Updated: Dec 18, 2020
We learn about love from the music we hear as a child. Some of it’s our choosing, like my well-loved cassette of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection or first CDs: Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits. But I think our very first love lessons don’t come from our music, but the music of our parents.
These learnings are a total crapshoot. Think about it. You could be raised on Judy Collins or Leonard Cohen, Bowie or Barry Manilow, Streisand or Sade. Or you could be like my friend Liz who lived in a magical purple house and whose mom had all the Beatles’ records. She learned that “All you Need is Love.” Simple. I didn’t learn that love was simple. I learned that it was tragic, beautiful, and absolutely worth singing and crying about. I learned this—painfully and wistfully—from Linda Ronstadt and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra's What’s New.
For holidays and occasional summer get-togethers my parents drove me (and after age nine, my sister) from Madison to the Chicago suburbs to visit my aunt and uncle or grandma. This is roughly a two and a half hour drive that on the way there was filled with morning sunlight-soaked anticipation. The way home, however, was a time of reflection into the dark night of the Illinois tollway. I can’t recall a time we drove beside those darkened corn fields when we didn’t listen to What's New.
First, a few words about this album. After watching the new Linda Ronstadt documentary, “The Sound of My Voice,” I learned that it was a bold move for Linda to shift from her established genres of folk, country, and rock to the great American songbook. At its release in ’83, these songs of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby and others were seen as elevator music. This was the music of longing, and not in a sexy way. But to me, these songs were filled with hot, raw emotion. Just look at the album cover: Linda in a strapless, shimmering pink gown lounging on a…purple sheet? drop cloth? She’s hungry and hopeful, but also desperate and dejected. A Walkman sits to her left. Had she grown tired of listening to the latest pop hits? Her right pink shoe has slipped off like a modern day Cinderella. The whole scene is tinged in pink, especially her bare shoulders. They’re so fuchsia-hued, as a child I remember wondering if something was wrong with her skin. But that’s love: a fine line between the romance of our dreams and a skin condition.
The album’s title track is the ultimate opener, and my favorite. The strings begin. Then there’s Linda casually asking “What’s new? How is the world treating you?” She’s run into an old flame, remarking that he “hasn’t changed a bit. Handsome as ever, I must admit.” ‘How gracious’, I used to think. But there’s more. She asks him “How did that romance come through?” with just a hint of snark. She keeps it real, though. Linda shows us that you can run into an ex and instead of erupting in anger and reminding him of all the ways he wronged you, can just ask him how he is and say it’s nice to see him again. The third time Linda asks “what’s new,” she belts it—long, drawn out, and packed with fire. And admits “probably I’m boring you.” A few lines later comes the clincher: “Of course you couldn’t know. I haven’t changed. I still love you so,” and we’re left to sit for 30 seconds in that big brass interlude. She repeats those powerful lines at the end, holding the final “so” for eight seconds. There it is, folks. No matter how long it’s been, no matter how “grand” it is to see him, you still haven’t gotten over him. Linda nails it. And she does it in a way that teaches girls that this raw expression of love and pain is completely normal.
Big love and pain is followed by quiet honesty. “I’ve Got a Crush on You” taught me in the most gentle way that there is nothing strange about having a crush. And that you can call him your “big and brave and handsome Romeo” all the while acknowledging he’s not conventionally good-looking (“it’s not that you’re attractive, but oh my heart grew active when you came into view”). There’s no reasoning in matters of the heart. Linda tells us there’s nothing wrong with admitting you want to be with someone—that this was a thing people freely did: “Could you coo?” She purrs. “Could you care for a cunning cottage we could share?” She then apologizes (“the world would pardon my mush”), perhaps to soften the blow, but it’s already out there. She’s said what she wants. No big deal. Just asking if you want to live together. Good to put the deal breakers out front, I thought. Little did I know this was not the most subtle approach to hook a man.
Track three’s “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears out to Dry” introduces the idea that depression and wallowing in misery can actually feel kinda good, even poetic: “When I want rain, I get sunny weather. I’m just as blue as the sky.” And as early as ’83, Linda sang of JOMO (joy of missing out): “Friends ask me out. I tell them I’m busy. I must get a new alibi. I stay at home and ask myself where is he?’” And truth be told, yeah, sometimes it does feel better to stay home and think of a man who doesn’t love you than go out. Linda got this. She also got that a lot of people don’t get it. So she tries to follow the masses, “strangely enough I got along without him” until…. “Then one day he passed me right by.” Ultimately finishing with a simple admission of sadness: “Oh well. I guess I'll hang my tears out to dry.”
Every track on What’s New taught me something about love. In “Crazy He Calls Me,” I learned it makes you do crazy things: going through fire, holding up the sky, and moving mountains. And yet, even then, Linda tempers the insanity with a touch of realism: “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.” She sings of big dreams in “Someone to Watch over Me” and “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?).” Admitting, similarly to “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” that she’d like “to add his initials to [her] monogram. (Nothing to be scared of, fellas!) She taught me that searching for love could take a while. She also said (like in “…Crush”) that your guy might not be conventionally good-looking: “Although he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome, to my heart he carries the key.” But handsome or not, he was the only one. He carried the key. The shepherd for a lost lamb. The thrill of romance like a heavenly dream. And because “someday we’ll meet and you’ll dry all my tears,” he is the only one who can fix the great “it” that ails all women.
The album is optimistic, but it’s also hopeless. In “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance” and “What’ll I Do?” Linda sings of ineffective scheming and love dreams that have ended. Because apparently outside of love, there aren’t a lot of other things in life that will bring us joy. If you don’t have it, you’re screwed. She asks “What’ll I do with just a photograph to tell my troubles to?” I loved the way she held the words “just” and “photograph.” So much longing. So much desperation. And the instigator of so many of my own nights of staring at photos from faded black and white yearbook pictures to iPhone videos.
The last song, and my least favorite, is “Goodbye.” Why? Easy, it’s about the end. But not the way “What’s New” teases with a potential love 2.0, but in a way that cuts the whole romance off with the thud of a guillotine.
I'll never forget how we promised one day
To love one another forever that way
We said we'd never say
But that was long ago
Now you've forgotten, I know
No use to wonder why
Let's say farewell with a sigh
Let love die
On these road trips on I-90 we often stopped at the Belvidere Oasis halfway point. It had a McDonald’s playground with an Officer Big Mac Climber. This play structure is essentially a giant, elevated hamburger jail. You climb up the middle, nestle in the fiberglass hamburger, and peer out the silver bars. I remember being both intimidated and fascinated by the Officer Big Mac Climber. It looked so cozy, “a cunning cottage,” if you will. An intimate love nest from which to look down. A hamburger built for two. But it’s also a prison that I willingly climbed into over and over again. Everything’s all romantic and “just the two of us” until your head is wedged between those metal bars, dying to break free. Linda knew this, too.
It would be years until I realized that the Linda Ronstadt of What’s New was the very same doe-eyed, raven-haired beauty of The Stone Poneys’ who sang “Different Drum.” I was drawn to that love song too, but in a completely different way and for different reasons at different times. It’s so jaunty. And as a teen leaning into the oldies station, I thought it was about falling in love. But like What’s New’s “Goodbye,” it’s about the end of a relationship. This time Linda’s the one who wants to leave. She has her doubts. She’s not in the market for a boy who wants to love only her. All she’s saying is she’s not ready for any person, place, or thing to try and pull the reins in on her. After What’s New’s longings and loss, it’s an oddly Buddhist take on love that I now find comforting:
So goodbye, I'll be leavin'
I see no sense in the cryin' and grievin'
We'll both live a lot longer if you live without me
I could have used that lesson a lot sooner. But I didn’t get it until years into love affairs—years of crushes and hanging those tears out to dry. What’s New is a beautiful, honest, emotional album. But there is no bridge between the great chasm of its romantic dreams in a rambling Ford Taurus to a healthy, committed relationship. No lesson in school. No book that I knew of at the time. So I loved and lost big and brave and handsome Romeos and not conventionally good-looking men. And I did my share of hurting a few as well. It’s all tragic. And if you think it’s not, well, you need to listen to What’s New. But it could also be worse.
At the end of the Linda documentary we learn that since she’s had Parkinson’s disease, Linda can no longer sing. We see those big brown eyes looking up as she speaks the words of an old Spanish song while her nephew and brother play the guitar and sing. She says she’s had a great career, but it’s still sad. Now, we have the recordings. At least she sang the songs. At least it happened. Better to have loved and lost? That’s why still, after all these years, some nights I draw the curtains, grab the What’s New CD I stole from my parents, cue up the song for the headache du jour, and sing my heart out. It is a tragedy, but it could be worse. Because the great loss isn’t only when love is gone. The real tragedy would be if we didn’t sing about it.