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Linda Ronstadt to appear in Seattle, autobiography in tow

September 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 29--'Simple Dreams'

Linda Ronstadt

Simon & Schuster, $26

In her sweet if implausibly wholesome new memoir, "Simple Dreams," Linda Ronstadt recounts the story of how her father, instead of throwing a fit when she told him she was dropping out of college at 19 to pursue music in Los Angeles, gave her the Martin acoustic guitar that his father had passed on to him, repeating his father's blessing: "Now that you own a guitar, you will never have to starve."

It's a tear-jerker, but also foundational to Ronstadt's project here, which is to establish her identity as something far broader than the Southern California folk-rock diva who tingled our spines with "When Will I Be Loved?" and "Heart Like a Wheel."

As those who have followed her career are well aware, Ronstadt is Mexican on her father's side, which she first highlighted on her 1987 album "Canciones De Mi Padre."

Growing up in Tucson, Ariz., the daughter of a sometime musician who ran a hardware store and a mother who was disabled in a car wreck when Linda was 4, she rode her own pony in the desert, and heard and played music constantly with family and community on both sides of the border.

Though she started out as a hootenanny folkie, Ronstadt grew up loving Frank Sinatra, as evidenced on her album, "What's New," and she liked operetta and classical music, too. No surprise, then, that she wound up starring in the Gilbert and Sullivan musical "The Pirates of Penzance," as well as Puccini's "La Boheme."

Indeed, Ronstadt offers a continuous stream of insights into music of all kinds. Who knew the most influential singer in her life was not Patsy Cline or Billie Holiday, but the great Mexican chanteuse Lola Beltran? Or that a "cornerstone of the California country rock sound" was raising the A string of the guitar to B? Her analysis of the relative roles of vowel and consonant sounds in Puccini and Richard Rodgers is in a league with Alec Wilder's book, "American Popular Song."

A writer of matter-of-fact grace and precision, Ronstadt captures the anxiety of the artist from the inside out, commenting, "Sometimes the doubts and fears that were generated by trying to create something of our own would circle us in a menacing way, and we would seek safety in the recordings of some of our most revered music masters."

She describes one such night, when she and soon-to-be-Eagle Bernie Leadon, Gram Parsons and Keith Richards sat around jamming all night in the Hollywood Hills, singing Merle Haggard and George Jones songs, after which Keith played "Wild Horses," a new, country-inflected song he and Mick Jagger had just written. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!

Ronstadt deals well with artist envy, too, as when she first heard Emmylou Harris and realized Harris "was doing what I was trying to do, only a whole lot better." Instead of descending into jealousy, though, she says she just "surrendered," so she could enjoy Harris' music instead of resenting it. Smart lady!

That said, Ronstadt's book is maddeningly vague about subjects that readers will doubtless expect. Of her long relationship with California Gov. Jerry Brown, for example, she says merely, "We had a lot of fun for a number of years." Her two children suddenly appear in the text, with no backstory. And while she does reveal some remarkably unsavory behavior by keyboardist Jack Nitzsche, it's hard to believe her repeated assertions that various ex-sidemen and ex-lovers went away with no hard feelings, and that there seems to have been so little darkness in her life.

But then that is the privilege of the autobiographer: No other voices enter the room. What Ronstadt does say in her own voice is delightful. It is hard to imagine a more precise evocation, for example, of the California folk-rock scene than this paragraph, in which she describes moving into a house on Beachwood Drive "under the Hollywood sign" with singer-songwriter J.D. Souther:

"We took it over from Warren Zevon and his girlfriend, Tule, who needed space for their small child. It was in a charming Mediterranean building, constructed in the 1920s, with large Palladian windows that bathed our living room in California sunshine. The apartment had battered hardwood floors, a wood-burning fireplace, and enough room for John David's baby grand piano. MGM Studios had a sale, and I bought some old lace curtains that had been used on one of its movie sets and hung them on the windows."

Ronstadt, 67, has not sung in public since 2009. Earlier this year, she announced she could no longer perform, as a result of Parkinson's disease. She appears at Town Hall on Sunday.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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