There’s a Certain Girl

Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir
Linda Ronstadt

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.

Davivid Lindley
This master of any instrument with strings is, it turns out, a distant relative of LR’s.

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.

The woman who hung with The Stones, hired this bunch, destined to have the best-selling rock record ever, as her original road band.

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.

The woman knew a great song when she heard it, no matter who wrote it. Richard Rodgers (sitting) and Lorenz Hart.

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.


Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder

Had I not misread an email notice you’d be reading something else right now.

Leave aside the preconceptions buried in that sentence, though, and turn your attention to this latest instance of what I’m thinking of calling instant publishing.

If that brings to mind the freeze-dried crystals that a college friend ate by the tablespoonful to ward off the Continue reading

Jesus is Just Alright

Miss Gomez and the Brethren
William Trevor

Lost. Once again I am completely lost.

I really hate when that happens.

If you’ve visited before, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered me in my befuddlement. Almost always, the cause is a work of fiction. I always say it’s important to Continue reading

Even Old New York was Once New Amsterdam

New Netherland In a Nutshell: A Concise History of the Dutch
Colony in North America
Firth Haring Fabend

It’s always easy for me, in the months when the year seems to be collapsing in on itself, to recede into a cocoon of learning. I may not much fancy human company, but I never avoid a book.

Not even one as oxymoronically subtitled as this one.

Concise history indeed. The very notion is suspect and the reality is something different altogether. Even Continue reading

Raise Your Voice up to the Sky

The Way to Rainy Mountain
N. Scott Momaday

There’s been so much noise lately that I needed a
quiet book.

So I went hunting in the unread stash I keep in my basement, the acquired-but-unread treasures of a life-long booklover. And I found exactly what I was looking for.

Look this book up–on Wikipedia, say, or on a bookseller’s website–and you’ll find a synopsis. Perhaps it will speak of founding legends. Or it might speak of the journey of the Kiowa nation from its ancestral home in the forests of Montana to the South Central Plains. Maybe it will speak of the author’s personal journey of discovery about his own Kiowa past.

In truth it would be all of those things, and none of them at all.

If that last sentence seems hopelessly vague then I’ve failed, because what I want to convey is a sense that a synopsis, as typically rendered, fails this book.

Years ago I attended Yom Kippur services for a period and the rabbi had standing remarks prepared for different portions of the day. As I recall, one of those set pieces spoke to our ability to understand loss  being incommensurate with its reality. A similar inadequacy applies to describing this short, beautiful volume.

N. Scott_Momaday, b. 1934

When N. Scott Momaday published this book, in 1969, he was fresh off the success of his novel, House Made of Dawn. I’ve not read that book, for which Momaday was awarded the Pulitzer Prize,  but it is credited with launching what is known as the Native American Renaissance.

I remember the period, though. At the tail end of the 1960s movements were everywhere.  In my juvenile mind their energies were all intertwined–Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the National Council of La Raza, and the American Indian Movement among them.  Not too much earlier, there had been a week when eight of the top 10 network television shows were Westerns, a genre in which Indians were rarely the goods guys and most certainly were never called Native Americans.

So being the guy who kicked off a cultural movement is a big deal.

You wouldn’t know it from this book, though. The authorial presence here is liminal, a conscious choice I am sure. The words, the tales, the book even,  are merely a channel for the reader to sense what it means to be Kiowa.

The prairie at Wichita Hills NWR. Rainy Mountain lies just outside and is probably similar to the hill in the background.

Momaday himself is a member of the Kiowa nation, his father being full-blooded and his mother of Cherokee and mixed extraction. Momaday was born in Oklahoma, where this book is set, but grew up in Arizona where his father was a teacher on the reservation. As a result Momaday was immersed not just in the ways of the Kiowa but in a number of Southwestern tribal nations.

In a prologue, Momaday tells us he was drawn to this subject by the death of his grandmother.  Her passing, I suppose, made clear the limits of living connections to cultural history. But I also think that it probably brought with it the realization that the only thing permanent is loss.

It’s not polite to speak for other people, but I’ve no other explanation for the sense of loss which permeates these tales. And the book contains many tales. In fact, along with the prologue, an equally short epilogue is the only other thing recognizable as more or less standard prose. A PhD, Momaday surely knows how to do that, so again it’s a conscious choice.

Kiowa Sun Dance (maybe?)

What the book contains is a number of voices. Some are drawn from the existing first-hand recollections of writers who came with or on the heels of the Army. These are, more or less, intellectual contemporaries of  Francis Parkman and the voice is familair.

Then there are the tales that belong to the nation itself, none more important than those involving Tai-me, the talisman that lies at the center of the nation’s celebration of the Sun Dance.

We also read the tale of the Kiowa people’s emergence into the world and another that originated during the Kiowa’s long migration from Montana to Oklahoma. Once Devil’s Tower is explained to you this way you’ll never watch Close Encounters the same way again. The voice, though, carries the flat tones anthropologists use when retelling tales– a manner that doesn’t impose meaning from without.

Lastly, there are the deeply personal parts. The memories of grandparents and Momaday’s personal encounters with the landscape. The moments when he connects personal experience with the still-living experience of his tribesmen. The parallels between the loss that comes with natural death and the loss that results from having your cultural existence obliterated by men on horses with guns.

Devil’s Tower. I much prefer the Kiowa story of its origin to the hard science.

Momaday was around 35 when he published this book, which contains lovely illustrations by his father. For me that was a turning point. Youth was most surely gone and the dawning realization that time is not limitless began to itch. There are hints of that in this book.

Mostly, though, I think the book offers an opportunity. Slow down. Read a few pages at a time; there are few places in the book where the text spans more than a page or two. Think about that which persists and that which does not and accept them as you can.

In such a way, I think, we make our peace.


Help Me Find My Mind

How the Right Lost It’s Mind
Charles J. Sykes

Stories are powerful. So indulge me in a story.

Once upon a time, I didn’t have a smart phone. I carried a BlackBerry for work, and my trusty flip phone, but I left the iPhones and Androids to others. When asked why, I Continue reading

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Six Easy Pieces
Walter Mosley

Academia and I have a rocky relationship that’s a bit one-sided. I see great potential, often squandered; they don’t pay me much heed at all.

So it should come as no surprise that my academic colleagues look askance at ‘binary thinking.’  I’m a Continue reading