By Davis McGraw
“Love is a Rose.” Written in a car on my way to La Havana Maui from the airport. Recorded at the ranch during rehearsals for the CSNY ’74 reunion tour. Later done up well by Linda Ronstadt, a soulful girl with big brown eyes.
– Neil Young, “Decade” liner notes.
It was one of those gloomy midwinter weeks. Sick of our whining about the cold, the sun decided to take off for a while and every workday brought another foot of snow to add a few more dull-eyed minutes to the daily commute. All this, served fresh over a bitter split from my girlfriend of two years, had left me somewhat less than positive about the state of humanity.
Nearly defeated after a night of group whiskey therapy, I found myself crouched in front of my record collection, anxiously searching out the perfect fix for my unusually bruised sense of being. The standbys fluttered before my eyes: Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, Richard and Linda Thompson… good picks under normal circumstances, but on that night they seemed too safe to suit my restlessness. I was about to give in and listen to Shoot Out The Lights for the hundredth time when an unfamiliar cover grabbed my attention.
Prisoner in Disguise; there was Linda Ronstadt splayed out against a mottled gray backdrop, waiting for someone or something. In that moment, the most I assumed was that it would add some good humor to my outlook. I couldn’t have guessed that all these weeks later I’d be sitting here, fretting over my words trying to express why I fell so hard for the music of Ms. Ronstadt.
I’ll start with a nod to the obvious: Linda Ronstadt isn’t exactly some obscure, rare find, unless you grew up fanatically religious or otherwise deprived of an AM/FM radio. She is, as a matter of fact, one of the most successful and celebrated purveyors of the LA country-rock sound, and I’m hardly the first person to recognize her for the icon that she is. I admit, I was even a casual fan of the better-known Heart Like A Wheel before I heard a single track from Prisoner in Disguise, so I can’t claim I was completely unprepared.
Walking across the room, I heard a banjo set the time with for sharp beats, and then her voice sing these words.
“Love is a rose, but you never can pick it / Only grows when its on the vine / Handful of thorns and you know you’ve missed it / Lose your love when you say the word ‘mine.’”
What was a light acoustic ditty in its first incarnation became a driving, defiant statement. Neil Young’s original has an undercurrent of frustration, a twinge of submission, but Ronstadt’s take is steadfast. It swaggers. The opening stanza becomes a mantra, sung in flawless harmony with her band over a hayseed fiddle and a heavy kick-drum; love’s a bitch alright, and I dare you to try to stop me from reaching for it.
Sitting awestruck at the edge of my bed, I felt waves of negativity lift from my soul. Why get tripped up by heavy snow or slow workdays or a fucked relationship when there was, after all, joy to be found in the struggle? Linda was speaking to me on a very personal level, and I was hooked in.
I realize now, after many, many listens, that part of my infatuation with this record is due to the choice and sequencing of the songs. It happens that I knew and loved many of the songs Ronstadt performs on Prisoner – Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of my Tears,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” and a pre-Whitney Huston take on “I Will Always Love You” – but felt that I was hearing something unique and new. The thoughtful ordering of the tracks heightens the impact of the skillfully rearranged covers. For example, letting me, the rapt listener, rave-up with “Roll Um Easy” after the sad, cinematic “Hey Mister, That’s Me up on the Jukebox.”
On the most basic level, it’s the range of musical and emotional dynamics on this record that keeps it on my turntable. Yes, I first experienced this record in a state of wild-eyed emotional duress, so I was especially susceptible to slow burns like “The Sweetest Gift,” but this isn’t a ‘sad’ album. Moments later, I can hear “Heat Wave” or “Roll ‘Um Easy” – maybe the best reinterpretation here – and be ready to go out and raise hell.
This isn’t just a good record, but a good weekend or a good night at the bar. This is an album that I feel lucky for having heard, not simply because it saved me from one more night of quarter-life meltdown garbage, but because it leaves me inspired, energized, and happily keen to seek out more great Linda Ronstadt albums — which, fortunately, there are a whole lot of.
Once again – and certainly not for the last time – I’m caught off guard as the chaos of life throws me a party when I expect a grenade; I’m laughing to myself, blessed with a few more favorite tunes to roll around my brain, totally knocked on my ass by a soulful California girl with big, brown eyes.
(This piece is dedicated to my mother, who let me steal her records and without whom this article would most likely have been about Paul Westerberg or something.)