When I was young, I wanted to be Linda Ronstadt. I knew by heart the lyrics of every song she covered, and in my teenage bedroom, I sang along with her, having deluded myself that I was within her range. Bored and adolescent, I just wanted to be far away from grey skies and Margaret Thatcher and from Northern Ireland – its politics and parades, its flags and fighting. I wanted to be an American girl. I wanted to hang out with long-haired rockers who sometimes sounded a little too country. I wanted to drive down an American highway with the top down and the radio up. Forever.
I loved everything about Linda Ronstadt. I wanted to appear as confident, to stride onstage in a mini-skirt, one hand on my hip, the other holding a tambourine. I wanted to belt out Poor, Poor Pitiful Me. With authority. “Well I met a man out in Hollywood/Now I ain’t naming names.” I would never have imagined the woman behind that heartsome voice could know vulnerability or inadequacy. I know better now. Moving through the world to the beat of a different drum is not always easy.
Because Linda Ronstadt covered every genre – Motown, soul, country, folk, rock – she exposed me to dozens of American musicians who would score the soundtrack of my life. Buddy Holly. Roy Orbison. Smokey Robinson. Jackson Browne. Lowell George. Neil Young. Warren Zevon. Bob Seger. The Eagles. The Eagles. Glenn Frey and Don Henley – The Eagles.
At first, I only liked the Eagles because I knew they had been Linda Ronstadt’s backing vocalists. That’s right. The Eagles were her backing vocalists. She had lived my dream, hanging out and harmonizing with long-haired rockers:
I got tougher being on the road with the Eagles. I walked differently, I became more foulmouthed. I swore so much I sounded like a truck driver. But that’s the way it was. I was the only girl on the road so the boys always kind of took charge. They were working for me, and yet it always seemed like I was working for them.
In 1971, she had hired Glenn Frey and a singing drummer, Don Henley, to be her back-up vocalists, and later, when they decided to form their own band, she helped them. In 2014, when Linda Ronstadt was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but unable to attend due to illness, it was her long-time friend, her former back-up singer, Glenn Frey, who paid tribute to her. He made a point of saying that it was a long time coming, and he reminded everyone of what she would later reveal in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir about why she sang:
people sing for many of the same reasons the birds sing. They sing for a mate, to claim their territory, or simply to give voice to the delight of being alive in the midst of a beautiful day.
Glenn Frey knew this delight. He knew why people sing. He knew how to give voice to our heartaches and hangovers, to lying eyes and life in the fast lane, to Desperados, and to James Dean. He knew how to sing to the girl who might slow down in a flat bed Ford just to take a look at him, in Winslow, Arizona, where I drove one day in 1987. I was 24 years old without a care in the world and a tank full of gas. It was 110 degrees, and I was wearing a shirt tied at the waist and cut-off denim shorts. I was Linda Ronstadt, and I had the radio on.
When I pulled over, the sky was on fire. It didn’t matter that it was late in the afternoon. It was close enough to a tequila sunrise. I turned up the music, got out of my car, and I stood on the corner. Of Winslow Arizona. Because I could.
I was an American Girl.
For that, I am forever in your debt, Glenn Frey. Rest easy, now.
Glenn Frey, November 6, 1948 – January 18, 2016