Linda Ronstadt thrilled for the chance to live out 'Simple Dreams'

Iconic singer writes about career in new music memoir

Published On: Oct 30 2013 04:27:41 PM CDT   Updated On: Apr 24 2014 07:05:34 PM CDT
Linda Ronstadt and book cover

Although she was recently recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with her first nomination in 20 years of eligibility, Linda Ronstadt said the honor doesn't really matter because she's never been defined by one style of music.

Appropriately, it's Ronstadt's amazing trek across many different musical genres that chronicled in her new book "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir" (Simon & Schuster). Ronstadt shares stories from all the genres she's covered, from rock, pop and county, to jazz, operettas, bluegrass and the selections from the Great American Songbook.

Ronstadt, a third generation Mexican-American from Tucson, Ariz., also writes about her passion for performing and recording Mexican folk music, which has held deep, personal meaning for the singer since her childhood.

"Mexican-Americans have had a tremendous influence on this culture in every way -- food, music, clothing styles, literature -- every way you can think of, but there's still an effort to keep them invisible," Ronstadt, 67, told me in a recent interview. "I just wasn't going to let that part of me remain invisible. It's a huge part of me, culturally, emotionally and socially, and I wanted to have that part of me represented."

Ronstadt's entry into the business in the mid-1960s in Los Angeles was remarkable -- not so much for the extraordinary people she encountered -- but the ordinary musicians that she would meet, who, like her, were on the cusp of superstardom.

Among them was a 16-year-old Jackson Browne; Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon -- all members of her backing band that would go on to become the Eagles; and Jim Morrison and his band, The Doors, in the group's early years.

Ronstadt and her band, the Stone Poneys, were oddly enough hired as The Doors' opening act after the band's signature song "Different Drum" became a big hit in 1967.

The singer admits her first impression of Morrison -- before her band became The Doors' opener -- wasn't the greatest.

"I remember seeing Jim Morrison and The Doors play at the Whiskey a Go Go, and I thought the band was great and the singer was terrible," Ronstadt recalled, bluntly. "I remembered saying at the time, 'Gosh, if they could get a good singer they could really have big hits."

As it turned out, Ronstadt ended up hanging out with Morrison and one of the band's wranglers on tour, and, she says, his drunken exploits would often lead to trouble.

"I hate to speak ill of the dead, but he was a terrible alcoholic who threw up every day, mostly on his pants -- which were made out of snakeskin -- and he wore the same hair every day. I just didn't get the appeal myself since I didn't care for his singing," Ronstadt recalls. "He was sweet when he was sober, but that was not for very long periods of time during the day."

While Ronstadt doesn't have any problem with people who use drugs, she's long felt that alcohol is the most damaging mind-altering substance. From a personal standpoint, the singer says she never drank, because she discovered early on that alcohol made her violently ill.

"People who smoke pot, they seem to get along just fine. I don't understand why they don't make it legal everywhere," Ronstadt says. "I think all drugs should be legal and people can just take their chances. The worst drug is alcohol. Nothing gets you more stoned than alcohol. If all drugs are legal, probably the same number of people would be getting stoned, but they wouldn't have to steal your TV set in order to get the money to do it. We'd have a lot more control, and a lot more ability to educated people about it."

While the book predominantly covers her musical career, Ronstadt is more than happy to discuss her some of her personal viewpoints that aren't necessarily expressed in her memoir.
As an advocate of music education, and she's afraid the de-emphasis of such programs in schools is a huge detriment to society.

"Art is there to identify our feelings and help us process our emotions. It's there to help us get through our day. All the arts are important. Dancing, singing, visual arts. They're all really important," Ronstadt said. "But we all live in a culture where we seem to delegate our art to professionals, and it's a shame. We need our heroes to inspire us, but then we need to do it ourselves and we're not doing it in our culture. We're raising generation after generation of tone-deaf children that can't even sing 'Happy Birthday.'"

Music, Ronstadt said, isn't just there for enjoyment, there are other benefits, too, especially with the human brain.

"There's such good science that says pitch is tremendously important in memory storage," Ronstadt explained. "That's why we have a song to learn the ABCs, because we wouldn't be able to learn 26 unrelated characters without having a song to help up remember them. But when we're not teaching music in the schools, it's a shame. These kids are growing up without pitch and they can't learn as well. When I go to work in schools with children and they sing something, they can't sing on pitch. They can't sing a melody. The results are going to be catastrophic. I think in education, it's starting to show up already."

Parkinson's diagnosis

In August, Ronstadt revealed in an AARP Magazine interview that she was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease at the end of 2012. She's been sensing for years that something was wrong, and in fact, the last time she performed in public was in 2009.

Effectively, the degenerative disorder of the central nervous system has robbed Ronstadt of her ability to sing, and sometimes she even finds speaking difficult.

"I have a hard time even calling the cat," Ronstadt said. "I have a hard time speaking for a long period of time now and I can't really project my voice. I have a little part of my speaking voice, but I don't have a very expressive speaking voice anymore. I tried to do the audio version of my book, but I couldn't do it."

At current, Ronstadt says examining different treatment options for the disease.

"It's a long, bewildering journey to find what works out there," Ronstadt observed. "I found something that works a little bit that isn't a drug but a vegetable extract. It doesn't cure it. It doesn't make it go away, but it doesn't have the side effects that the drugs have."

One big problem Ronstadt has in the treatment of the disease is the generalized approach to it.

"I think there are lot of different versions of Parkinson's disease out there and a lot of different causes, and different people respond to different things," Ronstadt said. "What big pharmacy doesn't allow for is medicine as an art. They want one thing that's going to clobber the disease over an 80 to 90 percent range of people, and often those things have some very undesirable side effects.

"Instead, they should develop one little thing, like a vegetable extract that works for 20 percent of Parkinson's sufferers, and something else that works for 40 percent," she added. "But the drug companies want to have the biggest return on their money since we live in a capitalistic society and culture. I think there are other ways of looking at it."

But while Ronstadt has hard time speaking physically, that doesn't mean she's lost her sense of expression and becoming a voice, in the inspiration sense, for issues she cares deeply about. And while she admits she probably wouldn't author another book with her viewpoints ("I think it's easier to write a book with personal stories than a book about ideas," she said), Ronstadt will certainly keep expressing her thoughts in a public forum.

"The thing I'm most interested in is immigration reform, because that is making so many people's lives so excruciatingly miserable and it's so unnecessary," Ronstadt said. "It's having a tremendous impact on the cultural at-large when there are people living amongst you who are not able to have a piece of the full economic pie and having full access to education. They have worry about getting a good job, and also have to worry about getting thrown in jail or deported, that's a terrible thing. That's bad for a society as a whole. We have to figure out a way for those people to be assimilated without turning them into permanent underclass so they can have depressed wages and be exploited."