[20 February 2014]
When I started college at UC Santa Cruz in the fall of 1979, my first act was to hang a poster of Linda Ronstadt on the closet door of my room. This was the era of “Back in the U.S.A.” and “Mad Love”. Ronstadt wasn’t a celebrity in today’s mold of boisterous, in-your-face public personas trying to master all media. Rather, Ronstadt was a musician and in her “musical memoir”, she provides ample evidence of her passion for her craft.
Now 67, and no longer singing, Ronstadt’s memoir clearly begs the age-old question, “Do we ever really grow up?” Although the book spans her musical career, from the earliest moments of singing in her home in the ‘50s, to her final concert and her own reflection on maturity, what comes across is not the voice of a old singer reminiscing about times past, but an ardent musician still very much telling stories that feel contemporary and meaningful, full of youthful enthusiasm and hope. Outside of a few rough encounters over the years, and the deaths of close friends, readers will find Ronstadt’s voice remains that of the young woman that first captivated listeners on “Hand Sown…Home Grown” when she sang “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”.
For fans, and even those who just remember her music fondly, Simple Dreams, provides background not only on Ronstadt, but on the entire American music scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ronstadt lived, played and often just hung out with what we now consider the elite of American pop music: Jim Morrison, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, John David Souther, Neil Young, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Jackson Brown, David Geffen, Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou Harris and scores of others.
Though rich on details of such musically-oriented encounters, the book is scant on material that makes for juicy “must read” celebrity tell-alls. Of John David Souther, whom Ronstadt dated and lived with, we receive the following introduction: “He had the flint-eyed, dusty-wind squint of the Texas Panhandle, where he was raised.” They met when he was playing drums for Bo Diddley.
Ronstadt’s reserved detail, however, doesn’t detract from the story, but rather sets her apart in a way from her friends and acquaintances who experimented with drugs or suffered from overuse of alcohol. She clearly admits to her “hippy” leanings, but she succinctly puts to rest any rumors of personal drug use with the humorous quote from Janet Stark, her friend and long-time assistant: “When I smoke pot, it makes me want to hide under the bed with a box of graham crackers and not share.” There is almost a third-person detachment that makes for a better book.
Although Ronstadt remained a powerful performer after pairing with Nelson Riddle in for 1983’s “What’s New”, her musical meanderings become increasingly eclectic, and off the beaten path of the pop cannon.
But the post-1983 eclecticism wasn’t new, it was foundational. From her earliest stories she writes of a grandfather playing Puccini. Her singing aunt Luisa Espinel. Singing and music define Ronstadt. Her father, known as Gilbert, “had a beautiful baritone singing voice that sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante, the famous Mexican matinee idol and singer, and Frank Sinatra.”
In a poetic passage, Ronstadt says that her “favorite place for music was pachanga,” a late afternoon into late evening Mexican picnic. In the next paragraph she writes:
Around sunset, someone would uncork a bottle of tequila or the local bacanora, and people would start tuning up the guitars. The stars blinked on, and the songs sailed into the night. Mostly in Spanish, they were yearning, beautiful songs of love and desperation and despair…The music never felt like a performance, it simply ebbed and flowed with the rest of the conversation.
It is too bad Ronstadt didn’t take up the pen more often to write her own lyrics.
Ronstadt never married, though she famously dated then Governor Jerry Brown (also current Governor) of California and Pete Hamill (“with whom she was “keeping steady company” in the early ‘80s). The relationship with Brown generated much pop culture speculation back in the day, perhaps because of the privacy-oriented nature of both parties. It’s a good example of where Ronstadt clearly makes the choice between memoir and autobiography.
She ends the relationship in a single paragraph, with the very cordial statement, “Neither of us ever suffered under the delusion that we would like to share each other’s lives. I would have found his life too restrictive, and he would have found mine entirely chaotic. Eventually we went our separate ways and embraced things that resonated with us as different individuals.”
At 200 pages (with an additional 47 pages of discography and index), Simple Dreams is a quick read. Some of the chapters, all of which start with a picture, run less than a page. As satisfying and engaging as the book is, there are clearly stories that still haven’t been told, or at least details that haven’t been communicated. I’m not talking about the salacious stuff, but about collaborations and processes.
The book would have benefited from an occasional moment of reflection, a slowing down, to explore the mire of a recording session. On page 63, for example, she relays a story about the discovery of old cassette tapes recorded in her living room in 1976. Jackson Brown is teaching her “Poor Poor Pitiful Me”, and JD Souther schools her in Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou”. The paragraph ends with “That was a profitable evening,” as both songs ended up on her mega-hit album, Simple Dreams. I would have appreciated more detail about that evening, about how the two were different teachers, and what she learned from each—how they approached songs and how she approached their teaching.
Despite that minor disappointment, Ronstadt has crafted a fine book. She is a beautiful writer and an adept storyteller. Her stories bring you into her world with sparse orchestration. You are in her moment, and she is in that moment with you. It’s very good to see that despite physical difficulties brought on by Parkinson’s disease, Ronstadt’s spirit speaks with a still youthful vibrancy. If Simple Dreams was an album, it would be an “unplugged” version, where the voice of the artist soars above the instruments.