Linda Ronstadt Loses Voice, Stays Positive: 'I Got to Live Out My Dreams'

Linda Ronstadt
Henry Diltz

Talks motivation for writing a new memoir and why she decided to reveal she had Parkinson's disease: "If I didn't say anything people were going to say I'm drunk"

Like many of her peers, part of Linda Ronstadt's motivation to write the just-published "Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir" (Simon & Schuster) was to set the record straight. 

"So many other people have written about things that I said or things they said I said, and they got it so wildly inaccurate so much of the time that I'd like to have my side of it out there," she tells Billboard.

But anyone wanting sordid details about Ronstadt's romantic past -- including reported and rumored relationships with California Gov. Jerry Brown, songwriter J.D. Souther, Steve Martin, George Lucas and others -- will find themselves disappointed. By design, Ronstadt says. 

"I only mention them if they actually had some kind of place in the music," Ronstadt explains. "Having a musical companion to listen with is a huge thing; when you're sitting listening with someone  with a shared sensibility, it expands your experience hugely -- by multiples of 10 sometimes." In Souther's case, she adds, "he was the one from the rock 'n' roll community who, when I started recording standards (with 1983's 'What's New'), went, 'What a great idea!' I feared his opinion because he's very judgmental and he's very condemning, but he loved those tunes and said, 'This is pretty good. I think you should keep going with it.' He liked the record and he came in and encouraged (Ronstadt's manager) Peter Asher, whose courage was flagging a little bit. It dragged us over the finish line a little bit, and I owe (Souther) a debut of gratitude for that."

Ronstadt says her publisher's attitude helped to convince her to do the book project. "They sent me a lovely letter and books by Renee Fleming ('The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer') and Rosanne Cash ('Composed: A Memoir') saying, 'We'd love a book like this. It doesn't have to be a kiss-and-tell book or anything, just about your work and how you want to talk about it.' I hadn't had any experience writing anything like that. I never kept a journal, never kept a diary, never written anything past a thank-you note, practically. I just tried to tell my story."

In writing the book, Ronstadt says she learned "to give myself a little bit of a break" from her often harsh opinions about her work. "I always thought I couldn't sing very well," she acknowledges. "I was always very frustrated by it, and I was always sorta disappointed by it. Everything I did always fell short of my expectations. But doing (the book), I think I cut myself a little bit of slack. I wasn't very good when I started, but the good news is I got better. I didn't become the greatest singer in all of pop music, but I became at least, for my time, the most diverse. I do wish the records were better, but they were as good as I could do at the time."

"Simple Dreams' " publication, of course, was preceded by the revelation that Ronstadt has Parkinson's disease and is no longer able to sing. She has no regrets about making it public -- "When you have Parkinson's disease it's kind of noticeable, and if I didn't say anything people were going to say I'm drunk because I have a hard time walking," Ronstadt notes with a laugh -- but she was surprised by how big a story it became. 

"I told about 11 interviews I had Parkinson's disease and there wasn't much of response, and then I told AARP and I don't know what happened," Ronstadt says. "But I've had very nice support. I've heard from old friends that I haven't heard from in a long time, and a lot of people have given me very useful information. I don't like to make it look like I'm so special; at 67, there are a lot of people with health challenges. I'm not unique in that way."

Ronstadt -- who these days works with youth at the Los Cenzontles Mexican Arts Center in San Pablo, Calif. -- says the end of her singing career "makes me sad," but she tries to keep it in a positive perspective. 

"I have to say it's a drag; it's the worst thing that's ever happened to me," she notes. "But I say to myself that I had a really unusually long turn at the trough, and I have to be satisfied with that and I got to live out my dreams musically in a way that a lot of people didn't get to. I was lucky that way and I'm grateful for it, and I have to just look around for other ways to make myself useful. And I will."