Diagnosis adds poignancy to Ronstadt's memoir of a life in music

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 5:44pm

One of the most touching anecdotes in Linda Ronstadt's new memoir, Simple Dreams, comes in the moment she told her parents she was skipping out on college to pursue a career in music.

She writes: "My parents were upset and tried to talk me out of it. When it became apparent that they couldn't change my mind, my father went into the other room and returned with the Martin acoustic guitar that his father had bought in 1898.

"When my father began singing as a young man, my grandfather had given him the instrument and said, ' Ahora que tienes guitarra, nunca tendras hambre' ('Now that you own a guitar, you will never be hungry.') My father handed me the guitar with the same words. Then he took out his wallet and handed me thirty dollars. I made it last a month."

Her grandfather's words were prophetic, setting the stage for a career that's stretched across five decades and more than 30 albums. Thanks to her unparalleled voice, Ronstadt became one of the most successful and emotive rock and pop singers of the 1970s, not to mention the only artist ever who's earned Grammy Awards in country, pop, Mexican American and Tropical Latin categories.

But in August, Ronstadt, 67, revealed that she wouldn't be singing anymore because of the effects of Parkinson's disease. "It happened gradually," she said in an interview recently with an almost matter-of-fact tone about losing her ability to sing. "I was struggling for so long, at some point it was a relief [to get the diagnosis and] not to have to struggle anymore."

Her longtime friend, producer and manager, John Boylan, says the book tour "is harder than any rock tour I've done over the last 40 years. It's very hard on her."

But when addressing the effects of Parkinson's Ronstadt does so dispassionately and with humour. It's as if she's channelling what she witnessed as a child when her mother's back was broken in a car accident. Ronstadt recalls in her book that it wasn't until the following morning, when her mother collapsed in their kitchen, that the family realised she'd been terribly injured.

"She stayed calm, so I wasn't aware that anything was particularly wrong," writes Ronstadt, who has two grown children of her own.

Simple Dreams recounts a career propelled by more than Ronstadt's voice. It takes readers on an engaging journey from her beginnings as part of a large, extended Mexican-American family in Tucson through the Los Angeles music scene of the 1960s to the heights of her music stardom in the '70s and '80s.

The former pop star and sex symbol touches on her relationships with California governor Jerry Brown (during his first stint in office), filmmaker George Lucas, singer-songwriter John David Souther and journalist Pete Hamill.

The stories are hardly salacious. Instead, she shares a wry anecdote about Brown's celebrated frugality: on their way to visit singer Rosemary Clooney, Brown commandeered a bunch of roses sent to Ronstadt by a fan and repurposed them as a gift to Clooney.

But most compelling are her musings about the music she loves. In the book, she recalls a time in high school when friends were raving about a new band, The Byrds. "[They] were playing folk rock, a new hybrid taking hold on the West Coast. As soon as I heard their creamy harmonies, I was mesmerised. It was clear to me that music was happening on a whole different level in Los Angeles. I began making plans to move to LA at the end of the spring semester."

The world would first hear the LA-based Ronstadt as lead singer of the Stone Poneys. The group released three albums before Ronstadt's status as the band's breakout star was cemented with the 1969 release of her solo debut, Hand Sown … Home Grown.

She charted several more minor hits over the next five years, most of them walking the line between country and rock.

But it was her recording of the McGarrigle Sisters' Heart Like a Wheel that became the title track of Ronstadt's 1974 breakthrough album, her first of three albums to reach No1 on the Billboard 200 national sales chart.

It catapulted her into the top ranks of pop-rock singers, helping her become one of the five most successful female artists of the 1970s.

Ronstadt's heart has always been with the ballads of love, heartache and remorse that she learned to love as a child. It's the liberating spirit within those songs that guides her today. "Mexican music opened the doors to everything: classical music, jazz and passion. From that I learned how to sing in a joyous way about terrible sorrow. It taught me what joy is. Joy is a transcendent state, and I learned that from Mexican music. Joy isn't happiness, it's transcending the horrific."

Los Angeles Times