Broken English, Heart Like A Wheel, I never loved a man the way that I love you, Joni Mitchell Blue, Linda Ronstadt, Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith Easter, Pearl
I suppose one could write a book about why baby-boom women represent the most extraordinary generation of female musicians we’ve ever seen, or ever will see. They were the first generation to experience rock and roll as a mass media phenomenon while being schooled in traditions of regional music. A preacher’s daughter in the New Bethel Baptist Church Choir, a Texas teenager drawn to the pain of Southern Blues and a Mariachi princess serenaded by Lalo Guerrero, all swooned to the same Elvis or Chuck Berry numbers. But, what they filtered through their own experience, refined on the road and reflected back in legendary recordings, was rich enough to redefine the categories of American music.
Think of how Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Linda Ronstadt drew from the same well of classic soul, remaking the songs of Otis Redding (Respect), Garnett Mimms (Cry Baby) and Betty Everett (You’re No Good). Yet, few would describe their recordings as “cover versions.” In fact, they didn’t simply rework those songs, they transmogrified them into the foundations for categorically unique, widely imitated and distinctly female approaches to rock music.
Complex cultural and historical changes put these revolutionary women on collision courses with war-weary fathers, eager for normalcy, and, the ones we’ve heard of, were victorious. But battles around the kitchen table got them nothing more than a ticket to the struggle. None of these women were plucked off a Jamaican beach, decked in haut couture and sent into a studio with Jay-Z. None won the most votes on a t.v. show. As they set out for The Bitter End, The Bottom Line, CBGB’s, The Palomino Club or The Troubadour, the public voted either by walking out or staying through the set. They were as unique as they were authentic.
None of this is to disparage the current crop of female artists. No matter what the process is, the best have a way of making their way through it. But looking at these boomers, I’m reminded of the Sandra Bernhardt line: “Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Ann Wilson, when they sang about something it was because they either ate it, drank it, smoked it or f**ked it.” Their music, their stories, were actually theirs to tell. Here’s to a few of the best…
I Never Loved A Man...(1967-Atlantic) is Aretha Franklin’s tenth studio album and everyone knows this story, break-up with Columbia, match up with Jerry Wexler, honeymoon in Muscle Shoals and the rebirth of soul.
Pearl (1971-Columbia) was Janis Joplin fourth turn in the studio and the gold standard. But despite being more refined than Cheap Thrills, everything about it, new producer, new band, a sound taking shape, a singer taking command, pointed to a beginning rather than a culmination. She made this one of rock’s finest hours, but fate made it hers.
Blue (1971-Reprise), Joni Mitchell’s fourth recording and the game changer, David Crosby says this record put songwriters on notice that superficiality no longer cut it. But, despite the tricky chords and grown-up lyrics, the singable “Carey” has always been my favorite. More than few July mornings I’ve woken up with a burn on my shoulders, sand in my hair and that song in my head…”Let’s have a round for these freaks and these soldiers, a round for these friends of mine, let’s have another round for the bright red devil who keeps me in this tourist down.” Mitchell’s songs, so intricately personal, always feel like they have someone’s name and address attached. Sometimes, though, it feels like yours.
Heart Like A Wheel (1974-Capitol) was Linda Ronstadt’s fifth solo project and ninth as principal vocalist. Widely considered the blueprint for a generation of female country singers, it’s also what happens when a Mariachi kid grows on American Bandstand, then ends up in room with L.A.’s most accomplished session players, Nashville’s top fiddlers, Detroit’s finest background singers and Emmylou Harris. HLAW has never been out of print in 40 years, but just in case, it’s permanently archived in the Library on Congress.
Easter (1978-Arista) was Patti Smith’s third album and not Horses. Horses is the one you’re supposed to say is your favorite cause that’s what all the lists say. But, seriously, if the place was on fire and you could only save one of them you’d be thinking “‘Til Victory,” “Rock ‘n Roll Nigger” “25th Floor,” and admit it….“Because The Night.” This was the one that broke through to mainstream, but that doesn’t mean anything was compromised. I’ve heard it said that the world has never seen a woman quite like her; the world has never seen a person quite like her.
Broken English (1979-Island) Depending on how you see things, this was either Marianne Faithfull’s seventh studio album or her first. Because what rose up out of the ashes when this former pop princess, heroine addict and Weillian chanteuse got back on her feet sounded like complete reincarnation. Every dirty word (and there are plenty), raw emotion and cracked vocal is delivered with such matter-of-factness. She’s not trying to shock or impress you, just telling what she knows for you to take or leave as you will. Whatever you decide, isn’t going to make any difference to her either way.
One of the things that does get me burning mad about certain music critics (whom I won’t name, because why give air time to morons?) is that they just blatantly call these singers, especially Linda, “mere interpreters”. In Linda’s case, one just has to listen to HEART LIKE A WHEEL and realize why so many female artists in the country and roots-rock fields not only listen to her, they study her. After all, how many female singers, then or now, would have had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, to do “You’re No Good” alongside the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You”?
I think that for Ronstadt, perhaps more than the others, her sound would become ubiquitous enough that a whole new generation didn’t grasp that it was HER sound. But, Heart Like A Wheel, drew the line between the Wynette/Lynn/Parton generation and the Yearwood/Lang/McBride generation. The fact that Ronstadt has no interest in claiming any credit whatsoever also made it easy to underestimate her legacy.
Jane OReilly said:
Wow… Looking forward to finishing this when I am back from a meeting….want to be where I can also listen. Those are My singers.
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