The measure of music

Remembering life with Linda Ronstadt

5 minute read
LPs, red shag, and Ronstadt. (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)
LPs, red shag, and Ronstadt. (Illustration by Hannah Kaplan for BSR.)

This is one way to measure my age: I need reading glasses to decipher the instructions on the package of waxy lumps I am shoving into my ears in order to soften the sounds of the Ronstadt Revue, a tribute band about to play a narrow, jam-packed venue in Manayunk.

Here is another measure: I first listened to these songs when I was eight years old.

My father, who died in 2015, owned every album Ronstadt made, from 1969’s Hand Sown…Home Grown through the breakthrough, Grammy-winning Heart Like a Wheel to the all-Spanish Canciones de Mi Padre to Lush Life, a 1984 jazz album with bandleader Nelson Riddle.

They were LPs back then, thick vinyl discs I could stack five high on the spindle of the record player for a long, attenuated Sunday of nothing-but-Ronstadt while my dad whipped up something from The New York Times Cookbook and my mother read three different newspapers and I lay on the red shag carpet in a preadolescent swoon of indolence.

That draught of youth

So this is a nostalgia trip — why else does anyone go to hear a tribute band? — and the Locks in Manayunk is standing room only with people who (to cop a lyric from Linda) have clearly loved Ronstadt for a long, long time.

I used to sneer at tribute bands: B-list musicians playing to audiences desperate for a draught of their lost youth. But maybe it’s another sign of age that I showed up at the Locks without skepticism, eager to hear what Gesenia Erolin and her six band members would do with Ronstadt’s musical legacy.

Erolin strode onstage in a bell-sleeved paisley dress and knee-high boots, her face curtained by jet-black hair. Okay. Anyone can comb a thrift store for outfits from 1978.

But not everyone — almost no one, in fact — can open her mouth after three anticipatory chords and belt “I’ve been cheated” with just the right twang of wounded defiance.

Rocking the repertoire

For the next two hours, Erolin and her bandmates — bassist Nick Frese, rhythm guitarist Bob Leonetti, lead guitarist David Lenat, and pedal steel guitarist Jim Cohen, with Tim Reeder on drums and the versatile Dave Hartl on keyboard, accordion, and harmonica—rocked through nearly every hit in the Ronstadt repertoire.

A sprightly cover of Buddy Holly’s “It’s So Easy” segued to the breathy dreamscape of “Blue Bayou,” which led to the country lilt of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” the songs punctuated by Erolin’s brief reminiscences of growing up (like Ronstadt) in a Spanish-speaking household and singing from the age of 14.

For the second set, she changed clothes — a cream-colored A-line tunic dress, with boots to match — and delivered another robust round: “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me,” “Heat Wave,” and “That’ll Be the Day.”

A living legacy

Erolin and her band are faithful troubadours, but Ronstadt Revue isn’t an exercise in mimicry. Rather, it’s an effort to honor an artist’s musical legacy through ongoing live performance. In this case, the tribute carries extra poignancy: These are tunes the 11-time Grammy winner, now 72, can no longer muster, since Parkinson’s silenced Ronstadt’s singing voice six years ago.

The concert accordioned time: the decades-ago and the right-now pleated together. “Debemos siempre separarnos” (“We must always separate”), a lyric from “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” which Erolin dedicated to her mother, resonated more heartbreakingly in light of the migrant families wrenched apart at the U.S.-Mexico border.

And how could I listen to a woman voice the bitter lament of “You’re No Good” (“And now I see how you really are…”) without thinking of the sexual harassers outed by the #MeToo movement?

By the end of the second set, I wasn’t the only one mouthing the words. “Desperado!” someone shouted before the final encore, and the stage hushed for that anthem about wanderlust and solitude and the power of love to call the renegade back home.

Listening to the past

Certain songs enter our lives at particularly susceptible junctures; they leave their print. What did you listen to when you first held a sweat-damp hand at a junior-high-school dance? What was the breakup music you played and played until your college roommates threatened to yank the stereo plug? What music did you blast out open windows on your first solo drive across state lines?

We want those moments back, in all their glory, discovery, and pain. Tribute bands take us there — at least for a little while.

Listen: I am 27, slow-dancing with my love in our Portland, Oregon, duplex to the tune of “Feels Like Home” crooned by Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. I am 17, at the Spectrum with my best friend and my parents, where the bathrooms reek of the flower-smoke of weed and Ronstadt’s band plays so loud my kneecaps buzz.

I am eight, lolling on that scarlet wall-to-wall. The kitchen smells of sautéed onion and white grapes. Ronstadt’s lyrics flag me toward a future I’m still too young to grasp: “But I heard you let that little friend of mine / take off your party dress…”

I am eight and my father is alive, so alive I can’t fathom that he will ever die. I don’t yet know how it feels to be hurt by love. Then the lead guitarist strums his final chord. The tone arm lifts. The record ceases its spin, leaving a faint yearning, a crackle where the music used to be.

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