When Bonnie Raitt first hit the concert trail in the early ‘70s, rock ‘n’ roll was pretty much a man’s game, but she didn’t let that discourage her. Calling the shots in her career from the git-go, she put together a rowdy band that she led rather than decorated, mastered a raunchy style on bottleneck guitar, and, like the blues musicians she idolized, spent most of the year on the road.
She also grew alarmingly proficient at drinking her bandmates under the table and earned a reputation as a party girl whose personal life was in perpetual upheaval.
That Raitt turned out nine solid albums and kept a band together and on the road in the midst of such chaos is impressive. And that she’s now managed to hoist herself up by her own bootstraps and get some perspective on a life style that threatened to destroy her is equally admirable. As is reflected in her current LP, “Nick of Time” (her first for her new label, Capitol), Raitt’s grown up quite a bit since we last heard from her.
“Since I was 20 years old I’ve been a kind of corporation,” said the 39-year-old singer during an interview at Capitol’s Hollywood headquarters.
“I’d wake up in the morning and my job was to be ‘Bonnie Raitt’ in capital letters. Gradually I began losing myself to that, then two years ago the bill came in for having led my life as an independent woman who’d spent her life on the road.
“I’d reached a point where I was so emotionally beat up that I had to sort of quit my life for a while,” she continued. “I injured my hand in a skiing accident that forced me to take two months off, and I used that time to quit drinking. It was almost like I wanted something to happen that would get me off the road because I couldn’t get on any kind of healthy program when I was spending six hours a day on a tour bus, and it seemed like every aspect of my life was unraveling.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m 37 years old and I don’t have a relationship with someone I love. I don’t have a record company that believes in my work, and radio isn’t interested in my music.’ It was pretty depressing, and the thing that got me through it was the fact that I really love my job. I feel so lucky to get to do this and the thrill has never worn off. I guess I got it in my blood from my dad.”
The daughter of Broadway musical star John Raitt, Raitt (who will make her first Los Angeles concert appearance in nearly three years at the Wiltern Theatre on June 30) was born and raised in Los Angeles, but she moved to Boston in 1967 and developed a following on the local club circuit. Signed to Warner Bros. in 1970, she released her debut LP, which established her as a critical favorite and introduced the musical blueprint she continues to follow.
Combining the sexual bravado of a blues belter, the introspection of a singer/songwriter and a political consciousness resulting from her Quaker upbringing, Raitt has built a career around an impeccable taste in material, a strong, fluid voice, and a resolute refusal to jump on whatever musical bandwagon might be passing through town.
Her career chugged steadily along until 1983, when Warner Bros. abruptly dropped her. She spent the next six years depleting her life savings to keep her band on the road, and she was without a record deal except for a brief flirtation with Prince, who tried to sign her to his Paisley Park label.
“Prince is a big champion of women musicians, and he thought I wasn’t getting a fair shot at Warners and figured I’d be a good addition to Paisley Park. We did three songs and had a great time working together, but then he had to go finish a tour. I waited around until I couldn’t wait any longer and that’s where we left it.”
Raitt’s tireless work as a crusader for various causes and her championing of the music of senior bluesmen have made her a respected figure, but the fact that she’s a vocal stylist rather than a writer has diminished her credibility in some circles. It’s something that’s nagged at her as well.
“One of the biggest obstacles I’ve overcome in my life was thinking I didn’t deserve to be successful,” she admitted. “Artistically I’m not as much of a heavyweight as someone like Paul Simon or Joni Mitchell, because I’m not a creator of original music, and I worried about that for years. I also felt enormously guilty about the fact that I might’ve been eclipsing my dad’s fame and that I was doing better than many of the blues musicians I’d grown up idolizing.
“I finally learned to accept that I can’t make radio play blues any more than I could get Reagan out of the White House. I also lightened up on myself about the writing thing, and that shift in attitude probably had a lot to do with my being able to write ‘Nick of Time.’ ”
The title track to her new album, “Nick of Time” takes a bittersweet look at the passage of time as symbolized by the female biological clock. Produced by Don Was, the album features musical contributions from Herbie Hancock and David Crosby, and the video for her version of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” stars Raitt’s good pal Dennis Quaid. Quaid’s smoldering performance will no doubt garner attention, but “Nick of Time” remains the centerpiece of the LP.
“It was the first thing I’d written in seven years, and I’d changed quite a bit in those intervening years,” Raitt said. “In the process of cleaning up I discovered a whole new person inside myself--a person who I thought might have something to say--so I wrote ‘Nick of Time’ about a friend of mine who was going through the situation in the song. The question of whether or not to have kids touches all women my age.”
Whether or not to clean up also seems to be touching women and men of all ages these days; in fact, sobriety is shaping up to be the trend of the ‘80s.
“I know, people are tired of hearing about this stuff,” she said. “But believe me, when you bottom out then finally start feeling better, you want to talk about it!”
Raitt’s enthusiasm for a drug-free reality is matched by her excitement about what’s currently happening in music. After struggling for two decades to carve out a place for herself as a woman musician who refused to conform to the sex-kitten stereotype, she’s heartened indeed by the success of Tracy Chapman and others.
“It’s time to stop thinking of women in music as a trend,” Raitt declared. “I’m real encouraged by what’s going on in music right now. Tracy Chapman was the most incredible thing that happened last year, and the young women singers who’re coming up are fantastic, as is the return to music that goes beyond skimming the surface.
“Superficial pop will always exist--there’ve always been Fabians--but when people like Dire Straits and Bruce Hornsby start having hits, it suggests that there’s a revolution going on in music. And I can’t think of a better time for somebody like me to be re-emerging.”