I confess an indulgence for musician biographies. Especially rock artists. So I think I enjoyed Linda Ronstadt’s “musical memoir,” Simple Dreams, well enough. The writing early on caught me as highly thoughtful, and revealing of a deep intelligence and discerning heart.
The namedropping begins even before she was born, tracing her family’s artistic legacy and influences. Ms Ronstadt speaks with great affection and graciousness for many of the musicians and songwriters that backed or inspired or accompanied her long road to fame.
Other critics have lamented this book on one major point: outside of her regard for musical collaborators and her family, there is no personal dish here. Jerry Brown gets mentioned in passing, and other romances and intrigues–nothing. And drugs? Not very much at all, for sensible health reasons. Fine by me. She’s the artist here. She chooses what goes into that musical memoir. The rest is fodder for gossip engines, and holds no interest for me.
Did I say one? There’s another significant omission: the last half of the seventies. From Ms Ronstadt’s thrust into stardom with the lp Heart Like A Wheel, not much until Gilbert & Sullivan (1981). I think I know why. From the book:
I never felt rock and roll defined me. There was an unyielding attitude that came with the music that involved being confrontational, dismissive, aggressive–or, as my mother would say, ungracious.
Still, I cringe when I think of some of the times I was less than gracious. It wasn’t how I was brought up and I didn’t wear the attitude well. Being considered , for a period in the seventies, as the Queen of Rock made me uneasy, as my musical devotions often lay elsewhere.
And that’s enough to tell you why the pinnacle of her rock career is chopped out of this book. I get she tired of the relentless grind of annual album and tour. But given the described depth of her work with her early musicians, and the songwriters from whom she plucked real pop gems, I would have liked to hear a bit more. Like about Karla Bonoff, contributor of three fine songs on Hasten Down The Wind, or Mark Goldenberg, present on the New Wave-tinged Mad Love. And the fine studio and touring musicians she worked with in the late 70′s: multi-instrumentalist and multi-talented Andrew Gold especially.
It wasn’t, I think, her being “gracious” about an “ungracious” chapter in her life. Early on, she describes the pimps and drug dealers of 60′s Hollywood. And Jim Morrison comes off as a brutal, angry drunk. A member of Neil Young’s touring band: vicious and abusive. My sense is that she believes there was nothing musical about her rock career–hence, by definition, not germane to this book. Thousands might beg to differ.
I was struck by the contrast between this brief and informative book compared to the massive Springsteen bio I tackled last year. Both hugely interesting. This one a bit better because it was more selective and subtle.
One of the most enjoying bits of this is the description of a singer who, in her mid- to late-thirties, at the peak of her popularity, bucked her friends and management and developed an unprecedented range as a musical performer. It would be like a corporate CEO retiring in mid-stream and attempting to duplicate Fortune 500 success for a third-world country. And then repeating a new project every few years.
There’s a delicious stab at corporate music all through this book. The suits didn’t like the McGarrigle sisters and their songs. Ms Ronstadt persisted and they helped launch her first big album success just as she was leaving the studio that had its own ideas on what she should sing. And same suits panned the Trio collaborations with Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris. All that produced was a groundbreaking women’s supergroup. In retrospect, you’d think these guys would want to break up the Beatles because they could milk more company profit by four separate bands instead of one.
Ms Ronstadt returned from “throwing away her career” with Nelson Riddle and the Pirates to produce a pop masterpiece Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind in 1989.
Any artist that can phht on the establishment and show a better way, gets a big thumbs up from me. On the way to a strong recommendation, one last musing … If Linda Ronstadt can write such a great book, and possesses such keen insight into songcraft, I do wonder why she didn’t write more herself.