Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir
Mistakes are part of life, so I try to learn from mine.
Take my declarations about genres. Every time I declare I don’t read a particular type of book, I find myself behaving in a contradictory manner.
Consider Exhibit A: biography, a category that includes autobiography and the successful publisher-created phenomenon of memoir. I won’t say I shun the genre, but I’ve had plenty to say when titles have been recommended to me.
But the library held a sale, and I got a bag of books for a buck, and, as previously stated, I had a wicked crush and, well, here we are.
For quite a while, Linda Ronstadt was the major female rock star. There wasn’t, to be sure, a lot of competition at the time. Joni Mitchell is too sui generis to fit such a narrow label and Grace Slick was tethered to a descending Airplane that would spend a decade desperately trying to refashion itself into a spectacular Starship.
That gave the girl singer from Southern California the stage pretty much to herself at a moment when the dominant sound coming out of LA was a softer brand of rock, less dependent on obvious displays of testosterone. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
In the beginning, there was a girl growing up on a ranch outside Tucson, Arizona. The Ronstadts were a family of shared Mexican-German heritage. In recent years that part of the nation has become a hotbed of anti-immigration fervor, but the Ronstadts were not atypical. Nor were such families confined to one side of what was a very porous boundary. In college, I had a friend, Fé, whose Polish immigrant family hailed from the Mexican side of the border and embodied that sort of mix.
As with many a story from the Southwest in the pre-boom/early postwar years, Ronstadt’s is an idyll. Days are filled with play in the desert, evenings with family gatherings full of music and food. Ronstadt’s family has a musical lineage that is wide and deep and in her telling she more or less hid her developing vocal talents along with ambitions she was beginning to harbor.
Not that she ever admits to those ambitions. One thing I learned I share with Ronstadt is a parochial school education. Cleary the same disdain of naked ambition was inculcated in her, although I think the prohibition was more about statements of ambition than actually developing your talents. There was a lot about not hiding one’s light under a bushel, as I recall, and our heroine is not as shy as she’d like us to believe.
Actually, what she’d like us to believe is what this book is all about. And much of that has to do with Linda the person instead of Linda the personality. Not that Linda the personality was ever a spectacular mess. Amy Winehouse most certainly did NOT model herself on Linda Ronstadt.
Nor would anyone who was looking to dominate headlines. Linda Ronstadt may be the only person on earth who thinks that the best alternative to an all-night jam session with Keith Richards and Gram Parsons (at which, I think, they work on or premiere for her ‘Wild Horses’), is to be at home in her flannel nightgown. Or whose response to being captive at it is to invent the concept of the designated driver.
She’s actually really invested in this good girl image which may account for my initial attraction. Why would I say that? Well, the inserted photo section contains a picture of Linda with Nicolette Larson and Jenny Shore in, you guessed it, flannel nightgowns.
Linda never has a fling or torrid affair, she keeps company. She declares herself practically a neo-Victorian–an aesthetically provable assertion–and uses the pre-Freud adjective phlegmatic to describe herself.
It’s always the contradictions that make things interesting. That bit about being phlegmatic is delivered in the middle of a tale about exploding on an annoying paparazzi. The low-key Catholic school boy she was keeping company with? That was Jerry Brown, who was elected Governor of California during the time they were together. She’s a prisoner of the road who manages to go from shared housing in Venice to Malibu to Brentwood to a ranch in the Bay area in a manner so matter of fact it bears little mention.
In one sense, the subtitle is appropriate because the focus is never on the mundanities that celebrity-worship enshrines. I’d almost say that privacy was a cardinal virtue for Ms. Ronstadt. She’s far happier to speak about songs and genres and musicians and songwriters than of real estate deals or rich contracts.
Even on the subject of music she’s committed to her program of nice. There’s nary a bad word for anyone. Even Jack Nitzsche, a legend for his ability to out-boor and misbehave more than almost everyone, earns only a mild rebuke and his years-later apology is included to soften the blow.
Love of one’s friends is laudable, but shouldn’t it be credible? I’ll say right now, I’m not a big fan of Jimmy Webb or Randy Newman as songwriters. But does my old friend Linda really think they’re the equal of Rodgers and Hart?
To be fair, and I’ve said this before, like her sometime singing partner Emmylou Harris, Ronstadt is not much of a writer. So although she claims that Emmylou always showed up with the best songs for their joint projects, a look at the supplied discography demonstrates just how fine Linda Ronstadt’s tastes in songs and songwriters are. She’s probably done more to bring attention to deserving professionals than anyone else in the rock era.
I suppose you could do a deconstruction of Linda the way an academic recently peeled apart Dolly Parton‘s equally well-crafted image. (Parton is another singing partner of Ronstadt’s; I wonder if they traded notes.) But why bother? She’s done singing now, fighting Parkinson’s. She disowns the crown they tried to bestow on her claiming it more appropriately belongs to Chrissie Hynde.
Only royalty would be so gracious.
The Trio sings Neil Young on Letterman.