I can understand several longtime Ronstadt fans disliking her book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir (Simon & Schuster; $26), because she leaves out huge chunks of her romantic life and omits almost all of her political activities. But that didn’t bother me. I was in it for the music.
On page 6, for example, she fondly recalls growing up near an army airfield outside Tucson, where her mother had worked nights in the control tower, sending planes off to WWII. Following the war, those same B-29s would return, Ronstadt’s mom would recognize the sounds of their engines from inside her home, and then bring the kids outside to see the planes.
“I was steeped in the sound of the B-29s in my childhood,” Ronstadt writes, “and often tried to emulate it in the string arrangements in my recordings. It seems to appear in the grind between the cello and double bass, particularly in the interval of a fifth.”
Again, this is just six pages in. To me, that’s infinitely more interesting and musical than whatever she did with George Lucas.
Ronstadt will discuss her memoir Jan. 24 in a conversation presented by VivaFest and the Commonwealth Club, held at Santa Clara University’s Mayer Theatre.
By now, even those casually acquainted with Ronstadt’s career know that, musically, she rediscovered herself numerous times. In the 1970s, she was the undisputed queen of rock, selling millions of records and slaughtering anyone even closely comparable on FM radio. When she originally got to L.A., she fell into every circle at the right time, knowing Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, David Geffen and a whole slew of folks who eventually defined the California rock sound of that decade. The Eagles began as her backup band, just to name one example.
But she quickly became dissatisfied with the loneliness of touring, horrid arena acoustics and coked-out money-laundering record executives. In the early ’80s, she threw all of that away, to the surprise of everyone. With Nelson Riddle, she infiltrated the Great American Songbook and sold even more millions of records. This is a quality I adore most in any musician, that is, someone who has no use for a genre-specific life and who thrives on constantly learning and exploring, rather than beating to death the same stuff for 40 years. What’s New, released in 1983, sold over three million copies and spent 81 weeks on the Billboard album chart.
In Simple Dreams, Ronstadt writes that singing standards gave her more room to stretch and sing, and a flexibility with her own voice she hadn’t had before: “I felt I was finally learning to sing,” she writes. “The sophisticated sweep of a melody and complex layers of meaning in the lyrics meant that I could tell a richer and more nuanced story—and the story wasn’t stranded in the passions of adolescence. Besides, I couldn’t bear the idea that such beautifully crafted songs would be condemned to riding up and down in elevators.”
But it was not until returning to the half-English, half-Spanish sonic milieu of her youth that Ronstadt’s musical journey finally came full circle. It’s no wonder that the Spanish language gigs became the most favorite of her entire career. In the book, she writes that those shows gave her the chance to change costumes multiple times throughout the night, meaning she never got bored. The singers were powerful and she constantly learned from them. What’s more, everyone became close immediately, so she didn’t feel the loneliness of all the rock tours.
“Riding on the bus late at night, I would doze off to the sounds of rich voices speaking in a mix of Spanish and English, just like in my childhood,” she writes. “After the surreal experience of being caught in the body-snatching machinery of the American celebrity juggernaut, I felt I was able to reclaim an essential part of who I was: a girl from the Sonoran Desert.” That album, Canciones de Mi Padre, is still, to this day, the biggest selling non-English album in American history.
Meanwhile, the Eagles are rehashing the 1970s next week at the SAP Center. They apparently have no qualms pulverizing the same old stuff from 40 years ago. To each their own, I guess.
An Evening of Conversation with Linda Ronstadt
JAN. 24; 6:30pm