Linda Ronstadt is special. Her voice is special. Her choices have been special, too. Especially her choice to become the rock star who sings grand opera. She started with Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance. And now she is preparing to undertake the role of Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme. While other rock stars have been taking drug overdoses, she has been taking Italian.
Linda Ronstadt is special, and yet she went to South Africa. She is special, and yet she chose to perform in a reviled racist country. She is special, and yet she gave six concerts in the cradle of apartheid. She is special, and yet she lent her talents to an especially mean place. She is special, and yet she allowed her very specialness to be exploited by an outlaw nation in search of legitimacy. Her special price: $500,000.
All the time I was in South Africa, I kept wrestling with my image of Linda Ronstadt, the special rock star. And all the time she was there, she wrestled with her conscience.
She kept asking if she had made a mistake in coming. She kept interviewing people black and white -and asking them if she should have come. She asked in the casinos of Sun City. She asked in the discotheques. She asked in the jungles.
Meanwhile, the boys in her band had a different question: why couldn't they get laid? It was as though the fates were punishing them for having come to this forbidden land. A plague had been visited on them. Worse than locusts. Worse than frogs. A plague of chastity.
Which may seem to be making light of a serious matter, but it was very serious to the band. They suffered day and, especially, night. The special rock star tried to reassure them that there was nothing physically wrong with them ...at least not much. And they tried to reassure her that there was nothing really wrong with her decision to lead them into this jungle of apartheid.
The jungles of South Africa kept reminding me of the jungles of Vietnam. The war in the jungles of Southeast Asia provoked a moral outcry in this country that helped to set the tone for a decade. And rock & roll added its loud voice to those protests. The music and the musicians seemed to have a moral dimension. But no more. Now rock & roll can be hired by apartheid. Now the music is amoral. Now Linda Ronstadt sings in Sun City.
The Sixties..which began in the jungles of South Vietnam..seemed finally
to be coming to a troubling close in the jungles of South Africa.
Since Joseph Conrad's day, the trip into the Heart of Darkness has been shortened by jet planes, but it is still something of an ordeal. I flew seven hours overnight to London, laid over for a few hours, then flew another thirteen hours to Johannesburg. Then I rented a car with the steering wheel and gearshift on the wrong side and drove two and a half hours to Sun City, which is the Las Vegas of South Africa.
Sun City is a collection of casinos and hotels built in an architectural style that might be described as Outer-space pueblo. The buildings are brown and chunky and modern all at the same time. They form what amounts to an oasis of expensive pleasures surrounded by poverty and hovels and drought.
The Las Vegas of South Africa is not located in South Africa itself. It is nestled in the semiautonomous -and semifictitious Bophuthatswana homeland. The homelands are slightly different from South Africa proper because integration is allowed. But they are also a lot like Indian reservations, with many blacks being forced to live there whether they want to or not.
Linda Ronstadt gave her concerts in a structure called the Sun City Super Bowl, which really isn't very super. It is just a big auditorium with a red curtain, orange seats and fountains on either side of the stage. The uniformed guards and ushers are black. The crowd that came to see Linda Ronstadt was almost totally...99.44....percent pure-white.
It was also relatively small. There were 6200 seats in the Super Bowl. About half of those were empty.
"It's nice to be down here in Southern Africa, as I've been instructed to call it," Linda Ronstadt told her audience. "It looks like Mexico. But the cacti are a little fatter. After twenty-four hours in a plane, you get out, and it looks like you've gone two hours from Los Angeles. And then the architecture here is sort of Aztec-Dorito-Bauhaus. It's not so bad if you look at it from far away."
She was dressed in a black-and-white striped blouse, like a zebra, and a short red leather skirt, unbuttoned halfway up the back. The effect was corrupt cute.
Her special voice filled the great room with "Get Closer" and "Willin'" and "Desperado" and "Prisoner in Disguise" and, especially, "Back in the USA."
"In case you're wondering why I keep studying the floor," she told the crowd, "well, I always check out what the ants are like in every country. Mexico has the cutest ants. My steady beau for the last eight years used to. ..well ...he used to work for the government. I wanted to get him a present, so I bought him an ant farm. He didn't have much furniture in his office. I thought an ant farm would be this metaphor for government...everyone working together.
"He opened it up and asked: 'Why did you buy me an ant farm?'"
In her dressing room after the concert, Linda Ronstadt talked some more about her beau who used to work for the government, Jerry Brown, the former governor of California. The political beau had advised his rock star girlfriend not to perform in South Africa, where a minority of 4.5 million whites rules over a majority of 21 million blacks.
"I don't take his advice very much," she said. "He doesn't want me to do things that are controversial. He's political. I'm not. He tries not to say no to me because he knows it won't work. He just looks into his napkin and writhes."
The offer to sing in South Africa had come at the last minute, when another singer and a boxer had to cancel out. Boom Boom Mancini, who killed a man in the ring last year, was supposed to fight. And Frank Sinatra, whose eyes are apartheid blue, was supposed to sing and help announce the fight. It was all a cable-television package. But then Boom Boom broke his collarbone. Sun City, needing a fill-in, turned to Linda Ronstadt.
"I was getting ready to go to Italy," she remembered. "They wanted me to pinch-hit for Sinatra and boxing. I had two days to decide. I talked to everyone. I called friends of mine at Motown. Their story was: 'Black artists go, so we can't tell you not to go.' I called up John Rockwell at the New York Times and got him to send me clips on South Africa."
(Rockwell remembers that call this way: "Linda had pretty much made her decision to go. She had passed the time when she could bow out. It didn't strike me as a thrilling idea. I had personal reservations. I'm not a big fan of South Africa. I didn't seem enthusiastic, but she's a voluble person. She does what she wants to do. What can you do?")
"If I won't play a repressive government, a police state," Linda continued, "then I couldn't play the black countries or Alabama or Boston"
I asked her if she thought there was any difference between playing Bophuthatswana and playing South Africa.
"Clearly there's no difference to me, Bophuthatswana or South Africa," she said. "The policy of the homelands is wrong. This isn't in any way an endorsement of the government."
She maintained that she did not learn of the United Nations' cultural and economic boycott of South Africa until after she arrived in Sun City. The UN resolution supporting the boycott was passed in 1968, but it has evidently not been popular reading material in the capitals of American music. A number of American musicians have defied the boycott and played South Africa: the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, Cher, the Osmonds, Sha Na Na, Tina Turner, Frank Sinatra and even a group called America. Linda Ronstadt is different only in that I thought she was special.
'It's very strange performing here," she said. "I seem like a mirage to them, they to me. It's scary, like the Twilight Zone. Things seem nice. Then people get drunk and talk about their fear of a knock in the night."
Still: "I'm glad I came."
She took a bite of chicken.
"The last place for a boycott is in the arts. I don't like being told I can't go somewhere. Like when they told Jane Fonda she couldn't go to North Vietnam. Of course she should have gone to North Vietnam."
But, of course, Jane Fonda was not paid a half-million dollars to visit
Linda Ronstadt joined the other members of her band in a hospitality suite set aside for their use. Black waiters in livery offered to fetch drinks. The boys, as usual, were discussing their sexual frustration.
"I asked a girl in the audience what was wrong," said Andrew Gold, who plays guitar. 'And do you know what she told me?"
"No," said Don Grolnick, who plays keyboards.
"She said: 'We don't like your bodies."
"You should have said: 'We don't much like them, either. See we have something in common. Let's talk.'"
Actually the band did seem a little out of shape. A few pounds overweight. Bodies formed sort of like guitars stood on end with the big end at the bottom.
Linda Ronstadt changed the subject to another kind of hunt, a big game hunt. A safari was planned for the next-to-last day. But it meant getting up very early, five a.m. She wanted to know who was going. There was a show of hands. I asked if I could go. She said they would try to squeeze me in. I was already looking forward to it: pursuing wild animals through the jungle with a sometimes wild rock star. Rhinos. Giraffes. Wildebeests.
When the party broke up, the band went out to prowl through the casinos and bars and discotheques in search of that most elusive game...the South African woman in heat, The rare wildewoman.
"What did she mean?" they kept asking each other. "What's wrong with our bodies?"
Why don't they like our bodies?"
Linda Ronstadt went off to pet a German shepherd attack dog. And I went along. The dog belonged to one of Sun City's many plainclothes security men, all white, either Afrikaner or of English ancestry. This particular security man was an Afrikaner, but his wife was English, so his dog was bilingual, responding to commands in both language: The rock star had asked to pet the German shepherd because she missed her own dogs who were at home in Los Angeles.
The scene was not unlike what she had described earlier: Twilight Zone. It seemed nice. Almost too nice. Sentimental. And yet this dog with the wagging tail was trained to kill people in an obviously dangerous world. Bring up the Twilight Zone theme.
A report of trouble crackled over the security man's walkie-talkie. Fire! There was a fire at the country club. Arson was suspected. The security man and his attack dog had to hurry away.
While the security man searched for arsonists-and the band for women-the rock star and the reporter went for a walk down by the lake. We lay down on our backs on the beach and stared up at the stars that come out in the Southern Hemisphere. The moonlit sky was an incredible shade of dark violet.
"It's like a color in a Crayola box," she said. "It's a Crayola sky."
She studied the southern heavens a little longer. "It's a Bethlehem sky."
Once she said it, I saw that it did have that deep purple of the skies of innumerable Nativity scenes.
"It's just my luck", she said, "to come to Africa under a full moon."
A stray cat with long, gray hair seemed to rise up out of the lake. She reached out to it just the way she had reached out to the attack dog. She befriended the stray, petted it and soon had it purring loudly. Sitting up, she took it in her lap.
In the middle of the lake was a small island. The moon lit it so brightly with such a strange light that it looked unreal. It seemed to be a storybook island, perhaps inhabited by pirates, perhaps by the Pirates of Penzance.
"This place looks so normal and peaceful," she said, repeating a thought she had expressed earlier, a thought that keeps recurring in South Africa. "But there is obviously trouble lurking just out of sight. And sometimes it comes into sight. That report on the radio about arson at the country club."
"Yeah, the whole country seems a lot like that German shepherd," I said. "He looks beautiful, but he'll kill you."
"He probably would," she said.
Watching her stroke the stray cat, I could not help wondering if she herself could not be described in the words she had used to describe the country. She seemed normal and pleasant and more. She was a friend of animals. She was articulate. She was good company. She was charming. She was special. But lurking just out of sight was something that had brought her to an evil land.
"I want to play Snow White," Linda Ronstadt said. "She's my favorite character in literature."
Studying her, I realized that she looked uncannily like Walt Disney's Snow White. Her skin so absolutely white. Her hair so black. Of course, ironically, Snow White happens to be South Africa's official favorite color. It occurred to me that the story of Snow White was yet another version of the pattern Linda had been talking about...a nice world, a peaceful world, a snug little Snow White world, but with trouble lurking just out of sight in the form of a poison apple.
Snow White had taken the witch's apple. And Linda Ronstadt had taken
Sun City's money.
Turning our backs on the moon and the fantasy island and the trouble lurking just out of sight, we returned to the casino in search of the band. Unlucky at love, several of the musicians had taken to the gaming tables in the hope of seducing Lady Luck. So far, she hadn't given them a tumble, either.
"My social life has been going like this," Andrew Gold confessed. "I go up to a girl and ask if she wants a drink. She says, 'No.' I say, 'How about a dance?' She says, 'No.' And I say, 'Then I suppose a fuck would be out of the question.' "
I noticed a few blacks in the casino. One or two at the blackjack tables. More playing the slots. They represented the first integration I had seen in South Africa.
Linda Ronstadt and I made our way into a discotheque that adjoined the casino. We were surprised to see the black and white races in about equal numbers on the crowded floor. It was a boiling black-and-white mob.
"They aren't afraid to touch on the dance floor," she said. "The white people don't seem to mind rubbing up against the black people."
The place was so crowded that it was hard to find seats, but we finally managed to shoehorn ourselves in next to a twenty-six-year-old engineer who works in a gold mine.
"Hi, I'm Linda Ronstadt," she said. 'And this is Aaron Latham. He's an American reporter. He's going to get me in trouble back home."
Then we just sat there and watched this extraordinary sight...a sight as remarkable as anything we were to discover in Africa, a sight as memorable and as moving as the herds of game we would see later..the sight of blacks and whites dancing together in a racist nation. Black couples danced next to white couples. And some blacks even danced with whites.
The gold-mining engineer explained that such a dance floor could not exist in South Africa proper. Everyone would be arrested. It could only exist in the homelands.
By three a.m., I was so tired that the blacks and whites on the dance floor began to seem like a dream. I had been traveling for two days and two nights without much, if any, sleep. And this was the third night with no sleep. I was so exhausted that the milling black and white bodies took on the quality of a Twilight Zone hallucination. Twisting. Turning. Boiling. A black-and-white cauldron. A white-and-black melting pot.
It seemed almost too good to be real...when suddenly, all the lights
went out. In the dark, Linda grabbed my arm and held on tight. Was it a
power failure? Was it the revolution? Was it the evil that lurks out of
sight? When the lights came back on, everything seemed "normal and peaceful"
once again, but an army of security men had somehow appeared from nowhere,
as if generated by the dark. Or by dark forces.
When I woke up the next morning, I couldn't remember how I had gotten to my bed. I had been so tired that I had fallen asleep on the way to my hotel room. As I came reluctantly back to life, I remembered that I was supposed to have breakfast with Linda Ronstadt. She had suggested that I drop by around noon.
She was in her nightgown and a robe. She had invited several others to breakfast, too. Her hairdresser. Her scheduler. And her producer, Peter Asher. We all ate granola topped with fresh fruit.
Linda talked about caroling at the old actors' home in LA. last Christmas.
"Those people made you never want to take drugs again," she said. "Or else take them all in one night so you won't grow old."
She looked in the mirror. She frowned. She scowled. She tried out several other expressions.
"I look like Nancy in the funny papers," she decided. "Maybe I should play Nancy someday."
Then she tried to tell the others about the black-and-white disco the
night before. So I had not dreamed it, after all.
A few hours later, Linda Ronstadt was back on-stage.
"It's strange to fly such a long way," she told the audience, "and have it look like where you grew up. The sky is a slightly different color at night."
Linda Ronstadt had grown up in Tucson, Arizona, not far from the Mexican border. I knew because I had spent a part of my growing-up there, too. We went to high school together. Catalina High School. The Catalina High School mascot was the Trojan...which we knew had another meaning besides the Homeric one. I was in the class of 1962. She would have been in the class of '64, but she dropped out to become a rock star.
After the concert, we went up to her hotel room and talked about her beginnings.
"My grandfather had a ranch called Las Delicias, which means the Delights," she said. "He was a musician as well as a rancher. He did an arrangement of Pirates of Penzance in 1880."
Her father grew up on her grandfather's ranch.
"That was where he was when he met my mother."
Her mother, who traced her ancestry back to Holland, seemed a little like South Africa's Afrikaner women, who are also of Dutch origin.
"All the women in Holland are like my mother. Rigid. Straightforward. Earnest. Disarming. A cultural stubbornness."
When her father and mother married and settled down, they opened a hardware store in Tucson.
"I lived twenty miles out of town. I learned a lot about animals. I thought town kids were limited. They didn't have horses. They wanted to squish bugs."
In those days, Linda had a Shetland pony. Her mother used to transport the pony by putting it in the back seat of the family car. When the little horse would stick its head out the car window, other drivers were startled into near accidents.
"I went to Catholic school through the eighth grade. I hated it. They didn't let me wear Levis. These nuns were ignorant. Nuns are the worst fascists."
She thought a moment.
"South Africa is like a Catholic school. Like a prison. I went to jail once for about twenty hours for something I didn't do. It was the same feeling."
Her father is still alive, but her mother died of lung cancer while she was filming the movie version of The Pirates of Penzance. Linda was able to spend a little time with her mother in Tucson just before filming started. But then she had to go off to England to make her movie. The picture, on which millions had already been spent, could not be delayed. But the shooting schedule was rearranged to allow her to make a brief trip home in the middle of the movie to see her mom one last time.
"She still knew me," Linda remembered, "but she was in a lot of pain."
Then Linda went back to work.
"One day my father called me and told me my mom was dead. I couldn't even cry because it would mess up my makeup."
Then a couple of days later, one of her costars rushed in with the latest news. Hey, had she heard? John Belushi was dead. The dead man had been a friend of hers.
"First my mother and then my friend in the same week. I felt as if somebody
had put a bucket over my head and was hitting it with a hammer."
Linda Ronstadt took her band to dinner at a restaurant called Raffles. While the waiter was taking drink orders, we chatted about what had happened to mutual friends from high school. Then she stared at me, and I felt a little uncomfortable.
"It's like a nightmare," she said, "having to go back and justify yourself to someone you knew in high school."
At Catalina High School, Linda Ronstadt was already a larger-than-life figure with an even larger voice. She didn't surprise anyone by becoming a singer. Not that anyone expected her fame to grow to the dimensions of that voice. But the voice itself was no secret.
The surprise wasn't really Linda's career but her brother Peter's. He is now the police chief of Tucson and charged with the control of certain substances that have long fueled rock & roll. A rock star whose brother is a cop and whose boyfriend wants to be the chief executive officer of the whole country. What is the world coming to?
Fortunately, the brother is not very likely to have to bust his sister these days, for she says she gave up rock & roll drugs when she discovered opera. She says she had to. They are bad for your voice. You can't get high and still hit the high notes in La Boheme .
"I first got interested in La Boheme," Linda Ronstadt said, "when I saw the silent movie with Lillian Gish." That's right, silent. "Lillian Gish was the real Snow White. After I saw the movie, I got the record. And I thought, 'Hey, this is pretty good.' I called up Beverly Sills and told her I had discovered this opera and wanted to play Mimi.
"And Beverly said: 'My dear, every soprano in the world wants to play Mimi.'
"I felt as if I were a teenage kid who had just discovered Chuck Berry."
Two pretty girls came over to the table to ask for Linda Ronstadt's autograph. The band insisted on being introduced. But the girls seemed unimpressed. Rick Marotta, the drummer, invited them to come to Hollywood. But he got no reaction whatsoever. Silence. The band was caught between apartheid and prudery.
The woman hunt was called off early that night-at about two a.m.-because
we all had to be up at five a.m. to leave on our safari.
At a few minutes past five, we met in the lobby of the hotel. Only Linda Ronstadt was missing. Bets were taken on whether she would make it.
Then someone said, "Here comes the boss."
She came down in layers of clothes with still more clothes clutched in her arms. She looked as if she were going to the laundromat rather than going on safari. She had been warned to expect cold weather early in the morning, so she came prepared.
We all tumbled into a small bus for the ride to the airport. The band was right at home. They spend most of their lives on buses.
At the airport, we crowded into a small plane with seats for twelve. The drowsy rock star put her head on her hairdresser's lap and her feet on mine and went to sleep.
Andrew Gold reached over, stroked her pale cheek and called her Snow White.
Lying there fast asleep, with her skin so white and her hair so black, she really did look like Snow White ...after the bite of poison apple.
After an hour and a half in the air, we finally landed, much to the relief of Andrew Gold, who is terrified of flying. We bounced down onto a small landing strip surrounded on all sides by jungle. We were now in the Sabi Sabi Game Reserve, which flanks South Africa's famous Kruger National Park.
"Now, almost nothing can kill us," Andrew Gold said, "unless the plane catches on fire. Or we open the door and find a carpet of puff adders."
Braving the puff adders, we all got off the plane, all but the boss. She stood in the doorway putting on the extra layers of clothing she had brought along to keep warm.
"I've gotta pee," she called to us. Which meant taking almost everything off again.
But eventually we all loaded into two open Land Rovers and headed into the jungle. The big lumbering rhino of a car was driven by a white hunter in a starched khaki uniform. He looked very military. On the hood of the car sat a black tracker in blue coveralls.
We were no longer in the homelands. We were in serious South Africa, where apartheid rules with no pretenses. All the hunters are white hunters. And all the trackers are black trackers. The white hunters sit behind the wheels of the Land Rovers. The black trackers sit on top of the radiators.
Before we had gone very far, we stopped at a checkpoint. A black gun bearer, stationed beside the road, handed our white hunter a rifle. The white hunter loaded it with big 375caliber shells and put it in a gun rack in front of the steering wheel.
The wild country through which we drove was beautiful. This land was much greener than the land around Sun City. When South Africa created the homelands -as when America created its Indian reservations- it tended to carve them out of the driest and poorest acres available. Here, the jungle actually looked like jungle. Africa looked the way it was supposed to look, with rolling hills and dense groves of thorn trees and over there. ..
A wart hog!
And then a herd of impala, with their delicate build and beautiful reddish-brown color and curving scimitar horns. And a family of kudus with their larger bodies and gray color and spiral, corkscrew horns. And hordes of funny wildebeests.
All made more beautiful and more dramatic by a background composed of a handsome blue mountain rising far in the distance. Like Ernest Hemingway's Mount Kilimanjaro. Only it wasn't Kilimanjaro. It was Mozambique, which South Africa had recently bombed in retaliation for a terrorist bombing in Pretoria. The landscape was peaceful, but with trouble lurking above it in the shape of a great blue mountain.
Before we had gone far, we heard an explosion that shook the jungle. It sounded too loud to be a rifle. Was it a bomb? Was a war beginning? Had the blacks finally risen up against the whites? Or were the whites launching some preemptive strike against the blacks? We learned later what the big bang was. A mysterious plane, entering the country from the direction of Mozambique, had been shot down by South African forces.
Our concern about distant danger was soon replaced by our interest in evidence of danger much closer at hand. Our black tracker spotted lion tracks. The white hunter stopped the Land Rover, grabbed his rifle and got out. The hunter and the tracker conferred in a language we did not understand and then disappeared into the bush, leaving us to ask ourselves questions. What were they going to do if they did manage to catch up with the lion or lions? Drive them back in our direction so we could see them? And why had they taken the only gun?
Abandoned, with no game in sight to photograph, we took pictures of one another. Especially of Linda taking off her clothes. Since the weather had turned out to be warmer than expected, she was shedding some of the extra layers of clothing.
The white hunter and black tracker finally returned. Empty-handed. The
lions had gotten away.
"He looks real earnest," Linda said.
And then she proceeded to ask our white hunter a series of earnest questions. She wanted to know all about the vegetation. What was this? A kind of thorn tree. What was that? Another kind of thorn tree. Could you ride zebras ? No. What were the native languages like? They tended to rely on the present tense. Wasn't that good because it forced one to live in the present moment? Maybe.
We saw a herd of zebras. We saw a huge giraffe standing right by the road as if he were expecting us. Then we saw something really amazing.
We crested a hill and saw a fancy table, the kind one associates with
formal dinners at embassies, waiting for us in the middle of the jungle.
It was covered with a colorful tablecloth, cloth napkins, real china, real
silver, steaming coffee, orange juice, mango juice, bottles of bubbling
champagne, mountains of breads, as many varieties of cheese as there are
species in Africa and a whole Garden of Eden of fruits. A black cook in
a white uniform and a great billowing white chef's hat knelt over a campfire,
frying up eggs and sausages. and bacon. A platoon of black waiters in livery
conveyed the hot dishes to the table. And poured fresh coffee. And generally
hovered. I realized that Margaret Mitchell was wrong. The way of life she
immortalized had not gone with the wind. It lives on in South Africa. And
today, Linda Ronstadt, with blacks handing her food and pouring her drink,
was cast as Scarlett.
After breakfast, Linda Ronstadt climbed up on the hood of the Land Rover next to our tracker. Now we had two trackers. A black tracker and a white tracker. A male tracker and a female tracker. An anonymous tracker and a famous tracker. Riding the hood of the Land Rover must have been a lot like riding the back of a rhino. As we bounced over rocks and ruts, Linda Ronstadt was in real danger of falling off.
With two trackers to help us spot game, we saw buffalo. We saw mongooses that reminded me of Kipling stories. We saw troops of baboons. We saw more impala and kudus and giraffes. We saw storks. We saw jackals.
We saw a world-famous rock star lose her balance and begin to fall. I had a vision of her under the wheels. The wilde-Rover seemed to have bucked her off. But at the last instant, she somehow saved herself, as stars-at least the kind who survive as long as she has usually do.
Without even slowing down, we drove on into the jungle, preceded by
our two figureheads, one black and one white.
At lunchtime, we stopped at a jungle outpost known as Rivet House. It had thick white walls and a cool thatched roof. Linda Ronstadt decided to take a nap, but she didn't want to be cooped up indoors, not while she was on safari. So I helped her carry a twin bed outdoors. We set it down on the grass beneath a cloudless African sky. In her jungle bedroom, Linda promptly fell asleep.
Once again, she was a sleeping Snow White, Snow White after the apple, Snow White after the fall, Snow White where the dwarfs had laid her out on a bed under the heavens, Snow White waiting for her prince to wake her ...waiting, perhaps, for Jerry Brown?
When she woke up about an hour later, she lay in bed and talked dreamily.
"I don't believe in chastity," she said. "Sex is only corrupting if your attitude is that it's bad. I thought that, even when I was a little girl. I had a bad reputation even in junior high school because my skirts were too tight. In high school, I decided to change my reputation, but I failed. I had sex when I was seventeen."
She crooked an arm up over her head.
"I had a friend in high school who had a bad reputation, but she
didn't deserve it. Her problem was that one day her water broke in study
hall. She just picked up her books and walked out. And hurried to the hospital
to have her baby....I said I might one day write a short story and call
it "Her Water Broke in Study Hall."
After the lunch and nap break, our white hunter led us on foot down to a river. We had to make our way through grass that was taller than our heads. When we reached the water, he pointed out three hippos. They were like great gray icebergs with just their tips, in this case, the tips of their noses and ears, visible above the water line.
"They have a nice life," our white hunter said, "just lying in the water all day, with fish tickling their backs."
"I want to join them," Linda Ronstadt said, "and have the fish tickle. my back."
Our hunter explained that hippos can be dangerous. Most people tend to think of them as cute, like the ones dancing in pink skirts in Fantasia. So people aren't afraid and get too close. And then the hippos, who haven't seen the movie and don't know how they're supposed to act, come charging out of the water. As they bear down on you, they look about as cute and lovable as an onrushing Mack truck.
As we all took a step backward, I saw a pattern repeating itself. The hippos were like the German shepherd... the landscape...and the country itself. They looked adorable and peaceful, but trouble lurked beneath the surface of the calm water.
Retreating from the river and the danger of hippo attack, we headed
back for our Land Rovers. Once again, Linda Ronstadt took up her position
as white tracker next to our black tracker, both perched side by side over
the radiator. Seeing her, a group of natives laughed and called out: "Snatza!
A little later, we saw a rhino with a bird perched on its back. We sat quietly in the Land Rover and listened to our white hunter explain the symbiotic relationship between the bird and the rhino. The bird cleans the rhino by eating bugs off its back, and the rhino feeds the bird.
"Isn't nature wonderful," said Andrew Gold, who was riding in the front seat, next to the driver. "Isn't it lucky that the bird rides the rhino's back. What if the rhino had to get on top of the bird?"
"Remember that girl who didn't like your body?" said the hairdresser.
"That's what she was worried about."
I don't want to die," Andrew Gold said as soon as we were airborne. "I don't know what I would do without this body that the girls down here hate."
"Wait till this gets in ROLLING STONE," said Don Grolnick.
"Girls at our concerts will be holding up signs that say: WE HATE YOUR BODIES," said Andrew.
"The bodies America loves to hate, " said the scheduler.
"Or the bodies America hates to love," I said.
"We're trying to say that there is more to rock & roll than sex."
"Oh, my God," said Linda Ronstadt, who was lying down with her head in my lap. "You can say we're fascists. You can say we're racists. But please don't say the band is fat."
The mention of the word racists, although used in a joke, changed the tone of the conversation. The humor stopped. Linda looked up with a serious expression on her face.
"Do you really think I shouldn't have come?" she asked.
"Well, the issues are more complex than I realized before I came," I
said. "But I still think you
"Why?" she asked. "What bothers you about my coming down here?"
"The facts," Andrew interrupted.
"What about today?" she asked. "Didn't you have a good time today?"
"Sure, I had a good time," I said. "But some things bothered me. Like all the blacks being trackers and all the whites being drivers."
"Well, maybe the blacks are better trackers and the whites are better
"That wasn't too bad," Andrew Gold said after we landed. "Take it back up again. No, never mind."
As we were getting off the plane, the guitar player proved that he had
yet another unsuspected talent.
"Sure, I said.
I've gotta pee," he said in a falsetto voice. "Can I snuggle? I'm gonna marry Jerry Brown."
Since we were running a little late, Linda had to go directly from the plane to the auditorium.
"We went on safari today, she told her audience. "I can't believe we had to come back and play music." Then she caught herself. "Oh, my God, I can't believe I said that."
She tried to make it up to the crowd by telling them how much she was
enjoying her visit
In the discotheque after the show, Linda Ronstadt was still trying to justify her trip to South Africa, not just to me, but to herself as well. She sought out people to ask if she had made a mistake. When two young black men came over to our table to tell her how much they had enjoyed her show, she asked them to join us.
They turned out to be American dancers who were working in what they called a "tits and ass" show modeled on similar extravaganzas staged in Las Vegas. After auditioning in Hollywood, they had signed one-year contracts and gotten on planes.
Tomkins Anderson, who was just twenty-one, said that an actress friend had tried to persuade him not to come. But he had come anyway because it was his first job in his first show.
I couldn't help thinking that it wasn't Linda Ronstadt's first job or first show.
Narvelle McGee, who was twenty-three, said friends had also tried to convince him not to come. But he hadn't taken the advice. Now the producers of the show were trying to get him to extend his contract, but he wasn't going to do it. A year in South Africa had made him appreciate America as never before, and he was ready to go home.
Linda Ronstadt admitted that some of her friends had opposed her trip, too, but she had made up her own mind and gotten on the plane, as they had.
"When I first got on South African Airlines," Anderson remembered, "they put me in the back of the plane. But they finally moved me up to first class where I belonged. When I got to the Johannesburg airport, I was the only black who stepped off the plane. When I walked through the airport, it felt very eerie. When my suitcase came up, it had been opened. I called a security guard over and asked him why my luggage was a shambles. I told him I didn't mind them searching my luggage, but they should've folded my stuff up nicely when they'd finished. All my clothes were filthy dirty."
"You were brave to come here all alone," said the rock star who had come with an entourage.
"We were in Johannesburg for the first seven weeks of rehearsals," McGee said. "We were scared to death to go anywhere. Once, we went to a nightclub outside of Jo'burg. We danced with some English girls. Some Afrikaners followed us into the parking lot and chased us with chains."
Soon, Linda Ronstadt returned to what was becoming a familiar chorus.
"I still don't think I've done anything wrong," she said. "Do you punish people by withholding entertainment?"
"People at home say that if you come here, you're supporting apartheid," said McGee. "But not all the whites here agree with it, either."
"That's right," said Linda. "Some people seem to feel that because I'm here I support apartheid. I see that it's vastly more complex than I ever imagined."
"Music is one of the only things we have holding the world together," Anderson said.
The black dancers wanted to make Linda Ronstadt feel good about her decision because it made them feel better about their own. And Linda wanted to make them feel good about coming so she would feel better about being there.
A handsome white boy came over and asked the rock star if she would like to dance. She declined, but asked him to find a chair and join us. He was an English-speaking South African who had been given an old-fashioned upbringing on an old-fashioned farm. Which meant that he was taught never to treat blacks as equals under any circumstances.
"Five years ago, I sat down beside a black man at the blackjack table in a casino," he said. "I thought he didn't belong there. Now I dance with black girls at the casino discotheques."
Of course, a country that relies on gambling casinos to right its social injustices is in trouble. But still. ...
The rock star asked the farm boy, as she had asked everyone, if she had made a mistake in coming to South Africa. And he tried to reassure her.
"I've been to black Africa," she told him. "I wanted to see what this would be like. I'll be criticized a lot when I get home. But I don't think it's fair. You can't not go to a country because there are some evil people in it. I'd love to get the chance to come back, but who knows? One of the things I'm trying to figure out while I'm down here is if I'm supposed to be here. I'm playing devil's advocate with myself."
The farm boy hoped she would come back.
"I'm trying to decide if it isn't a good idea to get a dialogue going," Linda said. "Now I have a whole other idea about what 'Desperado' means. Everybody here is a desperado. Everybody is a 'Prisoner in Disguise' because all the people feel so misunderstood by the outside world."
In describing the South Africans, Linda seemed to be describing herself, for she, too, was beginning to feel misunderstood. She knew that she was going to be criticized at home for singing for apartheid. And she was already beginning to feel like a desperado.
The band was just feeling desperate. Rick Marotta went up to a young woman at the bar and asked her if she was in the big Las Vegas-style review.
"Of course I am," she said.
"Don't you recognize my tits?"
But she declined the opportunity to show them to him again in a more private place.
"I haven't talked to a woman for so long," Don Grolnick said, "I'm thinking
of calling my mother."
At breakfast the next morning, Linda Ronstadt was still wrestling with herself.
"What we are trying to decide," she said over granola and fresh fruit, "is if we did right in coming down here. We're talking about morals."
Snow White wrinkled her brow and took a bite of apple.