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Linda Ronstadt's 'Simple Dreams'

Silenced by illness, a legendary singer recounts her career in new memoir

By Alanna Nash
Special to MSN Music

As one of the finest and most respected singers in modern music, Linda Ronstadt, 67, has enjoyed a 40-year career that produced more than 30 albums and influenced two generations of songwriters and musicians.

That's one reason her autobiography, "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir," being published by Simon & Schuster on Sept. 17, is such a widely anticipated rock autobiography, even as her diverse style, originally rooted in California country-rock, easily spanned Mexican folk music, alternative country, the classic American songbook of pre-rock popular songs, opera and jazz. The first female pop artist to score four consecutive platinum albums, she has also won countless industry awards, including 11 Grammys. Such hits as "Blue Bayou," "When Will I Be Loved" and "You're No Good" stand in the pantheon of classic popular recordings.

But in 2006, Ronstadt recorded her final CD, "Adieu False Heart," with Cajun musician Ann Savoy. In November 2009, she gave what her books calls her "last concert," in San Antonio, and stepped off the stage into retirement.

On Aug. 23, in a wide-ranging interview with this writer, Ronstadt finally revealed the reason: For the past seven or eight years, she has suffered from Parkinson's disease, an illness that has stolen her luminous and soaring soprano.

She spoke about that, and more, by phone from her home in San Francisco. (She also maintains a residence in her hometown of Tucson, Ariz.) Throughout the interview, she never once struck an attitude, to crib from one of her song titles, Warren Zevon's "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me."

By the time you reach your late 60s, she says, "It's all gravy from here on out, you know?"

MSN Music: People greatly anticipate the release of your memoir

Linda Ronstadt: Oh, good, I'm glad! One of the reasons I wrote the book was because I felt people had been writing about me, and about who they thought I was, or what they thought I said, for years! And sometimes they got it right, and most of the time they got it wrong. And I thought, "Well, I'll just write my version of it." I didn't use a ghostwriter, because I didn't feel I could open up to somebody else. And I wanted to say it myself, pathetic memory and all! [Laughs] On some dates, I was off by as much as five years!

Fortunately, I had a good copy editor and a lot of friends. I sent the book out to everybody I could think of who was there at the time, and I showed them the sections and said, "Does this ring true?" I took out a lot of things because they didn't remember them the same way.

You recently disclosed to me that you have Parkinson's disease and that you can't sing anymore. Why does your book not mention it?

Because when I was writing it, I wasn't sure. I just had an initial diagnosis. I didn't want to write, "I have Parkinson's disease," then have to write, "Oh, no, sorry. Just a tick bite!" [Laughs.]

Do you want to do anything else with music? Would you want to produce, for example?

Well, I'm involved with a little cultural group in the East Bay, Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center. They work with an immigrant population, teaching children traditional Mexican music -- how to play instruments and dance, and they also teach visual art. It's a little after-school program. It's absolutely brilliant.

Bing: More on Linda Ronstadt

What do you do there?

The center is run by a brilliant man, Eugene Rodriguez. He's a master's level musician. I introduced him to Ry Cooder and to the Chieftains, and Ry and the Chieftains both recorded with them and took them on tour. The Ford Foundation has given them quite a lot of money. They always need more, and I help them try to find it. Sometimes I give them recording advice, and I get to know the kids really well, and give them advice about singing. It's where I've been able to keep my musical hand in without actually singing.

What struck me about this memoir is that you never seemed to shy away from a challenge -- especially musically, from doing Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" on Broadway and later as a theatrical film, to recording the Great American Songbook with Nelson Riddle, to bucking Jerry Wexler when you disagreed on an ultimately shelved album of jazz standards. What did you draw on that would have been too daunting for others?

Really, I wanted to do whatever it was I wanted to do so badly that I became kind of deaf and blind. Now, that could have run me right into the wall. As it turned out, what I was interested in resonated in the greater culture. And I was lucky about that, because right now, I don't know that it would.

You've collaborated with some astonishing artists, from Aaron Neville to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris. What's at the heart of your bond with Dolly and Emmy, with whom you did two "Trio" albums, and then "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions," with Emmy, in the '90s?

Well, Emmy and I can finish each other's sentences. We have the same taste, and same political ideas, and we read a lot of the same books. But it didn't matter, because when we were working together, we had music among the three of us as a common language. You don't sit around wondering what you're going to say after you serve the cup of tea, because you've got a guitar out, and you say, "Let's sing this song." [Laughs] So music starts the conversation, and then it can take some very unexpected turns.

There weren't a lot of women singers at that time, and we would always share the kinds of challenges we faced emotionally or physically. Each girl had her own resilient way of dealing with problems and ultimately triumphing, as Emmy and Dolly both have done their whole lives. And I love Emmylou eternally, eternally. She will always be the queen. It's so ironic, because she couldn't get country music radio to play her to save its life, and then, of course, every girl country singer that comes along does the deep curtsy to Emmylou.

You were there for so much of the '60s and '70s rock era. The Eagles began life as your backing band, for instance. Did you realize what was happening with them at the time?

Oh, sure! Their harmonies were so strong and so beautiful. And Glenn [Frey] and Don [Henley] started writing songs, and they were so clear and so good. And then Bernie [Leadon] came in and helped them write "Witchy Woman." Bernie's on the road with them now, back in the band. Those guys were always so good on their recordings. But the Eagles are a million times better live than they were on their records.

You were always much smarter than the pop cultural perception that plagued you in the '70s. Was that a major sore point for you?

Well, we did what we did in those days. The fashion role model for women was the Troubadour [Club] waitress. [Laughs] We'd go, "What are the Troubadour waitresses wearing with their jeans?" Because we were all wearing jeans. Or a really short skirt. And we'd go, "Oh, that looks pretty cool. I'll try that." Turned out they bought their stuff at a resale shop called Zsa Zsa's in downtown L.A. We'd go there and find amazing stuff.

How do you regard contemporary country, as it relates to the California country-rock you helped define?

I don't listen to much of it. There's a lot of talent, but I don't find that it has much to do with country music. It's really suburban music. Probably the best person who came out of that area is Taylor Swift. But I like her as a pop singer. I love Gillian Welch and Lucinda Williams. I think they're brilliant. And Buddy Miller is just one of the great American guitar players and interpreters. He and his wife, Julie, are incredible writers and musicians.

What do you think of shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice"?

[Laughs] I didn't have a television for about 30 years. When Barack Obama got elected [president], I went out and bought a TV. I said, "I gotta see this." But I have never seen those shows, and from how they have been described to me, I wouldn't like them, because I don't like the idea of competition in the arts. That's not what the arts are about.

Let me ask you about the balancing act in Mexican-American popular culture. When you made the traditional Mexican music albums "Canciones de Mi Padre" and "Mas Canciones" in the late '80s and early '90s, there was very little in modern music positioned to speak directly to next generation of Hispanic- Americans.

Well, there's plenty of stuff [now]. It's just that it's still made invisible. Like Los Tigres del Norte is my favorite group. I love them. And there are a lot of groups, especially coming out of northern Mexico, that I love. Unfortunately, they're very much associated with the drug cartels, but that's the best music coming out of pop these days.

The gulf between Anglo pop and the Mexican music that you grew up with is very different from today's pop landscape and the emerging Latino culture that's more permeable.

I love the Latino culture that's emerging. I don't love the Anglo one. It's a little bit boring, a little bit shopworn, a little bit same old same old. But the stuff that's coming out of Mexico and Brazil and Colombia is just wild! The Roma, or the Romani -- we call them Gypsies, but they don't like to be called Gypsies -- have been so marginalized that we haven't even been able to read about their history. But they've had such a tremendous impact on music. And they're now affecting European pop music just like American blues did. I love Estrella Morente. She's a huge star in Spain. She's just brilliant, a fine flamenco singer. She really has great respect for the tradition, but she's also trying to push it a little bit into new forms.

Explore: Linda Ronstadt's 'Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir'

"Simple Dreams" proves that you write extremely well. I was impressed with your command of the language, how you could breathe poetry into technical descriptions of singing. But the book seems guarded in parts about your life. Was that a conscious decision?

No, I wasn't writing about my personal life particularly, although I had to, because my personal life is such a part of my music. My feeling is that art is there to be evocative, more than instructive. When somebody's listening to my music, I want them to be thinking about their own situation, not mine. When I was singing, I'd see a movie in my head of what was going on in my life, and I'd just describe it with my voice. But when you hear that, your own movie should come up. So that's why I felt like sticking with the music would be the most useful thing to do.

Do you want to write more?

I don't know. My typing skills are crappy. If something just hits me on the head, maybe. Right now, I can't believe I wrote the first book. I'm amazed at it.

Alanna Nash is a New York Times best-selling ghostwriter and author. She has also written scores of magazine articles for Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone, USA Weekend, and Entertainment Weekly. Her office is lit by two lamps that once adorned the living room of Graceland, and she saw the Beatles live in concert three times.

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Sep 3, 2013 9:51PM
so much more interesting than Miley...thank you!!!!

Sep 8, 2013 8:34PM
She may have lost her ability to sing, but she still has those eyes that have always killed me!
Sep 17, 2013 3:25PM

Why isn't Linda in the Rock and Roll hall of fame?


Sep 18, 2013 2:31AM
I love Ms. Linda Ronstadt!. One of the greatest vocalists of all time! I cant wait to purchase/read the book!
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