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Linda Ronstadt reveals her "Simple Dreams" in new memoir

@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

Posted: Wednesday, October 2, 2013

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Writing an autobiography was a hard sell for Linda Ronstadt.

"I wasn't a writer. I hadn't had any experience writing," says the veteran singer, who recently published "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir" (Simon and Schuster) -- which, as the title implies, focuses on Ronstadt's musical adventures with little attention paid to her well-publicized romantic live.

"I never kept a journal, never kept a diary, so I haven't written anything past a thank-you note, practically."

The encouragement Ronstadt needed came from novelist Michael Palmer, who she met at a mutual friend's dinner party one night after the book idea was broached.

"He went, 'Oh, you're going to write a memoir?' " Ronstadt remembers. "And I said, 'Well, I don't know how to write one or have any skill,' and he said, 'Well, everybody has one story in them that they can get out. Just one good story.' And I said, 'OK, I'm gonna try for that.' "

"And, you know, so many people have written about things that I said or things they said I said, and they got it so widely inaccurate so much of the time that I'd like to have my side of it out there."

The story Ronstadt, 67, tells in "Simple Dreams" is largely a happy one, of growing up in a musical family in Tucson, Ariz., surrounded by myriad musical influences. "We lived by the (Mexican-American) border and by the giant (radio) transmitters in the southern United States and in Mexico, so there was a huge cross-pollination there," Ronstadt says. "And the people in my family were very musical and everybody played and sang and they liked all different kinds of things. They liked opera. They liked jazz. They liked Mexican music, folk music, country music. It was all there, playing away.

"I actually came to rock 'n' roll last, about the age of seven or eight, which is very interesting."

Ronstadt, of course, made her name in rock first, staring with the band the Stone Poneys and then as a solo artist who's sold more than 30 million records in the U.S., racking up six consecutive platinum-or-better albums between 1975-80. Enduring hits such as "You're No Good," "Poor Poor Pitiful Me," "It's So Easy" and Top 10 covers of Motown classics such as "Heat Wave" and "Ooh Baby Baby" helped defined the pop-country meld of mid- and late-70s California.

But Ronstadt went even further, starring on Broadway in "Pirates of Penzance," exploring pop standards with arranger Nelson Riddle on three 80s albums and digging into her Hispanic roots on a pair of early 90s releases. She also recorded duets with Aaron Neville and formed a trio with Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. Other collaborators include Billy Eckstine, Frank Zappa, Rosemary Clooney, The Chieftains, Neil Young, Johnny Cash and many others.

"I didn't become the greatest singer in all of pop music, but I became at least, for my time, the most diverse," notes Ronstadt, whose rewards for that variety included 11 Grammy Awards along with a Tony and a Golden Globe.

The irony, and tragedy, now is that Ronstadt can no longer sing due to Parkinson's disease, which was diagnosed in December (after she turned in the book) and which she announced publicly in August. "It makes me sad," Ronstadt acknowledges. "I have to say it's a drag. It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me. Then I think for every time there is a season. I say to myself (that) I had a really, unusually long turn at the troth and I have to be satisfied with that, and I got to live out my dreams musically in a way that lots of people don't get to.

"I was lucky that way, and I'm grateful for it and I have to just look around for other ways to make myself useful -- and I will."

But Ronstadt -- who these days is active with the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in San Pablo, Calif., which helps teach Latin American youth about their culture -- has no regrets about making the Parkinson's public. "Well, y'know, when you have Parkinson's disease it's kind of noticeable," she says with a laugh. "My (book) editor said, 'Don't tell anyone you have Parkinson's disease. It'll be the story it'll all be out.' And I was, 'Well, when I show up they're gonna say I'm drunk, 'cause I have a hard time walking. so I better tell 'em I have this reason for it'...

"So I did. I just didn't see any reason to hit it. I was surprised there was such a reaction. I told about 11 interviews I had Parkinson's disease and there wasn't much of a response, and then I told AARP and I don't know what happened. I don't know how the news works anymore, but it was a bigger deal than that."

"Simple Dreams," of course, could have been bigger if Ronstadt had decided to dish some dirt on her paramours, a list that includes reported and rumored relationships with California Gov. Jerry Brown, songwriter J.D. Souther, Steve Martin, George Lucas, among others. But told by Simon and Schuster that "it doesn't have to be a kiss-and-tell book or anything like that," Ronstadt takes the high road throughout, using "keeping company" as a euphemism for the relationships.

"Well, that's what we were doing," she says with another laugh. "I only mention them if they actually had some kind of place in the music. Having a musical companion to listen with is a huge thing; when you're sitting listening wtih someone with a shared sensibility, it expands your experience hugely -- by multiples of 10 sometimes."

In Souther's case, she adds, "he was the one from the rock 'n' roll community who, when I started recording standards (with 1983's 'What's New'), went, 'What a great idea!' I feared his opinion because he's very judgmental and he's very condemning, but he loved those tunes and said, 'This is pretty good. I think you should keep going with it.' He liked the record and he came in and encouraged (Ronstadt's manager) Peter Asher, whose courage was flagging a little bit. It dragged us over the finish line a little bit, and I owe (Souther) a debut of gratitude for that."

"Simple Dreams" has its share of adventures, though, including an eventful Stone Poneys tour with the Doors and watching Royal Oak native Glenn Frey and Don Henley form the Eagles while they were playing in her band. She also decided to give herself "a little bit of a break" in assessing her own musical evolution and development.

"I always thought I couldn't sing very well," Ronstadt explains. "I was always very frustrated by it, and I was always sort of disappointed by it. Everything I did always fell short of my expectations.

"But the good news is I got better, and I made a lot of music that people liked a lot, and that's something I feel good about."

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