Linda Ronstadt's 'Simple Dreams' tells of life like a wheel, but turning slower these days

New York TimesSeptember 21, 2013 

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Linda Ronstadt accepts the Trailblazer award during the 2008 ALMA Awards honoring Latino contributions to music.

VINCE BUCCI — GETTY

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    Nonfiction Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir Linda Ronstadt

    Simon and Schuster,

    256 pages

— The first thing to know about Linda Ronstadt is that if you ring the bell at her home here, on a sedate street with views of the ocean, she’ll answer the door herself. At least she did on a recent Monday morning.

She wore a pink hoodie and jeans, her short dark hair framing the oval face that ornamented album and magazine covers throughout the 1970s and ’80s, when Ronstadt was rock ’n’ roll’s biggest and most alluring female star, with albums like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Living in the U.S.A.” that helped define the polished music of her era.

In the living room, near the Yamaha baby grand, Ronstadt settled into a chair, rested her white high-top sneakers on an ottoman and discussed her new book, “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” which is being published this month.

For many, she remains her generation’s premier female pop vocalist, and they wonder why she hasn’t released an album since 2006 or appeared in concert since her mariachi show in 2009.

“I can’t do it, because of my health,” Ronstadt said. “I have Parkinson’s.” (The news was first reported in the AARP Magazine online last month.) “I can’t sing at all,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I’m truly not able. I can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ really.”

She had been aware for more than a decade that something was wrong, but those closest to her suspected it might be just another instance of the performance anxiety for which she is well known.

She got the news in June. Fearful of doctors, she had put off going to a neurologist until a guitarist friend, observing the unsteady hands, said she had to go.

“I never in a million years thought I had Parkinson’s, not in a million years,” she said. “Now I don’t know what to do. I have to find a support group. I have to call Michael Pollan. He’s responsible for all this.” (Pollan, the brother-in-law of Michael J. Fox, who also has Parkinson’s, said Ronstadt had not discussed her illness with him.)

By “all this” she meant not her health, but the book, which was completed before doctors confirmed that she has Parkinson’s.

“I never wanted to write a book,” she said. A voracious reader who can quote Henry James verbatim, Ronstadt has, if anything, too much respect for the written word. But at dinner one night, Pollan, the journalist and author, urged her to reconsider.

There was another fact to weigh, her dwindling savings. Ronstadt released many albums but wrote very few songs, so her royalty checks are small.

“Writers make all the money,” she said. Her most memorable hits – “You’re No Good,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Blue Bayou” – were written by others. “I was making good money when I was touring,” she said. But now “I just can’t do it.”

And so a book, and the advance it would bring, began to make sense.

In “Simple Dreams,” she recalls her musical journey phase by phase, beginning with her childhood on a ranch outside Tucson, Ariz.

At 18, with $30 from her father, she went to Los Angeles and two years later recorded her first hit, the anti-torch song “Different Drum,” with its teasing harpsichord and undertow of “longing and yearning.”

She had already outgrown her first band, the Stone Poneys, and in the next years flitted from one persona to the next – country singer, folk hippie, soft-rock crooner – refining her voice, with its huge dynamics and complex tonalities.

In the memoir, she recalls sharing a cab with singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker after a night of music in Greenwich Village. Walker, his face “scarcely visible,” sang the first verse of “Heart Like a Wheel,” a ballad he’d heard Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle sing at a folk festival.

Here was a story that could be sung but also interpreted. “I felt like a bomb had exploded in my head,” Ronstadt writes.

Other songwriters were emerging too – Karla Bonoff, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon – many of them living in Southern California. A new country-inflected sound, sentimental but sophisticated, was taking shape.

Her memoir is a reminder of how close to the epicenter she once had been. She opened for the Doors (and was unimpressed with Jim Morrison) and toured with Neil Young, whom she reveres. A highlight of the book is her account of an all-night jam with Gram Parsons and Keith Richards, Parsons disappearing at intervals to ingest more drugs.

For the most part, she sidesteps the rampant drug use, although in conversation she acknowledged, “I tried everything,” including cocaine. For Ronstadt, who was often the only woman on the bus and in the hotel, those were not always happy times.

“All the men chased girls,” she said. “They were good guys,” she reflected. “Well, no they weren’t. They were cowboys. They were gunslingers.”

But many remain good friends, as do most of the celebrated boyfriends, like Jerry Brown, with whom she was so close, during his first time as governor, that she was sometimes called “the first lady of California.” And yet, keeping the vow of “I Never Will Marry” (a duet she recorded with Dolly Parton), Ronstadt is single, although she has two children, ages 22 and 19, who share her three-story home.

“They can’t believe I had a life before them,” Ronstadt said, almost shrieking with laughter. “I live a very quiet life here, nothing like I did.”

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