s what Anna Karenina demonstrated: the way people then operated within the confines of their social structures to satisfy their emotional needs. It wasn’t through marriage. Marriage was a political alliance of families or a business deal to put two estates together. Husband and wife were expected to keep a certain facade together but they went elsewhere for their emotional sustenance, so they had affairs, they fell in love. But our context back then at the Troubadour wasn’t like that. It was mobile, everything was in motion and nothing lasted, and the problem was trying to figure out how to meet the basic needs that a human being has for affection in that situation.”
“The songs that grew out of that period, ‘Desperado,’ ‘Don’t Cry Now,’ ‘I Believe in You,’ they all had an incredible yearning quality to them …. ”
“Really. Life was strange then,” she says. “I was on the road all the time and I never knew where my toothbrush was and I’d have a friend for a week and then I’d never see them again because I’d be in a different part of the world. But more than anything, those songs of Neil Young have that quality to them. Like ‘I Believe in You.’ Randy Newman thinks Neil’s one of the greatest American songwriters. His songs are hard to sing sometimes, but he really knows how to structure the chords. God, what a singer too. He’s got it. I love Neil.”
I think she still loves all those desperadoes in one way or another. Certainly she gets most rhapsodic when she’s talking about them and their music.
“I knew a lot of guys like that around the Troubadour,” she says. “They’d set up these impossible romantic ideals for themselves, and there was this kind of loner aspect to them. They were given to great striving for personal achievement, and there was something very romantic and poetic that I saw. My pals in the Eagles and J. D. Souther and Jackson Browne, they all were the desperadoes.”
So are there still desperadoes around? Or have they all become urban professionals?
“Sure there are,” she says. “There are people that take amazing risks in their work every day. I know lots of people who do that. I mean, Randy Newman’s toes would probably curl and his eyes would roll up in his head at the idea of him being mentioned as a risk taker, braver than anybody in their work, but he’s one of those people. A Fellini, he does these unbelievable brave things that might be unbelievably self-indulgent or they might be amazingly brave and wonderful.”
“You admire risk takers?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Do you think of yourself as one?”
“WelI … I was so scared of everything that everything seems like a risk. Everything scares me. I go aaaaah. . . . I didn’t choose to do a Puccini opera because it was a career move, believe me, because it’s not a smart career move, you know. It’s just that I love the music so much and I admired it so much that I wanted to take a chance …. ”
And what’s the next risk?
I have a hunch—actually it’s more of a hope—that now that she’s shown everyone she can do Gilbert and Sullivan, that she can do Puccini, that she can do conventionally sophisticated Forties’ “song stylings,” now that she’s done proving herself to others, she can take the greater artistic risk: returning to her strength . . . recognizing the continuing genius and vitality of those “killbilly” desperado songwriters she left behind at the Troubadour.
And I was pleased to hear her say that she’s taking a step in that direction.
“I still know how to do it and I still like to do it,” she tells me. “I’m doing a record with J. D. Souther.”
This is an exciting development to me. Because not only has J. D. Souther written some of her most powerful killer songs, but the two of them were widely reported to be romantically linked, and sadly separated. The love songs he wrote and she sang about the other make them the Dante and Beatrice of contemporary American sadness. What possibilities for incredible heartbreaking music a reunion opens up.
“He’s written a lot of new songs. J. D. wakes up in the morning and he writes a song, because that’s how he thinks,” she says fondly. “That’s how he dreams. He dreams with his pen, I dream with my voice.” Just the dreamy way she talks about her anticipated collaboration with her ex-partner in heartbreak makes me wonder if … but this is none of my business. From what I read in People, Linda’s got a steady boyfriend, zillionaire genius George Lucas, and her life is settling down happily, and that’s fine. I hope things stay settled and happy for her. But I hope she’ll still keep singing sad songs with the desperadoes.
[Photo Credit: Craig Howell/Flickr]