Linda Ronstadt’s 2013 book, Simple Dreams is subtitled; “A Musical Memoir“. And so it is. While the book covers her life beginning with her preschool days in Tucson, it is decidedly not an autobiography. It is all about the music. Her musical influences, the extraordinary journey her career became, her unparalleled successes and her infrequent, but very-public, failures; it’s all there.
For fans of Ronstadt or the bluegrass/folk-influenced music of the 1970’s that came to be called the “California rock”, this book is a delightful read. If you are not a fan but want a glimpse into the career of one the most successful pop singers of the 20th century, it’s still probably a good read. I can’t say. I am definitely in the former camp.
My first memory of hearing Ronstadt is still vivid, despite having been more than 45 years ago. I was 13 years old. We were moving, yet again, and I was unpacking in the new apartment. The AM radio DJ introduced a song called “Different Drum” by “Linda & the Stone Poneys”. At that time, I didn’t have the knowledge to articulate what it was, exactly, but there was something about her voice I connected with immediately.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her, in person, three times. The first was in 1977 at an outdoor concert venue in Wisconsin. Coincidentally, she was promoting the album “Simple Dreams“. The title song of that album, written by J.D. Souther, is the source of her memoir’s title. She appeared on-stage wearing a cub scout uniform.
The next time I saw her was 6-7 years later. She was touring to promote her “What’s New” her first album of standards from the Great American Songbook recorded with Nelson Riddle and a full orchestra. That time she was wearing a vintage prom dress.
The last time was a few months ago in 2014. It was a wonderful evening in an intimate setting, the patio of Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum (MIM). She talked, à la “Inside the Actor’s Studio” with John Boylan, her long-time friend, former producer, and one-time manager. Parkinson’s has left her a little unsteady on her feet and, as she puts it; “unable to sing a note”, but she talked about her career and her life in music.
That she was asked to write a book is not surprising. In a 50-year career that included 38 studio albums (plus 15 compilations) in 5-6 different musical genres, more than 100 millions records sold, 27 Grammy nominations with 10 awards, Broadway runs, a feature film, and decades of touring from small clubs to stadiums, she has led a life that would make entertaining reading. She declined previous book offers, however, because she knew the publishers wanted a tell-all autobiography. She had no interest in talking about the details of her life and, as she put it, “all my old boyfriends”. It was Boylan’s suggestion she write a book about her life in music that convinced her to do a book. It was a bestseller.
From a musical family, her influences were opera, folk, American standards, and traditional Mexican music. She lists among her most significant influences Lola Beltrane, Maria Callas, and Frank Sinatra. She’s said the only music she ever recorded was the kind she heard at home before the age of 10.
Her earliest recordings are clearly rooted in folk music but she would morph this into the California rock sound which made her famous. She moved to California while still in her teens and proceeded to meet the people who would become the Who’s Who of popular music for the next 20 years. Don Henley and Glenn Frey, later founding members of the Eagles, were in her back-up band after she left the Stone Poneys.
At the height of her success as the queen of “Torchy Rock”, as she was called on her first cover of Time magazine, she decided to set aside her schedule of recording and touring to pursue other musical challenges. Her success and the nature of the music business had changed. She was now playing in stadiums and large venues, often with poor acoustics. The music had to be performed so loudly there was little room for nuance or interpretation. She wanted other opportunities. She starred in The Pirates of Penzance, first in Central Park, and then on Broadway, where she received a Tony nomination. She reprised her role in the film version. She would return to Broadway in a production of La Bohème which was a critical disaster. She admits she did not have the technical ability to sustain her voice for a role as demanding as ‘Mimi’. She shrugs it off. One learns more from failures than successes.
Intermittently, she would return to rock. She feels the 1989 album “Cry Like a Rainstorm Howl Like the Wind” is her best in that genre. In between, she recorded albums of American standards. Her record company feared her rock fans would reject style of music and they were largely correct. But she found entirely new fans for those records. The same was true of her Spanish-language recordings of mariachi and traditional Mexican songs. Again, they were different fans but they were legion. Her final recordings were of jazz and Cajun folk music with friends she’d wanted to work with; new challenges, new opportunities.
She was good to her word in writing a book that is not a ‘tell all.’ She takes about friends and collaborators but there is very little in the book that is critical. She mentions her father calling in England where she was filming “Pirates…” to tell her that her mother had died. She was very close to her father but mentions in the Epilogue only that he died in 1995.
She talks about moving back to Tucson because she thought it was a better place to raise her children. She offers no details about the children, both are adopted though she does not say that in the book, or her decision to become a single mother in her 40’s. She is close to her siblings and extended family but only discusses them in the context of their musical careers and their influence on her own.
Her only references to her ” old boyfriends” relate directly to the musical work she was doing at the time. “I was living with J.D. Souther at that time and we were listening to ….”. “Jerry Brown, who was staying with me at my house in Malibu, answered the phone when Joe Papp called…..” “I was keeping steady company with Pete Hamil and he introduced me to the books of…”. Other high-profile relationships like Jim Carey or George Lucas, to whom she was engaged, are not mentioned at all.
Most telling of all, she never mentions Parkinson’s specifically. The disease caused her to lose muscle control of her vocal cords. In her conversation at the MIM, she talked about her voice. Voices change as singers age. She could get by with “screaming” for her rock material but not with her other music she was doing. She said she retired when she started to be embarrassed that people were paying money to see her when she could no longer sing well. She retired before the cause of her difficulty was diagnosed as Parkinson’s. None of that is in her memoir, however. The closest she comes to mentioning what must have been a traumatic transition in her life is when she recounts a friend commenting, late in her career, that he’d seen her perform “with a still-healthy voice but he’d never seen her happier”.
If one wants the gossip, there are biographies out there. Other people have written that story, accurately and otherwise. But in Simple Dreams all she wanted to write about was her music. It worked for me.
I could never choose a favorite recording but this song, written by Karla Bonoff, from her 1976 Hasten Down the Wind album will always make my top ten.