Saturday, December 7, 2013

For a Song - Linda Ronstadt: Simple Dreams

This is the season of artists’ autobiographies. Just in time for Christmas we’ve seen books by and about Graham Nash, Donald Fagen, The Kinks’ Ray Davies and more. But by far, whatever pleasures are inherent in the rest, the sweetest, most poetic reminiscence has to be Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams. Isn’t that the way it should be? She doesn’t pull the rug out from underneath anyone, she doesn‘t confess to a lifetime as a heroin addict, or give us any startling revelations about her sex life, but her fine crisp prose tells us just enough details of her climb to the top (and devotion to her craft) to keep us loving the girl singer we grew up with. That’s right, grew up with.

Those of us of a certain age remember the barefoot girl sitting in the dirt with the hogs on Silk Purse, and the sexpot in the red camisole on the front of Rolling Stone magazine. Aah, how that strap slipped off the shoulder! We remember the albums fondly, and the powerful voice held captive in that delicate frame. How could she sing with such gusto? The bands backing her were always fine, one became The Eagles. Her song choices were flawless, and the production by Peter Asher captured the essence of those songs, and still left room for Linda to shine even when the guitar parts were as memorable as on “You’re No Good.” Linda introduced us to a whole generation of songwriters. Warren Zevon, JD Souther, Jackson Browne among others; but she was also on the cusp of the New Wave melding it with her California-rock ethos on an album called Mad Love. Perhaps it wasn’t the grittiest approach to new wave rock, but I assure you it led many listeners (who hadn't gone there yet) to try out Elvis Costello.

Linda Ronstadt was at one time the highest paid woman in rock, with six platinum records and three number one singles. And then she decided she could sing things other than rock and roll. She recorded a trilogy of tunes from the Great American Songbook long before it became popular to do so. She appeared in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance at the New York Shakespeare Festival (and later on Broadway). In the book, she tells of the struggles she had keeping up with the stresses of singing the coloratura parts nightly. Don Henley, head-Eagle and ex-band member, writes on the back cover, “Linda Ronstadt has written a book that is as rich and full-bodied as her voice. She gives a vivid, compelling account of her upbringing in the Arizona desert, surrounded by a loving and talented family, along with a musical and cultural diversity that she would honor and build upon throughout an extraordinary career that spanned five decades…” And that encapsulates what the book is like. The early years are painted in loving daguerreotype images. Getting her own pony, and feeding him carrots is a beautiful image which quickly shattered when young Linda goes to school under the watchful eyes of nuns armed with rulers or pointers. The Catholic guilt was ladled on under the ever-present crucifix, “we were instructed that our childish peccadilloes had been responsible for this guy Jesus being treated in such a cruel fashion.”

Home was better though, “I don’t remember when there wasn’t music going on in our house: my father whistling while he was figuring out how to fix something; my brother Pete practicing the ‘Ave Maria’ for his performance with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus; my sister, Suzy, sobbing a Hank Williams song with her hands in the dishwater; my little brother, Mike, struggling to play the huge double bass.” There was classical music over at the grandparents home, and evening guitar pulls around the campfire. The songs that they sang came from Mexico, or from Michigan, commercial jingles or The Everly Brothers tunes from the radio. It was all music, and Ronstadt’s memories of this are evocative and beautiful.

It wasn’t long before Linda left school and moved to California where her career began. She found guitarist Kenny Edwards at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and was brought into the centre of the folk-rock explosion. Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Clarence White, The Byrds, all make brief appearances but it wasn’t long before Linda was on-stage herself. “I still hadn’t told my parents. I knew they would insist that I was too young, hadn’t finished school, and had no real way to support myself. I also knew they were right, but I had to go where the music was.” Her father handed her a guitar (an 1898 Martin handed down from his own father) and said, “’Ahora que tienes guitarra, nunca tendras hambre’ (‘Now that you own a guitar, you will never be hungry’).” How true that was.

The narrative continues through managers, producers, record companies, and the odd boyfriend here and there. But Ronstadt doesn’t waste time telling tales out of school, instead she just describes with a passion and honesty the way the music industry treated a naive young girl back in the heyday of rock’n’roll. There are cautionary tales, but there’s no bitterness. The cast of characters increases, Ian & Sylvia, NeilYoung, Leonard Cohen, Jerry Jeff Walker, the McGarrigle Sisters, but all are mentioned in passing with perhaps a small anecdote defining their relationship. For instance, although Ben Fong-Torres alludes to a love affair between Ronstadt and Lowell George (in his new book about Little Feat) when Linda mentions George it’s in the context of a guitar lesion, or a song-writing session. It’s all about the music, and really that’s what we’re looking for, isn’t it?

There’s as much information about Kermit the Frog as there is about Jerry Brown, and much more about how Peter Asher produced her classic albums, or just how the traditional Mexican records came about. And it’s all told in Linda’s own voice, gentle, loving, and warm. In the context of all the recent autobiographies of sixties musicians I think this is my favourite. Not the in depth expose of California rock it could have been but a loving reminiscence of a time now past. It made me dig out my old vinyl records just to give them another spin. And to check out the album photos too, of course!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.


  1. Excellent review. This memoir was a pleasure to read and your "relationship" with Linda is similar to so many of us. It was a relief to explore the music, the era and artistic choices of a remarkable singer without a vain inventory of sex and drugs. Her recent interviews especially FreshAir on NPR and Rock Cellar magazine have been cool too. A most unusual humility for such a popular performer.

  2. Love Linda!! Didn't want to put down her book! Who cares what the RnR HoF thinks of HER; SHE doesn't care about it!! Classy Lady, always!!

  3. Shep Cooke, the Folk Rock Prodigy from the 70's, Announces the Launch of Digital Versions of His First Two Solo Albums.-Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Stone Poneys
    The world of music was introduced to Shep Cooke in the early 60's, when he performed with the rock group The Dearly Beloved. Fascinated by Shep's music, eleven time Grammy winner Linda Ronstadt persuaded Shep to join her now legendary folk rock group, The Stone Poneys.