Linda Ronstadt, who has been dubbed the Queen of Rock (and Queen of L.A., according to the famous T-shirt Mick Jagger sported in the ’70s), has a new autobiography Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, which tells the story of how a young girl from Tucson ended up as a superstar. Ronstadt has had a colorful career over the past forty-five years, starting out as a folk singer in the Stone Poneys (who briefly experienced popularity with the hit “Different Drum”), to opening for Neil Young on tour as a solo act, and hitting it big on her own in 1974 with the album Heart Like a Wheel. The ’80s saw a number of changes for Ronstadt, including her move to performing on Broadway and venture back to her childhood roots with Mexican music.
Ronstadt was born in 1946 in Tucson, Arizona. The book starts out in a very personal way, telling the story of how her parents met and describing their Sonoran home so well you can practically feel the desert clay on your feet. Ronstadt grew up riding her pony, Murphy, and singing songs with her brother and sister. Her father was a musician, and he would often take the children to a campfire dinner to listen to the family play guitar and sing well into the night. These events are described in detail, and feelings and emotions are conveyed clearly. The story then seems to skip a number of years and suddenly young Linda is now a teenager. After playing local shows with her siblings under the name The Union City Ramblers, Ronstadt made the decision to move to Los Angeles at the age of eighteen.
The details about Ronstadt’s childhood are probably the richest in the whole book. As her career picks up, any semblance of a personal life sort of vanishes. The story then becomes primarily about Ronstadt as a singer. The most interesting part of Ronstadt’s rise to fame comes in the form of the opposition she faced from males in the music industry. From dealing with the unwelcome advances of a perverted television exec, to having to fend for herself against drunken musicians such as Jack Nietzsche and Jim Morrison, it is very easy to envision the musical atmosphere of the 1960s and how difficult it was for a female to make it on her own. These stories give color to the time period and contrast nicely with Ronstadt’s own career.
The book takes a few strange turns as the ’70s begin. There is little to no mention of Ronstadt’s family that we got to know in the first few chapters, and she does not divulge any of her personal relationships, beyond a quick sentence about how she was seeing California governor Jerry Brown in the late ’70s. Ronstadt paints a picture of herself as a modest, celibate woman who remains untarnished around all the debauchery of the sixties and seventies. There are many references to how she did not drink or smoke, or would not sleep with someone she didn’t love, which wraps up those memories a little too succinctly. It is understandable that perhaps Ronstadt wanted to protect her privacy while writing this memoir, and obviously her choice was to focus more on the music—but the tales of the music itself deviates from being looked at with a clear, discerning eye to being skimmed over lackadaisically. Certain pivotal parts of her career are given one or two pages (such as the development of Heart Like a Wheel, or her collaborations with the Eagles) while her time in the play “The Pirates of Penzance” is given thirty or more pages. This is a little unsatisfying for the reader, who has a hard time settling into the flow of the story when it is so unfocused.
Simple Dreams does have some charm to it, however (the chapter about Ronstadt’s time on Sesame Street is especially silly and cute). Despite not being very clear about many details of her life, we manage to walk away from the book knowing a little bit about who she is as a person—a humble, modest woman with a good sense of humor, which comes across in her writing. The comments Ronstadt makes about her own vocal style and the singing of her peers are also quite insightful. Some references might go over the heads of readers who have no music theory knowledge, but these sections are not too plentiful.
Overall, this book is a good, interesting read for fans of Linda Ronstadt who sadly has been in the news more lately for her illness than the fact that she will soon be a member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, or those who enjoy the folk-country movement in southern California during the sixities and seventies. Those who are looking for a juicy tell-all won’t find it here.