Photo by Robert Blakeman

She is rumored to have incited fans to riot, to have been forcibly removed from the stage where she was performing at the Aladdin in Las Vegas, to have been barred from her hotel room after audience members stormed out in protest when she dedicated a song to Michael Moore. Whether any of it happened the way the media portrayed it (she says it didn’t) or Aladdin owner Bill Timmins was on acid when he told reporters about “the ugly scene,” Linda Ronstadt still has a lot to be happy about: At 58, she can still belt rock & roll in the upper registers, she has a new record of jazz standards due out early next year and a slew of new fans to buy it. Because for every outraged citizen who objects to her shilling for filmmaker Michael Moore on her current tour, there seem to be 100 more who now think that Ronstadt, long down on the MOR music lists, is suddenly once again cool.

At least that’s the way it seemed Tuesday night at Universal Amphitheater, when Ronstadt performed for a full house well aware of her current controversy and prepared to stand up for her rights. “Hi,” she said when she hit the stage. “Gee, it’s good to be here. Seen any good movies lately?” The vast majority of the audience jumped to its feet and cheered. When the noise subsided, a woman’s voice shot out from the cheap seats: “Linda, you can say anything you want!” Roughly halfway through the show, when Ronstadt dedicated “Straighten Up and Fly Right” to Arnold Schwarzenegger and his “girlie men,” a handful of boos went up and a few sensitive listeners walked out (“They must’ve had free tickets,” said a critic friend of mine). But for the most part, Ronstadt got more love than ever.

And she deserved it — not just for her two brief but exuberant political messages, but because Linda Ronstadt still rocks. A full three decades after her reign as the Southwestern princess who made teenage girls dash out for Frye boots and denim skirts and try desperately to imitate the earsplitting clarity of her blockbuster voice (“She’ll have nodes on her vocal cords before she’s 40,” warned a voice teacher of mine in 1977), who brought her rock voice to the country genre and fused the two for generations to come, Ronstadt still turns out a perfectly paced and musically exhilarating show and loves every minute. She showers her fellow musicians — from the Baltimore Symphony to her backup singers — with affection and praise; she blasts some high notes and breathes others more delicately (finally, she’s learned to sing a soft note!); she tells stories about her songs and laughs raucously at her own jokes. She talks sweetly, girlishly in a way, like a typical suburban Tucson mom in Capri pants and mules on the verge of divulging her favorite hot-dish recipe. And her truly Middle American goodheartedness dictates her politics: Excoriating Ken Lay, she grieved for all those nice folks who lost their life savings and retirement plans. Lay, she asserted, “should hang by his thumbs.”

And, excuse me, but were those politics a mystery to some people? To the Aladdin’s Bill Timmins, for example? Or to any of those reportedly obstreperous fans? The woman used to be Jerry Brown’s girlfriend, for God’s sake. Anybody who walked out on Tuesday night when Ronstadt returned for an encore must have been motivated by Universal’s horror-show parking hell, not the singer’s dedication of “Desperado” to “the bravest, most patriotic filmmaker in America” who had just had a bouquet of pink flowers delivered to her onstage (she never had to mention his name). People cannot be that clueless.

The obvious thing that aggrieved Bush supporters chronically forget is that this freedom the Arabs are supposedly so jealous about includes, above all, freedom to speak one’s mind. But as Laurie Anderson observed, “Freedom is a scary thing; not many people really want it.” Or know what it entails: When Ronstadt hit the word freedom in “Desperado,” lighters went up and the audience howled in approval, unconscious of the fact that the false sense of freedom offered in “Desperado” means “walking through this world all alone.” The exercise of freedom can be isolating and disillusioning when the backlash heats up. It can also be very good for one’s career. And that’s the other thing the anti-freedom conservatives forget: After a brief dip in sales, the Dixie Chicks landed at No. 4 on Rolling Stone’s list of top moneymakers in music after Natalie Maines apologized to Londoners for her fellow Texan president; Fahrenheit 9/11 is still gangbusters at the box office; Al Franken made piles of cash after Fox threatened to sue him. Now Ronstadt’s shows are selling out, and you can buy her records by following a link on Moore’s high-traffic Web site. As a final vindication, the Aladdin’s new owner, Planet Hollywood CEO Robert Earl, has invited Ronstadt to return and sing a duet with Michael Moore.

Let’s hear it for freedom.

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