In the fall of 1977, Linda Ronstadt came to Michigan State University.
In those innocent days, concert tickets were sold at the box office. I was in a group of guys who camped out the night before the tickets went on sale. We were second in line. When our turn came, we bought the second row (the first having been claimed by the radio station sponsoring the concert). I think the tickets cost seven dollars each.
Linda sang “It’s so easy to fall in love,” and it was easy to fall in love, or at least lust, with her. She had dark, soulful eyes, a huge voice, and she wore Cub Scout uniforms on stage. Even though she had a piece of my heart, I still asked someone to go with me, who turned out to be already going with someone else. This turned into an epidemic among my friends. Eventually we decided to go stag—about a dozen of us.
A dozen hormone-charged college boys filling the second row of a sexy singer’s concert? Yes. To say we were obnoxious doesn’t come close to capturing our presence that night. We made sure all the girls who had turned us down knew where we were. Everyone in the arena knew where we were.
The opening act was Stephen Bishop, whose fifteen minutes of late 70’s fame came via the hit song “On and On” (Down in Jamaica they got lots of pretty women, steal your money then they break your heart) and a scene in the movie Animal House where Bishop was playing a folk song on a guitar and John Belushi walked by, grabbed the guitar, and smashed it against a wall.
Now he was right in front of us, and we were sitting so close that one of us had seen his song list on the stage. We kept calling for the next song before he played at. Stephen Bishop responded to our screaming enthusiasms by saying to the rest of the audience, “These guys need to get laid.” My friends loved it—but being a good Christian boy, I turned eight shades of red.
I was over my embarrassment by the time Linda Ronstadt appeared. We hooted and hollered and carried on. She belted out “You’re no Good” and “Heat Wave” and “Blue Bayou” and “Desparado.” At times I saw her red-haired manager Peter Asher come on stage to add backing vocals. His presence made me feel special—he was the Peter of Peter and Gordon and managed Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor and on top of that is the brother of Jane Asher, who’d famously been engaged to Paul McCartney. One night Paul and John Lennon told Peter they’d just finished a new song and Peter Asher became the first person to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It doesn’t get better than that, and there was Peter Asher, thirty or forty feet away from me.
We were well into the show when Linda Ronstadt paused to introduce the members of the band. When she finished, I yelled, “What’s your name?” For just a moment, all my dreams came true. Linda Ronstadt gazed directly at me. Of the billions of people in the world, I was the object of her attention. But instead of looking at me with innocent love and affection, she looked like someone about to seek a restraining order. Those beautiful eyes posed one question, “What is wrong with you?”
That night has been on my mind since reading a few days ago that a documentary about Ronstadt, The Sound of My Voice, will be released in September. It’s premiered at a couple of film festivals to great reviews. I can’t wait to see it. She’s had an interesting life: she tired of being a rock star not long after the show at MSU (maybe we did it), turned to recording standards with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, recorded an album in Spanish, dated California Governor Jerry Brown, made albums with Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris, and starred in The Pirates of Penzance in Central Park and later on Broadway. A full and rich life, marked now by tragedy: that incredible voice has been stilled by Parkinson’s Disease. She cannot sing anymore.
She was on top of the world in 1977. I cannot believe that was 42 years ago. I felt so alive that night. She was so alive that night. What has happened to us? Sometimes it seems like life is nothing but a series of losses. My computer randomly puts up photos from my files as screen savers, and as I was working on this essay a photo from a family dinner six or seven years ago popped up. There were seven of us in the picture. Three of the people in that photo are now dead. The most recent a couple of weeks ago. So much loss.
Four weeks ago, on the day I last posted on this site, I had surgery to remove my cancerous prostate gland. I am fine but the last month has been full of challenges. At times over the past few weeks I’ve wanted nothing more than to be that 19-year-old kid mooning over Linda Ronstadt. He didn’t have cancer. She had her voice. The years have taken much away.
And yet . . . and yet . . . I look around and see the many people who have checked in with me during the last few weeks with various expressions of solidarity and support. I am grateful for so much love. And I’ve read some great books during my convalescence. I read a thrilling book about Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole and the amazing survival of his team. So much determination to live. I read a book about birds that has opened my eyes to the wonders and mysteries going on in my backyard. So much life. And my wife Gretchen made some spaghetti the other day and the sauce was the best ever. Do you have any idea of the restorative powers of really good food when you’re feeling down? It was incredibly good. Every bit of it. So good. Gretchen has been kind and untiring and endlessly patient the past few weeks. Once again, I’m asking something of her: this time that she will excuse my public statement of adolescent fascination with Linda Ronstadt. I trust she will. I cannot express how grateful I am for the countless ways Gretchen has ministered to me this month. She’s taken the “in sickness and health” vow seriously. I’d be in very sorry shape without her. So much untiring goodness.
Yes, so much loss, but yes also so much love, so much life, and so much goodness. As Buechner’s Godric said, “All the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” Life is very, very good.