Linda Ronstadt talks music, Mexico and Parkinson's*

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I haven't been to enough Writers Bloc events to know if a standing ovation is usual when the author simply comes on stage, but that's what happened tonight with Linda Ronstadt. Andrea Grossman, the creator of Writers Bloc, said that the tickets for Ronstadt's conversation with Patt Morrison sold out (at $25 a pop) faster than for any other event in the series' 18 years. Before the audience erupted in affection and respect, Grossman said she would give the crowd 20 seconds to take their photos and put their phones away. It took a bit longer than that for the house, which included Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, to settle down. Ronstadt came out dressed in black and under her own power, if a bit slower and deliberate than a woman of 67 might usually walk.

Then the conversation was off and running — about Tucson and the influence of Mexico on her music, about the Eagles and Jackson Browne and Jerry Brown, about going to New York to sing in "The Pirates of Penzance," about her record company and manager Peter Asher trying to talk her out of doing the Spanish-language album "Canciones de mi Padre," and a little about Parkinson's disease. Morrison didn't press Ronstadt to go deep on many topics, including about the illness that took her singing voice, but all the reviews I've read and heard agree that's the nature of her book, "Simple Dreams." It's not highly personal or revealing — Ronstadt admitted that her editor found it too brief and pushed her to add material.

The music is the story — no telling of tales about Brown or party times with the famous musicians she knew. "People who play music just hang out and play music all the time," Ronstadt laughed. Anyway, she mostly associates her bandmates and rock friends with the books they turned her onto. "They were serious people," she said. On tour she was often the girl quietly knitting.

Ronstadt said that her musical education came at home in Tuscon, where everyone around the house sang and played some kind of instrument. They especially listened to the poetic songs of Northern Mexico on the radio stations booming across the desert. "I thought people sang in Spanish and spoke in English," she said. For someone so associated with 1960s and 70s rock and roll, Ronstadt may have surprised people when she said, "I don't ever need to hear amplified music again — I've heard it." She tired of all those loud guitars — and she thinks the audio quality of MP3 music is awful — "we're raising generation after generation of tone-deaf children." She goes out to hear classical performances and opera — like an old person, she joked. She likes when people come over to the house in San Francisco and play or sing for her.

Ronstadt gave generous shout-outs to collaborators and musicians she respects. She mentioned women such as Grace Slick and Janis Joplin and said of Darlene Love, "she was better than any of us." She credits the Mexican legend Lola Beltran with teaching her about her voice, and said of the Los Angeles-based Nati Cano mariachi troupe that Ronstadt recorded with: "That's as good a band as you're going to find anywhere." She mentioned meeting Andrew Gold at the Oakwood School in the Valley, and called The Music Coop in Ashland, Oregon the best record store in the world. The store has her gold records on its walls — she gave them to the owner along with her Grammys, Ronstadt said.

Ronstadt was the first to mention her disease, explaining a momentary lapse in memory as "a Parkinson's moment." She said that for years she would ask doctors why she seemed to be losing control of her voice. They would imply she was neurotic. It turned out to be Parkinson's disease, so her vocal cords are fine — she just can't make them do what she did before. When a member of the audience asked if she would teach or coach singing, she said she can't even demonstrate correct pitch anymore.

Also from the night:

  • Ronstadt surfaced some policy differences with her friend Jerry Brown over spending and the water tunnels the governor favors for the San Francisco-Sacramento Delta, but said "he's an actual very nice man...I'm not going to get on his case tonight."
  • Even though she despises MP3 music, she admits to the joy many of us know of rediscovering old songs and performers on YouTube.
  • Asher eventually came around and championed her move into Mexican music.
  • Asked who she would have liked to sing with, she mentioned a young Frank Sinatra.

The conversation was held at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater at New Roads School in Santa Monica. It was taped by KCET for possible future broadcast. I see that Graham Nash is coming to Writers Bloc in November. Also in the music slot, on Oct. 29 Robert Hilburn will talk about his new biography of Johnny Cash with Kris Kristofferson. [Paragraph fixed.]

In the meantime, someone has posted an entire Great Performances showing of "Canciones de mi Padre" on YouTube — it begins with Ronstadt on a horse in Tucson with her dad:

The Washington Post ran a fresh profile of Ronstadt on Monday that begins this way:

A 67-year-old woman in a black hoodie stepped gingerly down from a golf cart at last weekend’s National Book Festival on the Mall. Battling Parkinson’s disease, she steadied herself with two walking sticks, and headed, one careful step at a time, toward the stage.

The applause started as a small ripple as the first few people in the audience spotted her. Then it grew into a full-throated ovation by more than 500 fans as she stepped up onto the stage, smiled shyly, and flashed the luminous chestnut eyes that made America fall in love with Linda Ronstadt.

“I guess I have friends here,” she said, to the roaring approval of a crowd that skewed a little gray, many still with a bit of a crush on the woman who sang such songs as “Blue Bayou” and “You’re No Good.”

As part of the festival program, I interviewed Ronstadt onstage about her new memoir, “Simple Dreams,” which focuses on her upbringing in a musical family in Tucson and the evolution of her career. One of America’s most popular recording artists of the 1970s and 1980s, she has been called the most versatile singer of her generation, a talent who could master rock and country and mariachi. Because of Parkinson’s, she’s no longer able to sing.

By the way, she can also no longer knit. "It is a blow,” she said quietly in the Post story. Here's also last week's interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Previously on LA Observed:
Linda Ronstadt says Parkinson's has taken her singing voice
Ronstadt confirms for NYT: 'I’m never going to sing again'
Andrew Gold, L.A. musician was 59

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