Book review of Linda Ronstadt’s ‘Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir’

Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir
Linda Ronstadt
Simon & Schuster
*****

By Mike Greenblatt

Linda Ronstadt’s new memoir could’ve been called “Rebel Without A Bra.” Besides not caring much for that particular piece of underclothing, Ronstadt’s rebelliousness comes out in an ever-changing quest for fresh musical terrain to explore, as she relates in her memoir, “Simple Dreams.”

Linda Ronstadt Simple DreamsAlthough she is a voracious reader, Ronstadt was hesitant to strike out as an author. At a dinner meeting with author and journalist Michael Pollan, Ronstadt admits she told him: “I don’t have any craft. I don’t have any skill.” Pollan’s reply: “Everybody has at least one good story in them that they can pull out.”

It is clear from “Simple Dreams” that Ronstadt has far more than one good story. The book is a satisfying read, and despite her protests to the contrary, Ronstadt is a natural writer.

Ronstadt tells how, at age 19, she decided she was going to leave her native Tuscon after her spring semester in 1965 at the University of Arizona. But she waited until the night before she left her native Tucson to go make it in Los Angeles as a singer to tell her parents of her decision.

Her brokenhearted father, though, goes into another room and comes back with his cherished Martin Guitar that her grandfather bought new in 1898. “Ahora que tienes guitarra, nunca tendras hambre,” he tells her softly (“Now that you own a guitar, you will never be hungry.”)

Next, she forms a band (The Stone Poneys) with friends, gets a deal, has a hit with a song written by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees (“Different Drum”) and is sent out on the road opening for The Doors. Of course, it didn’t all happen in the course of one sentence like this. It took two years of falling in with like-minded musicians who were very protective of her, and it didn’t hurt she was drop-dead gorgeous. Skirting the many creeps, including one rich older gentleman who was actually quite polite upon taking her to dinner and offering to put her up in the finest of apartments with all her food, clothes and cash-on-hand taken care of (if only she’d submit to him sexually), she settles into the musician life. The Jim Morrison stories are priceless. So the stories about Jackson Browne, The Eagles, Emmylou Harris, Little Feat’s Lowell George, Ricky Scaggs, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Jerry Wexler, Brian Wilson and so many others who crossed her path  both professionally and personally. She even goes skating with one of Charles Manson’s “Family” members, Leslie Van Houten. One night she jams until the morning with Keith Richards and Gram Parsons but neither of them are in any condition to drive her home so she sits there nervous, sober and righteously pissed off until it’s a proper enough time to call a friend to rescue her.

The superstar years are recounted through a prism of genuine gratitude. It’s always been all about the music for this versatile musician. The unrest sets in with constant stadium appearances when the music becomes muddled and cloudy, all nuances of a gorgeous song like “Heart Like A Wheel,” for instance, almost impossible to convey in these cavernous venues with horrible sound. Plus, she’s constantly seeing her fellow rock stars take their danger from the stage where it belongs into their personal lives. An avid reader, she takes comfort in the words of French novelist Gustave Flaubert [1821-1880]. “Be regular and orderly in your everyday life, like a bourgeois, so you can be violent and original in your work.”
The experimentation starts with Joe Papp in New York and his production of “The Pirates Of Penzance.” That, too, though, after so many performances night and day results in her getting positively giddy to the point of giggling onstage and having to go out at intermission and actually apologize to the audience.
The road leads through rock ’n’ roll, country, opera, standards and Mexican folk music and the artistic triumphs in each are rewarding and incredibly impressive. This is, after all, a “Musical Memoir.” Encore!

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