Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir By Linda Ronstadt Simon & Schuster, 256 pp., $26
Linda Ronstadt hasn't made a solo record since 2004, graced a concert stage since 2009, and while doing advance interviews for this book announced that she suffers from Parkinson's Disease. More than likely, she won't ever sing again. So it's with a bit of bittersweet background that the reader comes to Simple Dreams, Ronstadt's memoir of her life in and out of music.
Now 67, Ronstadt left her Arizona home at age 18 to make it as a singer in L.A. She soon scored a hit as part of the Stone Poneys' Mike Nesmith-penned "Different Drum," before it became clear that the powers that be were more interested in her as a solo artist.
At one time in the mid-'70s, Ronstadt was rock's most famous female performer with a string of massive hits, many of them covers -- "Blue Bayou," "You're No Good," "Heat Wave," "Heart Like a Wheel," "When Will I Be Loved" -- selling out big shows, and appearing on the cover of Time. Plus, she was hot. Like, super hot.
Fun fact: Ronstadt's grandfather invented the electric toaster and stove, pneumatic grease gun, and rubber ice cube tray!
But what still makes her a trailblazer for female singers decades later was her desire to break out of the confines of the rock genre. So she gleefully pursued such disparate interests as musical theater (The Pirates of Penzance), opera (La Boheme), and entire album cycles covering the Great American Songbook (long before it was in vogue) and old Mexican rancheras sung entirely in Spanish.
Even those closest to her thought she was batshit crazy for attempting those last two efforts, but Ronstadt had the last laugh as those records sold in huge numbers and garnered multiple awards. In fact, one of the more interesting revelations in Simple Dreams is that Ronstadt considers her Spanish-music phase the most fun and rewarding of her entire career.
Ronstadt has a lot of stories -- well, vignettes really. Trying to keep up with a hugely drunken Jim Morrison. Sitting in a living room while Keith Richards sings "Wild Horses" to Gram Parsons for the first time. Gigging with her backing band that eventually morphed into the Eagles. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Peter Asher, Warren Zevon, David Geffen, Dolly Parton, and a host of other boldface names also pop up in the narrative.
Houston shows up as Ronstadt recounts a 1973 gig at the Sam Houston Coliseum opening for Neil Young, and then taking him and the band to see Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris at Liberty Hall the next night.
All would end up at Young's hotel room, jamming until the wee hours of the morning. In fact, there's a lot of living-room jamming going on, as only the rock stars of the '70s in Laurel Canyon and nearby communities could do. Oh, to be a fly on the wall (and with a tape recorder)...
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As for Ronstadt's "serial monogamist" (as she once described it to NPR) love life, don't expect any kiss-and-tell about her often high-profile boyfriends over the years. She "lived" with J.D. Souther, and "kept company" with then-California governor Jerry Brown and journalist Pete Hamill. Poor Master-of-the-Star Wars universe George Lucas doesn't even get mentioned.
Drugs? She flirts with pot and cocaine... for a few sentences. And two children magically appear by book's end with no names or mention of how they came into her family. (Both were adopted... thank you, Internet!)
Simple Dreams does have a nagging flaw in its brevity; sometimes it's just not that substantial in terms of narrative. Readers will surely want to hear more about her most commercially popular years and show-business experiences, or even her own deeper thoughts and feelings on parts of her life she sometimes glosses over or ignores completely.
Like a piece of Swiss cheese, it is whole, but chunks are missing. It's an appetizer that begs to be made into a main course. It's a tapas with not enough portions. And that's all the food analogies you get.
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