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Songbird in the Swedenborgian choir


The versatile and iconic singer Linda Ronstadt has mostly kept a low profile since moving back to San Francisco from her native Arizona about eight years ago.

But all that changed recently with a huge media blitz touting her new book, Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir. Her appearances these days are made more poignant by the recent revelation that Parkinson’s disease has stilled Ronstadt’s searing singing voice.

She now maneuvers mostly unrecognized throughout the neighborhood: buying her “sensible shoes” at Crosswalk on Fillmore, dining with friends at A-16 or taking walks through the Presidio, sometimes aided by hand canes.

That easy anonymity wasn’t possible back in the day when she ruled the music world with her belting voice and siren-shy demeanor, innocent dark eyes and pouty lips, all hoop earrings and prairie skirts. “That was my ’70s persona,” she told a local crowd recently at a City Arts & Lectures interview. “We were all hippies then.”

Ronstadt lived in Los Angeles at the time, but claims she found the place “mentally exhausting.” So in 1987, she bought the four-level house at 2518 Jackson, overlooking Alta Plaza Park, with its seven bedrooms, music room and sweeping views of the bay. She promptly painted it a controversial shade of lavender and outfitted it with the Victorian decor that’s close to her heart.

And she got to know some of the neighbors.

“She wandered into the Swedenborgian church one day and I asked her if she wanted to join the choir,” recalls Garrett Collins, who then served as the musical director of the historic church at the corner of Lyon and Washington. He asked Ronstadt to audition first, just as he did any other choir member.

“I found out she did not read music, so I offered to give her private lessons on how to do it,” says Collins, who says their time together helped forge a friendship between them.

“She was musically very disciplined — not pompous, not at all what you’d think of as a big star,” he says, fondly recalling the singer’s big easy laugh and the duet of “White Christmas” they performed together for a fundraiser at the Waldorf School. “She was focusing on the two children she had adopted during those years, Mary Clementine and Carlos, and jealously guarding their privacy.”

Ronstadt sold the purple Victorian in 1997 — it was listed for $5.85 million — and moved back to Tucson to be closer to family. But she came back to San Francisco again in 2005, craving its open-minded culture.

She says she took pains to make sure Simple Dreams was not a “kiss and tell” book. It isn’t. She makes scant mention of her past romantic involvements — including several years with Gov. Jerry Brown, who also lived in the neighborhood for a time, when she became known as the First Lady of California. She concentrates instead on the Southern California music scene during the 1960s and ’70s, during which she was dubbed the Queen of Rock, a title she says now makes her cringe.

She’ll likely keep San Francisco her primary residence rather than return to Tucson, where she still maintains another home. “There’s too much cactus there,” she says. “It can make your tires flat.”