Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Review: Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, by Linda Ronstadt

Linda Ronstadt, a 2014 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, tells the story of her life in music in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.  Blessed with a powerful and distinctive singing voice, she was the first woman to have four platinum albums in a row.  I remember as a child sifting through my parents' record collection and one I especially liked was Ronstadt's 1977 album Simple Dreams.

She grew up in the Arizona desert, on a ranch outside Tucson, of mixed Anglo-Mexican heritage.  She was raised alongside three siblings and her father owned a hardware store.   She remembers a home life filled with music.  At age eighteen, she moved to Los Angeles to enter its music scene.

She worked on finding the people and the songs that would propel her forward in accordance with her creative vision.  She got her start with the folk-rock band the Stone Poneys and then began a solo career.  She wanted to be a country-rock artist, and not have to choose between the two genres, despite skepticism from label heads.  Later, she went on to explore the Great American Songbook and traditional Mexican folk songs.  "The Mexican shows were my favorites of my entire career," she says.  "After the surreal experience of being caught in the body-snatching machinery of the American celebrity juggernaut, I felt I was able to reclaim an essential part of who I was:  a girl from the Sonoran Desert" (179).

"People ask me why my career consisted of such rampant eclecticism, and why I didn't simply stick to one type of music," she says.  "The answer is that when I admire something tremendously, it is difficult not to try to emulate it.  Some of the attempts were successful, others not.  The only rule I imposed on myself, consciously or unconsciously, was to not try singing something that I hadn't heard in the family living room before the age of ten.  If I hadn't heard it by then, I couldn't attempt it with even a shred of authenticity" (200).

One of the best things about the book is reading about all of Ronstadt's collaborations, from onetime-backing band the Eagles to Neil Young to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to Aaron Neville.  "There is no right way to record. It is a matter of personal style," she says.  "When I recorded on Graceland with Paul Simon in the mid-1980s, he built his records a few tracks at a time, layering sound like the seventeenth-century Dutch painter Vermeer layered paint.  Neil [Young]'s work is more like a pen and ink drawing.  They are both masters" (101).  Of Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, she notes:  "We weren't trying to exploit the fact that we were three established names.  We wanted to do it because at our deepest level of instinct, we suspected musical kinship" (107).  She goes on to say that when she listens to her own recordings she nitpicks "because I will hear something I think I should have done better, but the sound that the three of us made together seemed altogether different from our individual sounds and could be listened to with a rare sense of objectivity" (108).

Despite being immersed in the drug-laden California music scene of the '70s, Ronstadt remained more about the music than many of her peers.  Allergic to alcohol, she did experiment with drugs, but emerged relatively unscathed.  As with the rest of her personal life, this topic is little touched on in the memoir.  She does say, though, "Cocaine sent me straight to the doctor with a bloody nose, which required cauterization.  While I was there, my doctor cheerfully explained to me that cocaine causes the cilia in the ear canal to lie down, and many never get up again.  This can cause permanent hearing loss.  As I recognized that my ears were an important item in my musical toolbox, it was the end of my interest in cocaine" (103).

She never married, and adopted two children who are now in their early 20's.  Ronstadt retired from performing in 2009.  Today, she is unable to sing due to Parkinson's disease.  In an interview with the New York Times, she says, "I have no choice.  If there was something I could work on, I'd work on it till I could get it back.  If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug.  I'd take napalm.  But I'm never going to sing again."

Her two children "play instruments, have a lively and active interest in music, and use it to process their feelings in a private setting.  This is the fundamental value of music, and I feel sorry for a culture that depends too much on delegating its musical expression to professionals.  It is fine to have heroes, but we should do our own singing first, even if it is never heard beyond the shower curtain" (199).  In a TV snippet that I saw, she says she is a big proponent of joining a choir.  I love how she expresses the importance of embracing making music oneself and that it may seem like it's on a small scale but that it's really not.

Linda Ronstadt's book is refreshing in that it is just as it purports to be:  A Musical Memoir.  Readers who expect any dishing on her love life (such as her relationship with former CA governor Jerry Brown) will be disappointed.  As her upbringing and family informed her musical life, we do get to learn some about those aspects of her life, which helps us get to know her.  We emerge with a clearer sense of who Linda Ronstadt is:  a strong woman who just wanted to make a career out of her great love: singing.