A triple biography of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon? I'm so there. And let's be clear Girls Like Us is a feet up, girl talk good time of a book. The footnotes alone are a gossipy tour de force. Sheila Weller's ambition is to tell the "Journey of a Generation" of women through Mitchell, King and Simon and there she's less successful. She makes her case and sometimes it sticks, sometimes it slides right off the wall.
I buy the idea that during the late 60s and early 70s women were seeking greater opportunities in their work and in their personal lives. And, sure, women like Mitchell, King and Simon had to fight to be heard as equals by the men who dominated the music industry. It's the idea that somehow sleeping with whoever struck your fancy for, oh, five minutes or so was part of that liberation that just doesn't fly for me. It was a trap as much as the most traditional one-sided marriage of the 1950s.
But that's a minor quibble when you have a gossip extravaganza like this. Start with Carole King, the female half of Goffin & King the music geniuses of 60s pop. Married to the other half, Goffin, who happened to be some form of crazy (bi-polar or schizophrenia? Not clear.) Carole lives part of the 50s American dream (husband, children and nice house in the 'burbs) and part of the 70s feminist dream (career, the admiration of her peers, success) while managing to be the kind of woman you'd like to have over to your house for lunch. She achieves phenomenal success but her first two marriages fail in part because of her success. Then she meets husband number 3, a con artist at best. She introduced to him by The Eagles. Yet another reason for me to hate the Eagles. I knew they were the source of the worst song ever, Hotel California. Now I know they ruined Carole King's career. Bastards.
Joni Mitchell is easily the most talented of the three and probably the last one you'd want to spend a week with. Tormented by her choice (and it was her choice) to give up a child for adoption Joni spends alot of time trying to come up with excuses for this choice. It's not a pretty sight but it's as telling as any bed-hopping. Pre-marital sex might have become acceptable but choosing career over motherhood was still unthinkable. If the judgement of her peers is any guide, Joni is the most talented and most influential of the three. Her lyrics are the most quotable and her songs the most imitated. Joni also appears to have been the most in control of her relationships, picking up and discarding lovers with a distinctly feminine twist - she's not trying to out do the guys, she's just moving on when it suits her. There's also a strong whiff of the eccentric about Joni, trying to pass as a black man, living in a cave on a Greek island for weeks, showing up unannounced on Georgia O'Keefe's doorstep unannounced, etc. Joni can give Bob Dylan a run for his money in the eccentric genius sweepstakes and bully for her. Based on the evidence in Girls Like Us she doesn't do well with long term romantic relationships or friendships. Her unwavering commitment to her artistic vision won my respect. I'm not a huge fan of her music but this book has inspired me to check out more of her work, especially Mingus.
Carly Simon is a tough one. Not as a person but as a subject of this book. While Weller assumes a vaguely "tut-tut" air about Carole King's later years and outright disdain for Joni Mitchell's tendency to rewrite her own past she is all gushing fan girl when it comes to Carly Simon. It starts out ok but by 1970 Carly is plainly the Mary Sue of this little venture. She's constantly described as "sexy" and "witty" and "intelligent" and "brave." Her many relationships are all presented as heartfelt pursuits of true love. Callous men hurt poor, sensitive Carly. Worst of all, Carly had a traumatic childhood. Her father (you may want to skip this part, it's so shocking), well, he ignored her. That's it and that's all folks. Ok, her mother did have an affair with a much younger man but as tragic events go it's weak material. But Carly mines it and mines it in song after song until one reviewer is moved to comment "Carly Simon has been getting on my nerves for years." Preach it, sister.
Don't get me wrong, Carly seems like a swell gal, a good friend (she's high maintenance but generous with her friends Weller tells us several times) and a good mother. But there are "sympathetic" scenes that make you wonder if Weller had an editor. Scenes of Mia Farrow and Carly worrying about money in their NYC apartments overlooking Central Park. High road Carly going up to a table where her ex James Taylor, his new girlfriend and a mutual musician friend are eating and asking the musician for a date. In front of her ex. You stay classy, Carly Simon. Weller presents this as "a sign of the times" instead of the "in your face" to her ex that it was. I'd much prefer it as "in your face" because otherwise Carly just seems desperate and heartless.
Weller has a tin-ear on a number of things. She inexplicably refuses to give any credence to Joni Mitchell's allegations of physical abuse by Jackson Browne. "People who know Jackson Browne say he is not a violent man," parentheses Weller. One assumes that Daryl Hannah might beg to differ. Weller backs Browne like a fan girl (she refers to him as "too good looking" to be a singer-songwriter) or the recent recipient of a cease and desist order; either way her pro-female credentials took a big hit in my estimation.
Then there are pearlers like Weller contending that Jackie Kennedy Onassis saw what she "might have become" in Carly. Really? Jackie might have become a multi-phobic singer with a junkie husband? Who knew! Weller thinks it was just a joke when Jackie sent Carly a fake mash note from Luciano Pavarotti. After 300 pages of Carly's antics, I think Jackie was twitting Carly's overwhelming willingness to believe any man who crossed her path was in love with her. And did Weller really not see that her description of Susan Braudy as a "prized girlfriend to New York's media elite" makes the founding Ms editor seem like a pass-around.
But the footnotes! The footnotes are little gossip bonbons. Sometimes they're unintentionally hilarious - like the one that starts with telling us the disco music had a big gay following and ends with the founder of Rolling Stone coming out as gay in the 1990s. Most of the time they made me hope someone would write a book about the subjects of her footnotes. A book without a Mary Sue.