Greater love hath no man than he who will, in a dive bar full of heavy metal fans, rise up on his hind legs and defend his love of Linda Ronstadt to all and sundry.
I stand second to no one in my appreciation of Linda. Her voice, musical tastes, beauty and important place in the late 1970s / early 1980s musical pantheon place her at the top of any heap you care to assemble. Period.
A word about that voice: by any definition it is quite nearly perfect. It is seductive and endearing, capable of powerful, ringing pop music or drenched in sadness and longing. It was said that one needed to stand back from her in the studio because her voice was so strong.
Her authorial voice in her memoir, Simple Dreams, is another matter. But the book is readable, and in parts interesting. Along with the Eagles, Ronstadt was the biggest selling pop powerhouse to emerge from the 1970s Los Angeles / Laurel Canyon music scene. And no question her own background and tastes were as influential as any in adding the “country” dimension to the California sound, Gram Parsons included.
To digress briefly -- at the opposite ends of the Laurel Canyon spectrum were Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa. They were both huge and successful talents but neither achieved the crossover superstardom of the Eagles or Ronstadt. A strong argument can be made that Ronstadt’s voice was one spark that started that particular bonfire.
Where this book it at its best are the anecdotes from the early days of country rock. Linda hanging at the Chateau Marmont with Keith and Mick and Gram Parsons singing “all the Merle Haggard songs we knew.” Linda at “lovely dinner parties” with Carole King and James Taylor and Glen Frey and Jackson Browne. Linda in hotel room singalongs with Neil Young and Emmylou Harris.
Oh yes, she doesn’t skimp on the name-dropping which is a bonus. Drunk Jim Morrison to drunk Lowell George and dozens more make appearances. There are quite a few lovely and funny stories about what now seems like a much simpler time in the music business though certainly not without the attendant addictions, ODs and assorted tragedies. Which quite frankly is a part of what I want to read in these books.
She also adds interesting background to the business side with stories about the producers and money people and to the music side with details on important sidemen and musicians who made big contributions but remain largely unknown. It is obvious Ronstadt cares deeply about these people and understands their importance in her own success.
She is also enlightening on the workaday aspects of singing and vocal technique. She talks about her intuitive understanding of what worked for her voice and the trial and error of crafting an approach to a particular song. For those of us interested in how it works in addition to the gossipy history this is great information.
I was less interested in her family history, what she wore on stage and her various philosophical and political musings. There is no question she is a wonderful technician and craftsperson with (mostly) impeccable taste. She is not an intellectual capable of summoning the greater meanings of her era and influence. But that’s OK and it doesn’t mar the good parts of this book.
Overall I liked the book -- simple and straightforward, she delivers the goods history-wise and if she is not a great writer no matter. Just drop the needle on the “Heart Like a Wheel” or “Simple Dreams” and remember why she was the first female rock and roll superstar. And that voice.