Linda Ronstadt can’t sing. Not a note.
That’s not critic-speak but direct from the pop singer, who sat down recently with an AARP writer and told the world why there have been no tours or albums since she gave her final concert in 2009. Ronstadt has Parkinson’s, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.
Pity she saved the best stuff for that interview. Her thin new memoir, Simple Dreams — named for her 1977 album that was so popular it bumped Fleetwood Mac’s unstoppable Rumours from the pop chart for five weeks — offers scant details on her life. She cryptically mentions her retirement from singing in matter-of-fact fashion and alludes to “a still-healthy voice” in her final performance in San Antonio with the Mariachi Los Camperos.
Ronstadt, born to a family of Anglo-Mexican heritage, writes in a bright, conversational, often engaging tone, although some pretense intrudes. Of her handsome The Pirates of Penzance co-star Rex Smith, she writes: “I decided to like him.”
There are tantalizing details of singing with her siblings while growing up in the Sonoran desert on a ranch outside Tucson and of her earliest days at the famed Los Angeles club The Troubadour, where her unknown backing band would soon become the Eagles.
Another unexpected and welcome tidbit finds Ronstadt and her friend, the late pop singer Nicolette Larson ( Lotta Love), roller-skating and lunching in Venice Beach in the mid-’70s with a “quiet and pretty” young stranger they met on the beach named Leslie. She would turn out to be Leslie Van Houten, one of the convicted Manson Family members sentenced to life in prison for her role in the LaBianca slayings. Van Houten was briefly free on appeal.
“Nicolette and I were choking on our burgers. She seemed so nice and normal,” Ronstadt writes in one of the book’s few surprises.
But once Ronstadt’s musical career takes off with her 1974 breakthrough LP Heart Like a Wheel, which merits a small chapter, she frustratingly loses interest in discussing the music that made her a household name and inspired contemporary country-pop stars. Even Simple Dreams, Living in the U.S.A. and Mad Love — albums that introduced important fledgling songwriters Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon and their songs Alison and Carmelita to the masses thanks to Ronstadt’s million-selling cover versions — are ignored. Her pop music career is summarized with cloaked disdain.
“My life had settled into a fairly predictable routine. I’d make an album a year, which would take a few months to complete, and the rest of the time we would play one-night stands all over the country,” she writes. “My music had begun to sound like my washing machine.”
The audience on whom this book relies would beg to differ with Ronstadt’s easy dismissal of a body of work that pleased millions.
Don’t come to Simple Dreams expecting to learn about her romances with Star Wars mastermind George Lucas and California Gov. Jerry Brown. She mentions that Brown was cheap. Lucas is unmentioned. She says little about her two adopted children, now 22 and 19, and her life as a single mother. Ronstadt, who once sang I Never Will Marry in harmony with Dolly Parton, never wed.
A memoir doesn’t have to be a tacky dishing session or provide exhausting details on recording sessions. But for a much-anticipated autobiography from one of music’s most reclusive and yet most eclectic cultural figures, her publisher and her fan base have to feel slighted. Ronstadt, a song interpreter, not a songwriter, said that she was writing the acknowledgments for her book when she got the initial Parkinson’s diagnosis and chose not to write about it because she wasn’t sure. Scooped by the AARP, Simple Dreams provides about as much insight into Ronstadt as one her old surface-deep Motown covers did.
Howard Cohen is a Miami Herald staff writer. Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.