Linda Ronstadt has spent decades as a singer defying expectations, long ago graduating from the “rock chick” of the late 1960s and ’70s to the bonafide diva of the 1980s and beyond. Her choices along the way weren’t always easy. As she notes in her new book Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, her early efforts at her noted role in Pirates of Penzance “sounded like a choirboy’s voice rather than a grown-up lady opera singer,” while her record company begged her not to do “the Nelson Riddle orchestral stuff or my albums of Mexican songs—they said they’d kill my career.” She tells Kirkus, with an audible smile, “They should have been right.”
But they weren’t. And now, defying her own expectations, the 67-year-old Ronstadt has written a book—and a searching, honest and entertaining book at that. Ronstadt is quick to say that she has never considered herself a writer. She attended the University of Arizona in her native Tucson for a semester, where she read the poetry of William Butler Yeats—but then her career took off, and she moved to Los Angeles and stardom. “I never wrote anything in my life, never kept a diary. I wrote the occasional thank-you note, and that was it.”
“Really, I never thought I could write a book,” she says. But then, she recalls, she sat next to author Michael Pollan at a dinner party a couple of years ago, and he asked her whether she was going to write a memoir. When she said she thought she lacked the craft to do so, Ronstadt recalls, he encouraged her. She continued to doubt herself, but she set to work all the same, determined to have a chance at what she thought of as setting the record straight and correcting “somebody else’s version of what they say I said, a version of yourself that you can’t recognize.”
And besides, she adds modestly, “I’d formed some observations about the music business along the way that are either interesting to you or aren’t interesting. I wanted to set down what I had learned along the way and the people I encountered and why I made some of the choices that I did.”
She also demurs, “I am seldom happy listening to my own recordings because I will hear something I think I should have done better.” When asked whether she transfers that hard self-criticism to her writing, she replies, “When I was writing my book, I asked myself two things. Is it true? That was the first thing. And then, Is it clear? I realized early on that I was better off writing a strictly chronological book, so it begins with my early life in Tucson, then my first albums and tours, and so on to the present.”
A more practiced writer, she adds, might have done something more imaginative, structurally speaking. With that, she recalls having been a longtime reader of the Paris Review, whose famed interviews on craft suggested to her that writing and singing were kindred arts. “Of course, the tools are different,” she says, “and words are much more precise than sounds.” Striving for just that precision, she’s turned in a much different book from what publishers have approached her for in the past. “I’ve had offers over the years,” she says, “but always to write a kind of tell-all book. I didn’t want to give out information that was private. I do dish dirt if it was there, but this isn’t that kind of book.”
Yes, truth be told, there’s not much dirt in these pages—and that alone sets Ronstadt’s book at some remove from, say, Rod Stewart’s recent memoir or Keith Richards’s Life. Instead, Ronstadt takes pains to thank the people who have been present to help her along, from encouraging parents and cousins to helpful mentors in the music business. There may have been a few sleazy characters along the way, but she chooses to, well, to borrow from her beloved friend Nelson Riddle, with whom she recorded what are probably the first crossover exercises from rock to the “great American songbook,” to accentuate the positive.
Readers will learn nothing shocking about California governor Jerry Brown, that is to say, but they will learn about the strong work ethic and artistry of the likes of Jerry Wexler, Jimmy Webb and Rosemary Clooney—and even of arranger and songwriter Jack Nitzsche, one of the few people in the book who figures in anything other than a positive light, thanks in part to an unusually personal way of airing criticism. (Chalk one up for Gram Parsons for hoisting Nitzsche by his own petard—or, more properly, his trademark hat, a comeuppance story that Ronstadt relates with chaste pleasure.) Far more often, she insists on the importance of getting along: “When I hire a musician to record or perform, the first thing I look for is a shared sensibility. Whatever the musician listened to or read or saw or where he lived growing up informs every note he plays in a myriad of ways….If the group lacks a shared sensibility, it is pure misery.”
Ronstadt has long since moved beyond being the rock goddess of old; she announced her retirement a couple of years ago. Instead, in her book, she hands over the crown of “first fully realized female rocker” to Chrissie Hynde. When reminded that Hynde is probably ready to hand the crown on herself, Ronstadt praises younger singers such as Duffy, Adele and Alicia Keys, pausing to note, “I know she’s gone, but check out Amy Winehouse’s live version of ‘Valerie’ on YouTube, too.”
Asked whether she has any other writing projects in mind, Ronstadt good-naturedly insists, “I’m a reader.” But books, like albums, have a way of planting themselves in unexpected ways—ways unexpected even to the writer. For now, we have this graceful, and gracious, account of a life spent in music.
Gregory McNamee, a Kirkus Reviews contributing editor, is a longtime resident of Tucson, Arizona, Linda Ronstadt's hometown.