Linda Ronstadt’s revelation last week that she has Parkinson’s came as a shock to many. And sadder still is the fact that the disease has robbed her of the ability to sing. Ronstadt's life has far eclipsed her humble beginnings in Tucson, Arizona. Her career has spanned 45 years and brought her from the 1970s rock scene of West Hollywood’s Troubadour Club to the big lights of Manhattan. She has had highly publicized romances with Jerry Brown and George Lucas, won 11 Grammy Awards, took a controversial tour of South Africa during apartheid, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Now, at 67, the music icon has written Simple Dreams, a memoir describing her unique musical journey, which is due to be published September 17th.
Ronstadt sat down with BIO to talk about her book, her music, and the choices she has made.
What made you want to write a memoir now?
For years, I’ve been interviewed and they write what they thought I thought or what they thought I said. Sometimes it’s accurate and often it isn’t. I thought it was my last chance to set the record straight. I don’t have anything particular to hide. I haven’t lived an exciting life in terms of sordid relationships, but I did a wide range of stuff and I wanted to write about it and show what my journey was.
Are there things you miss?
I miss singing every day. I can’t sing anymore. My voice doesn’t work. I have Parkinson's disease, and it sometimes takes my words away from me.
In your book you describe jam sessions by saying that "when the music is good you don't get bored and you don't get tired." What's one session in particular that stands out the most?
There were millions. When we finished a show, we didn’t go out. It was very provincial. We’d grab acoustic guitars and sit in the room and go through all the Everly Brothers songs we ever knew, or all the Motown or Beatles songs. Just more bricks in our musical basement. And if there were other musicians in town, sometimes they’d come over and we’d jam together. That was our life. We did that 98% of the time and it was great.
You write about a period in the 1970s saying that: “I felt some stagnation setting in and the relentless touring and endless repetition of the same songs over and over again promoted a creeping awareness that my music had begun to sound like my washing machine.” I wonder if you ever thought of success as being a kind of curse?
It wasn’t a curse. We loved having the money. It was more fun when you could play in a small concert hall, but we couldn’t afford to play in those spaces. It was just a little of a disappointment artistically.
In your memoir you explain that you are seldom happy to listen to your own recordings because you hear things you could have done differently. Is there one recording that stands out to you where you think you wouldn't change a single thing?
Nothing. I don’t remember what I recorded, to be honest. I never listened to it. There were sections where I think I did it pretty well. But I don’t think there’d be one single recording [that I wouldn't change].
In Paul Simon’s "Under African Skies," the two of you sing a duet and you mention your birthplace, Tuscon, Arizona. Was that a coincidence?
[Paul Simon] called me up one day and said, 'I’m having a hard time writing. Give me some images from your childhood.' I said, 'Okay, I grew up in Tucson near the San Javier Mission.' I’ve loved that place and considered it my spiritual homeland. I told him about the mission, and he included that part in the song. I always sang harmony with my family growing up.
Drugs and alcohol seem to be such a big part of the rock scene of the 70s—yet you're allergic to alcohol and seemed to barely touch drugs—was it odd to be a sober member among that crowd?
I can’t drink at all. My face turns bright red and I throw up. I had smart, well-educated guys in my band. They were readers. They kept themselves together pretty well. There was a certain amount of cocaine and pot. I never was a pot smoker. It made me feel nervous. Did I try cocaine? Sure, I did. I took a tiny bit of it, but I didn’t like the feeling of being stoned, so I let it go pretty early.
In the 1980s, you took a hiatus from touring and went to Broadway. Did you find what you were looking for?
It was such hard work. When you’re working in Broadway you’re in that damn theater three days a week from noon onward. You never get out of there and I needed to see daylight. I grew up in a big sky country. Then I lived in Manhattan where you can only see the sky between buildings and then I went into a building where you couldn't see the sky at all. I didn't like that so much.
You dated Jerry Brown and were engaged to George Lucas, but your memoir doesn’t mention much about them. What would you tell readers who are looking for a kiss-and-tell story?
Don’t buy my book. I set out to tell my musical story; they didn’t have anything to do with music. Those guys were lovely people, but they didn’t have anything to do with music.
Who do you listen to these days?
The singer I love and listen to a lot is Estrella Morente. She’s a Flamenco singer from Spain. I think she’s just brilliant. I listen to a lot of old Flamenco music from the 1920s. I find the Roma culture to be amazing. To me, it’s the blues of European music. Their music is very intense and their poetry is astounding. You can feel it. The emotion transcends everything.