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Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation/Book Review

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and the Journey of a Generation/
By Sheila Weller

When woven together, the strands of their three separate lives, identities and songs tell the rich composite story of a whole generation of women born middle class in the early to middle 1940s and coming of age in the middle to late 1960s.

I rarely read celebrity bio’s, but this one was irresistible. I’m a long-time Joni Mitchell

worshipper—you know, one of those women who hung on her every word to find out what was really happening deep within my psyche. It began with her first album and the song “Marcie” –the spelling’s different, but the sentiments, even “Marcie’s” circumstances, rang uncannily true. This went on year after year, decade after decade, with a hiatus between Hejira and Wild Things Run Fast, during which Joni experimented with jazz and other musical styles, letting the personal lyrics get lost in the mix.

At first I was a little put off by Weller’s categorizing these musicians together: Joni Mitchell is far and away the best of the trio—the best of her generation, right up there with Bob Dylan and the Beatles. In terms of Weller’s book, however, and the sociological point she’s making, it doesn’t matter: Carly and Carole have had at least as much of a cultural influence. Pre-Joni, Carole King’s songs provided the backdrop to my furtive groping in cars—only I didn’t know they were Carole King’s, since they were sung by
The Shirelles, The Drifters,
and every other doo-wop group played by Alan Freed and Murray the K. And “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” Carly Simon’s profound anti-marriage ballad, hit the airwaves at the exact moment that I was struggling to break free of my marriage and suburbia; I’ve been loving her sexy songs ever since. Thus, when I saw Girls Like Us, connecting these three as representative of my generation of women, I was blown away.

Ditto when I read that King’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? was about a girl puttin’ out for her boyfriend, hoping he’d still respect her in the morning. I was thirteen when that song came out, still a few years from catching its real meaning, and during all this time it still never dawned on me. This was just one of many delicious tidbits I learned about songs I’ve been hearing and singing all my life. Even juicier is all the dish on their relationships, and the incestuousness of their interactions with others in the music world. You’d have to call it celebrity gossip, and I’m as guilty as anyone of eating it up. In my defense, these women, the men who surrounded them, their music, and their lives have been of crucial importance to me. They’ve accompanied me all my life, whether on 45’s, LP’s, tapes, disks, and, now, my iPod. The dish on them is more than just dish: reading this book deepened and enriched my appreciation of their music.

James Taylor, another of my musical favorites, plays almost as big a role in this book as the women: he was romantically involved with all three, while they themselves barely know one another. As Weller says, “the tortured boy was the only one worth having,” and man, was JT tortured. He only got off heroin for good in the eighties, and I’m sorry to have discovered that he wasn’t as nice a guy as his high-minded, often spiritual lyrics would suggest. He was cold, emotionally withholding, barely present as a father (of Carly’s kids) and even, on occasion, downright cruel. But hell, the guy was a dyed-in-the-wool junkie who only got off the stuff after divorcing Carly, a point the author deems significant—but he was a junkie for years before they even met.

The “You’re So Vain” mystery is settled once and for all: its subject is neither Warren Beatty nor Mick Jagger, but a composite of men, including those two, that Carly slept with during a particularly busy season. I was going to say “promiscuous” rather than “busy,” but it would ring false in the context of the book and the era it chronicles. These women slept with the best and the brightest, some of them, like JT, overlapping, especially between Carly and Joni. By contrast, the girl who worried musically if respect flew out the window once she gave herself away, married half the men she took to bed, starting at seventeen with Gerry Goffin, her writing partner, ultimately racking up four or five husbands. (I lost track. Also, these ladies, now well into their sixties, are still doin’ it. Rebels and role models to the death.)

But that’s Weller’s point—that King, Mitchell, and Simon were products of their time, as well as role models who led the way for the rest of us. In the sexual arena, sure—but, more significantly, by wanting, and pursuing, their own ambitions, and paying the cost as the first generation of women to stare down the conflicts inherent in female rebellion. For Joni, the cost was steep: she suffered long and deeply for giving up her daughter for adoption (“Little Green”), with whom she is now reconciled. For Carly, a hopeless romantic who read Anna Karenina ten times, the cost came in her relationship with James Taylor, an all-consuming obsession that drained and devoured her. Carole married men with whom she felt she had to minimize her accomplishments, diminishing herself to keep their fragile egos intact (these Peter Pans continually failed despite her sacrifices; one husband even killed himself.)

Was the cost worth it? Were Joni’s years of guilt, the loss of so many years with her daughter, worth it for the masterpiece that is Blue? Was Carole’s abuse at the hands of men a small price to pay for Tapestry, one of the most successful albums of all time? Was Carly’s bleeding heart no big thing in view of “Life is Eternal,” “You’re so Vain” and dozens of other songs? Easy for me to say it was. I owe these gals a great big thank you. Also thank you Sheila Weller for your book. My gratitude is vast.


5 responses »

  1. Great review, Marcy. I wonder how many guys, exactly, thought the words “I bet you think this song is about you” was about them. And how many wanted it to be.

  2. Thank you, Marcy! I’m so glad you liked my GIRLS LIKE US and “got” it in so many ways. Very thoughtful review — and extremely cool, aesthetically appealing blog.
    Cheers – Sheila Weller

    Thank YOU for stopping by! I’m so glad you liked it.–MS

  3. I found your site today after having posted some links to a James Taylor-Carole King
    video from 1971, which I found fascinating. I have loved both musicians for years,
    since I learned guitar (self-taught) in the ’70s. I was surprised, back then, that the
    famous James Taylor song “You’ve Got a Friend” was actually composed by Carole King. This led me to her music, especially the Tapestry album and Wrap Around Joy….

    Looks like you have a very thoughtful site. I like the TAGS section. too.

  4. christine coatney

    Hi Marcy: Just wanted you to know I am now reading the book and would probably have not
    known about it had I not read your post 11/08. So thank you again for leading me here, as
    you have done to many other things. It’s a perfect read for me at this time.

  5. I’m so happy you are reading it, Christine. And that you read my blog. Love you!–MS

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