I came of age just as Ronstadt’s career exploded. I was eighteen years old, headed down a winding staircase in the administrative building at Portland State University, when I first heard the song “Blue Bayou”. I was a music major at the time myself; her haunting vocals literally stopped me in my tracks. Fortunately, no one else wanted to use the staircase just then, because I could not move until the song was over. After it ended, I accosted fellow students going about their business, saying, “Excuse me”—pointing to the speakers through which music was piped into the common areas—“but who was that?” They looked at me like I was crazy. Who was who? What? They hadn’t been paying attention to the music.
Later, of course, I learned that the song was performed by Linda Ronstadt, and right away, I knew I had to have that platter. And when I saw that Ronstadt, by now a musical icon holding the record as the only female artist to have four consecutive platinum albums, had published a memoir, I knew I had to have that too. Sadly, I had barely begun collecting galleys and reading them to review, and I missed out. Happily, the Seattle Public Library came to my rescue. I got this book there, and I rate it 3.5 stars rounded up.
I finished reading the memoir about a week ago, and was impressed in some ways, ambivalent in others. What is it about musicians and other entertainers that makes their admirers want to gobble them up, body and soul? How much of her personal life is an entertainer morally obligated to share if she is publishing a memoir and wants the public to pony up what, in these times, is often the only disposable income a retired member of the Boomer generation may have in a given month?
Here’s what I came away with. Ronstadt tells us, right there in the title, that this is not going to be a prurient, tell-all bloodletting. She is giving us the history of her musical life, and that’s what she is giving us, period. And I think the unhappy reviews I have seen from many other reviewers, together with my own strange dissatisfaction when I turned the final page, comes not from her failure to give out personal information, but from her inconsistency in doing so.
As the memoir begins, she provides abundant personal details of her early life, filled with some really funny anecdotes. We see her born into a middle class, very musical family, with her sister turning to her brother and commenting on four-year-old sibling Linda: “I think we got a soprano here.” We read about her forming “mud huaraches” in the hot desert so as to go barefoot without burning her feet, and many, many anecdotes that have nothing, nothing, nothing at all to do with music. And so we bond with her, not just as a performer, but as a person, and we develop the expectation that we will at least hear the broad contours of her personal life and maybe some more fun anecdotes as her mainly-musical memoir progresses.
Before I go any further, I also have to say that she is a strong writer; no ghosts needed here. And her keen intelligence lights the pages as she takes us down her musical pathways.
Even in the 2000’s, women in the music industry have not reached parity with male performers; Ronstadt takes us back, back, back to the days of folk rock, and to a conversation she had with Janis Joplin at a venue where they would both be performing:
“Because of the phenomenal success of artists like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan,
earthy funk was God, and the female performers in the folk pop genre were genuinely
confused about how to present themselves. Did we want to be nurturing, stay-at-home
earth mothers who cooked and nursed babies, or did we want to be funky mamas
at the Troubador bar, our boot heels to be wandering an independent course
just like our male counterparts? We didn’t know.”
Those with a strong interest in vocal music—not just as listeners, but as individuals who have studied the craft—will find her memoir more satisfying than those that just enjoy tapping the steering wheel while her songs fill the family car. I had already noted the problems with phrasing in her early work, and was gratified as I read the progression of her training. I was, and am still, dumbstruck by the professional risks she took. She had an established career, and yet dared to venture into areas of music where no one was making money. She had a solid country rock pedigree, yet decided to record orchestral, old-school music with Nelson Riddle. She performed in Pirates of Penzance, and you can bet she knew the finer points of musicianship by then! She released mariachi music, and it sold like crazy.
But the book’s ending feels tremendously abrupt. I respected the way she referred briefly, toward the middle of the book, to her liaison with Californian governor Jerry Brown (“keeping regular company”), and the fact that she didn’t drag us through their affair seemed appropriately modest to me; the woman isn’t a name-dropper, and her own editors had to tell her to put more musicians and fewer horses into her memoir before publishing it.
But at the end, she mentions staying at home with her two small children and we have no clue where they came from. Did she marry? Did she adopt? We don’t need all of the most intimate ends and outs of her personal relationships or her decision to become a mother, but she could toss us a paragraph or two. Even had she handled these more personal aspects of her later life as she did her relationship with Brown, with a mention here and a segue there, the entire thing would have flowed better, leaving the reader more satisfied, and less likely to feel, in some odd way, cheated.
Should you pay the full jacket price for this memoir? I guess it depends how deep your pockets are, and how much you enjoy a conversation that is, more than anything, the history of Ronstadt’s musical career, and those she knew professionally as a side bar of sorts. There was a time in my own life when I thought nothing of stopping by my favorite bookstore and coming out loaded down with bags of books. I bought anything I wanted, as long as each selection was under a particular dollar amount. Some teachers went on ski vacations or cruises, I figured; some smoked and drank, spending great sums in that manner; and as for me, all I wanted was a decadent chocolate bar and a vast trove of paperbacks. It didn’t seem so much to ask, while I was earning a professional’s salary.
These days it’s different. My pockets are a lot lighter, and I have much greater access to books I don’t have to pay for. So for me, this was a splendid library find, but I think I would have been put out if I’d spent jacket price on the memoir that sort of peters out at the end, with no satisfying resolution.
In the end, this book is recommended for those with a strong interest in the professional development of Linda Ronstadt, and of the genre of country rock. Those looking for a more personal glimpse will likely have to wait for an unauthorized biography to pop up.