Silenced by illness, a legendary singer recounts her career in new
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
[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
"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
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.