I’M NOT MISS PARTY anymore,” Bonnie Raitt says. “I still like to have a good time, but my responsibility to the movement has taken over.” It is late afternoon in Central Park, and we are climbing to the top of a rock in search of a quiet place to sit and talk. Raitt is explaining what she’s been up to in the two years separating the release of her last album and her newest, The Glow. Kids come up to her offering bags of loose joints for a price, and she has trouble maneuvering up the hill in her high-heeled sandals, but she’s unperturbed by these difficulties. She turns away the peddlers — too politely, like an out-of-towner — kicks off her shoes and continues talking.
“I’ve always been political. I was raised in a Quaker family, and my parents were pacifists. But recently the political part of my life has become much more important. I would say the music is about forty percent of my life now, and the politics sixty percent.” (Raitt’s political activities include membership on the board of MUSE and involvement in Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Campaign for Economic Democracy.) And she doesn’t hesitate to use the forty percent to call attention to the other sixty. “I’m going to be doing a lot more interviews when I tour, because I have a lot more to talk about than just my new album. Of course, I’ll answer questions about the music, but then I can talk about more important things — like nuclear power and the American Indian movement. The Glow is like… the bait.” She smiles conspiratorially and sits down on a peak overlooking a duck pond.
Raitt’s outspoken politics make her an unusual figure in the music business, but she has always been somewhat outside the mainstream. Since she emerged from the Cambridge and Philadelphia coffeehouse scenes in the early Seventies, her career has enjoyed continued but modest success. After nine years and seven albums, she is neither superstar (her biggest “hit,” the 1977 single “Runaway,” never reached the Top Thirty) nor cult favorite. Raitt can count on selling several hundred thousand copies of each new album, and she regularly packs college auditoriums and small halls when she tours. But she’d like that situation to change — she thinks.
“I don’t want a hit, but I sort of want a hit,” she says uncertainly, brushing back a strand of thick red hair that’s beginning to gray. It’s not because she wants to be rich, however. “You see,” she explains, “Before, there wasn’t any reason for me to need more money. But now there’s a political reason. Like Jane Fonda, for example. She does a lot more movies than she has to, because she wants to raise money for the movement.”
To reach a wider audience with The Glow, Raitt enlisted the help of producer Peter Asher. “Peter and I have the same lawyer, and I would run into him, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt socially. When my records would come out and not be hits, Linda and James would say, ‘It’s too bad you can’t get a better sound for the radio, work with someone more professional.’” After reading an interview with Asher in Rolling Stone (RS 255), Raitt contacted him.
“I was a little intimidated to be working with someone of his personal power and position in the music business” she admits. “But it wasn’t like I was selling out. I knew I’d have control over the songs, and he couldn’t make me do something I didn’t want to do.” Raitt chose the material for The Glow, sifting through stacks of old blues and soul records and piles of tapes before consulting with Asher. “It gets harder and harder to find songs. Either I’m going to have to start writing more or find some new songwriters.”
The Glow, in fact, contains the first song Raitt has written since 1972; the new number is a bluesy rock & roll tune entitled “Standin’ by the Same Old Love.” “It’s about a woman who’s talking about her sexuality with the man she lives with,” says Raitt, who wrote the song while recuperating from an operation for vocal-cord nodes.
‘Things aren’t so crazy anymore. I’ve cleaned up my act ’
“I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t even talk. Friends were calling me up just for the pleasure of being able to know that, for once, I couldn’t talk back. One afternoon, I wrote the song in my head. It was two weeks before I was able to sing it for anybody else.”
“Standin’” is about the difficulties of a long-term relationship (when Raitt wrote the song, she had been living with boyfriend Garry George for about six years). “I’m pleased to be getting older. Everybody’s settling down with mates, things aren’t so crazy anymore. I’ve cleaned up my act. I started running. You hit thirty and you become aware that the things you do really can kill you. And if you’re involved in politics, you have to be really careful. Linda [Ronstadt] and I were talking about that just last week. You have to be super clean all the time. One drug bust could undermine this whole movement.”
When I ask how her intense political involvement has affected her old friendships, she says that most of her friends have grown politically as well. “But I can imagine walking into a party now and having everybody walk away from me, ’cause they think I’m gonna ask them to do benefits. Don’t get me wrong. I still like to have a good time, but changing the world is a lot more important to me.” She picks up her shoes, gently refuses another drug hustler’s offer and makes her way gingerly back down the hill. ♫