A review of Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon and the journey of a generation by Sheila Weller

Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon and the journey of a generation
by Sheila Weller
Atria/Simon & Schuster
2008. Hardcover, 583 pages. ISBN-13:978-0-7434-9147-1

I wasn’t convinced at the outset that putting three lives in the one biographical volume was a fair approach (especially when dealing with lives as influential ones as these three artists, all of whom have created seminal bodies of work worthy of close examination and analysis). But Weller has managed to meld together a fascinating and coherent narrative to show how the social changes of the 1960s and 70s manifested in the lives and careers of Mitchell, King and Simon. At the same time, she’s been able to include all the personal information one would expect from a more conventional biography, a task that can only be the result of very careful planning, tight editing, and endless hours of sifting through piles of information.

There’s no doubt that men had the upper hand during the hippie era, and that women’s reproductive liberation ushered in an era when ‘nice girls did’ – and then were often left literally holding the babies while their boyfriends moved on to further ‘liberating’ relationships. For female creative artists in the music industry, these boyfriends were, more often than not, also rock stars with sex, drug and rock’n’roll habits. These were politically and socially turbulent times, and the lifestyles many baby boomers pursued in these years only served to increase the interpersonal turbulence.

For women who were young and avidly consuming popular music in these years, these three women provided role models and points of discussion on how one might navigate the new social reality. Carole King’s “Tapestry” album spawned a generation of hand-knitting, organic vegetable-growing Earth Mothers; Carly Simon’s sexuality blazed proud from her album covers as she sang lustily about sex and desire; and Joni Mitchell’s early folk-inspired records not only traced the interior processes of the new relationship freedom but took its measure and charted its emotional fallout. All were courageous, forthright, and pushing against a still male-dominated industry that felt no shame in its casting couch methods. All produced polished, memorable songs, many of which became instant classics.

Brooklyn-born King, already a part of the successful songwriting partnership with first husband Gerry Goffin out of New York’s famous Brill Building, reached a pinnacle with “Tapesty”, one of the biggest-selling albums of all time. In the madness of the ‘fame’ that followed, King managed to raise her kids and keep her sanity while residing in LA’s infamous Laurel Canyon, but her success came at a high price and she weathered more than her fair share of drama via abusive, controlling, addicted or simply insane partners before finally reaching some kind of happy equilibrium in middle age. Simon and Mitchell’s love lives often overlapped – they both had relationships with James Taylor – and Simon was hotly pursued by the likes of Mick Jagger and other rock stars who fancied the idea of ‘passing her around’. All the gossip on who slept with who is both delicious and salacious.

Mitchell’s story – like her songs – is a far more complicated account of a woman trying to live the life of art, while simultaneously seeking romantic and personal fulfillment. Her first half dozen albums garnered her a huge following, but the public’s expectations of her were too narrow to contain her artistic ambitions, as a musician, a singer, a songwriter, and a painter. The youthful relinquishment of her only child in an atmosphere of shame and secrecy became a nagging and continual pain that impacted negatively on her subsequent life. Weller follows Mitchell’s astonishing musical and aesthetic development alongside an account of her romantic and creative entanglements in a manner that is, overall, respectful and deeply compassionate, and her account of Mitchell’s eventual reunion with her daughter is honest and unsentimental.

As a longtime admirer of all three of these artists, I was rivetted by Weller’s narrative and impressed by her analysis of their lives and legacies. But this is not just a book strictly for the fans of the music – anyone who is interested in womens’ role in society and the period that saw the rise of feminism and the ‘gender wars’ will find much to mull over here.

About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).