Linda Ronstadt, once one of rock ’n’ roll’s biggest and most alluring female stars, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in June. Her autobiography, “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” is being published this month.
Peter DaSilva • New York Times,
Linda Ronstadt discusses her new memoir and Parkinson's
- Article by: SAM TANENHAUS New York Times
- September 4, 2013 - 2:08 PM
SAN FRANCISCO – The first thing to know about Linda Ronstadt is that if you ring the bell at her home here, on a sedate street with views of the ocean, she’ll answer the door herself. At least she did on a recent Monday morning.
She wore a pink hoodie and jeans, her short dark hair framing the oval face that ornamented album and magazine covers throughout the 1970s and ’80s, when Ronstadt was rock ’n’ roll’s biggest and most alluring female star, with albums like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Living in the U.S.A.” that helped define the polished music of her era.
In the living room, near the Yamaha baby grand, Ronstadt settled into a chair, rested her white high-top sneakers on an ottoman and discussed her new book, “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir,” which is being published this month.
In recent years, Ronstadt has drawn more attention for her outspoken politics, decidedly liberal, than for her music. Full of opinions — don’t get her started on current immigration law — her words pour forth in a fluent, hyper-articulate rush.
But for many, she remains her generation’s premier female pop vocalist, and they wonder why she hasn’t released an album since 2006 or appeared in concert since her mariachi show in 2009. For a trouper like Ronstadt, a steady presence for 40 years, silence so prolonged must have a reason. True, she is 67, but age hasn’t stopped contemporaries like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris.
“I can’t do it, because of my health,” Ronstadt said. “I have Parkinson’s.” (The news was first reported in AARP Magazine online Aug. 23.) She held out a slightly trembling hand. Her vocal cords are also affected. “I can’t sing at all,” she said. “I’m truly not able. I can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ really.”
She had been aware for more than a decade that something was wrong, but those closest to her suspected it might be just another instance of the performance anxiety for which she is well known. She got the news in June. Fearful of doctors, she had put off going to a neurologist until a guitarist friend, observing the unsteady hands, said she had to go.
“I never in a million years thought I had Parkinson’s, not in a million years,” she said. “Now I don’t know what to do. I have to find a support group. I have to call Michael Pollan. He’s responsible for all this.” (Pollan, the brother-in-law of Michael J. Fox, who also has Parkinson’s, said Ronstadt had not discussed her illness with him.)
By “all this” she meant not her health, but the book, which was completed before doctors confirmed that she has Parkinson’s.
“I never wanted to write a book,” she said. “I never wanted anyone else to write a book. I thought, ‘Let it end when it ends.’ ” She also wasn’t sure she was up to the task. A voracious reader who can quote Henry James verbatim, Ronstadt has, if anything, too much respect for the written word. But at dinner one night, Pollan, the journalist and author, urged her to reconsider.
There was another fact to weigh, her dwindling savings. Ronstadt released many albums but wrote very few songs, so her royalty checks are small.
“Writers make all the money,” she said. Her most memorable hits — “You’re No Good,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Blue Bayou” — were written by others. “I was making good money when I was touring,” she said. But now “I just can’t do it.”
“I can’t make one note,” she said. “I have a hard time calling the cab at night.”
And so a book, and the advance it would bring, began to make sense. Ronstadt read Placido Domingo’s memoir and Rosanne Cash’s, and liked both. She also liked Keith Richards’ “Life” (she’s in it) and was impressed by how well his co-writer, James Fox, had captured his voice. But her own meeting with a prospective collaborator didn’t work: “I knew I would never give him any information. I’m too good at dodging questions.”
Instead, she wrote the book herself.
“Simple Dreams” is less an autobiography than an artist’s bildungsroman. She recalls her musical journey phase by phase, beginning with her childhood in the Sonora Desert. She grew up with three siblings on a ranch outside Tucson, Ariz., where her father owned a hardware store and the Ronstadts, a musical family of mixed Anglo-Mexican heritage, were socially prominent. Ronstadt was a debutante, a “junior patroness” of the Tucson Symphony.
But the desert air was saturated with other sounds pouring out of the radio and coffeehouse microphones. At 18, with $30 from her father, she went to Los Angeles and two years later recorded her first hit, the anti-torch song “Different Drum,” with its teasing harpsichord and undertow of “longing and yearning,” in Ronstadt’s description, in conversation, of the theme that would inform so much of her work in the decades to come.
“I’m not ready for any person, place or thing/to try and pull the reins in on me,” Ronstadt admonishes the besotted “boy who wants to love only me.”
In the memoir, she recalls sharing a cab with singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker after a night of music in Greenwich Village. Walker sang the first verse of “Heart Like a Wheel,” a ballad he’d heard Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle sing at a folk festival.
Other songwriters were emerging then — Karla Bonoff, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther, Warren Zevon — many of them living in Southern California. Gram Parsons, a prodigy from the Deep South by way of Harvard, was on the scene, as well.
Ronstadt’s memoir is a reminder of how close to the epicenter she once was. She opened for the Doors (and was unimpressed with Jim Morrison) and toured with Young, whom she reveres.
A highlight of the book is her account of an all-night jam with Parsons and Richards, Parsons disappearing at intervals to ingest more drugs. At one point, Richards played “Wild Horses,” a new song he had written with Mick Jagger for the next Stones album. Parsons begged to record it ahead of them. To her astonishment, Richards complied.
The subtitle “Musical Memoir” signals what Ronstadt’s book is about, but also what it’s not about — the hedonistic excesses of the pop star’s life. She sidesteps the rampant drug use, although in conversation she acknowledged, “I tried everything,” including cocaine, which she did to such excess that she needed to have her nose cauterized, twice. For Ronstadt, who was often the only woman on the bus and in the hotel, those were not always happy times.
“All the men chased girls,” she said. “They were good guys,” she reflected. “Well, no they weren’t. They were cowboys. They were gunslingers.”
But many remain good friends, as do most of the celebrated boyfriends, like Jerry Brown, with whom she was so close during his first term as governor that she was sometimes called “the first lady of California.” And yet, keeping the vow of “I Never Will Marry” (a duet she recorded with Dolly Parton), Ronstadt is single, although she has two children, ages 22 and 19, who share her three-story home.
“They can’t believe I had a life before them,” Ronstadt said, almost shrieking with laughter. “I live a very quiet life here, nothing like I did.”
Later she remembered that Emmylou Harris had an upcoming Bay Area show. “Every time Emmy comes to town, I wish I could get up on stage with her,” Ronstadt said. “I know I’d be allowed to, but I can’t do it.” Instead she will sit in the audience “and think the notes I’d be singing.
“I have no choice,” she added. “If there was something I could work on, I’d work on it till I could get it back. If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug. I’d take napalm. But I’m never going to sing again.”
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