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Linda Ronstadt's loss of singing voice strikes a deep chord

It's sad when a person's primary means of expression is gone

Mary Schmich

August 30, 2013

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When word got out last week that Linda Ronstadt has Parkinson's disease and can no longer sing, I immediately emailed the story to two of my brothers.

Joe and Andrew were big Linda fans when they were teenagers, though it must be said that they appreciated her for more than her big voice. Joe was so smitten by her more visible charms that after receiving a freebie poster in his new Linda Ronstadt album, he taped it to the back of his bedroom door.

One night my father heard an unfamiliar song coming from the boys' bedroom. He rarely went far enough into the room to see the back of the door — a fact they counted on — but on that night, lured by the music, he ventured all the way in.

"Who's this?" he said, nodding toward the turntable.

While Joe explained about Linda Ronstadt, my father managed to step in view of the back of the door, and there she was. Linda.

Linda sultry and young, with her red lips and dark eyes and shockingly — in my father's estimation — sheer peasant top.

He studied her for a moment. Then he ripped the poster off the door.

"Hey," Joe protested. "That's my poster."

"And it's my damn house," my father growled, muttering something about tramps.

We've long enjoyed telling that story in my family, which was one reason I felt the impulse to share the news of Ronstadt's voice with my brothers. Her loss is our loss too. Her youth, our youth, together, waning.

Judging from Facebook and Twitter, scads of people have felt compelled to share the news of Ronstadt's condition, and some of the impulse, like mine, is no doubt partially rooted in what her aging and debilitation say about the tricks time plays on us all.

But Ronstadt's situation seems to have struck an especially tender spot in the collective psyche and triggered a response that goes beyond lament for the fading of a star and an era.

The deeper reason that the news resonates so deeply is that her loss comes with an extra twist of the knife: She hasn't just lost her singing voice. She has lost her essential expressive gift.

A singer can lose an arm and still sing, can lose a leg or an eye. But her voice?

Ronstadt isn't the first person to be robbed of her primary expressive gift.

Beethoven, the great composer, went deaf. Monet, the great painter, developed cataracts. Paul Wittgenstein was a concert pianist whose right arm was amputated.

More recently and closer to home, the renowned chef Grant Achatz got tongue cancer, now in remission, though the treatments temporarily took away his ability to taste. In the bombing at the Boston Marathon, runners and dancers lost their legs.

Sometimes it seems that fate, in more than random measure, aims its arrows at what matters to people most.

A musician who can't hear. An artist who can't see. A chef who can't taste. A singer who can't sing.

Fate seems to strike with a cannily precise cruelty.

I floated that theory past a friend the other day. He pooh-poohed it.

"We just notice more in those cases."

Could be. And in some cases, people overcome the loss of their primary mode of expression by figuring out new ways to express themselves.

It wouldn't be surprising if Ronstadt does. Through her long career, she has also shown a gift for tenacity.

And even if she never sings again, which she says she never will, the songs she leaves behind will stay in the minds and hearts of millions of people who through the years have sung along with her.

After I emailed my brothers, Andrew emailed back: "Thanks to YouTube I've been able to watch some of her performances from when I was 15 or 16. I see that she was more talented than I realized."

Her songs are still there, even if she can't sing them, to be enjoyed by people who know them and people who may be inspired to get to know them now that she's in the news.

And I once caught my dad singing along with her too.

mschmich@tribune.com