SAN FRANCISCO Linda Ronstadt’s short dark hair frames the oval face that ornamented album and magazine covers throughout the 1970s and ’80s, when she was rock ’n’ roll’s most alluring female star, with albums “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Living in the U.S.A.” that helped define the polished music of her era.
In the living room, near the Yamaha baby grand, Ronstadt settled into a chair, rested her white high-top sneakers on an ottoman and discussed her new book, “Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.”
In recent years, Ronstadt has drawn more attention for her outspoken politics, decidedly liberal, than for her music. Full of opinions, her words pour forth in a fluent, hyper-articulate rush.
For many, she remains her generation’s premier female pop vocalist, and they wonder why she hasn’t released an album since 2006 or appeared in concert since her mariachi show in 2009. For Ronstadt, a steady presence for 40 years, silence so prolonged must have a reason. She is 67, but age hasn’t stopped contemporaries Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris.
“I can’t do it because of my health,” Ronstadt said. “I have Parkinson’s.” (The news was reported in the AARP Magazine online Aug. 23.) She held out a slightly trembling hand. Her vocal cords are affected. “I can’t sing at all,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m truly not able. I can’t sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ really.”
She had been aware for more than a decade that something was wrong. She got the news in June. She had put off going to a neurologist until a guitarist friend, observing the unsteady hands, said she had to go. “Now I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I have to find a support group.”
“I never wanted to write a book,” she said. “I never wanted anyone else to write a book. I thought, ‘Let it end when it ends.’” She also wasn’t sure she was up to the task, despite being a voracious reader who can quote Henry James. But at dinner one night, Michael Pollan, the journalist and author, urged her to reconsider.
She told him: “I don’t have any craft. I don’t have any skill. And he said everybody has at least one good story in them that they can pull out.”
There was another fact to weigh – her dwindling savings. Ronstadt released many albums but wrote very few songs, so her royalty checks are small.
“Writers make all the money,” she said. Her most memorable hits – “You’re No Good,” “Heart Like a Wheel,” “Blue Bayou” - were written by others. “I was making good money when I was touring,” she said. Now “I just can’t do it.”
“I can’t make one note,” she said. “I have a hard time calling the cab at night.”
And so a book, and the advance it would bring, began to make sense.
In “Simple Dreams” she recalls her musical journey phase by phase, beginning with her childhood in the Sonora desert. She grew up with three siblings on a ranch outside Tucson, Ariz., where her father owned a hardware store and the Ronstadts, a musical family of mixed Anglo-Mexican heritage, were socially prominent. Ronstadt was a debutante, a “junior patroness” of the Tucson symphony.
But the desert air was saturated with other sounds pouring out of the radio and coffeehouse microphones. At 18, with $30 from her father, she went to Los Angeles and two years later recorded her first hit, the anti-torch song “Different Drum,” with its teasing harpsichord and undertow of “longing and yearning,” in Ronstadt’s description, in conversation, of the theme that would inform so much of her work in the decades to come.
“I’m not ready for any person, place or thing / to try and pull the reins in on me,” Ronstadt admonishes the besotted “boy who wants to love only me.”
Her memoir is a reminder of how close to the epicenter she once had been. She opened for the Doors (and was unimpressed with Jim Morrison) and toured with Young, whom she reveres. A highlight is her account of an all-night jam with Gram Parsons and Richards, Parsons disappearing at intervals to ingest drugs. At one point, Richards played “Wild Horses,” a new song he had written with Mick Jagger for the next Stones album. Parsons begged to record it ahead of them. To her astonishment, Richards complied.
The subtitle “Musical Memoir” signals what Ronstadt’s book is about, but also what it’s not about – the hedonistic excesses of the pop star’s life. She sidesteps the rampant drug use, although in conversation she acknowledged, “I tried everything,” including cocaine, which she did to such excess that she needed to have her nose cauterized twice.
For Ronstadt, who was often the only woman on the bus and in the hotel, those were not always happy times. “All the men chased girls,” she said. “They were good guys,” she said. “Well, no, they weren’t. They were cowboys. They were gunslingers.”
But many remain good friends, as do most of the celebrated boyfriends, such as Gov. Jerry Brown. And yet, keeping the vow of “I Never Will Marry”, Ronstadt is single. She has two children, ages 22 and 19, who share her three-story home.
“They can’t believe I had a life before them,” Ronstadt said, almost shrieking with laughter. “I live a very quiet life here, nothing like I did.”
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