I just read Linda Ronstadt's charmingly unpretentious memoir Simple Dreams, which I enjoyed very much. Many celebrity memoirs are tell-all, score-settling brag-o-grams, but none of this is true of Ronstadt's effort, which she appears to have written without the aid of a ghostwriter. She is unstinting in her praise of her colleagues and rivals, barely touches on her romances, and underplays her own commercial success to the point where a reader unfamiliar with the pop music scene of the '70s and '80s might be forgiven for wondering if she was really that big a deal. Even the Booklist reviewer seems to have been a bit misled in this regard, writing that Ronstadt "sold more than a million records" in her career. (The actual figure is north of 30 million records in the US alone.)
One little incident recounted in Simple Dreams struck me as interesting in terms of the stuff we talk about on this blog. It's a very specific synchronicity:
The inspiration [of performing overseas in smaller venues] was short lived. We were soon back in the USA, pounding the same old circuit in the same distinctly uninspiring arenas. Add to this the gnawing loneliness of life lived perpetually in motion, with not enough time in any one place to nurture relationships or build trust. I was beginning to feel miserable. And trapped.
One night we were playing in Atlanta. We had spent the afternoon fooling around in the little shops that had been established in what is called Underground Atlanta, the recently excavated, fire-charred remains of the pre-Civil War city. Big, smudgy, black-ringed eyes were in style then, and I found what seemed like a particularly exotic way to achieve it in one of the little shops. It was an ancient cosmetic called kohl – new to my experience – which was some kind of black mineral ground into a fine powder, and recently shipped in from India. There was also a blue one, which was a departure for me, but I figured if I couldn't change my life so easily, I could at least change the color of my eye makeup, so I bought that too. It was packaged in a little clay pot with a pointed wooden stick screwed into the lid to use as an applicator.
I was hot to try it out and went immediately to the dressing room of the place we were playing (another arena) and started to smear the stuff around my eyes. The applicator stick and powdered medium were unfamiliar and clumsy for me to use, and I had accidentally dotted my cheeks with what looked like the blue measles. I finished the job of cleaning off all the little stray blue blobs and wondered what I was going to do for the forty-five minutes until I had to sing. I had finished the book I kept in my purse and was scowling at the concrete floor – wishing we were still in a European theater with cherubs [on the walls] and that I didn't have to face an all-night drive in the bus after the show – when someone knocked on the door, bringing me out of my little sulk. It was one of the security guards, who handed me a book that someone had sent backstage with a note attached saying that it was something he or she thought I might like. "Oh goody!" I thought. "Now I won't have to be bored."
I looked at the cover: The Vagabond, by Colette. "Never heard of this book," I thought. Never heard of Colette, either. She had just one name. Like Cher.
I opened the book and began to read. The story is set in France in 1910. La Belle Epoque! My favorite era! There is a woman about my age who performs in music halls sitting backstage in her dressing room. She is applying blue greasepaint circles around her eyes, and some of it has run down her face. Blue for her too? She also uses kohl. Kohl again! I just heard of the stuff that afternoon.
What else? She is kind of bored. She has already read the book she has with her. She is waiting to go onstage and do her act. She has lost inspiration to continue in her career as "a woman of letters" and just trying to establish herself as "a woman on the stage." Things are not going as well as they could, and she knows that she is "in for a bad fit of the blues." She is thinking about her dog and her kind-of-awkward boyfriend whom she misses somewhat. There is a knock on her door …
I have a beloved Akita dog and an awkward boyfriend somewhere. I feel that I'm "in for a bad fit of the blues." I can relate!
I finished the book that night on the long bus ride. I started to ponder: How can I work in a more theatrical setting, in smaller theaters, and not a different place every night?
As she tells it, immediately afterward she called a friend in New York for advice. He suggested that she come to New York and meet Joseph Papp, the innovative producer known for his "Shakespeare in the Park" productions. The meeting led to Ronstadt's casting in The Pirates of Penzance, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta later made into a movie. The play, which was a considerable success, afforded her the change in career direction she'd been hoping for.
Did the Colette book sent by an unknown admirer help prod her in a direction she was meant to go? Or was it only chance?