A triple biography can prove challenging for a writer and her readers. But Sheila Weller’s candid Girls Like Us — about the lives and work of Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell — is surprisingly stellar. Unlike far too many celebrity bios, Girls Like Us never settles for simple sensationalism.
Sure, Weller gossips, but how could she not? She’s dealing with stars who were regaled for their romantic entanglements with equally famous men, sometimes even sharing the same one (James Taylor). They wrote honestly about these encounters, and Weller would be remiss to gloss over them.
But Weller rises above innuendo to discuss the music, including such interesting facts as Mitchell’s childhood bout with polio, which affected the way she plays guitar, a factor that pushed her work closer to jazz than folk.
Even better, Weller insightfully places these trailblazers into their proper context during one of the most turbulent times in U.S. history: the late ’60s and early ’70s.
These women, all born in the 1940s, spoke directly to, and influenced the behavior of, a generation of women (and some men, of course) who were in search of empowering figureheads they could recognize and seek comfort in.
“Carole King’s, Joni Mitchell’s, and Carly Simon’s songs were born of and were narrating that transition — a course of self-discovery, change, and unhappy confrontation with the “limits” of change, which they, and their female listeners, had been riding.”
No one at Simon’s label wanted “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” to become her first single, Weller writes. With such emotionally complicated lyrics — “You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds / But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf / I’ll never learn to be just me first / By myself” — and coming just months after such simple tunes as “Venus,” “ABC” and “War” topped the charts, Simon’s song had a ridiculously long title. Worse, Elektra Records staffers feared that its content was “too complex … too stuffed with emotional activity — the parents’ bad marriage; the friends’ unhappy lives; the boyfriend’s enthusiasm for marriage but controlling nature; the woman’s initial resistance and ultimate capitulation — to be released as a single.”
“ABC / Easy as 123” this was decidedly not.
But Simon’s groundbreaking song mirrored the times, Weller notes. The average age of first marriage for American women had been rising a little every year since 1965. (It’s about 26 now, almost six years older than it was then.) “Men had long quipped that marriage overdomesticated them; now women did,” Weller writes.
Such was the fertile territory for the unconventional tune to take root. “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be” confounded the skeptics (male executives, naturally) and soared into the Top 10 that summer.
Also upending convention were King and her husband Gerry Goffin who, in late 1960, when “good girls” were waxing over a “blue moon,” snuck onto the airwaves a ballad in which a young woman declared herself a sexual and responsible being. “Is this a lasting treasure / Or just a moment’s pleasure / Can I believe the magic of your sighs / Will you still love me tomorrow?” Good timing, too: The pill had been approved for contraceptive use in the United States that same year.
Meanwhile, a young Mitchell, “frightened by the devil / and drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid,” as she’d write a decade later about breaking up with a famous rock star boyfriend, had her own secret that she would cryptically lace into her lyrics in songs like “Little Green” and “River” for decades. At 21, in her native Canada, she had given up for adoption a daughter born out of wedlock.
Weller’s format alternates chapters on each singer chronologically. Structurally, though there are links, you can read about one artist in full and then go on to the others.
Of the three, only Simon consented to be interviewed by the author. The notoriously prickly Mitchell didn’t want to share space with her two contemporaries, and King wants to write her autobiography. But Weller hasn’t turned in a clip job of previously printed stories. Instead, she secured interviews with music industry veterans who worked with these women, plus family members, ex-husbands, co-songwriters and close friends.
Weller is caught in a couple inaccuracies. Coconut Grove, a magnet for Mitchell in 1968, is not “an arty section of Miami Beach.” She also writes that King’s “Now and Forever” shares the same title with an earlier anthem Simon wrote titled “Tonight and Forever.”
Those aside, any writers planning to write a celebrity bio should follow Weller’s lead. With skill and smarts, she shows us all the right things to do.