Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Uncovering My Love for Linda Ronstadt Through Her New Memoir, "Simple Dreams," on Sale Today.

As I have mentioned previously, I was about 12 when my music gene turned on. Whereas all my knowledge about 1972 is second-hand, by 1973 I was listening to the radio regularly. Sometime in 1974, I had discovered national music charts, first through "American Top 40" and then by viewing the entire Hot 100 in copies of Billboard magazine.

By the time I was 14, I was keeping obsessive lists of my favorite songs in order, a countdown that changed weekly. I don't actually think this is uncommon; at one point I had a dozen friends who did the same, some of whom made these lists for decades. When I started using the internet, I found websites collating hundreds of personal charts. Oddly enough, this made my hobby lose its appeal and within a few years I had stopped. It didn't hurt that my music gene seemingly turned off around this time as well. But one result of this is that if an artist was performing between 1975 and 2000, I can tell you exactly how much I liked them at the time, backed up by arbitrary statistics.

A little over a year ago, I read Shawn Colvin's memoir, an author I liked "one big #1 and several top tens worth." But Linda Ronstadt, whose memoir Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir just came out this week, was an artist I liked "three #1s and 15 top tens worth." I should also note that before 1982 I only charted singles, but I listened pretty deeply to the album cuts in Ronstadt's 1970s work. She'd probably have at least double the top tens with that taken into account."

Does it now makef sense that I am probably the most obsessive bookstore bestseller maker in the country? I've been tabulating store bestseller lists, first for Schwartz, and then for Boswell, for probably 25 years.

Linda Ronstadt's story is far different from Shawn Colvin's, even though their styles, for at least one point in their career, rock with folk and country influences, were not too dissimilar. Ronstadt was only 21 when "Different Drum" became a top 20 hit for a Stone Poneys, and she was pushed by their label to the center of the band. I was quite familiar with that song because it was in my sisters' 45 collection. For some reason, both sisters left their vinyl singles behind when they moved out of the house, but they found a good (if not messy) home with me. By the time I was 16, I was as fluent in the language of 1967 as I was with current year hits.

So there I was at 14, listening to Casey Kasem count down the top 40 each week, a complete surprise as there was no other way to learn what the chart toppers were, obsessively writing down the numbers in a series of notebooks. I followed Linda Ronstadt's "You're No Good", her first big hit, as it moved up the rankings (Ronstadt and original Betty Everett versions here). I haven't checked, but I seem to remember it's big move being from 31 to 18 in one week. I have no idea if it's true, but what is true is that at the time, I would memorize all the big hits' chart progressions up Billboard.

A lot of artists were flashes in the pan, but Ronstadt wasn't. She'd have an album ready each year, and many of the artists whom she covered turned out to be equally good at performing their own material. I remember buying the first Karla Bonoff album solely because of the songs on Hasten Down the Wind. Is it a little embarrassing that I would get a little weepy singing "Lose Again" along with my vinyl recording? Did I even know what I was singing about at 16? I don't think so, but you know how hormones can affect someone.

Ronstadt probably had her first commercial peak with the album Simple Dreams, which had two concurrent top ten songs, "Blue Bayou" and "It's So Easy." That is pretty common nowadays but in the 1970s it was pretty irregular. The other example that comes to mind is the Bee Gees' Saturday Night Fever songs. Over the next couple of albums, she tried to rock out a bit more, and even dipped her toe into the trendy new wave movement.

But it's clear she'd fallen into a rut, and what's interesting about Simple Dreams the book is that this period in her life, when she was most firmly in my consciousness, is really covered the least in her story. Growing up? Sure. Trying to make it with the band? Absoutely. But the period from Heart Like a Wheel to Get Closer is almost a footnote. I am grateful that she does discuss the making itself of the Heart Like A Wheel album. I always wondered why here releases went Capitol-Asylum-Capitol-Asylum, and it turned out her people convinced Capitol to let Asylum have one album before their final set, and this let both labels to become super-competitive. Whereas normally that Capitol album would have been an orphan, instead it became heavily marketed by not one, but two labels.

But Ronstadt clearly got bored. And you can tell, because the writing comes back to life when she starts on the Nelson Riddle sessions, the Mariachi music, the country collaborations with Emmylou and Dolly, and the Joe Papp production of "Pirates of Penzance" (successful) and "La Boheme" (not successful). It made her a different artist, an artist who took risks and became in my eyes, more successful. But my ears were not ready to listen to that stuff in my twenties and thirties and I come to it, not like an obsessive, but as a novice.

There's really a lot that Ronstadt doesn't talk about. She stopped singing, but her Parkinson's is not really discussed (I checked with her publicist and her diagnosis was not until after the book was finished). This is not a tell all--even her relationship with singer-songwriter John David Souther (two top tens for me--his solo hit "You're Only Lonely" and his duet with James Taylor, "Her Town Too" which I think might have hit #1 on my chart. I'll look it up later) is only given casual mention. She also does not discuss in much depth any personal issues she might have had with various substances, though she does note she wasn't much of a drinker.

No, this is the kind of story your aunt might tell you on a spring day, looking back at what was important, and maybe what wasn't quite so important. I like that it sort of chronicles this desire for something, and when it's achieved, perhaps a desire for something else entirely.

I always thought that someday my charts would somehow be destroyed, lost in a move or something, but I still have these detailed records of my teen years. And so I would like to offer my Linda Ronstadt discography of songs that hit my top 40.

For those of you who regularly use blogger, you know how hard it s to make a table. You can understand how much this is a labor of love. I haven't done it since, well, Shawn Colvin's post.

Title Peak Wk40 Entry Date
You’re No Good 1 12 1/11/75
When Will I Be Loved 1 13 5/13/75
It Doesn’t Matter Anymore 18 4 9/6/75
Heat Wave/Love is a Rose 1 13 10/14/75
Tracks of My Tears 6 11 1/13/76
That’ll be the Day 4 12 9/11/76
Someone to Lay Down Beside Me/Crazy 8 9 1/8/77
Lose Again 10 8 6/25/77
Blue Bayou 5 13 10/15/77
It’s So Easy 17 9 11/5/77
Poor, Poor Pitiful Me 4 12 2/24/78
Tumblin’ Dice 4 11 4/24/78
Back in the USA 6 8 9/30/78
Ooh Baby Baby 16 9 12/9/78
Alison 23 7 4/24/79
How Do I Make You? 4 12 2/17/80
Hurt So Bad 5 10 4/6/80
I Can’t Let Go 3 12 6/22/80
Get Closer 18 7 10/24/82
I Knew You When 26 5 12/26/82
Easy for You to Say 8 10 4/17/83
What’s New? 33 4 12/11/83
Don’t Know Much 23 6 12/3/89

In a final observation, I love how the book jacket mimics the classic album covers of Kosh, Ronstadt's go-to designer for many years. (Addendum--Richard Rhorer at Simon and Schuster confirmed that there is no mimicking involved. Kosh designed the book jacket!)

No comments: