The best music memoir I've read in a while

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 10:41 02/12/2013

I recently finished reading Linda Ronstadt's book. What a wonderful read - music fans should get this straight away - a great summer read. You don't have to be a Linda Ronstadt fan. I couldn't have told you, ahead of reading the book, that I was the world's biggest Ronstadt fan. But I was certainly aware of her, I liked her voice...Linda Ronstadt

Ronstadt was a huge star in the 1970s and I knew the obvious material - You're No Good, Blue Bayou, When Will I Be Loved, Different Drum - she was a pin-up star. And a serious country-crossover act. She was an adaptable singer too - there was this country hue to her material but she could sing rock. And folk. And show tunes.

She became an iconic duet partner (think of her work with Aaron Neville - he told me "something magical happens" when they sing) and a go-to backing vocalist, working with anyone and everyone.

I remembered her name from the radio when she would pop up on a newer favourite album like Neil Young's Freedom and then there was her duo album with Emmylou Harris; one of my favourite records. The pair recorded a Trios project with Dolly Parton also.

So I'm not at all trying to tell you that I'm not a fan of Linda Ronstadt, I've always been aware of her. But I wasn't expecting to love her book quite so much.

And the reason the book was great was because, as its subtitle suggests, it is a story all about the music. Not for Ronstadt to dish the dirt on famous flames on ex-lovers and ex-band members, this is about the music. It's about music - not just Ronstadt's. That's why you don't need to be a fan of her particular brand - as wide-ranging as it is/was. Because Ronstadt writes about her time around some of the great songwriters of the era, she tells stories about the Californian country-rock scene, its formation, the camaraderie. She tells of a lifetime infatuated with the sounds on the radio, of developing a voice, of then working with heroes. 

And it's always about the music. It's not about the dirt. It's not about the ego.

Okay, granted, sometimes a bit of dirt is part of the story - it makes for a good read, it's part of what we're interested in. But I'd rather read passages like this:

"I recently came across an old cassette tape recorded in my living room in Malibu, sometime around 1976, of Jackson [Browne] teaching me to sing [Warren] Zevon's 'Poor Poor Pitiful Me', plugging a song for his buddy whose writing he so admired. Listening to the tape, I wonder why Jackson didn't record it himself, because he sang it better than I did. Later on in the tape, John David [Souther] teaches me Roy Orbison's 'Blue Bayou' which also made it onto the Simple Dreams album. That was a profitable evening."Simple Dreams

Or her appreciation for Emmylou Harris and her quashing of professional jealousy - a lot of hopeful young musicians could learn a lot from this:

"...Emmylou started to sing, it got very quiet. Clearly, something unusual was taking place up on that stage, and we in the audience were mesmerised. Emmy has the ability to make each phrase of a song sound like a last desperate plea for her life, or at least her sanity. No melodrama; just the plain truth of raw emotion. The sacred begging the profane. My reaction to it was slightly conflicted. First, I loved her singing wildly. Second, in my opinion, she was doing what I was trying to do, only a whole lot better. Then came a split-second decision I made that affected the way I listened to and enjoyed music for the rest of my life. I thought if I allowed myself to become envious of Emmy, it would be painful to listen to her, and I would deny myself the pleasure of it. If I simply surrendered to loving what she did, I could take my rightful place among the other drooling Emmylou fans, and then maybe, just maybe, I might be able to sing with her. I surrendered".

I love that paragraph. There's a lot in it. You get a lot from it. You don't have to be a hopeful young musicians to learn something from that. And it's indicative of the book - of the writing. You get a sense of how Ronstadt is feeling and she places you in the action, you feel part of it - as if it's happening around you. You relate.

It's a thrilling book - a joyride.

It's the best book I've read by a musician, about a musician's life, in quite some time. Of course I was hopeful I'd enjoy it going into it - that's how you approach anything; you want to like it. But I was quite blown away by this book. Here's my review.

Have you read it? Does it interest you?

And what's the best musical memoir you've read this year?

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