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Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller (2008)


Review Everything in Girls Like Us will be amazingly familiar to those of us born in the bay boom, and yet Sheila Weller, a talented if erratic prose stylist, brings us to emotional places that will be new to all but those most intimate with the trio of songwriters whose lives, she declares, form a “journey of a generation.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I’m not a woman, and Weller’s argument is that King, Simon, and Mitchell pushes back the barriers for women specifically, “one song at a time.”

The cryptic one remains Carole King, whom Weller just can’t illuminate in any meaningful way. Her life was amazing–up to a point, then it stopped being of any interest at all, which is a shame. We hear again and again how she wrote all those Brill Building masterpieces before she was 21, and broke down under the strain of a troubled marriage to a high-stakes husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, coming out the other end with an LP. Tapestry, that everyone loved. Then what happened? Bad men galore, attracted to her wealth. She once estimated that every time she divorced a man, it cost her a million dollars. Weller gives us all the facts ad nauseam but we always wonder, why did King do this to herself?

Carly Simon, on the other hand, who cooperated with Weller extensively or so it seems, comes off as nearly normal. Of the upper, upper middle class, Simon was to the manor born and the icy, plangent chords of her first song, “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” gave notice that the old New Yorker fiction writers of the 40s and 50s hadn’t died, they had just rolled over and told Carly Simon the news. Though obviously spoiled and cosseted by her own wealth, Simon doesn’t seem spoiled; her reactions throughout, even meeting and marrying the drug-zombie James Taylor, are always understandable and sympathetic.

Joni Mitchell isn’t sympathetic per se, but she has the integrated personality of the genius totally in love with herself and obsessed with her own reflection, so she’s great in a special way. Weller pokes amused fun at Mitchell’s vanity and enormous self-esteem, but we get the picture that, in her opinion at any rate, Mitchell actually is pretty f–ing amazing. Does our society have it in for women who want to be artists? Mitchell’s encounter with the aged, reclusive Georgia O’Keeffe seems like a emblem of a certain baton-passing, as is Carly Simon’s relationship with former First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Weller is OK about male-female relationships, but in this book at any rate she’s more interested in the ways women deal with each other.

It’s nearly a biography of five people, not just three, as there is so much about James Taylor you will never need to read another word about him if you have this book on your shelf; and for some reason there’s tons of material about Judy Collins. I wonder if Weller proposed a book with King, Mitchell, Simon, and Collins, and some editorial board nixed the addition of Collins–but there was so much good material about Collins, Weller kept it in anyhow. She is the Vanity Fair writer supreme, whose motto is that no sentence is complete without some action and punch, and the best way to get that is to string along many words with hyphens to invent new forms of adjectival excitement. You won’t be able to read for more than a few minutes without being hit on the head by Weller’s mad stylings–here’s a typical hyphen filled sentence about the Eagles: “Their at-home-in-Death-Valley image and bleating-lost-boy-in-expensive-boots sound had become era-definingly successful.” (Ten hyphens in a mere 20 words! Sheila Weller is era-definingly successful at inventing a new form of writing–like the classic circus act when a small VW would pull up to center ring and then clown after clown would prance out. Then more clowns–then still more. She’s pretty amazing and Girls Like Us is a book that, for all its flaws, convinces us roundly in its larger arguments and dazzles with its wide-ranging portraits of artistic life in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Review ” Girls Like Us” seems to be striking a chord with those who lived through the turbulent, yet enlightening, times of the late 60s/early 70s. The stories of these three women seem ripe for regaling the generation who laughed, cried, and, most importantly, identified with the art produced by the subjects Shelia Weller explores. In my case, some of it happens to intrigue a Gen Xer who grew up listening to these women through my own discovery….. no college dorm room sing-alongs brought me to the alter of Joni Mitchell ( my favorite of the three), nor the undeniable talent of Carole King and Carly Simon. I sought them on my own, as an individual, not part of a movement.

Having said this, the status of being removed from the zeitgeist of the Boomers gives me an advantage and, perhaps, a disadvantage. I feel I can look at these artists with a more objective view than those who moved through life with them. On the flip, there is a definite disconnect between my understanding of the times, as I was not there, and the visceral knowledge brought to the book by the target audience.

Weller does a fantastic job of providing a historical backdrop for each story she tells. Motives, blow by blow accounts, tidbits that have escaped the pop culture pantheon, even though two out of three of these women ( Mitchell and Simon) have been turned inside out by the media, one of them courting it ( Simon) while the other one has avoided it at all costs ( Mitchell). New details are revealed, especially with the story of Carole King, a figure who has always generously shared her talent, yet remained detached from the media machine that is usually necessary for promoting one’s work. Weller obviously did her homework, uncovering elements of the stories we have not yet heard, although there is a fair amount of rehashing tales long ago plumbed by different outlets.

The real question, though , is not whether Weller did a good job in compiling a historical, documentary style book explaining these three women, their art and their personas. The answer to this question is, for the most part, yes. However, the bigger question is when will the public ever be able to separate their interest in the art from a fascination with the artist, seemingly needing to know the intimate details of their lives? It is interesting, I admit, to know who inspired what songs, what circumstances sparked the creation of a certain piece. Still, two of the three women explored here ( Mitchell and King) may take issue with some of the information that is now available for public consumption. I fear we cease to respect our artists when we have such voracious appetites for knowing every aspect of their personal lives. I am guilty of partaking, it’s just a thought for us to consider as we devour the joys and tragedies of the talents we claim to honour.

May 11, 2013 Posted by | Book Girls Like Us Carole King Joni Mitchell Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller | , , , | Leave a comment