In her autobiography, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir, Linda Ronstadt talks about the love behind the music she made, be it Southern California pop, Tin Pan Alley, richly layered country, or traditional Mexican.
There are the relationships with performers such as J.D. Souther and Emmylou Harris ("We could finish each other's sentences") that bound her to harmony. There are the musical parents who fostered her curiosities.
Ronstadt talks about being a quiet "baggy sweater- and beat-up jeans-wearing" folk singer who moved from coffee houses to stadium concerts to opera halls and Broadway stages (La Boheme, The Pirates of Penzance) without being mired in the muck of drugs or ego. She also speaks of losing her graceful, finely tuned voice -- at the height of its powers -- to Parkinson's disease. In 2011, she retired, unable to sing.
Ronstadt, who spoke with me from her home in San Francisco before heading to West Chester this weekend for a Simple Dreams reading, laughed heartily when asked how she's faring. "I'm pretty good," she said. "I'm getting better at asking people for help."
She also laughed at having become radically chatty for her book tour. "An agent said I could get speaking engagements with my book, which I thought was ludicrous because when I sang I never said a word," she said. "Now I can't shut up."
As intuitive as she is talented, Ronstadt knew something was wrong -- in her gut, in her diaphragm -- when, in 2000, she felt a tug on her vocal cords. "It felt fundamental, like what could be Alzheimer's. Turns out that it was singing Alzheimer's -- I was losing the neurons that you need to make the muscles go."
Rather than lament, she now concentrates on family -- she has two children in bands -- and on her role as mentor at Los Cenzontles, a Mexican arts center.
In her platinum-plated career, Ronstadt was as restlessly experimental as David Bowie or David Byrne, from her 1967 chamber-pop cover with the Stone Poneys of Mike Nesmith's twangy "Different Drum" to the Cajun soul of her last album, 2006's Adieu False Heart, with pop, swing, avant-jazz, new wave, and light opera in between. Were such transitions a part of her DNA, or was this something afforded her by success?
"It took me years of success in a regular format to be able to earn the right to have the muscle to flex, to say to the label that I am going to do all this," she said.
She credits pop-star-turned-manager Peter Asher with giving her leeway to pursue albums with Sinatra arranger Nelson Riddle and others with the Mexican music of her heritage, even at the risk of dooming a pop career that had yielded smashes like "You're No Good."
"I was determined," she said. "The record company flipped and thought I'd lost my mind, but I had earned the right to try, and each time was successful."
The only genre that got away was opera, which she loves. "I always thought I could copy anything, that I was really a chameleon, but not grand opera," she said. "You need to build those muscles for years."
Ronstadt said she also treasures the deceptive simplicity of the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, and Brian Wilson ("the true receiver of the Gershwin strain") and the urgency of contemporary Mexican music ("the skankier the better").
In Simple Dreams, Ronstadt mesmerizes the reader with her ability to write critically and passionately -- and sometimes coolly -- about music. She writes with journalistic directness to bring out the truth in the songs she feels closest to, such as Hoagy Carmichael's yearning and restless "Skylark."
Asked whether perhaps she's developed her writing skills in the way that a person who's had one sense blunted comes to sharpen another, she laughs. "Well, I spent my whole life doing music, chasing traditional music, learning its history," she said. "I know something about it."