Many moons ago, there was an enthusiastic em-pee-three blogger who leveraged the discovery of the most amazing magazine cover ever…
…into a delicious but fleeting moment of fame.
At the time, thay grey area gunslinger was still affectedly hip enough to lay down some irony-drenched firewalls against any insinuations that he might actually enjoy the music of Linda Ronstadt. That would have been absurd, especially since she was the type of artist that punk rock strived to repudiate. No soft rock mellowness would ever haunt his overlarge ears, if he had a say in the matter.
The passage of time and the slow drift into middle age works strange and subtle changes on a person. The writer dropped the em-pee-three thing, opting to crawl up into his own skull (by way of his ass) and write about what he found there instead.
Over the course of this self-indulgent exercise in inventory-taking, he came to embrace a lot things of he’d written off or relegated to the Closet of Embarrassments. Some of it was driven by simple nostalgia, and other parts by the realization that performative “coolness” was a pointless exercise at his age. (It helped that he knew plenty of cautionary examples which drove that latter point painfully home.)
And so, around this time last year, the writer — feeling hopped up on Warren Zevon’s backcatalog and various mid-Seventies K-Tel mixes — dropped a couple of bucks for a vinyl copy of Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams, the 1977 LP which toppled Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the top of the album charts.
The purchase did violate the one rule I imposed after getting back into record collecting again — “Buy for the entire album, not for a track or two.” My pre-1995 LP archives are packed with albums I picked up on the cheap for the sake of scoring a single cut. I don’t regret doing it, as used LPs tended to fare better than used seven-inchers in terms of condition — and were comparably priced.
The advent of streaming audio services has eliminated the need for such cash-and-space-intensive shenanigans. I can pull up any one-off track I feel like hearing with a few clicks on my phone or laptop or game console. When I throw an album on the turntable, it’s because I want to experience the entire thing (or a single exceptional side, depending on the circumstances).
Simple Dreams actually has a trio of cuts — “It’s So Easy,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” and “Tumbling Dice” — I decided were worth owning, but they’re non-consecutive ones which require some flipping and needle-dropping to hear in a single listening session.
All three were radio staples of my childhood, and all three were songs originally performed by male artists given a soft-rock/pop country makeover. For “It’s So Easy” the effect is mostly aesthetic, with Ronstadt and her backing musicians foregrounding the honky-tonk flourishes of the Buddy Holly original. The process was more pronounced on “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and “Tumbling Dice,” where the gender-reversal and its associated politics work their transformative power on the dude-centric source material.
When Mick Jagger played the “love ’em and leave ’em” tomcat, it’s taken as a matter of course. When Ronstadt takes on the role, it bucks the current of expectations — and she knows it, swapping out the Stones’ “baby, I can’t stay” for the deal-with-it reinforcement of “baby, get it straight.”
Similarly, Warren Zevon’s rendition of “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” was a tongue-in-cheek send-up by way of oblivious humblebrag — a hapless soul beset by all these rough ladies though no (acknowledged) fault of his own. I love the original because it verges into the realm of country-western parody, which Zevon sold with bashfully befuddled sincerity. The joke is predicated on gender, the notion that a dude being aggressively pursued could ever be seen as a problem.
The premise takes on a much different (and potentially sinister) tone when sung by a woman, yet Ronstadt managed to maintain some degree of the original’s playfulness by adopting a note of bemused world-weariness — an exasperated eyeroll in place of a confused shrug. The narrative voice in Zevon’s version couldn’t understand what was happening to him, the one in Ronstadt’s is all too familiar with the score.
The rest of the material on Simple Dreams is…okay, I guess, but I have difficulty listening to it in side-sized dozes without triggering latent childhood traumas. There is no direct association between specific tracks from the LP and my troubled memories. It’s just that I was a high strung kid from a dysfunctional family and the songs got some pretty heavy airplay at the time. Unearthing some nausea-inducing memory from that crowded field isn’t exactly a difficult thing.