Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation is a strange way to approach three icons from popular music of the 1970s. At first, it seems fairly straightforward to profile the lives of these three artists. Their successes were part of an overall shift towards the singer-songwriter in popular music, after decades where the roles of songwriter and singer were usually distinct. Each woman also had their creative and commercial peak in the 1970s (or at least, this is what the book implies), an era where feminism was bringing about changing roles for women across North America.
The book also documents how each woman enjoyed the freedom brought about by the ‘sexual revolution,’ but also struggled to make their romantic relationships work in an era where the old rules of courtship and marriage no longer applied. Add some overlapping supporting characters (both Mitchell and Simon were involved with the singer James Taylor, who would record a version of King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” that would reach #1), and you have what appears to be a good summary of the ‘chick’ side of 1970s singer-songwriters.
If you think that ‘chick’ remark sounds condescending, it is really the impression that Weller perpetuates, even if unwittingly. Female musicians are still put in their own category, despite the fact that Mitchell, King and Simon can hold their own with many of their male peers. For a book that focuses on three musicians, there is little discussion on what specifically makes their work remarkable beyond the fact that it touched the masses, or how it is relevant beyond the female boomer audience that this book is targeting. A fresh take on the music of these women, and how they excelled in the role of the ‘singer-songwriter,’ could have been useful for a new generation of listeners.
From reading various rock publications while growing up, I knew that Simon accrued several hits during her career, and that King had written many radio hits for other artists prior to becoming known as a singer-songwriter. Yet, from the perspective of someone under 30, Simon seems to be primarily known these days for the single “You’re So Vain,” while King is known for a single album, Tapestry. Joni Mitchell seems to be the one whose reputation has survived the decades. While one could list a few songs strongly associated with her name, she is a respected album artist whose catalogue is still in print and who has enjoyed several remastered re-releases and compilations in the past decade.
After years of falling from critical and popular favour, Mitchell entered the Living Legend phase of her career in the 1990s, and has been coasting on retrospective CDs and awards ever since. Part of this is because she seems to be the appropriate female counterpart to beloved singer-songwriters of her era such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, matching their social and artistic import in ways that Simon and King have not—apparently. Have King and Simon been unfairly neglected, and has Mitchell’s artistic reputation been blown out of proportion?
Weller’s book isn’t the one to answer these questions, which is strange for a book about artists, particularly one with a feminist bent. Instead, it pastes together three biographies and gives the appropriate social and historical context. While the lives of each subject are interesting enough to sustain a biography, Weller makes them seem more similar than they really are via the biographical approach, as opposed to highlighting their artistic differences. The book closes, rather lamely, with this line that could serve as the book’s ‘thesis statement’ and its unifying principle:
“And that is how it is for all three of these women—all three of these girls like us—who were born into one female culture and changed it—year by year, song by song, risk by risk—so sweepingly and daringly.”
Instead of presenting these women as individuals who were actually different from the norm, via their art, there is the underlying notion that their personal struggles reflect what was happening with ‘girls like them’ all over America. But in such an analysis, the lives of any number of other female performers could have been substituted for these three.
There are other consequences to Weller’s well-intentioned approach. One of the problems with art history is that specifics get lost in an attempt to describe overall trends or characteristics of a period. To give an equivalent in another discipline, think of how Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich are often grouped together because they were women writing in the same general time period. However convenient this kind of grouping is in describing certain trends in the arts, it lumps together artists of greatly differing quality. These are the main problems with a book that can otherwise be quite fascinating in its detailing of both the artistic beginnings of its subjects and the musical and social backdrop of their time.
One of the ways Weller links the three women is by their middle class backgrounds. This doesn’t totally work, for it is hard to reconcile King and Mitchell’s more modest pre-fame backgrounds with Simon’s luxurious upbringing in New York, where her various homes are repeatedly described as ‘leafy.’ The life of Carly Simon and her family seems perfect for a drama directed by Woody Allen; adulterous parents (who included the “Simon” in Simon and Schuster), dilettante siblings and lovers, and “jaunts to St. Tropez, Cannes, and Cap d’Antibes.” Simon is the type who, after her father’s death, blew the inheritance left to her on psychotherapy, of all things.
While she grew up in a context where the arts seem like just another entitlement that wealth brings, Simon never tried to hide her background as some of her contemporaries did. Weller indicates that part of why Simon wasn’t taken seriously is because of the pretence, in rock music, of being ‘anti-establishment’ and a tendency to affect a working class persona. One producer told Simon that she “hadn’t suffered enough”—a rather stupid view both from an artistic and commercial standpoint. Weller rightly points out that “[Bob] Dylan himself, for all his talent, had never been the scuffling itinerant he’d pretended to be when he came to New York; he’d been a cosseted middle-class kid.”
The often-mentioned James Taylor is another example of a performer from a privileged background (similar to Simon’s) who nonetheless had a successful musical career. Despite the ‘counter culture’ aura surrounding ‘classic rock,’ there was a lot of money involved for the musicians making it big at the time. Even Carole King’s Tapestry-era ‘earth mother’ persona was crafted when she was wealthy and living in Los Angeles; the hippie lifestyle she adopted was very much a luxury she could afford to enjoy.
Still, without an assessment of the quality of Simon’s work, Weller’s focus on biography only reinforces the ‘spoiled rich dilettante’ stereotype, especially with its focus on Simon’s various conquests (including men with names like Cat, Kris, Warren, and possibly Mick). Often the songs are looked at in terms of how they describe Simon’s relationship with James Taylor during various phases of their relationship—not whether they were any good or not, as music. Yet at her best, Simon seems to be a good songwriter and singer who released some catchy singles, like “Anticipation.”
Her debut single, “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” reveals an unusual lyric (penned by Jacob Brackman) with an ambivalent attitude towards marriage in its chorus, atypical of standard love songs.
Simon’s biggest hit shows an ability to craft some good lines as well as catchy pop hooks. Weller and others have found some of Simon’s rhymes in “You’re So Vain” to be ‘awkward’ (yacht/apricot/gavotte), even though they actually work in context, and aren’t as predictable as most rhymes used in lyrics. The song has many memorable lines that show a sense of humour (“You’re where you should be all the time, and when you’re not, you’re with some underworld spy or the wife of a close friend”), as well as lingering images such as the ‘clouds in my coffee’ digression.
While Simon started her solo career later than the other two, King got started early, writing songs with her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin in her teens. The section on King’s beginnings are some of the most interesting in the book, rich with details about King’s upbringing in Brooklyn and the context in which King and Goffin wrote their radio hits. King wrote excellent pop music; while rather lite on the lyrical side, King’s early Brill Building hits like “One Fine Day” have enduring melodies. King and Goffin’s songwriting craft was so admired that the Beatles wanted to meet with them when they first visited America in 1964.
With her natural musical talents, King wrote the string arrangement for the recording of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” after checking How To Write For Strings out of the library. While details such as this make it fascinating to read about King as a working songwriter, it is unfortunate that someone so talented had to put up with so many jerks in her romantic life. When she was married to Goffin, (who wrote lyrics and had no actual musical talents), he had a child with a singer in a group that recorded a King and Goffin song; he later began to experiment with drugs and his behaviour became “deranged.”
Her bad luck with romantic partners would continue after she divorced Goffin. King’s artistic decline, described later in the book, is the most painful to read about, particularly since she would let her talentless third husband, Rick Evers, co-write her songs, and even appear in her album artwork, including the cover of her album Welcome Home. Here is Weller’s description of King’s descent into triteness:
‘During their first enraptured weeks together, in what Carole later called “a celebration of our heart-space,” they cowrote a song called “Wings of Love,” a solemn, over-the-top romantic ballad about being filled up with a love so deep its “truth” “makes the kingdoms ring.” In the song’s excruciating earnestness and heightened emotion are hints of a woman losing a grip on judgment and of a man, perhaps, whose intense romanticism so contrasts with his rough-hewn machismo that, in the right eyes, he is spellbinding. In a nod to their overcoming the vast difference of their backgrounds, the song invokes “rainbow people” who “build bridges of life that blend our hearts.”’
In an unfortunate irony, this episode of King’s life evokes a song she wrote for a Phil Spector girl group in the 1960s; titled “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” the song was based on the recording artist Little Eva and her assenting to her boyfriend’s physical abuse. Evers, who had spent time in jail for forgery and was described as being “known for breaking a few jaws,” developed a drug addiction and began to physically abuse King. At one point, he attempted to “hurl her through the glass door of her home,” but a friend intervened. Thankfully, he died of a drug overdose shortly
after, and he is now just a few particles of ash scattered somewhere in Idaho.
The drama with Evers occurred after King had her successes with her Brill Building hits and the multiplatinum Tapestry. Weller doesn’t discuss why, as a financially independent single parent and a respected musician, King would still allow a talentless man to impact both the quality of her music and her life in such a negative way. It makes King seem like a bizarre choice for a book that considers the lives of its subjects in the wake of feminism.
The chapters on Joni Mitchell recap her well-known biography (polio as a child, Saskatchewan upbringing, Yorkville clubs, etc.), preferring to give us details about who Mitchell slept with than to delve into why she is important musically. Regardless, the gossip can be interesting. Weller tackles Joni’s revision of her own history, regarding the baby she gave up for adoption. In interviews, Mitchell has apparently blamed her first husband, American folk singer Chuck Mitchell, for not agreeing to raise the child that she had with another man. Chuck Mitchell refutes this in an interview with Weller, and instead offers that Joni Mitchell wilfully gave up the opportunity to raise her child with her new husband because she preferred to
pursue an artistic career.
It is also implied that she shrewdly used her marriage to gain entrance into the United States, ditching her husband at the appropriate time: “Chuck only later realized that [Joni] had moved out within thirty days after she received her green card for residence in the United States.” This, of course, allowed her a chance at success that yielded greater rewards, financially, than what she might have accomplished had she remained in Canada. In a book about ‘girls,’ Mitchell shows a ‘masculine’ drive in her life and music.
In terms of Mitchell’s music, Weller provides details about the inspiration for many well-known songs, from the Saul Bellow passage that inspired “Both Sides Now” to the various men that were the genesis for songs like “Carey” and “A Case of You.” Yet there are few insights into why Mitchell’s artistic reputation has soared past the other two women in the book. A review of Girls Like Us on the website for Billboard notes that “Weller neglects the musicianship behind some of the memorable songs of the last half-century: You’d never know, for instance, that Mitchell’s open style of tuning landed her on a Rolling Stone list of the 100 greatest guitarists in rock history.”
The first statement of this quote accurately sums up the main problem with the book, but the second inadvertently brings up another issue. While it is true that Mitchell was named one of the 100 greatest guitarists, that particular Rolling Stone issue featured guitarists selected by various musicians; Mitchell nominated herself. Outside of Mitchell’s self-promotion and the worship of nostalgic boomers, few have really isolated Mitchell’s strengths and weaknesses as a lyricist, composer, and singer, preferring to accord a general respect for someone who ‘writes their own songs.’
While the common wisdom is that Mitchell is the genius of the three, and the other two are undeserving of her company in this book, much of Mitchell’s work is currently over-rated. Her most popular and beloved period remains from her breakthrough song “Both Sides Now” (via Judy Collins) through to her Court And Spark album. The fact is, there is nothing truly so earth-shattering in songs like “Help Me” or “Big Yellow Taxi” to warrant the ‘genius’ label—musically or lyrically. Though Mitchell wants to add ‘poet’ to her CV, a lot of her early lyrics to her more popular material feature dated slang and expressions (“Oh you’re a mean old daddy but you’re outta sight”) and don’t always hold up on the page. Her vocals range from occasionally shrill in her early recordings to severely eroded in the later, smoking-ravaged performances.
In this respect, Weller really doesn’t question the downside of ‘the singer-songwriter,’ where genuine triple threats (lyrics, composition and voice) are rare. She also doesn’t pursue the ways in which Mitchell was different from even Dylan and Cohen in taking bigger musical risks. Mitchell worked to expand her sound, and some of her experiments certainly distinguished her from her peers, male or female, such as her use of the Burundi drums on “The Jungle Line.”
At other points, Mitchell made music that relied less on obvious hooks, and with lyrics that went beyond stereotypical hippie tunes like “Big Yellow Taxi.” Her song “Amelia” is a good example of such that Weller identifies, where the speaker sees “six white vapor trails” left by six jet plains that become, in an associative leap, “the hexigram of the heavens…the strings of my guitar.” Other experiments were less successful; her Mingus album is fairly dull and anemic jazz. Thankfully, Weller does take Mitchell to task for her pretentious blackface alter ego “Art Nouveau,” and her notion that
she was actually a “pale black artist”:
‘Like many young white people of her generation, Joni romanticized being black (without the disadvantages of being black, of course). She would increasingly insist that her music was “black” and that, as it progressed deeply into jazz, it should be played on black stations (it rarely was). “My harmonies were not very ‘white,’ like James Taylor’s or Carole King’s,” she would later say (wrongly, in the case of Carole, whose music is largely R&B based).’
When Girls Like Us drifts out of the trio’s glory years of the 1970s, discussion of their music fades and their personal lives take over completely. Though Simon at least had a few hits in the 1980s, the state of her marriage(s) is centre stage, as is the case with the other two. By the time Weller hits the 1990s, that decade gets a cursory overview that is noticeably lacking the detail found earlier in the book. This leads into the present, where each woman has been through at least two failed marriages, and have each become grandmothers.
Some reviews on retailer websites like Amazon are critical of Sheila Weller’s prose, with some even saying that it made the book ‘difficult’ to read. While the latter claim is ridiculous, it is true that Weller will have some awkward phrasing from time to time:
“The Twisting young wives who basked in the Kennedy glow—and the even-younger women who couldn’t help but feel drizzled by the stardust sparked by Jack and Jackie’s immediate smashing of the template of First Couple dowdiness (Ike and Mamie, Bess and Harry, Eleanor and FDR)—had married right after college and were busy producing their 2.5 children.”
Sentences like this one are trying to cram in too much, and the result is obviously inelegant prose. However, for the most part Weller’s prose is generally unobtrusive in delivering the gossipy details, which are usually about who was drilling Carly, or what tryst had inspired Joni’s latest composition, or what bad husband Carole would choose next.
While that may sound crass, this is really what lingers after reading this book, which opens each woman up to being judged for aspects of their personal lives, including promiscuity, adultery, and bad choices in romantic partners. These are staples of most artist bios, but without a convincing argument for the lasting impact of these singer-songwriters, such details dominate the book.
Girls Like Us is at its best in describing the musicians as they mature into their 1970s prime, and will be an entertaining read for fans, as well as those who came of age during this period. As a book about artists and art, however, it is just not strong enough, critically, to change any assumptions that exist about these performers. Without a clear sense of why this trio is important to art, beyond simply being women, the biographical approach seems weightless. These musicians are simply not well served by the ‘girls like us’ angle; to quote a more contemporary songwriter, the artist is “treated like a rose…as an orchid.”
Anthony Zanetti has written for Monsters & Critics and Cosmoetica. His blog can be found at http://rocket-to.blogspot.com/