Bonnie Raitt passed her 30th birthday four days ago. In the mythology of the '60s she grew up in, it is time to stop trusting herself. But in the hit-today, gone-tomorrow realities of a pop music career, she has never been more confident.
Warming up for last night's sold-out concert at Constitution Hall, she was worried only about signs of advancing age. When a friend offered to carry her bag, she pointed to a (mostly imaginary) pouch under her left eye and asked, "this one?"
"Look -- gray hairs," she said, fingering three or four in the long, luxuriant red mane that had become slightly damp in yesterday afternoon's weather.
Silver threads among the gold are only part of a changing image of the singer. She began in the late '60s as a minor cult figure -- the whiskey queen of barroom blues whose down-home style and repertoire attracted a devoted following, but not the top-40 audience. Now, after 10 years and six albums, she finally has a shot at the big time with her new Warner Bros. record, "The Glow."
Some diehard fans of Raitt's earlier image have complained that she is "going glossy" with her latest album, produced by Peter Asher, who also produced Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. But yesterday she wasn't putting on any gloss.
"Get a picture of this," she told a photographer, pointing to a small pimple on her left cheek. "I got all these birthday cakes and I didn't eat any of them, but I'm getting the zits anyway."
Then she grew pensive. "It's lack of sex that does it. I've been living with the same old man in California for the last seven years, and I want to get back and see him. My skin will clear up by the time I get to Phoenix."
Nearing the end of a long East Coast tour, Raitt is going home for Thanksgiving. And she wants to go home permanently: "I've been on the road pretty solidly for the last 10 years, and I'm getting tired. But I don't have hit records, so touring is the only way I make money -- and now there's no money in that. Expenses are up 45 percent over last year, but if the new record isn't a hit, I'll have to go back on the road again."
For an old woman of 30 who yearns to retire from touring and just make hit records, Raitt still has the air of a '60s activist. Dressed in jeans, high-heel boots and a knit cardigan festooned with anti-nuclear power buttons, her conversation is peppered with her current cause -- safe energy, for which she has put the women's movement in a temporary holding pattern.
"Today is the anniversary of Karen Silkwood's death, and I'm supposed to be at a demonstration right now," she said. "You know, when they found her in her car, she had two tickets to a concert that I was giving -- that's one of the things that turned me on to the anti-nuclear movement. But I was raised as a Quaker, and in school I used to refuse to participate in air raid drills."
The Quaker upbringing came from her father, Broadway singer John Raitt, who starred in the original casts of such shows as "Carousel" and "Oklahoma!" and is now touring the country in a one-man show that is a sort of musical autobiography.
"Try being his daughter when he sings that monologue from 'Carousel' about 'my little girl,'" she says. "That song makes me cry every time I hear it. He's a hard act to follow, but it's real neat to be doing the same thing as your old man."
She will be seeing her father in a few days when he and she are both performing around Durham, N.C. "Our paths criss-cross pretty constantly," she says. "A while ago, he left his coat in a hotel room in Buffalo, and I picked it up for him there a few days later."
A few years ago, she was telling the press, "I don't want to be a star. I don't want hit records. I'm trying . . . to have a good time and survive." iBut increasingly, she links survival, and the political causes she espouses, to star status.
"I think it's important for us to speak out," she says, "because we get attention -- but it's not right to take advantage of that unless you really know what you're talking about. I have to do my homework. One good thing about being on the road is that you spend so much time on the bus and you can get a lot of reading done."
This is not Bonnie Raitt's first appearance in Constitution Hall. The last time, one of her friends -- an 82-year-old black blues singer -- had trouble getting in, and she made some inflammatory remarks from the stage about the DAR and their hall. But this time she planned to keep the evening non-inflammatory -- at least on the subject of the DAR.
"We had to book this place at the last minute. We thought we had the Georgetown gym, but we forgot to check with the basketball coach. The DAR was very nice. I won't criticize them, but I will talk about nuclear power between songs.
"Usually, I have an information booth in the lobby with material on the anti-nuclear movement, but I don't know whether they will let me do it here."
Constitution Hall is small compared to the Capital Centre, where Raitt does not aspire to play ("If I ever get that popular, I'd rather do three or four nights in a smaller place"). But it's still a far cry from the converted garage near Minneapolis where she made her first record. "Bonnie Raitt." At some point in the years since then, the time came when she stopped being called her father's daughter and he started being called her father -- a situation which bothers her a little, and will continue in the wake of her new record.
"He sings in halls that hold 1,500 to 3,000 people -- and he does it without a microphone," Raitt says of her father.
"I wish I could do that."