The Last of Us-inspired Linda Ronstadt revival has been a Long, Long Time coming
NB: Contains spoilers
The end of the world is a fantastic place to discover new music. Last year, Stranger Things opened a rift in space-time and Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill sprinted through. Now, apocalyptic zombie drama The Last Of Us is going one better by nudging Gen Zers towards the luxuriant Laurel Canyon pop of Linda Ronstadt.
Ronstadt is a forgotten superstar. In the Seventies, she was widely understood to be one of the most talented female artists of her generation – up there with Carole King and Joni Mitchell. She shifted more units than either, holding the title of decade’s best-selling female artist (her tally stands at 100 million plus). But her legacy has faded over time: nowadays her finest work is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Mitchell’s Blue or King’s Tapestry.
Might the Last of Us deliver an electric shock to her profile? There has to be at least the outside possibility of a Ronstadt rebound with her June 1970 belter, Long, Long Time receiving star-billing at the end of the third episode of the HBO juggernaut.
“Oh this is good – this is Linda Ronstadt,” says reluctant hero Joel (Pedro Pascal) as Long, Long Time strikes up. Joel is speaking to Ellie (Bella Ramsey), the teenager with the fungus-resistant DNA whom he has agreed to shepherd to safety. To date, theirs has been a tetchy relationship – the starch largely attributable to Joel’s unresolved PTSD following the death of his daughter 20 years previously.
He’s barely cracked a grin in three episodes. It takes Ronstadt to melt the iceberg that resides where his heart used to be. He’s suddenly all smiles as he and Ellie drive into the sunset and Ronstadt’s vocals, as lush as buttermilk, flow out of the car speakers.
“I’ve done everything I know to try and change your mind,” she sings, her voice threatening to splinter under the sheer weight of emotion. “And I think I'm gonna miss you for a long long time.” Serenity descends on Joel and Ellie. It takes a lot to wash away the horror of a world overrun by the living dead (whipped into a murderous rage by brain-invading fungi). Linda Ronstadt is up to it.
Long, Long Time also intersects with the love story at the heart of the instalment. It is the track with which Bill serenades Frank during the flashback to their early relationship. And it plays over that devastating final shot of the window that opens out from the room where their bodies lie together.
Ronstadt is far too famous – and has sold far too many records – to be written off as a footnote or obscurity in need of rescue. Yet, in terms of critical acclaim, she has never received the kudos laid at the feet of her contemporaries.
She sang on Neil Young’s Harvest and shared a stage with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. Around the same time her hangdog backing band left her for a foolhardy punt at their own career. They were called Eagles and went on to sell to odd record or three (400 million, to be precise).
Out of all of them, Ronstadt was arguably the most gifted vocalist – though she always questioned her ability. “Linda could literally sing anything,” said Dolly Parton. David Geffen, who signed her to his hippy-friendly label, Asylum, said that the first time he heard her, he knew “she was gonna be a star”.
She was also one of the great musical shape-shifters of that period. She grew up in a Mexican-American household in Tucson, where she sang largely in Spanish. In 1964, aged 18, she took a bus to LA with $30 in her pocket.
Ronstadt quickly became a face on the LA singer-songwriter circuit, centred around the neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills. A few months after arriving, she joined musicians guitarist Bobbly Kimmel and bassist Kenny Edwards to form the folk trio Stone Poneys.
The Stone Poneys played together for three years before breaking up in frustration at their lack of success. They’d barely called it quits when their cover of Mike Nesmith’s Different Drum became a hit. That should have been the start of her ascent - and in a way it was. However, it took her longer to break through than Geffen, among others, expected. The issue was not her ability, but her belief in herself.
“When I got to L.A, I was so intimidated by the quality of everybody’s musicianship that instead of trying to get better, I chickened out and wouldn’t work,” she told Rolling Stone in 1978.
Yet it was that vulnerability that made her unique. Joni Mitchell and Carole King, her friends and peers, wrote powerfully raw songs. There was never a sense, though, that they didn’t believe 100 per cent in themselves. Ronstadt always had the air of someone with one eye on the exit - and that made her songs feel like thrilling high-wire acts. You never knew how long she could keep it together.
That push and pull can the heard on her 1970 album Silk Purse, recorded in Nashville with Bob Dylan producer Elliot Mazer. That’s where we find Long, Long Time – the tragic banger The Last Of Us may potentially introduce to Generation TikTok. It earned her a Grammy nomination and confirmed her as one of the most exciting of a new generation of female artists.
Ronstadt may not have been in the mood to celebrate. The previous August tragedy had struck a little too close to home. She’d been living at Topanga Canyon, where cult leader Charles Manson whipped his acolytes into a murderous rage against her neighbours. Victims included actress Sharon Tate – but it could so easily have been Ronstadt.
“When the Manson family came through, they managed to murder my next-door neighbour, Gary Hinman. I was lucky I wasn’t home that night—they may have come for me,” she said later. “We knew those girls, Linda Kasabian and maybe Leslie Van Houten, too. I lived in Topanga Canyon at the time, and they would hitchhike, and they would talk about this guy Charlie at the Spahn Ranch. But I didn’t know him personally. We knew it was kind of a bad scene. But, when we found out how bad of a scene it was, we were horrified.”
Ronstadt was never at ease with the bacchanalia of Seventies Hollywood. Her Mexican-American background marked her as an outsider. And she was too sensitive for drugs – cocaine made her “really jittery”
Rolling Stone had christened her the “First Lady of Rock”. Time called her “Queen of Rock”. Yet, in the end, she couldn’t exit Laurel Canyon fast enough. In 1980, when the Eagles had just about finished steamrolling the charts with Hotel California, she appeared in a broadway production of Pirates of Penzance. Later, came collaborations with avant-garde composer Philip Glass and Paul Simon (she sang backing vocals on Under African Skies on Graceland).
In the decades since, she stayed as far away from confessional pop as possible. In 1987 she released Canciones de Mi Padre, a collection of traditional Mexican songs. At the time it was the best-selling non-English-language album in the history of the US charts. Then tragedy struck as she was diagnosed with Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, a rare brain disorder which makes it impossible for her to perform. Now aged 76, she lives quietly near her adult children in San Fransisco.
She published an autobiography in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir in 2013, in which she looked back on her Laurel Canyon days and songs such as Long, Long Time. But she never pined for that area. If anything, she feels that the music culture of the time was toxic compared to today’s. She is that rare Seventies artist who refuses to don rose-tinted shades.
“I didn’t like to see the audience, actually. I couldn’t understand why they’d come,” she remembered of her time on the singer-songwriter circuit. “It’s a different relationship than singers like Taylor Swift have. I think it’s a little bit healthier that they embrace their audience and sort of feel like everybody’s on the same team. We were encouraged in the Sixties to think of us and them. The hippies started that whole tribal thing, and it was the straights against the hippies. It was unhealthy.”
Can she emulate Kate Bush and take over TikTok much like the zombie fungus in the Last Of Us infects the frontal lobe of its victims? It’s impossible to say. Lightning rarely strikes twice – even on Gen Z social media. Still, what is indisputable is that, in challenging times like ours, Ronstadt’s dreamy singing has a balm-like quality. If ever the world was primed for a "Ronstadt-naissance" it’s now.