Just about everything in Linda Ronstadt’s “Musical Memoir” is engaging and interesting, but the best part comes first: a long chapter — the longest in the book — about her childhood and adolescence in Tucson, an enchanted time beginning with her birth in 1946, a time that, she realized many years later, established “an essential part of who I was: a girl from the Sonoran Desert.” This may come as a surprise to many of her admirers, who understandably associate her with the “California country rock sound” that first made her famous, but in fact for the last two decades of her career — suffering from Parkinson’s disease, she retired from public performing four years ago — she mainly sang Mexican music, the same music she had learned as a girl right across the border.
It was a very different place six decades ago. “In those days,” Ronstadt writes, “the border was a friendly place, and easy to cross. We knew many of the families in the north of Mexico, and we attended one another’s balls, picnics, weddings, and baptisms. My parents often drove us across the border into Nogales, which had wonderful stores where we would shop. . . . I deeply miss those times when the border was a permeable line and the two cultures mixed in a natural and agreeable fashion. Lately, the border seems more like the Berlin Wall, and functions mainly to separate families and interfere with wildlife migration.”
Her father worked in the family hardware store and “had a beautiful baritone singing voice that sounded like a cross between Pedro Infante, the famous Mexican matinee idol and singer, and Frank Sinatra.” He presided, benignly and lovingly, over a musical family: “I don’t remember when there wasn’t music going on in our house: my father whistling while he was figuring out how to fix something; my brother Pete practicing the ‘Ave Maria’ for his performance with the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus; my sister, Suzy, sobbing a Hank Williams song with her hands in the dishwasher; my little brother, Mike, struggling to play the huge double bass.” It was a time and way of life that by now have pretty much vanished:
“There was no TV, the radio couldn’t wander around with you because it was tethered to the wall, and we didn’t get enough allowance to buy concert tickets. In any case, there weren’t many big acts playing in Tucson, so if we wanted music, we had to make our own. The music I heard . . . before I was ten provided me with material to explore for my entire career.”
By the time she was all of 4 years old, she had decided that “I’m a singer, that’s what I do,” and before too much longer she had begun performing with friends, occasionally for a dollar or two but mainly for the fun of it and the informal musical education it provided. She “spent hours listening to the great ranchera singer Lola Beltran,” who “influenced my singing style more than anyone,”and she frequently listened to the pop-oriented folk artists — Peter, Paul and Mary, and Ian and Sylvia — who made their names in the late 1950s and early ’60s. By the mid-’60s she realized that it was time to move on, and over the tearful admonishments of her parents she headed for Los Angeles: “I felt terrible for hurting them and causing them worry. There was nothing to be done. My new life was beginning to take shape.”
Thus ends the opening chapter of “Simple Dreams.” Great success lay ahead for her, but it didn’t come easily, and it didn’t come soon. She and a couple of friends formed a group called the Stone Poneys. They made a couple of albums but never really went anywhere, though on a trip to New York in 1968 Ronstadt had an encounter with the Doors and their famously self-destructive singer, Jim Morrison, who “was moody and distant, and I noticed that he liked to drink.” Indeed he did, as pilgrims to his grave in Paris doubtless well know. By 1968 it was obvious that “if I wanted to earn a living in music, I had to hit the road,” even though “I was painfully unprepared to be a solo act, as I had been mostly a harmony singer in the Stone Poneys.”
Her voice was naturally beautiful but completely untrained; indeed, except for a brief period many years later, she never had any formal training. She doesn’t say so herself, but it took her a long time to learn how to sing words as well as music, i.e., to convey meaning as well as sound. She made some important and influential musical friendships, including ones with such certifiably redoubtable musicians as Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Neil Young and Gram Parsons, whose early death after a heroin overdose ended one of the most promising careers of his generation. Some of these and many others in Los Angeles “hung out at the Troubador and began jamming together, united by our mutual desire to weld country music songs and harmonies to a rock-and-roll rhythm section.”
In 1969 she “opened for Jerry Jeff Walker at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village,” which was nice but far less important to her career than the song by Anna McGarrigle that he sang for Ronstadt. Eventually “Heart Like a Wheel” became the title song on her first hit album, released in November 1974.Two tracks from it went to the top on three charts — top 40, R&B and country — and sent her on the way.
She bought a little house in Malibu on the coast, then another inland when that one was flooded, then settled in Northern California. She had a prolonged fling with Jerry Brown — “He was smart and funny, not interested in drinking or drugs, and lived his life carefully, with a great deal of discipline. This was different from a lot of the men I knew in rock and roll. I found it a relief.” The relationship received a lot more publicity than she acknowledges here, but by the 1980s they had drifted apart, albeit amicably. She seems to have had a number of other relationships, none of which led to marriage; she has two children, both adopted. Why she doesn’t raise these subjects in “Simple Dreams” is a bit of a mystery, but it is a “Musical Memoir,” after all, as opposed to the tell-all memoir so fashionable these days in certain circles.
Musically the most important thing that happened to her occurred in the early 1980s, when she connected with the great arranger Nelson Riddle, who had been responsible for most of the extraordinary recordings that led to Frank Sinatra’s remarkable comeback in the 1950s. Riddle had no idea who she was and was skeptical about her ability to sing the classic songs of the American songbook, but she proved him wrong. The three albums they recorded in the mid-1980s — “What’s New,” “Lush Life” and “For Sentimental Reasons” — are classics in their own right. If many of these tracks — “What’s New?” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” come immediately to mind — don’t thrill you right to the tips of your toes, you’ve got a problem.
At about the same time, she finally met her girlhood heroine Lola Beltran and began an immersion in Mexican music that preoccupied her right up to her retirement. The first of several albums that followed, “Canciones de Mi Padre,” “was immediately certified double platinum, sold millions of records worldwide, and is the biggest-selling non-English-language album in American recording history.” It brought her full circle back to the music of her childhood and allows her to end this entirely winning book — which apparently she wrote herself, sans ghost — on a singularly happy note.
A Musical Memoir
By Linda Ronstadt
Simon & Schuster. 242 pp. $26