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Linda Ronstadt on Kate McGarrigle: 'A complete original'

January 21, 2010 |  1:01 pm

LindaRonstadt It couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes -- perhaps as little as five -- after I put in a request Tuesday with Linda Ronstadt’s manager  to ask if she wanted to comment on the passing a day earlier of singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle that my phone rang.

“Hi, this is Linda Ronstadt,” said the unmistakable voice on the line.

Ronstadt was an early champion of the work of Kate and her sister Anna -- the McGarrigle Sisters -- and she recorded Anna’s song “Heart Like a Wheel” for the 1974 album that took its title from that heartbreaking exploration of lost love. It became Ronstadt's first No. 1 album thanks to such hit singles as “You’re No Good” and “When Will I Be Loved.”  A few years later, she recorded Kate’s song “Talk to Me of Mendocino” and included it on her “Get Closer” album.

The 63-year-old singer spoke effusively about the Canadian’s musical gifts and her endearing personality. Her tone was one of gratitude for what she’d received personally and professionally from McGarrigle, rather than sadness at her death this week following a battle with cancer.

I included some of her remarks in McGarrigle's obituary that I wrote for Wednesday’s paper -- Rondstadt called her "a complete original -- but her comments were so full of admiration and insight that I felt they were worth quoting in greater depth.


I was riding in a taxi cab with Jerry Jeff Walker in New York City, and it was just about dawn. The sun was just coming up over the horizon. We were coming back from some place, we’d been out with Gary White, David Bromberg and Keith Sykes… Jerry Jeff and I shared a cab and on the ride he said, ‘You know, there’s this song I heard these two women sing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival,’ … and he sang me the first verse: 

Some say the heart is just like a wheel
When you bend it, you can’t mend it
And my love for you is like a sinking ship
And my heart is on that ship out in mid-ocean

I went, ‘Oh my God,’ I thought it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard. I begged him to ask them to send me a tape of it, because he was going to see them soon…. I prayed he wouldn’t forget, and sure enough, a couple of weeks later, when I was back home in L.A., I got a tape in the mail of Kate and Anna doing ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ with just piano and cello, and it was so gorgeous.

I started making the rounds and I took it to record producer after record producer because I was dying to do this song. But nobody thought I should do it. I finally put it on the shelf. Sometime later I was rehearsing with [singer-songwriter-producer] Andrew Gold, getting ready to play at Carnegie Hall. We were rehearsing some stuff, and he started playing it. I went, ‘Oh my God, you know that song?’ And the next night I sang it at Carnegie Hall.

Peter Asher had just taken on the job of being my manager, and he was knocked out. That’s why I wanted to work with Peter, because he got the McGarrigles....

That was my introduction to them. After I recorded it, they invited me to come back to Canada and do some television show and I took Emmylou Harris with me. Emmy and Kate and I got along really well. Then Emmy and I did this record together and we recorded this beautiful song about World War I, and felt it needed a little chanting Greek chorus. We asked them if they might write a descant, for this song about a prostitute in World War I and how she felt about the soldiers, about taking care of them. I thought it would be fun, since it was set in Paris, for them to sing something in French. Instead, they wrote a little prayer in Latin, because of course a French girl in those days would have said a prayer in Latin. I went and got my aunt’s Latin prayer book, and we found a prayer and it fit right into the music. That was the great thing about them, you’d think something was obvious, and they’d do the thing just to the left of what was obvious and it would be perfect.


They came to my house in Tucson while they were recording “The McGarrigle Hour” [album in 1998] and we moved all the furniture out except for the piano. We worked for hours and hours and hours on ‘Gentle Annie.’ It’s an incredibly beautiful song, with not a lot of application to the current day, except that those emotions are common to all of humanity. We said, ‘Let’s do something real commercial: Let’s do a Stephen Foster song with three-part harmonies.’ It was just delicious.

I got to sing with them with Emmylou several times, and it was just fantastic. Their voices rang in a way that reminded me of the way they describe in fairy tales the sound of a maiden singing from a tower:  ‘…she sounding so purely and sweetly.’ 

It was a sound from another time, an earlier century, but something you knew would be very comfortable in the centuries to come. They had a classic, timeless thing.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times archives