Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Simple Dreams' for Linda Ronstadt's 74th birthday

Linda Ronstadt (center) with Emmylou Harris (left) and Dolly Parton.
Linda Ronstadt (center) with her longtime friends and collaborators Emmylou Harris (left) and Dolly Parton at a MusiCares gala in 2019. (VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

Given that this review is going out under a "Rock and Roll Book Club" headline, I almost feel like I need to start with an apology to Linda Ronstadt.

"I never felt that rock and roll defined me," the singer writes in Simple Dreams (buy now). "There was an unyielding attitude that came with the music that involved being confrontational, dismissive, and aggressive — or, as my mother would say, ungracious."

If there's one thing Ronstadt's 2013 autobiography is not, it's ungracious. A highly selective account — as is her prerogative — Simple Dreams is first and foremost a professional love letter to some of the many collaborators she worked with over the course of her 40-year career. Among them: the Eagles, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Peter Asher, Joe Papp, Jerry Wexler, Nelson Riddle, and Aaron Neville.

That's a diverse list, and Ronstadt makes clear she's proud of that fact. "People ask me why my career consisted of such rampant eclecticism," she writes. "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.

No wonder it all goes back to that family living room for Ronstadt, who went on to win ten Grammys, chart 21 Top 40 hits, and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. From her account in Simple Dreams, her childhood was positively bucolic. (Except for her Catholic school experience under cruel, seemingly miserable nuns. As Ronstadt observes, who wouldn't be miserable having to wear a full habit in the desert?)

She grew up on an Arizona ranch, caking her bare feet with mud to stave off the desert heat and riding her pony Murphy alongside her best friend Dana on another pony named Little Paint. Her parents were both smart cookies: they each came from families with engineering prowess, and Ronstadt's mother Ruth would sit at the kitchen table and work calculus equations for fun.

Her father's side of the family, though, also had a rich vein of musical talent. Her paternal grandfather was Mexican, and his daughter Luisa Espinel (daughter of his deceased first wife) was a successful singer and dancer who the young Linda idolized. She grew up hearing mariachi music, standards from the Great American Songbook, classical music, Hank Williams, and more.

When Ronstadt first took to the stage herself, it was on the '60s folkhouse circuit. In 1965, she headed east to join her friend — and future Stone Poneys bandmate — Bobby Kimmel on the Boston coffeeshop scene, where Joan Baez and Bob Dylan were long gone but where the Jim Kweskin Jug Band still reined supreme. Maria Muldaur became an early mentor, and by the end of her freshman year at the University of Arizona, Ronstadt broke it to her parents: she was dropping out to move to L.A. and sing folk rock.

From a music fan's standpoint, one of the most fascinating aspects of Simple Dreams is Ronstadt's account of coming up at a time in the record industry when a band like the Eagles — now one of the best-selling groups of all time — made no sense. Were they country or were they rock? Ronstadt faced the same challenge; in fact, she effectively formed the Eagles when she brought their founding members together to play as her backing band. Don Henley and Glenn Frey quickly realized they shared musical alchemy, and the rest is history.

It's a typical anecdote from a career founded on extraordinary taste. That doesn't sound like a compliment, but it's clear from Ronstadt's accounts of hanging out with a boorish, abusive Jim Morrison that being a thoughtful, decent human being who truly values music is far more important to her than any amount of mercurial brilliance. No wonder two of her best friends and closest collaborators are Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, extraordinary talents who are also extraordinarily kind.

Ronstadt's breakout hit was "Different Drum"; she discovered Mike Nesmith's song in a 1966 bluegrass recording by John Herald. She told producer Nick Venet she thought it could be a hit for her band the Stone Poneys; Venet agreed that it could be a hit for her and brought in a crack studio band to record the song with Ronstadt alone. Although the Stone Poneys stuck together for another year, it was clear that Capitol Records had been right from the start, when they tried to sign her solo: Ronstadt was the star.

Her '70s period is now known to musicheads as a foundational era for what became known as alt country, with Ronstadt's 1969 solo debut among that genre's early documents, but at the time she was regarded as a rock star, the first solo woman to build a large and steady audience in the arena-rock era. Don't call her the Queen of Rock: in Simple Dreams, she writes that if the crown is hers to give, she wants it to be on Chrissie Hynde's head.

She never liked arenas anyway: "the sound in those enormous places was kind of like being in a flushing toilet with the lid down." By the '80s, Ronstadt was ready to go her own way. Although she'd continue to make pop records and have chart hits throughout the decade ("Don't Know Much," a 1989 duet with Aaron Neville, went to number two), she describes repeatedly insisting on following her dreams, and had more commercial success at it than casual fans might realize.

What's New, her 1983 standards album recorded with legendary arranger Nelson Riddle (he literally crossed Frank Sinatra's name off one arrangement and wrote Ronstadt's in), went triple platinum and spawned two sequels. Canciones de Mi Padre, her 1987 album of traditional Mariachi music, is the top-selling non-English-language album in the history of the American recording industry. Her Broadway turn in The Pirates of Penzance earned her a Tony nomination.

Simple Dreams is subtitled A Musical Memoir, and this is a book that's truly about the music. As befits an artist who's been described as having the greatest voice of her generation, Ronstadt's precise and revealing regarding the recording industry — and the business side of the business, at least as it affects the music. (Being literally allergic to alcohol doubtless helps the lucidity this book evinces compared to other artists' memoirs.)

She explains, for example, how What's New was compromised by the extraordinary expense of hiring an orchestra; there was simply no time for rehearsal, even for an artist of Ronstadt's stature. She also explains how digital technology has allowed her to assemble a multi-part vocal take that represents her true vision for a performance, rather than a first go that necessarily had to be locked in because analog technology required layers to be built on top of it. Without false humility, she also makes clear that she knows her limits: singing La Boheme, she realized that an opera voice can't simply be imitated, it must be trained over the course of a lifetime.

She also reveals a harrowing Me Too moment from 1969, when a producer on The Johnny Cash Show talked his way into her hotel room on false pretenses, then immediately "removed every stitch of clothing he was wearing. I was embarrassed and frightened. He was hardly the Adonis of show business, and there was an element of icky self-loathing to his exhibitionism." He cautioned her against saying anything, as no one would believe a woman who didn't wear a bra.

Simple Dreams includes stories about many of Ronstadt's peers, which are generally glowing but occasionally harrowing (Ronstadt and Keith Richards hauling Gram Parsons to a couch after a late-night jam session during his downward spiral) and sometimes touching (when Brian Wilson was Ronstadt's neighbor, he'd show up at her back door in search of change to buy grape juice; the two would sit and listen to Phil Spector records while Wilson drank his juice).

In terms of her genuinely personal life...well, Ronstadt keeps it genuinely personal. Jerry Brown, the governor of California who Ronstadt dated on and off for years, is introduced as a man she was "keeping company with" to an extent that created awkwardness when her Malibu community suffered flood damage and her neighbors demanded government help. There's zero mention of her five-year engagement to George Lucas, and her daughter appears in a photo with no explanation of where the baby came from. (Ronstadt adopted two children.)

There's also no mention of the specific reason for her retirement: progressive supranuclear palsy, a disease similar to Parkinson's. She opened up about the condition earlier this year, but Simple Dreams keeps the focus on the singer's lifelong love affair with music.

She hopes you have one, too. "I feel sorry for a culture that depends too much on delegating its musical expression to professionals," writes the singer who grew up enjoying day-long musical picnics with her community. "It is fine to have heroes, but we should do our own singing first, even if it is never heard beyond the shower curtain."

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July 22: Remain in Love: Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Tina by Chris Frantz (buy now)

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