Friday, January 3, 2014

Book Review: Linda Ronstadt Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir


Linda Ronstadt was the female voice of the 1970's. She could sing and vocalize like no other woman  birthed out of rock music. The only other woman who was sitting on the same plane of talent in the vocal chops arena is the now nearly forgotten Connie Francis. Ronstadt's voice was luxurious and brilliant in pitch and tone. Other female vocalists of the rock era, notably Pat Benatar and Ann Wilson (of Heart) were superb rock vocalists, but neither of them had the range or depth of either Ronstadt or Francis. Donna Summer had a unique, original and stand-out voice, but she certainly wasn't singing rock music. She was indeed the disco era's queen and she could certainly hold her own even with the likes of Barbra Streisand.

She recently announced she is a victim of Parkinson's disease. With that, we have learned we will never hear Linda Ronstadt sing again. She could sing any genre. Rock, pop, bluegrass, country, classical, opera and of course, the standards. She excelled at singing the great ballads. My heart can break when I hear her lovely voice singing Long, Long Time or pretty much any song she sang under the arrangements of the legendary Nelson Riddle.

It has been said that Linda Ronstadt wrote this book without any ghost writing assistance. I assume that is the truth and if so, she is a wonderfully gifted writer. The book flows quite convincingly from one shade of life to the other. She explores her Tucson childhood with some memorable stories of her growing up and coming of age periods in the desert of Arizona.

We read some memorable stories about questionable management styles, particularly from Herb Cohen and his early take on her career. We also get the music version of the casting couch. When The Johnny Cash Show producer shows up at her hotel you sort of know what's coming next, but with an added twist.

I loved her poetically remembered takes on Jackson Browne and Bernie Leadon from the Eagles. She walks us through music. She teaches about chords, chord progression, timing, singing in front of and behind the beat and she keeps you going with her ever growing knowledge of the musicianship and music. As she learns more, the reader learns more.

She had the good fortune to work with everyone from Jim Morrison to Rosemary Clooney. Loving stories are told about Neil Young, the Eagles, Nicolette Larson, Randy Newman and Emmylou Harris.

Ronstadt lets us in on her insecurities, including her fixation on the voice of Emmylou Harris. The  truth is she was far more gifted than any of her peers. Her favorite album of all time is Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely. She mentions it several times throughout the 202 pages and it's easily one of the finest albums ever recorded.

There is no mention of George Lucas even though she lived with him for years and I do mean no mention. We learn she was romantically involved for some time with writer Pete Hamill. Hamill famously dated Shirley MacLaine for years prior to his Ronstadt romance. We find out Jerry Brown was tight with a dollar in what may be one of the most humorous stories in the book. He isn't tight with the California budget dollars, but clearly he is with his own.

The problem with Ronstadt's memoir is there is so little to it. If you are a fan of hers you already know much of what she writes and ultimately when one is reading a biography one wants to learn as much as possible and Ronstadt gives very little. She literally has a few pages in the section on the Eagles and a few pages on her experience with The Pirates of Penzance. That's the way the entire book is written. We want to know more.

If you like Linda Ronstadt's music and you find her appealing you should give this book a read. You will be delighted to find out what you find out, but if you are looking for some overall review of her life and career you will be disappointed. She doesn't give enough.  She even manages to let us know that Nelson Riddle was in love with Rosemary Clooney for years, but she doesn't tell us which composer she had an unrequited love for. She spills the beans on his secret, but she doesn't spill the beans on her secret. It's unfair to him and to us.  No point in bringing it up if you aren't going to share the information.

Linda Ronstadt can certainly write. It's shocking she rarely attempted a lyric, because she has some poetic gestures with words throughout the book.

Ronstadt's finest moments in song:

Long, Long Time - Pure and crystal clear. Makes me sad and for a song about romance that is a good thing.

Someone to Lay Down Beside Me - Absolutely gorgeous vocal. Emotional and shattering even years after the record was released.

Poor, Poor Pitiful Me - Her take on Warren Zevon's song may be her best rock vocal.

Easy For You To Say - She speaks of Jimmy Webb's songwriting skills in a couple of sections of the book and this song defines her words.

Blue Bayou - Pop perfection.

Desperado - Desperately fantastic. This song is a superbly crafted song no matter who is on vocals, but Ronstadt brings a haunting version of it to your iPod. One of Don Henley and Glenn Frey's masterpieces.

You're No Good - Pop music rarely gets better than this track.

I've Got a Crush on You - This is the great American Songbook defined.  Thank you Linda and Nelson.

Copyright Read On Read Now 2014         

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