Sam Tanenhaus knocked on the door of Linda Ronstadt's home in San Francisco and she answered. They talked about her upcoming memoir — written to make money as her savings dwindle — and about her revelation last week that she has Parkinson's disease and can't sing. Not even "Happy Birthday," she says. "I have no choice,” she says. “If there was something I could work on, I’d work on it till I could get it back. If there was a drug I could take to get it back, I would take the drug. I’d take napalm. But I’m never going to sing again.”
She had been aware for more than a decade that something was wrong, but those closest to her suspected it might be just another instance of the performance anxiety for which she is well known. “You can sing,” her former manager and longtime producer, Peter Asher, remembered telling her. “You’re crazy. Don’t be insecure.” But, as usual, he added, “Linda was right.” She got the news in June. Fearful of doctors, she had put off going to a neurologist until a guitarist friend, observing the unsteady hands, said she must go. “I never in a million years thought I had Parkinson’s, not in a million years,” she said. “Now I don’t know what to do. I have to find a support group. I have to call Michael Pollan. He’s responsible for all this.” (Mr. Pollan, the brother-in-law of Michael J. Fox, who also has Parkinson’s, said Ms. Ronstadt has not discussed her illness with him.)
By “all this” she meant not her health, but the book, which was completed before doctors confirmed that she has Parkinson’s. “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. A voracious reader who can quote Henry James verbatim, Ms. Ronstadt has, if anything, too much respect for the written word. But at dinner one night, Mr. 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.”
She expected Jonathan Karp, her editor at Simon & Schuster, to demand to see pages and chapters along the way. She was wrong. “He said, ‘Let me know when you have a manuscript.’ I said, ‘What?’ ” Ms. Ronstadt recalled, howling with laughter. “A manuscript! I was shocked.”
But now it’s done, and instead of a concert tour, she’ll sign books in cities where she once filled arenas: Boston, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore. In New York, she’ll be interviewed at the 92nd Street Y by her good friend John Rockwell, the former music critic and editor for The New York Times, who was among the first to recognize that Ms. Ronstadt was an artist of rare intelligence, taste and discipline whose meticulous phrasings uncovered psychological depth in even the sparest country ballads.
She lives in San Francisco with her children, ages 22 and 19, the story says.
Noted: Her news also inspired The New Yorker's Sarah Larson to write about Ronstadt's musical legacy.
On Saturday, we learned that Linda Ronstadt, who is sixty-seven, has Parkinson’s disease, and that one effect of this is that she can no longer sing. It’s incredibly sad news.
This seems as good a time as any to reflect on Ronstadt’s greatness, which might cheer us up a little.
She has made several decades’ worth of records: her Stone Poneys era, in the sixties, which included the sterling Mike Nesmith cover “Different Drum,” the song that introduced the world to her incredible voice. Her fantastic seventies rock-meets-country solo recordings, in which she covered everyone from the Everly Brothers to Smokey Robinson to Waylon Jennings. (Also notable from that era: one day, her backing band went off and formed the Eagles.) Her eighties forays into Gilbert and Sullivan (remember “The Pirates of Penzance,” with Kevin Kline?) and the Great American Songbook, with Nelson Riddle, as well as guest vocals on Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” A couple of Fievel numbers on the “American Tail” soundtracks. Her “Trio” country collaborations with fellow-legends Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and her Spanish-language canciones recordings, on which she sings the traditional Mexican folk songs that her family loved when she was growing up, in Tucson. Later, more jazz and standards.
Ronstadt also did one of the all-time great “Simpsons” cameos, in the 1992 episode “Mr. Plow”: the character-assassinating “Plow King” jingle for Homer’s business rival, Barney, which she sings in English and Spanish (“Señor Plow no es macho / Es solamente un borracho”). It cannot be said that she hasn’t made full use of her talents. And she’s publishing her memoir, “Simple Dreams,” in September.
Photo: New York Times/Peter DaSilva