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Life Is Our Cause

Girls Like Us

By Sheila Weller
Atria Books, 2008

 

Here is a nasty little story: in 1953, a polio epidemic was ravaging Canada. One victim was a girl named Roberta Joan Anderson, who would later become Joni Mitchell. Once, during her six weeks at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon, she comforted a young boy by singing him a Christmas carol. The nuns reprimanded her because her position on the bed as she was singing meant the boy could see her bare legs. The boy was six years old.

 

 
The next year a pediatrician was examining her and noticed the side effect of an antibiotic. His reaction was to say, “You’ve been a naughty girl, haven’t you?,” implying that she must have had sex. She was ten years old. Her mother took the doctor’s side.

I think about stories like that every time I hear someone ask with evident sincerity whether all these new freedoms women have are really worth it. It’s the kind of story that might play a central or even mythical role in anyone’s life, even if that person didn’t grow up to be one of the definitive artists of her time, one who would, to her own frustration, receive her greatest acclaim for the work seen as the most “personal” or “confessional.”

It’s also the kind of story that makes Sheila Weller’s Girls Like Us, a joint biography of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, such a satisfying read. Weller interviewed numerous friends, collaborators, and exes of the three artists, and the resulting stories are marked by the kind of observed detail and reflective insight that take them beyond the realm of gossip. (Not of course, that there isn’t plenty of good gossip. If you want to know which of the three turned down Warren Beatty, or why Candice Bergen once went on a date with Henry Kissinger, you won’t be disappointed.)

Weller also takes advantage of the book’s form. Chapters move between the different women’s stories as Weller shifts from their very different backgrounds to lives that intersected in the late sixties and seventies (sharing collaborators and, of course, men) and then came, as it were, full circle. Unburdened by the desire for authoritativeness that plague so many full-length biographies, Weller is free to hone in on her themes, including, most centrally, the vast transformation in the status of women over the last forty years. Of course, the lives of immensely talented celebrities (all of whom lived, at one point, the enviable lives of hippies with money) are hardly representative. But social transformations are also notable for what they make possible, and the lives Weller describes, and the creative output they produced, quite simply would not have been possible had they been born just a few years earlier.

That this should be the case is particularly striking for someone like me, who sang “Circle Game” and “You’ve Got a Friend” at camp before I knew who Mitchell or King were, and before I knew I was supposed to be embarrassed by the music of my parents’ generation. Reading Weller’s book and listening again to the music she writes about, I was struck by how well so much of the music holds up. Although Weller focuses more on the lives than the music, she makes both seem groundbreaking enough that I started to understand why these figures and their music resonate with me more than anything roughly associated with my own generation. In particular, her portrait of the seventies presents something of a golden age, in which female artists who were thoughtful, neurotic, and difficult could be stars, and could enjoy the fruits of post-pill pre-AIDS liberation along the way.

And liberation is undeniably the right word for it. It’s become fashionable to assert that the sexual revolution was at best a trivial fad and at worst a disaster for women. To this idea, that the loosening of sexual restrictions only benefited men eager for freedom from monogamy, one can only point to the impressive romantic history of each woman Weller profiles and draw what should be obvious conclusions: that women are capable of sexual restlessness, that women artists, like their male counterparts, seek inspiration in variety, that women with options, after all, want to exercise them. Moreover, if the terms of the relationships remained up in the air, all three women publically negotiated these terms with remarkable candor in both their music and their lives. In light of today’s popular culture, in which celebrities spar to outdo each other in public displays of parenthood, it’s striking to hear Simon and husband James Taylor spar about the power dynamics of their marriage in Rolling Stone. As Weller tells it, Taylor may have been a harbinger of those stroller-pushers:

He revealed that they’d already named what he called “their hypothetical children” Sarah and Ben. (That the naming of his future children had not only been done by the inscrutable, hard-drugging James Taylor but volunteered by him to Rolling Stone was startling. Male rock stars weren’t supposed to be romantic and domestic; this was girl stuff.)

At the same time, Simon’s willingness to publicly question her role in the bargain she’d struck goes beyond anything we’re likely to read these days. In “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be,” which she co-wrote with Esquire writer Jake Brackman, she’d mused on the fate of all those married friends from college: “They have their houses and their lawns./They have their silent noons,/Tearful nights, angry dawns./Their children hate them for the things they’re not;/They hate themselves for what they are.” Now she worried about respect for her work:

Carly voiced concern at the fact that, until No Secrets, James had never listened to her music. He replied that he didn’t ever listen to records, not even his own, but that answer didn’t cut it with her. (She didn’t tell Rolling Stone, but early on he’d told her he didn’t like her songs – and this deeply hurt her.)

From Weller’s account, we get the sense of period in which equality still felt radical, difficult and hard to reach, yet in which popular culture actively engaged. 1970, one year before each would have a seminal record (Mitchell’s Blue, King’s Tapestry, and Simon’s Anticipation), was a year in which Kate Millet could be on the cover of Time, having made her name with a book in which she took on literary and countercultural icons like Henry Miller and Norman Mailer. Even Ladies Home Journal dedicated a special feature to the feminist movement after a sit-in in their offices. While only a few years before, King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” was a daring statement of female sexuality, now Mitchell could sing matter-of-factly about the joys of unmarried cohabitation in “My Old Man.”

Central to this artistic golden age was the cult of the singer-songwriter, and the confessional songs it valorized. As Weller notes, Simon was in temperament especially well-suited to the form. Of the three women, only Simon spoke with Weller, a fact that makes Simon’s portrait the sharpest in the book. Her follow-up to Anticipation was entitled No Secrets, and she continually brought people into her orbit with her unguarded solicitousness. Celebrities trying to negotiate their public and private lives are often driven to the extremes of total obfuscation and total candor. In this respect, Simon is the anti-Dylan. Weller quotes Simon’s friend Mia Farrow as saying “She is the most romantic and most indiscreet person I know,” and we get the sense this is meant as a compliment.

It’s a particularly heavy blow, then, when we learn that a central story in the life of this vivacious, social person was, after a string of romances that would put today’s starlets to shame, to fall in love with an addict who, by necessity, was forever retreating from her. The fact that the addict was James Taylor offers comfort or intensifies the blow, depending on your point of view. In one of many passages that attest to the value of Weller’s interviews with friends who were willing to be candid yet empathetic, Weller quotes Brackman as noting:

That’s the thing with a junkie: They’ve got a secret; they’ve got a little other life – that’s what they control. But their outward life, they give you to control.

Weller attributes Simon’s taste for candor to her poor-little-rich-girl childhood (her father was the Simon of Simon and Schuster), and her take on the intersection of gender and class is particularly fascinating. The period’s feminism has often been accused, with some justice, of focusing on the concerns of affluent and well-educated women. (As Weller notes, graduates of the elite Seven Sisters schools made up almost half of the staff of the original Ms. magazine, and also included icons of hip feminism like Ali MacGraw, Jane Fonda, and Erica Jong.) At the same time, countercultural politics dictated a kind of reverse snobbism Weller tracks throughout the reception of Simon’s music. Not surprisingly, critics come off poorly throughout the book, continually and predictably flogging each new album with the ghost of earlier triumphs. But they seem particularly unfair to Simon: Weller even quotes the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau as reversing his position on “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be” after he learned of her background, as if the song’s critique of marriage was negated by its origins in Simon’s experience with her own wealthy and distanced parents.

A product of the other New York, Carole King (born Carol Klein of Sheepshead Bay) didn’t have to worry about proving her authenticity. A journeyman songwriter with first husband Gerry Goffin and a mother at seventeen, she wrote songs at least in part to pay the bills. Perhaps because so many of her songs, including “Natural Woman” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” became heavily associated with other artists, she was the least familiar to me before reading the book and likely would be to many readers who don’t remember the Tapestry-era height of her fame. One of the long-time Earth Mothers who cooked for and tended to the assembled masses of bohemians, she had great difficulty with her fame, and suffered the most from the critical obsession with her early work. The friends Weller speaks to are understandably perplexed about how she ended up spending years embroiled in a lawsuit over the building of a road through her Idaho ranch: “Why was Carole packing a .44 automatic? Why was she so upset about some road?” She quotes producer Lou Adler: “Carole has gone through a lot of changes, a lot of it depending on who the man in her life was.” One fascinating thing about the book is seeing what happens when women artists are as able as their male counterparts to take on a series of romantic partners over the years. If Mitchell seems to have flourished in relationships with many collaborators and admirers while Simon became embroiled in difficult rivalries, we’re given less insight as to how King came to fall hard for “Rick One,” an Idaho “mountain man” who died of an overdose in 1978, and “Rick Two,” her partner in the land battle, of whom a friend notes, “Rich Sorensen is very hard on his women.” As a result, the sections devoted to her are the least vivid in the book.

Mitchell, of course, ran away from the rural West rather than to it. At twenty-one, she was living in a Toronto rooming house, playing in clubs, and secretly pregnant. Her story, the most powerfully rendered of the three, is driven by two intense forces. First, there is her overwhelming talent and need to create, a need heightened by the example of her grandmothers, both of whom had suffered greatly from unexpressed musical talents and the desire to live a different life than that of a farmer’s wife. (In the classic forms of thwarted talent and martyrdom, one of them never complained and one of them did nothing but.) The other force was the loss of that secret child, whom she felt forced to give away, and with whom she would be reunited with only in 1996, one of the moments that closes the book. Given how much has been written about the “confessional” and “vulnerable” nature of her early music, it’s particularly poignant to read that her attempts to confess her secret went unheard. “Little Green,” the lullaby to the baby she wrote early on but held back until the 1971 release of Blue, seems transparent when you know the story, but no one figured it out. Eleven years later, in “Chinese Café/Unchained Melody,” she wrote “And my child’s a stranger/I bore her/But, I could not raise her,” but, remarkably,

no one picked up on this revelation – or on the fact that, despite the upbeatness in the rest of the album [1982’s Wild Things Run Fast], this song was purely a woman bluntly (and half-unbelievingly) announcing a new phase in her life: “We’re middle class, we’re middle aged.”

In this light, her turn away from confessional songs to her later “difficult” jazz albums looks a little different. Because Weller rushes through the later decades, we’re left with a partial treatment of Mitchell’s musical reinventions and struggles with the industry that lead her to exclaim in a 2003 documentary, “What [should] I do now? Show my tits? Grab my crotch? Get hair extensions and a choreographer?” At the same time, we get the sense that, unlike King, her early fame didn’t burden her later work; instead, a lower profile allowed her to become recognized, by her peers if not always the critics, as the serious musician she always was. Weller is more interested in pop than jazz (and more interested in lyrics than music), but she effectively outlines Mitchell’s important relationships with artists like John Guerin and Don Alias, and with producer Larry Klein (her husband from 1982 to 1991) – each one not only a romantic partner but an important collaborator.

Weller is less successful when she turns to the more familiar terrain of late-sixties/early-seventies politics – that is, traditional electoral and national politics. While the story of Joni’s pregnancy leads seamlessly to a brief history of the horrors of the period’s secret maternity homes, numerous re-creations of how each of the women responded to the assassinations of 1968 is wearisome: it turns out they reacted much the same way everyone else did. Weller notes in the acknowledgments that she was trying to write a social history – which she does, successfully. The story is about feminism, which created the possibility of these lives whether one embraces the term or not, and of which sexual liberation was a necessary but incomplete piece. It’s also about a cultural shift away from the near-Victorian high-handedness all three experienced in childhood despite their divergent class backgrounds. Certainly, even if this is a history without dramatic street fights or political martyrs, it is powerful social history nevertheless.
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Laura Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, in New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in failbetter and Steel City Review, and she is a founding editor of the on-line literary journal Vibrant Gray.

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