The defining quality of Linda Ronstadt’s voice, for all of its power and beauty, has always been control. Those feathery la-la-la-las on “Ooh Baby Baby,” just a smidge behind the beat; the way, on “You’re No Good,” that she metes out venom — clear-eyed, pissed off, in tune. Ronstadt isn’t the sort of singer who lets her seams show, or who offers the musical version of her soft belly. And because she sings other people’s songs, even her most affecting musical moments are feats of interpretation rather than revelation.
So it is with Ronstadt’s new book, “Simple Dreams,” subtitled “A Musical Memoir” lest rock fans imagine they’re in for a run of all-nighters at Chateau Marmont. (There’s exactly one, a doozy, technically up the hill from the famed hotel, involving Keith Richards and Gram Parsons.) An articulate and engaging writer, Ronstadt has chosen to largely sidestep her personal life, including the recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease that has left her unable to sing. She makes an exception for her Arizona childhood, a desert idyll centered around an extended and exceedingly musical Mexican-American brood.
“The only rule I imposed on myself, consciously or unconsciously,” Ronstadt writes, “was to not try singing something that I hadn’t heard in the family living room before the age of ten.”
SIMPLE DREAMS: A Musical Memoir
She would spend the second half of her career resurrecting many of those sounds: Gilbert and Sullivan, traditional Mexican music, the Great American Songbook. But first there was Southern California and country-rock to attend to. In 1965, after a semester at Arizona State University, Ronstadt headed west, moving into a bungalow near the beach in Venice and joining the Stone Poneys. Their cover of the Mike Nesmith-penned “Different Drum” climbed the pop charts in 1967, and several years later she fell in with a group of young singer-songwriters who were shaping a musical style that would forever be linked to its laid-back birthplace: Jackson Browne, Chris Hillman, John David Souther, and a bunch of guys who were Ronstadt’s backup band before becoming the Eagles.
Hit records started piling up, and Ronstadt chronicles her decade-long ride as the so-called Queen of Rock with the same artfulness — in both senses of the word — that she brings to music. Her passion for songs and for her many talented collaborators is rendered in charming anecdotes.
But even those readers who aren’t in the market for dish may feel shortchanged by context-free lines like “I was keeping company with then-governor Jerry Brown.” And expunging years of well-documented drug use in order to present only the serious musician who responds to Lowell George’s offer of a Quaalude with, “No, I didn’t want a Quaalude. I wanted to know the open tuning to a song of his,” is the narrative equivalent of a 1970s studio recording: mistakes erased, edges smoothed, polished to a gleam.
Still, Ronstadt has musical memories galore, and when she punctuates her recollections with nuggets of perspective, as in a passage comparing Paul Simon and Neil Young to their art world corollaries, “Simple Dreams” achieves a rare depth. I wanted more of that. I also wanted insight into why, despite her towering artistic and commercial successes, Ronstadt always seemed vaguely out of place in the rock world. The final third of the book provides it.
“I never felt that rock and roll defined me,” she writes, explaining her embrace of the standards. “There was an unyielding attitude that came with the music that involved being confrontational, dismissive, and aggressive — or, as my mother would say, ungracious . . . I cringe when I think of some of the time I was less than gracious. It wasn’t how I was brought up.”
No wonder she took out the naughty bits and glossed over her lovers and instead writes joyously about her left-turn — a U-turn, really — into Mexican music. “After the surreal experience of being caught up 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.”